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June 03, 2020 10 min read

The pull up; striking fear into the heart of some while being the main bodyweight exercise for others. There are  good reasons that the pull up has the reputation that it does, and even better reasons for why you should be in the group of people making this exercise a staple in their workout regime.

When it comes to brutal exercises that leave your body quivering with fatigue, pull-ups are definitely up there. This taxing movement is a great way to gauge your upper body strength, even though it requires much more than just the upper body to pull off successfully. It’s even arguably better than the bench press when it comes to upper body exercises, since it not only trains the front upper body but more importantly, the back.

The back also just happens to be a place that many people ignore. While having a strong back is important for general strength and aesthetics, it’s often trumped by things such as the bench press which hardly activates any back muscles. And even if you can’t do a single pull up, the path towards successfully doing multiple reps will not only strengthen your arms and back, but also have general resistance training benefits. Getting good at pull-ups is a ticket to fantastic general strength and fitness, so read on to find out how you can pull yourself up out of the no-pull up gutter. 

Keeping Your Eye on the Prize

The pull up is a deceptively simple movement. While it comes down to just gripping a bar and pulling yourself up, there’s a  number of nuances that’ll help you when it comes to both form and ease of the movement. Even though you might not be able to do one yet, it’s important to keep in mind what a perfect one will look like when you’re going through the 30-day progression.

A visualization of the perfect pull up will not only help your form in the end, but it’ll also help you cultivate that mind-muscle link and aid in auxiliary exercises that’ll improve a number of muscle groups.

A man and woman doing pull-ups.

What a Perfect Pull Up Looks Like

1. Jump, or reach up, and grab the bar with your palms facing away from you (an overhand grip) at shoulder-width apart. Hang with your arms extended, but also keeping your shoulders and back muscles activated in order not to strain anything. If necessary, bend your knees so they don’t drag on the ground.

2. Along with activating your shoulders and keeping them back, also remember to engage your core throughout the entire movement. This will help with stability and keep you from swaying.

3. Pull up slowly, stopping once your chin gets just above the bar. Reverse the movement until your arms are once again hanging freely. Repeat for the number of reps required.

While that’s essentially it, there’s a number of things you should remember when attempting a pull-up.

Along with engaging the core, activating your glutes will also help in stabilization and allow for a more full-body workout. Bracing your body like this will engage all of your stabilizing muscles, and your weight will be better managed throughout the movement. To recruit even more muscle fibers, squeeze once again at the very top of the pull-up and hold that position for a moment before slowly going back down.

One of the most essential components of the pull up is the grip. Without the grip then everything else becomes moot, and with a wide range of grips, you’ll be able to work out a wide range of muscle groups.

Getting a Grip on Pull-Ups

The defining feature of a pull up is the overhand grip. The overhand grip is one of the most difficult since most of the workload is placed on your lats rather than other muscles. Furthermore, if you want to focus in on specific muscles, just changing the width of the grip will allow you to do so. For example, the wider your grip, the more your lats will be worked. This is because your other muscles won’t be able to help us much. On the other hand, a closer grip engages your biceps and chest much more and a  pre-workout supplement will help you get the trick done.

The underhand grip pull-up is called a chin up. Most people find these easier to do since there are a lot more muscles engaged and the ones that are engaged more fully (the biceps), are usually more developed than the back muscles needed for a pull-up. Nevertheless, doing chin-ups is still a good way to train up your pull-ups.

The easiest of the three grips is the neutral grip. This has your palms facing inwards towards each other. This movement activates the most amount of muscle groups, and your bodyweight is therefore more evenly distributed. This is also a good option when training for the ability to do more pull-ups.

While the different pull-up variations place emphasis on different parts of your body, they all have the same foundational building blocks that’ll benefit you equally, especially if you’re just starting out. Our 30-day progression guide to doing your first pull up looks at these muscle groups and trains them specifically. 

The Physiology Behind the Pull-Up

The muscles targeted by pull-ups are the:

  • Lats
  • Biceps
  • Teres major and minor
  • Infraspinatus
  • Traps
  • Core
  • Delts
  • And the muscles of the forearm

The first four are especially important when it comes to pull-ups, and therefore, it’s important to emphasize them when trying to progress towards a pull-up. Not only will improving these muscles aid in your pull up game, but they’ll also give you a very functional upper body strength that’s difficult to duplicate when it comes to other single exercises. The fact that the pull-up targets both the arms and the back is enough to make it a staple in anyone’s workout regime. 

Another important emphasis is on the muscles of the forearm and particularly grip strength. One of the most common points-of-failure for not only pull-ups but also other heavy pulling exercises is the grip. With a solid amount of pull-ups under your belt, your grip strength will thank you for it and so will a number of other exercises you do in the gym. So, now that we have that out of the way, let’s get into the thick of things with some pull up progression exercises.

One Step at a Time towards Pull Up Domination

While a one-size-fits-all workout regime might be easy to incorporate into your routine, it won’t necessarily work well for your routine. We will go over some exercises that we recommend on a daily progression basis, but it is important to try out different, simpler, variations of the pull up in order to gauge where you’re at. 

This will help you when it comes down to progressing as quickly as possible. For example, if you’re already able to do a banded pull-up, then why start at inverted bodyweight rows? Sure, they’ll build some strength, but they won’t get you towards your goal very fast..

So before going into any routine, it’s important to not only gauge where you’re at but also your capabilities when it comes to bodyweight exercises. Since a pull up is in its truest form, a bodyweight exercise, that means you’ll be dealing with your body weight. If you’re overweight this can be an issue. It’s obviously much easier to do a pull the lighter you weigh. On the other hand, however, if you do weigh more, and can do a pull up successfully, you’ll be getting more of a workout in relation to your body mass.

