pull ups

I know what you’re thinking: you can’t do a pull up. And unless you spontaneously turn into a superhero someday, you never will.

But the truth is, if you’re one of the majority of people who can’t do a pull up, it’s probably more of a mental issue than a strength one.

Most people, especially women, assume they can’t ever do a pull up. As in, they truly believe it’s physically impossible.

In fact, the New York Times even published an article recently on why women can’t do pull ups. While the article pissed a lot of people off (including me), many more were reconfirmed in their belief that they will never be able to do pull ups.

But whether you’re male or female, young or old, athletic or a workout newbie, you shouldn’t accept that you can’t do a pull up just because the New York Times tells you that you can’t.

Because here’s the thing: most people who claim they can’t do a pull up haven’t even tried.

And how can you expect to be able to do something if you never even try?

Why you should love pull ups

Pull ups are the ultimate bodyweight exercise. Seriously, pull ups are insanely, incredibly and irrefutably awesome. In fact, they’re probably my very favorite bodyweight exercise of all time (not including burpees, of course).

And for most of my life, I was just like you: I couldn’t do a single pull up. I couldn’t even do a push up. And of course, like you, I never even tried more than a halfhearted attempt at an assisted pull up once every couple of years or so.

Of course I sucked at pull ups. It’s easy to see that now.

But you should want to be able to do pull ups. Because not only do they work your arms, shoulders, back, and core muscles wonderfully, they also give you a serious sense of confidence like you wouldn’t imagine.

I love telling people I can do pull ups. Especially as a woman, it’s pretty empowering. And people love it when I whip out 5 to 10 at a time on a whim.

But if you think you can never do a pull up, think again. Because if you follow the progression of exercises below, you’ll build the strength necessary to be able to do one, two, maybe even ten pull ups.

Start wherever is the most appropriate for you—a.k.a. there’s no need to start at the beginning if you can already do reverse pull ups, though sandbag rows will certainly build up the strength in your shoulders and back. Then make sure to include these exercises in your workout routine two to four times a week for the fastest possible results.

So whether you’re starting from zero and have never done a pull up in your life, or whether you can do a few right now and want to be able to do more, here’s how to master the art of the pull up:

Sandbag rows

If you’re starting from the very beginning—a.k.a. you can’t even imagine the sheer possibility of ever doing a pull up in your lifetime—this is where you’ll want to begin.

Rows will build up your back and shoulder muscles and prime your upper body for all those pull ups you’ll eventually be doing.

And don’t think you can’t do rows if you don’t have a sandbag. Rows can be done using dumbbells, a barbell (with or without weights), a heavy medicine ball, even just a duffel bag filled with books or heavy objects.

To complete a sandbag row:

  • Stand with your feet shoulder width apart.
  • Squeeze your abs and bend over slightly with the sandbag in both hands.
  • Pull your shoulders back and bring the sandbag toward your chest at a moderate pace.
  • Return to starting position and repeat.

Watch the video:

Reverse push ups

I love reverse push ups, also called bodyweight rows. They’re what really allowed me to build up my strength before I could even attempt a pull up.

Best of all, they can be scaled to all levels so whether you’re a true beginner or an elite athlete, they’re still a great exercise.

And they’re an absolute perfect primer for pull ups!

I do my reverse push ups using a dip bar, but if you don’t have one, don’t worry. You can do these at home by putting a sturdy broom across two chairs, or even just using the underside of a table and pulling yourself up.

To complete a reverse push up:

  • Position your body under the dip bar so that you’re in a tabletop position, holding the dip bar with both hands and arms fully extended.
  • Pulling your shoulders back, raise yourself toward the dip bar as far as possible.
  • Lower back down and repeat.

Tip: If this is difficult for you, make sure to pull up as far as possible toward the dip bar and then slowly lower yourself down. You’ll build strength in the negative reps.

If you’re more advanced, you’ll want to straighten your legs. You can also add a weight to increase the intensity.

