Pull-up at the gym

How to Work Up to One Freakin’ Pull-Up (and Feel Like a Superhero Everywhere)

One of the side effects of keeping fitness top of mind when I travel is that I end up doing pull-ups anywhere and everywhere. I see every tall object as an opportunity to do pull-ups.

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A tree branch? More like a pull-up branch!

Maui pull-up!

A ledge? Challenge accepted.

work out while traveling
Cover image credit: Karen Hong Photography.

No pull-up bar anywhere? That’s no excuse.

PULL UP ON ALL THE THINGS!

I simply love doing pull-ups. Pull-ups make me feel like a badass, and I only say this now because I can do them. Obviously, I wasn’t born a pull-up monster. It took a lot of effort, practice, and patience to become pull-up champion of my own world.

Hey, don’t worry if you can barely get halfway to one pull-up. I’ll share my tips to help you get your first pull-up (and beyond!).

So let’s start off by acknowledging that…

It’s Not ONLY Because You’re Weak

Physical weakness is usually why a pull-up isn’t possible for you yet, but it’s not the whole story.

I remember how incredibly daunted I felt when I was working toward my first bodyweight pull-up. At the time all I could do was dangle like a helpless sack of meat and complain about my sad, weak arms. Blaming my soggy noodle-like arms was convenient, but it turns out that the bigger obstacle holding me back was myself: the negative self-talk (“I can’t…” or “it’s impossible…”) and my unrealistic expectations. I expected to get awesome right away.

In reality, I had spent months of continuous strength training to do my first pull-up. That means it will take you tons of consistent effort, a lot of time (especially if you’re starting from scratch), and plenty of thoughts that are like: “Ugh, this sucks.” But, like running your first mile without stopping or getting your first sip of coffee in the morning, it will be so, so worth it.

It’s not as simple as having a super Hulk-like back and biceps either. A pull-up actually uses hell of a lot of other muscles, including your traps, deltoids, upper chest, shoulders, obliques, and abs. Even in the starting position, a dead hang, you’ll notice that you need serious grip and forearm strength and healthy shoulders to be able to comfortably hang on for dear life for any length of time.

Consider your body weight, too. The more you weigh, the harder your muscles have to work to hoist your entire body above the bar. Simply, if you’re lighter, you’d have a much easier time doing one or more pull-ups. But don’t let your weight be an excuse. I am a lot heavier than I look, but I don’t let that keep me from trying to do as many pull-ups as I can, wherever and with whatever I can find.

Pull-Ups Versus Chin-Ups?

You might have heard the two exercise names used interchangeably. Both are great strength-building exercises that light up the same muscles to noticeably varying degrees. The clear difference is in how you hold the bar.

In a chin-up, you grab the bar with your palms facing toward you. In a pull-up, you use an overhand grip, where your palms face away from you. This nuanced difference in grip changes the mechanics of the exercise and essentially determines which of your muscles have to bust ass to complete the movement.

In a chin-up, you tend to use your pecs and biceps a lot more than in a pull-up, whereas it’s your lat muscles that literally do most of the heavy lifting during a pull-up. Unsurprisingly, most people find chin-ups easier to do than pull-ups, although when I was learning I stuck to practicing with one grip consistently. I recommend you do the same, unless you start to feel elbow pain.

At the end of the day, it’s tomato, tomah-to: a chin-up is a type of pull-up.

Three Main Things You Need to Level Up

First, here’s what you need to know about a good-looking pull-up:

Depending on where you get stuck in the pull-up, you can identify the core problem by breaking down the exercise into the following isolated stages:

  • Starting point: During this static hold at the very bottom, you need decent grip and forearm strength and endurance to hold. If you have delicate, yet-to-be-heavily-calloused hands (read: soft baby hands), holding onto the bar could hurt you and prevent you from pulling up. It helps to work your grip strength and slowly fortify your skin’s natural armor (callouses).
  • Initiating the pull: Assuming your lat muscles are strong enough, you need to be able to properly engage your lats to initiate. This is where beginners run into trouble because they don’t have the right pulling motion or know what it feels like to “activate” their lats.
  • Ascending portion of the pull: If you don’t have enough tension in your abs and body or you lack upper body strength, or both, you’ll likely get stuck here.
  • Finishing the pull: Once you’re over halfway, you could get stuck if you don’t have enough strength and/or don’t imagine driving your elbows into your back pockets to finish out the move.

Clearly, the solution here is to get strong as fuck, plain and simple. But also, when starting out, there are other less obvious issues: most of us don’t know which muscles we need to consciously contract; we lack practice in the actual upward pulling motion; and we don’t know how to use our abs to keep the body from swaying. Working toward a pull-up, then, is a combination of:

  1. Making sure your shoulders are healthy and you can “feel” your lats working
  2. Building more muscle in your upper body and increasing pulling strength via back-specific exercises
  3. Learning to force tension in your abs (to keep from swaying)

These aren’t just specific to pull-ups. When you work on these components, you get more muscles = more strength = better general gym performance = WIN.