So, without further ado, let’s introduce the various steps you might be at.

The Isometric Hold 

Bring a box underneath the bar that’s a good height for you to stand on and grab the bar without too much difficulty. With an overhand pull-up grip, you want to grab the bar and pull yourself up into the top position of the movement.

Remember to pull your shoulder blades back, engage your core, and then keep your chin above the bar for as long as you can.

If you’re unable to do this, then first practice with dead hangs—just grabbing onto the bar and hanging there with your shoulders pulled back and lats engaged—for as long as you can. 

Once you can do the isometric hold for over 60 seconds, it’s a good idea to move onto the next progressive step in order to keep your feet at the fire.

The Negative Pull-Up

Using the box once again, place it below the bar. Now, you can either use a box that’s relatively high so you don’t have to jump up to the bar, or you can use a smaller box and jump. The point in this exercise isn’t to pull yourself up but to grab on to the bar and then very slowly lower yourself down. 

You should be aiming for at least a 15-second “relaxation” of the arms until you find yourself in a dead hang position. Once at the bottom, rest for one minute. That’s equal to one rep. In order to progress to the next stage, you’ll want to comfortably be able to do 3 sets of 3 reps, of 15 seconds each.

Assisted Pull-Ups

The first of these can be done with a resistance band looped around the pull-up bar. With the relatively long band hanging down, grab onto the bar with the pull-up grip and nestle your knees or feet into the band. 

You want to find a band that’ll allow you to do a lot of the work yourself, but also a band that’s tight enough to help you. As always, the point is to work as hard as you can and push yourself. You should be able to do a few reps of a banded pull-up and then struggle after 5 or more.

Once you’re able to do 2 legs quite easily, you can ramp up the difficulty by just putting one leg into the resistance band. This’ll allow your other hand to dangle behind or in front, placing more pressure on the muscles necessary to complete a pull-up. Remember to reverse the movement slowly, taking 15 seconds once again.

You can also get a partner to help you. This is somewhat more difficult than the banded pull up since your partner is only allowed to assist on the way up. Supporting you from your hips, the person should aid when you’re pulling yourself up above the bar. However, when you’re coming down and taking your time, there should be no assistance.

This is the last progressive step before doing a full pull up, and wherever you’re starting from, you should be able to accomplish one within a month if you stick to it and make pull-ups your training focus. Even though you might be tempted to focus solely on these progressive pull-up movements, you’ll benefit just as much from other exercises that focus on the necessary muscles. 

A man working out in a gym.

A Workout Regime for Pull-Ups

As we mentioned before, one-size-fits-all routines are always problematic because every person is different physiologically and in their progression. So use the below as guidelines, and substitute the pull-up exercises for whatever your progression is in the above movements—from isometric holds to assisted pull-ups.

Day 1:

Dead Hang: This is a good way to train grip strength while also getting used to the range of motion that a pull up will necessitate—especially when it comes to your shoulders. While a simple exercise, make sure to maximize the amount of time you’re hanging on and feel free to add a weight belt in order to ramp up the difficulty.

Lat Pulldown: You’ll want to grasp the bar with an overhand grip that’s relatively wide (wider than your shoulders). This will help in activating your lats. Pulling the bar down, you want to exhale as you’re going through the movement. Bring it down at around chin-level, while trying to maintain an upright torso, rather than leaning backward. 

Keep your core engaged and your feet flat on the floor throughout the movement and keep your shoulders pulled back and squared. Reverse the movement, slowly, and repeat. This is one of the best ways to train for pull-ups since the lat pulldown, as the name suggests, places a great emphasis on the lats.

Day 2:

Towel grip dead hang: This hold will have you draping two towels on the pull-up bar, about shoulder-width apart. This is an amazing, yet difficult, grip training exercise which engages your forearms to a very high degree.

You’ll want to grip the hanging towels with palms facing inward and hold for as long as you can.

One-arm bent over dumbbell row: You’ll be needing a bench or a platform that’s about the height of your thighs. Putting one of your legs on the bench and grab the side of it with your hand on the same side. Bend over at an angle, but keep your back straight as you lean down to pick up the dumbbell. 

Keep your arm extended as you lift the dumbbell up with an overhand grip, bringing it up to your chest. Remember to keep your back and shoulder muscles engaged more than your arm. At the top of the exercise, squeeze your back and shoulder muscles, and then lower the weight back down. Repeat for the desired amount of reps, and then switch arms.

Day 3:

Inverted barbell row: This is another terrific exercise to do when training for the pull up since it uses a lot of the same muscle groups. Set a bar about waist height, and keep in mind that the lower the bar, the more difficult the movements become. Lie down on the floor underneath the bar, with your arms directly underneath it.

Grabbing the bar with an overhand grip and slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, engage your core and glutes, and then pull up until your chest touches the bar. Reverse the movement and repeat.

Take Your Pull-Ups to a New Height

Along with the above, remember to add in the various pull-up progressions, according to your own comfort level and strength. The most important aspect is to train the pull up (or a close variation) itself, train grip, and also train your back and shoulders. If you include these three aspects and put an emphasis on them in training, you’ll be doing pull-ups in no time. 

And, as always, remember to take a rest day in between each day in order to allow your boy to recover. As with any routine, but especially one that relies primarily on your own bodyweight, diet becomes important. If you’re on the heavier side, pull-ups will be that much more difficult, and it’ll probably be a good idea to focus on getting to a pull up-manageable weight first.  Otherwise, go out there and start swinging and hanging off anything you can.