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March 27, 2020 10 min read

Are you one of those people who can do every exercise, but when it comes to the pull-up, would rather hide? You can do push-ups, dead hangs, dumbbell rows, deadlifts, anything but a single pull-up.

You failed a few times and decided it’s simply not for you. That is wrong. You can do a pull-up. In fact, anyone can do a pull-up! You just haven’t trained enough, or you have trained wrong. Start doing the right way before you create a mental block and disable yourself from pulling power. Just because you can’t do a pull-up now, doesn’t mean that you’ll never be able to do one.

Like with any skill, (re)start from scratch and build yourself up. You need to commit to developing a skill, and sometimes it takes preparation. The pull-up is not an easy exercise, and there’s a reason why it goes with a nickname of “upper body squat.” It takes a decent amount of upper body strength to start and more to develop.

If you want to spread your wings and create that impressive back appearance, then stay with us, and we’ll teach you how.

Let’s Pull-Up the Root of the Problem

Say you can do barbell squats, overhead presses, bench presses, and maybe even the barbell deadlift. It makes no sense that you can’t go with a pull-up, right? You know that you are in the proper form, but moving up remains the enigma. Or, you can do a certain number of pull-ups, but then comes the plateau.

There are various reasons why people can’t do pull-ups:

  • Lack of grip strength to stick with a bar
  • Weakness in the back muscles, abdominal muscle, or low core strength
  • Lack of arm strength, especially in the biceps
  • A lack of mind and muscle connection
  • Failing to train without weights
  • Previous injuries

If you’ve had any severe injuries in your upper body, make sure to consult your doctor about safe activity recommendations. Don’t start a demanding workout without professional guidance.

Identifying your weakest spots is your starting point to succeed in pull-ups. If your biceps are the problem, work on building strength and endurance there. Sometimes you need to approach the problem backward to get to the front of it. So work on your lats too.

  1. As long as one pull-up is too many for you, keep preparing. Start with dead hangs from any bar that can hold your bodyweight. You can do it at home easily. Ten seconds is good enough for a start. Aim for 60 seconds, but no hurry. This way, you will improve your support grip and stamina.
  2. If the hanging thing isn’t working out as you hope, involve more back exercises in your standard workout plan. That rule also applies to advanced mode when you want to raise the number of reps. Three to four sets of 10 to 15 reps will significantly increase your back's endurance. Include one of all of these to your regular training:
  • Machine lat pulldown
  • Machine seated row
  • Barbell row
  • Dumbbell or kettlebell row
  • Reverse machine fly
  • Back extension
  • Row your own bodyweight.
  • Assisted pull-ups are a great way to start. There are three ways to do them. You can use an assisted pull-up machine, do a banded pull-up, or have a friend or personal trainer help you do the pull-up with their hands.
  • Work on your grip strength: A lack of grip strength can be a reason that you can’t do a dead hang or a pull-up. Practice three types of grips: crush, pinch, and support. To improve grip strength, you can visit rock climbing gyms and try bouldering and roped climbing. That will also help you with developing the full range of motion.
  • Don’t forget your arms: There is no pull-up without muscles in your biceps, forearms, shoulders, and triceps and essential for a successful pull-up. Extra biceps training is a crucial checkpoint in your pull-up game. Try one of all of these strength-training moves. Aim for three to four sets and try to do 15 reps in each one. 
  • Dumbbell and barbell biceps curl
  • Resistance band curl
  • Preacher curl (machine, single-arm dumbbell)
  • Low cable biceps curl
  • Incline bench dumbbell curl

A girl doing pull-ups in the gym.

How to Start Unbroken Pull-Ups

Muscle groups worked: latissimus dorsi, brachialis, biceps, trapezius, teres major, infraspinatus.

Hang from a monkey bar, pull-up bar, or a well-checked tree limb. Use a double overhand grip for the beginning. Pull yourself up until your chin reaches higher than your hands. Start extending your arms until you are back down. Congratulations, you just succeeded in your first pull-up!

Now go for the second one. Keep pushing. Yes, we meant “pulling.” Keep on with three, four, and five pull-ups.