1. Exercises to Activate Your Lats

Chances are, you don’t really know what you should be feeling in your back when you pull. It’s important that you do to reap the true benefits of this exercise, but also to keep your shoulders, elbows, and neck healthy (ever tweak your neck from a funky pull-up? You don’t want to). Here are a couple of great drills to help with that.

Wall Slides

Most of us have spent most of our adult lives hunched over in a seated position that we’ve lost touch with how our shoulder blades should move. This exercise helps you reclaim that movement control. The idea here is to form a “W” with your arms and body, and move your arms up and down while you feel your lats and shoulder blades contracting. If you lack range of motion in your shoulders to do this, that’s good feedback, too, and something to work on.

Lat Pull-down (With Band)

You need a light resistance band (like these on Amazon) for this. Keep your abs tight and hips at shoulder width apart, and bring your arms down in a controlled motion. After a while, those lats should be screaming at you.

2. Best Exercises That Build You Up to a Pull-Up

If you’re actively trying to get that first fuckin’ pull-up, you need to prioritize your back exercises. That means doing these back exercises two to three times a week (give yourself at least a day of rest in-between each workout) and making sure they’re the first couple of exercises following your warm-up. You don’t want to work on improving something when you’re already fatigued. That just invites a world of pain and lackluster results.

For each of these exercises, you know you’re progressing when you can easily do between 8-10 reps for 3 sets with good form (at which point, you make the exercise harder by increasing weight or modifying it).

Bodyweight Inverted Rows

You can do this at a park’s playground, under a table, at the gym on the Smith machine, or on suspension trainers. Inverted rows are your money-maker because they boost your pulling strength. Plus, the difficulty can be adjusted based on your level. The lower you are to the ground, the harder this exercise is.

When you’re just starting out, try doing them at a 60-degree angle. If that’s still difficult, you can try bending your knees slightly to place your feet flat on the ground. If that’s cake, drop lower. If you’ve reached God Mode on inverted rows, try doing them with your feet elevated.

Check yo’self before you wreck yo’self:

  • Make a double chin, relax your shoulders, and keep your body as straight as possible when do this exercise.
  • Pretend you’re trying to crack a walnut between your butt cheeks to keep your abs tight.
  • The only movement should be from your arms pulling you toward the bar. When you reach the top of the movement, you should already be squeezing your shoulder blades together.
  • Try alternating between underhand and overhand grips.

Single-Arm Dumbbell Rows

There are several variations of row exercises, but this one is awesome like a two-for-one deal. By doing one arm at a time, you can develop strength in both arms more evenly.

Your goal is to go heavy for 8-10 reps and gradually increase the weight between 2.5 to 5 pounds every week. No worries if you can’t progress every week–that’s normal; stick with the same weight and try to hit the higher end of the rep range instead.

Check yo’self before you wreck yo’self:

  • Notice in the video by Eric Cressey that his whole body is relatively straight and still and his movements controlled. Beginners have a tendency to droop to one side and really yank the dumbbell up like they’re revving up a chainsaw. Don’t do that. I’d rather you drop the weight and be able to control the dumbbell up while still being challenging.
  • Focus on pulling with your arm and pushing against the surface with your other limbs to keep yourself stable.

Band-Assisted Pull-Ups

Assisted pull-ups help you practice pull-ups with about 30% of your weight taken out, so you can actually practice pulling yourself up. First, you need a big, rubber band-like resistance band (I’ve linked this before). Green, red, or purple colors typically provide less resistance. You want just enough slack so that the band isn’t doing all of the work.

As the video above demonstrates, loop the band around the bar, let it hang, and rest one foot onto the band. Obviously, your weight will stretch it out, so be careful not to slip out and let it whip you in the face. The elastic nature of the band will help you boost up, past a common sticking point (lower than halfway point usually for most people). Your focus is to build strength in the upper half of the pulling motion. Alternatively, you can use a chair-assisted pull-up or a box platform.

Check yo’self before you wreck yo’self:

  • Use your upper body as much as possible and focus on refining that pull-up motion.
  • With this exercise, try to do as many reps as you possibly can for 3 sets.

Flexed Arm Hangs

Use a box, chair, or platform, or just jump up if the bar is low enough, and get into a flexed hang position, where your elbows are flexed by your sides and your chin is over the bar. I recommend using an underhand grip to help you amp up your biceps powa. How long can you stay in this static hold without your chin dropping below the bar? Establish a baseline and aim to hold it for longer and longer!

