How to do a pull-up

Pull-ups are one of the staple exercises in a bodyweight training routine, along with dips and push-ups. Since I’ve just re-launched the blog to be much more focussed on this type of training, I figured a little tutorial about how to get started with them would be an appropriate post to celebrate my new domain name and template.

This assumes you are starting from scratch – that either you can’t do any pull-ups at all, or that you can do a few very badly. It is aimed at both men and women – I have chosen to illustrate the post with pictures of awesome women – I’ll make up for it next time with some pictures of ripped guys ;) If you already train on the bar you probably don’t need to read it. If you’ve got any comments, questions or suggestions then definitely feel free to add comments below.
This isn’t me.
Firstly, let’s just clarify something. There are three types of grip for a pull-up:
  1. Regular – with your palms facing away from you
  2. Reverse – with your palms facing towards you
  3. Neutral – only possible on two bars which are parallel, with your palms facing each other
We are only talking about 1 on this post. 2 is a chin-up, and in my opinion it’s a different exercise (it places much more emphasis on the biceps) and I am therefore not referring to it here. I have only included it to avoid confusion, of which there seems to be some. 3 is a pull-up, but is easier to 1 and also uses slightly different muscles. It’s best to stick to 1 for the time being.
The most important thing when doing pull-ups, or indeed any exercise, is form. The only acceptable time for bad form is when you are fatigued, and even then if you can’t do the technique properly it’s better to stop than risk injury and (worse) look stupid because you’re doing it so badly.
The correct form for pull-ups is:
  • make sure your arms are straight at the bottom
  • get your chin over the bar at the top
  • try not to swing
  • keep your feet together
  • and your body straight.
Easy :)
Getting started – top to bottom
Like many moves in bar calisthenics you can either start at the highest position and work down, or start at the bottom and work up. Ideally you’d do both. There are advantages to each – a lot of strength can be gained in doing negatives – that is lowering yourself down from the top of the bar. It’s something that even strong and experienced people still do. On the other hand, getting some form of assistance to get yourself to the top of the bar is psychologically rewarding and can be less gruelling than doing endless sets of negatives.
Jump up (or use a chair or something else to stand on) so you are in the top position of a pull-up: your chin should be higher than the bar, legs straight, feet together and your whole body tensed, especially your core and back. Lower yourself down as slowly as you can, making sure you keep the speed of descent consistent all the way down – throughout the whole range of motion from the top to the bottom, when your arms should be completely locked out.
In the beginning you might only be able to do this a few times, but gradually you should be aiming to do sets. Three sets of 10 is a good first goal, then increase this to five sets. Once you feel comfortable with that, increase the time of lower (i.e. decrease the speed). I found a very good routine was to do ultra-slow lowers for 10 seconds (again, make sure the speed is consistent – don’t speed up at the easy bits) with 10 seconds rest for 10 reps. Once you can do that set you’ll definitely be ready to do full pull-ups (in fact if you can do it without stopping you’ll probably be able to do a few pull-ups straight off the bat).
There are various things that can assist you in doing a pull-up, all with their own advantages and disadvantages. The main ones are (in order of how good I think they are):
  • the assisted dip/pull-up machine at your local gym
  • another person
  • resistance bands
Assisted dip/pull-up machine
Since this was how I got my pull-ups, I’m putting it first. It not only allows for the execution of pull-ups with perfect range of motion, but also the gradual removal of weight from the counter-balance means that it is scalable to your ability. The only downsides I can think of are firstly that you would require a gym membership, which sort of goes against one of the points of calisthenics, but also that it requires more mental strength and perseverance than the other methods below (although done correctly the results will come much much quicker). In order to make progress you will need to be willing to push yourself, which is something that some people, especially people new to exercise, struggle with.

I found a 5×5 program worked really well for me: I found a weight that I could do five reps of, with the fifth being quite uncomfortable. I did them for five sets, by which time the fifth rep was a struggle. When I could do that routine without too much pain (there will always be some discomfort – you’re not pushing hard enough if there isn’t!) I decreased the weight on the counter-balance. Eventually you should get to the point where you only have a 5kg offset, at which point you’re ready to start doing them just with your bodyweight.

Another person

If you train with a friend, you could get them to stand under the bar and push you up (by the feet is best, especially if you fold your legs back under you a bit). It will help to have a friend who can do pull-ups and therefore understands what’s involved to do them. You will need to be careful not to take the easy route – make sure you are pushing yourself and not relying on your friend to give you more help than they should.

Resistance bands
Resistance bands are cheap, portable and you can use them on your own. By looping them over the bar and putting one or two feet in, they can give you a boost to get over the bar. Since they are available in different strengths they can provide some degree of progression. However… I don’t really recommend them. They can be difficult to use – both to attach to the bar and to get your feet in – but I also found when using them that my lower body tended to swing under the bar. Also I think the motion that the elastic provides isn’t very realistic, and that they do not encourage good form.

Be careful when deciding how to attach the band and where to put it on your body – searching for an image to use brought up a few where it looked like the person concerned might strangle themselves. Also, don’t be tempted by cheap bands from Argos ;)

Some tips on getting it perfect

  • Pack your shoulders. Always start the chin-up from a dead hang position. From there the first thing to do is, with straight arms, to pull your shoulders down toward the body and pack them into your torso.
  • Use your back and your lats. Your lats are the muscles under your arms and along the sides of your back. If you’re anything like me you won’t even have noticed they were there before starting pull-ups, but you will soon find they are one of the primary muscle groups involved. If you are still unsure of their existance, try this – extend your arms forward and ask a friend to exert upward pressure on your arm. Now, try to lower it in spite of their efforts. Feel those muscles working? Good – use them in the pull-ups.
  • Squeeze your ass. Same as crossing your legs and gripping hard, squeezing the glutes will give you a strength boost.
  • Keep your body tight – don’t just use your arms to pull and have the rest of your body flapping around like you’re asleep – engage the whole of it.

There are loads more nuances, but this is a beginner post and I don’t want to over-load people with information.

Once you are in a position of being able to do sets – of negatives or assisted pull-ups then start mixing up your sets. Have a look at this post for some ideas of the type of things you can do.
Always make sure you are pushing yourself, although start being aware of how your body feels and the difference between achey muscles and actual pain to tendons or ligaments. It’s tempting to over-do things in the early stages (I speak from experience), but resist the urge to go too hard too soon.

That said, if there’s one thing that will hold you back it’s not pushing yourself hard enough. This is especially true if you train on your own, but also (I believe – it’s controversial – call me out in the comments if you like) if you’re a woman. The reasons for this are many, but boil down to internal issues (lack of drive, confidence etc.) and external ones (pressure to be ladylike, not strain, sweat, grunt and exert ourselves). Try and forget all of those and always do the best you can.

Train hard and consistently and sets of pull-ups will be yours.

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1 Response

  1. January 31, 2015

    […] keep you moving forwards. Pull up progressions are something I’ve written about before here, but another good article is this one by GMB Fitness. A site called Bodyweight Training […]