Five is the number of reps for the first small set you should make. Do a short break and go for another one. When you get used to doing a few sets of five reps, move up. But keep in mind that it may take months to achieve serious progress. Don’t give up. It’s expected to last long.

Make one set of ten reps your next goal. You can mix the sets of five and ten, with breaks in between. The next threshold is two sets of ten reps, then three. It’s ok to do eight instead of ten, too.

Thirty pull-ups are a standard amount to give you muscular endurance. Typically, doing more than 30 is reserved for professionals, like CrossFitters or military members. Once you reach 3x10 reps and want more challenge, add weight. Additional resistance to the pull-up builds stronger muscles since you lift a more massive load.

Eight Ways to Improve Your Pull-Ups

The biggest mistake you can make with pull-ups is to finish your set too soon. A decrease in speed or an unperfect set of moves is no reason to stop. Keep on as long as you can, so the next set can be better.

Any excess body fat reduces your ability to do pull-ups. You are lifting all of your bodyweight. Need we say more?

The proper starting position is essential. If you start in the dead hang position with your scapula elevated and shoulders touching your ears, that is both dangerous and incorrect. You place the tension on your ligaments instead of your muscles. Pull your shoulder blades down instead, and lock your shoulders into their sockets.

Slightly bend your elbows instead of keeping them completely locked. That is another way to take the tension off ligaments. Don’t use that as an excuse to cheat with a complete extension! When you start, don’t merely pull with your biceps, drive the elbows down and back.

The lats should start the chain, not your biceps. If you have trouble feeling your lats, ask someone to slap them before you start pulling.

You need your chin over the bar. Going higher does very little for your lats and focuses the stress on the smaller muscles of your back. Don’t waste energy struggling; leave it for advanced mode. Adapt your training plan to target those smaller muscles, and soon you will have no problem getting as high as you want. 

You can start with chin-ups and progress your way up. In the chin-up, your hands are in an underhand grip with palms facing you. Chin-ups are easier pull-up variations that work the biceps more.

Try different grips to lift yourself. Your palms can face each other or face away at multiple widths. Variations are endless, find the combo that fits you the best. The stronger your grip, the easier a pull-up goes. Go with some specific grip work at the gym, like the fat bar holds or hexagon dumbbell holds.

You need both strength and endurance to do many reps. Endurance is built with high reps, but low reps develop your strength. There is nothing wrong with a mixed recipe. Do low reps with a dip belt or a weighted waist, or try some of the more challenging variations. 

Range in about three to six reps for maximal strength, and mix up your days of high range. 15-30 reps with a band will improve your endurance.

A man doing pull-ups in the gym.

The 13 Best Exercises to Improve Your Pull-Ups  

Dead Hang

Grab a pull-up bar or any strong structure with an overhand grip. Slightly retract your shoulder blades. Activate the back muscles and engage the core. Extend your arms straight from your shoulders.

The duration depends on your level, from 15 seconds for a beginner to over 60 seconds for experienced athletes.

Inverted Row

Set a barbell in a power rack at about hip height. Lie underneath with your body in a straight line, and your back against the ground. Grip the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart. Your arms should be straight and your core tight. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and pull yourself up to bring the chest close to the bar. Slowly lower yourself back down. Do three sets of five to ten reps.

Side Plank

The side plank strengthens the abdominal muscles. It’s important to prevent you from swinging when you hang from a bar during the pull-up. Place your left elbow and the side of your left foot to the ground. Your back needs to be in a straight line, with hips on the ground. The right foot can stay either on top or in the front of the left foot. Bring yourself up, so the only contact with the ground is your left elbow and your feet. Hold on, break, and switch sides.

You need to do the three sets. The duration depends on your level, starting with 15 seconds for a beginner to over 60 seconds for experienced athletes.

Dumbbell Hammer Curl

Stand in a starting position. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing each other. Curl both dumbbells in front of you. The weights should reach around shoulder-height. Squeeze your biceps at the top. Lower the weights back down. Do three sets of 15 reps.

Lying Triceps Extension

Lie on a bench, holding a short barbell. Press the bar over your chest. Your arms need to be straight. Bend your elbows to lower the bar behind your head and straighten them to return to the starting position. Do three sets of 12 reps.

