How to get your first (or tenth) pull-up

Here are some tips compiled from various exercise gurus I have had the fortune to work with over the last couple years. Several friends have asked for these notes, so I thought I’d make them available here. Enjoy!

General rules

  • Install a pull up bar at home to be able to practice. Be able to stand on the ground or on a stable chair with your chin above the bar.
  • Work on your pull ups every other or every two days. Everyday is too often; your muscles need recovery time.
  • You can practice as many times as you want on pull up day–but not at all on off days.
  • Fight on the way down rather than just letting go–the negative-resistance builds muscles too.
  • Mix up grips (regular and reverse/chin up), widths (hands close together or farther apart), commando (one hand ahead of the other, palms facing).
  • Keep a log of your progress to keep you motivated.

To do your first pull up

  1. Pretend you can do a pull up. So much of this is mental!
  2. Use a stool or chair to help you get your chin over the bar. Rest as lightly as possible on the chair.
  3. Do as many assisted pull ups as you can, and then work on hang time–flexed arm hang as long as you can, and then just hang from the bar.
  4. Try scapular pull ups: hang from the bar and squeeze your shoulder blades together and down as hard as you can. Hold for 2 counts, and release. Repeat in sets of 10.
  5. Try hanging rows: suspend handles from your pull up bar and position your body beneath the bar in a plank, at an angle, holding the handles. Pull your chest to the handles, squeezing your shoulder blades together. Repeat in sets of 10, and to increase the difficulty, decrease the angle of your body to the floor, so that you’re lifting a larger percentage of your body weight.

Suggested workouts

Workout #1: Max set with negatives

  1. Do a max set of pull ups, rest, repeat until you can’t do any at all.
  2. Then get on a chair, get your chin over the bar, and do 10 negative-resistance reps.
  3. Finally, hang as long as possible.

Workout #2: Pyramid with negatives

  1. Pyramid: 1 pull up; shake it out. 2 reverse-grip pull ups; shake it out. Repeat to failure. At failure, come back down the pyramid.
  2. Then get on a chair, get your chin over the bar, and do 10 negative-resistance reps.
  3. Finally, hang as long as possible.

Workout #3: Just Twenty

20 pull ups, however you can get there.

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