To get even stronger, add more weight by wearing a weighted vest, tying a weight plate to your waist, or holding a dumbbell between your feet. Even though you’re technically not moving, this exercise will slap your ego silly with isometric contractions. Now combine these with the next exercise…

Negative Pull-Ups 

When you perform a pull-up, the upward motion is known as the concentric contraction, where the muscles get shorter as they contract. When you lower yourself, your muscles reverse the job with an eccentric contraction: they lengthen while trying to stay contracted. This is actually more demanding on your muscle cells, but it’s also what makes you stronger.

Here, like when you do the flexed arm hang, skip straight to the concentric, pulling part of the exercise and focus on a slow-as-heck descent. Try counting to three alligators as you descend. Or focus on the negative rep from a flexed arm hang for maximum buuurrn.

3. Best Exercises That Teach You to “Brace” Your Core

Bracing your core is jargon for basically flexing your abs to keep your body “tight.” This involves taking a deep breath into your belly and holding it. If you’re not sure what you’re supposed to feel, these core exercises will both strengthen your core and teach you how total-body tension should feel.

Hollow Rocker

Hollow Hang

Hollow Body Hold

The Most Common Pull-Up Mistakes

People try to cheat the pull-up by kicking with their feet to flop up the rest of the way, like they’re fucking Flipper trying to snatch up some fish, and call it good. Alas, you’re only cheating yourself out of the exercise’s amazing strength-building benefits. Tsk.

  • Your body swings too much: If your legs or whole body swing, you’re not creating enough tension in your core. Take a big breath, expanding your belly with air and other suspect molecules, and hold it. That alone makes a huge difference.
  • Your elbows are in the wrong position: In a pull-up, your elbows should be to your sides. Think about forcing your elbows downward and back, as if you were trying to “put your elbows in your back pockets.” This helps put less strain on your elbows when you do a pull-up, but it also helps you further engage your lat muscles.
  • Shoulders are not in the proper position: Similar to your elbows, you should focus on keeping your shoulders “down and back,” which is a cue to remind you to keep your chest up, make sure you’re using your back muscles, and do the damn thing.
  • Your grip is too wide: The wider your grip, the harder it is to pull up. Normally, shoulder width is about right for most people, but everyone’s body structure is different. If you’re having trouble at first, adjust your grip width and try again.
  • You don’t complete the full range of motion: A single, legitimate pull-up starts from a dead hang to pulling yourself (your chin typically) above the bar. No weird dolphin flop, sorry.

Argh, Elbow Pain!

If you feel pain on the inside of your elbow, try switching to a neutral grip, with your palms facing each other. With a neutral grip, your wrists don’t have to rotate as much and place undue stress on your elbow.

The only issue is consistently finding a pull-up bar that lets you use a neutral grip. When you can’t find one outside of the gym and you want to do pull-ups, you can use a resistance band (I like these) to tie around the bar. Then, rest three of your fingers (middle, ring, and pinky) on the knotted bump created by the band, like this guy from ATHLEAN-X does, for slightly modified pull-ups. Doing this absorbs some of the stress going to the your elbow and helps mitigate the pain.

Of course, if the pain bothers you enough when you do pull-ups, just stop doing them, brah.

Where to Go From Here

Okay, you’ve got all these scattered pieces of information at your disposal, but what you’re missing now is an easy-to-follow program. I love this article by Jennifer Blake and Jen Sinkler, two awesome powerful women. In it, they provide a straightforward, two-week program that anyone can follow. Check it out here.

Once you’re at your first pull-up, it’s a matter of even more time and continuing on your never-ending quest to get jacked; but also, you need plenty of practice. Specifically, you need to do more, more frequently. John Romaniello shares this super straightforward but brutal pull-up workout plan that can double the number of pull-ups you can do in six weeks. Try it and tell me your arms didn’t fall off.

TL;DR:

  • Practice this often and when you’re fresh and can maintain good form.
  • Lift heavy and often to level up your upper body strength to superhero status.
  • Emphasize back exercises and negative reps.
  • Practice, practice, practice every day or every other day.
  • Follow this sample program from Unapologetically Powerful or, if you’re pro, Roman Fitness Systems.
  • Be fucking patient.

Get Help and Confidence to Get in the Shape You Want

My friends at GMB Fitness can help you get to your first pull-up and can help you build beyond the one, too!

If you’ve been struggling with building a strong body with bodyweight exercises or just want a change of pace from the standard gym setting, you should really head over to GMB Fitness. They’re like the Jedi Masters of the bodyweight training world. You’ll learn to do push-ups, pull-ups, handstands, and even freakin’ cartwheels. They’re all about having fun and learning to move (and feel) better with your body.

Head over there to nail basics, learn fancy moves like handstands, and tell them I said hi.

Cover image credit: Karen Hong Photography.

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