Machine Lat Pull-Downs

Attach the long bar to the pulley of a lat pulldown machine. Grab the bar with an overhand grip. Your palms should face away from you. Set your legs under the pad. Driving your elbows down and back, pull the bar to your collarbone. Lean back slightly but not too much. Release the elbows and straighten your arms. Do three sets of 12 reps.

Seated Row Machine

Attach a V-grip handle to the pulley. Sit on the bench or the floor. Keep your feet against the footplate with knees slightly bent. Grab the handle with both hands with a neutral grip. Fully extend your arms. Row the handle by squeezing your shoulder blades together and bending your elbows. Straighten your arms and return to the starting position. Focus on using only your back for the movement. Do three sets of 12 reps.

Back Extension

Lock your legs to a back extension bench. Place your feet against the plate and your calves against the pad cushions. Cross your arms in front of your chest. Bend the torso forward to make 90 degrees with the hips. At the top of the motion, squeeze your glutes. Extend your hips and raise yourself back up straight. Do three sets of 10 reps.

Dumbbell Row

Bend your hips back. Position your torso parallel to the floor. Hang the arm with a dumbbell down with your palm facing you. Bring the dumbbell to your rib cage by using your back muscles. Your elbow should go straight back. Release the arm back to the starting position. Do four sets of 10 reps.

Suspension Trainer Biceps Curl

Stand with the face turned to the anchor point. Hold the handles of the suspension trainer. Lower the body to bring your arms fully extended. Place yourself in a tight plank with your body in a straight line. Bring your knuckles to your temples, keeping the elbows high and eyes forward. Pull the body toward the anchor. Let your body hang before the start, and keep your core tight during the move. Extend your arms to return to the starting position. Do three sets of 10 reps.

Plate Pinch

Use your fingertips to lift a weight plate off the ground in one hand. Hold for as long as possible. Put it down. Switch the hand. Do three sets of 15 reps for each hand.

Banded Pull-Up

Use a looped resistance band. Throw one end over the bar, feed it through the other looped end to create a secure anchor point. Place a box under the bar and step on it. Put one foot or knee over the band. Sink toward the ground and pull yourself back up. Break the exercise in two sets and repeat as much as possible.

Lying Dumbbell Lateral Raise

This move targets the rear deltoids and upper back muscles, all essential for the pull-up. Set a bench to a 30-degree incline. Lie chest-down with a light dumbbell in each hand. Use a neutral grip. Squeeze your shoulder blades together to raise your arms out. Return to the starting position. Do three sets of 10 reps.

Try the Kipping Pull-Up 

This version of the standard exercise is popular in CrossFit. For CrossFit, only the chest needs to touch the bar. You will use the momentum from a hip drive to bring your chest up. A more efficient version of the classic pull-up is to do more reps in a smaller time frame.

Start in a dead hang. Swing back and forth. Once your legs are behind you, use your back to drive your chest towards the bar.

Don’t try the kipping pull-up unless you can do three sets of ten unbroken pull-ups. Kipping may allow you to do over 20 reps, but it’s more demanding to perform. It’s completely different than a regular pull-up. 

The Road to Better Pull-Ups Leads Through Loads of Pull-Ups

Your goal should be to do more pull-ups today than yesterday. Aim to build volume slowly. Forcing the increase in intensity is not the right way and leads to fatigue. Yes, it’s tempting - but use the temptation to put more effort into your other training workouts. Keep the goal in front of your eyes while taking all the necessary side steps to achieve it.

Consistency is essential. Take a sheet of paper and post it somewhere you’ll see it. Mark your progress every day. When you start doing the pull-up series, write them all down. Every time, your next step will be to overpass the previous day just a little bit more. 

After a month or two of frequent practice, you will be able to spot a huge difference. When you successfully compete with yourself, your motivation will explode. In three to four months, you will achieve a proper form and raise the number of reps with no issue.

Feeling that you’ve mastered a challenging exercise is worth all the patience and effort. People usually ask you how much you can bench. After you level up your skills, “How many pull-ups can you do?” will become your favorite question.