Watch the video:

Jumping/negative pull ups

Once you’ve built up some strength by doing reverse push ups, it’s time to move on to the next step: the jumping/negative pull up.

The goal here? To get used to the motion of pull ups, and to build strength on the negative portion of the pull up.

To complete a jumping/negative pull up:

  • Stand with a pull up bar directly above you.
  • Jump and pull your arms toward the bar so that your chin ends up over the bar.
  • Slowly lower yourself back toward the floor until your arms are fully straight.
  • Repeat.

Tip: If the jumping portion of the pull up is still too difficult for you, simply put a box or a chair underneath and reach the pull up bar that way.

Watch the video:

Band assisted pull ups

Another great way to gain strength and continue your pull up progression is to use a resistance band for assistance.

You can use any resistance band that you like (as long as it can support your weight), but I’m particularly liking Muscle Driver bands, which are used by many CrossFit gyms and offer different weights so you can adjust per your strength level.

You’ll want to start with whatever band allows you to do at least a few pull ups at a time. When that gets easier (and it will, if you practice), first increase your reps, then graduate to the next lightest band.

To complete a band assisted pull up:

  • Stand with a pull up bar directly above you.
  • Loop the resistance band once around the pull up bar so that it’s secure when you pull it.
  • Grab on to the pull up bar with one hand on each side of the band and put both feet in the bottom of the band.
  • Starting with your arms fully straight, pull yourself up to the bar so that your chin ends up over the bar.
  • Lower back down and repeat.

Tip: If the bar is to high to easily put your feet in the band, use a chair or a box to get situated.

Watch the video:

Kipping pull ups

If you’ve ever done CrossFit, or watched a CrossFit session, you’ll be very familiar with kipping pull ups.

These are what will really propel your pull up strength into the next level.

Because kipping pull ups also allow you to use your hips, core and legs to propel yourself up to the bar, you’ll be able to do a lot more pull ups than if you were just doing regular, straight-armed pull ups.

I’ll warn you though… kipping pull ups can be tricky to master, and can be pretty frustrating to link together when you’re first getting started! Once you get the hang of them though, you’ll be amazed at how many you can actually do.

To do a kipping pull up:

  • Hanging from a bar, push your shoulders and chest forward.
  • While pulling your shoulders back, kick your hips forward, like you’re trying to swing backward around the bar.
  • Using that momentum, pull up with your arms until your chin is over the bar.
  • Take a full second or two to decelerate down.
  • Push forward again and repeat.

Tip: You can also do kipping pull ups with a band, though it requires some coordination, and to be fully honest, I’m not very good at it (but some people are!).

Watch the video:

Chin ups

While chin ups and pull ups are certainly interchangeable, if you’ve ever tried either you know that chin ups are definitely easier than pull ups. That’s because they allow you to use your biceps more to pull you up than pull ups do—and because most people have fairly strong bicep muscles, chin ups are just more manageable.

Currently, I can do about 8-10 chin ups in a row and only 3-5 pull ups.

That’s why I recommend starting with chin ups first. You can also apply the jumping and band assisted modifications to chin ups, giving you another option to build strength in your upper body.

To do a chin up:

  • Start from a dead hang with straight elbows, palms facing you.
  • Keeping your chest up and your shoulders back, squeeze your glutes and cross your feet.
  • Pull yourself up so that your chin rests over the bar.
  • Lower down and repeat.

Watch the video:

Pull ups

  • Start from a dead hang with straight elbows, palms facing away from you.
  • Keeping your chest up and your shoulders back, squeeze your glutes and cross your feet.
  • Pull yourself up so that your chin rests over the bar.
  • Lower down and repeat.

Watch the video:

Your turn

Stop saying that you can’t do pull ups.

You can become a pull up master. Like anything else, you just have to practice.

And even if you’re starting at the very beginning, if you keep working at it, you’ll get there, eventually.

So go prove yourself wrong. I believe in you.

And if you’re looking for a step-by-step program on how to master your first pull up, make sure to check out our Pull Up Mastery program.