How to FINALLY Do a Pull Up

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.

48 thoughts on “How to FINALLY Do a Pull Up”

  1. Thank you, Thank You, THANK YOU!!! I am a 55 y/o obese woman and even when I was younger and fairly fit, I could NEVER do a pull up. Long story, but I was treated very poorly recently at work by some people on a regional team I belong to that handles special projects that will cost me about $5-10,000 in overtime this year. My usual modus operandi would be to go eat a pint of Ben and Jerry’s and cry. Instead, I had an epiphany and decided (expletive deleted) THEM! I’ve started a workout program and my birthday next March will be about the same time that the teams meet up for their annual get together. I’m joining another team this december (when my commitment is up) and I have full plans to turn in my team shirts to my old team next March saying, “well, I don’t need them and even if I WAS on the team this year, these are WAY too big!” I also have a goal of doing a pull up on my 56th birthday, if not sooner. I didn’t know where to start since I am so out of shape but this gives me a step by step process. I tried before, but what I was doing was like being in a ’64 volkswagen beetle doing 80 on the freeway and someone yells, “STEP ON IT!” I am really excited about this and I’m going to put a picture of my old team on their recent assignment (that I didn’t get invited to) on the t.v. stand to encourage me to work out when I’m watching the telly. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, you jerks! HAHAHAHA

  2. This is a GREAT tutorial!! I love all the progressions and the instructional videos! I can do several chin-ups right now, but really want to work on doing pull-ups.

    Thanks for all the helpful info!

    Hope

  3. Hi Krista, so now that my pullup bar has arrived I am going to start working on being able to finally do a pullup. My question is: should I do the hardest exercise on this progression that I am able to do,but only can do a few reps of,or something medium difficult,where I can do 10 or 12 reps at a time? A combo? Thanks 🙂

  4. Great article! Good progressions for everyone. Can you do a post on how to do a bar muscle up and ring muscle up? My goal by the end of this year is to do both. Thanks

  5. I am a trainer from brooklyn ny i am a huge fan and i have a question about starting my own webpage and i wanted to know if you had any info that could point me in the right direction

    • Hi AJ,
      I understand where you are at. I’ve been working on pull-ups for 2 whole years, and with the same total impossibility.

      What I did was get a pull up bar in my house and every second day, try one each time I walked under it. Try is the word, as I could never manage to pull myself up, just jump up and slide back down (a negative). (Every second day only as the next day my elbows and arms would be aching too much). I did negatives once a week at least 15 times at the gm (with a good break between each 5). Lots of reverse pull ups.

      Then one day, miracle! One day at the gym, I slowly but surely pulled myself upward. I took a break and did it again. And from then on it was like riding a bike – I wondered why I couldn’t do it before. Like all the muscles had to coordinate and all get to the same level of strength together, then one day it happened. I did a lot of back exercises and glutes too (which are part of the back) and shoulders and chest…..I think they all work together somehow for a pull up.

      Keep going. 2 years was a long time for me, but I’m almost 50! It’s sure to be shorter for you.

      • Mary and AJ,

        Thank you so much for posting. AJ, I have the exact same problem. I can pull down my own bodyweight. I can do rows parallel to the floor. I can do negatives all day. I have been working on pull ups for a year and a week. I have lost 10% BF in the last year and am quite strong on lifting (I am a powerlifter) but I can’t do a pull up. Mary, your post gave me hope that some day my muscles will all understand each other.

  6. I’ve been working on these for almost 10 months and have seen no improvement from my max of 3 chin-ups from half-hang. Dead hang I can scap retract but then I get stuck and can’t go any further. I can do 5 pull-up negatives before exhaustion and it never seems to get beyond that. I can do 3 band-assisted pull-ups but never more than that. I do them every day and it never gets any easier. I’m so frustrated! I can’t do a single kipping pull-up nor chin-up. Any ideas for how else to improve? I’m great at all row variations with freeweights so I’m completely puzzled as to why my muscles don’t want to cooperate!

  7. After working out on these exercises, what should be the rest interval before going again”

    DO them daily,every other day, every third day???? ect.

    thanks

  8. Thanks Krista for this advice. I started following it about a year ago. I’m a 49 year old woman and had never done a pull up in my life. Couldn’t even manage a proper push up. Following your advice this last couple of weeks I am now doing chin ups from a full hang. 12 at one workout, but 2 at a time, then a brief rest, then 2 more, etc. I am so proud of myself. No girls I know my age can do any such thing. I think if I can do 5 chin ups in a row, I should be able to do one pull up. That’s coming soon…
    The next goal I have now is to do a full bridge. I’m using your instructions to get there.
    Thanks for your empowering advice.

  9. Hi Krista,

    stumbled on your site through the 100 burpee challenge then onto this post about pull ups – just wanted to say hi and I’m loving your site and all the videos you’ve put together, great stuff!!

    Thanks
    Gareth

  10. I have finally been able to do a pull up. Only one, but the joy in that one was phenomenal. Thanks for the encouragement. Next goal handstand push up and doing a TGU using half my weight, only have to add 8 more lbs. I’m feeling bad ass and if I can, so can anyone else. Here’s to a fantastic 2015 for us all!

    • I started strength training with a personal trainer 3 years ago, At 63, I can now do 5 chin up reps for 3 sets and 4 and 3 on the last 2 sets. Keep working at it.

  11. I have worked my way up from zero in the past 70 days and now can manage quite a few pull ups from a stand (arms completely straight) but i have nothing when I’m hanging. I can’t even understand which muscles i need to exert to get out of the initial dead lock. Any help would be appreciated .

    • Try some googling about your inquiry Vikram. As a calisthenic enthusiast, I think it would be wise to say that the core is engaged from the dead hang. This really makes your body tight and it will be “easier” to pull yourself up from that core engagement position. I’m no expert but I think from the bottom of the pull up, the first ones to exert the effort are your core and your lats(the larger back muscle group near your armpits). (In your lats I think it’s called the scapular movement.)

  12. Everybody can do pull ups… you´re right. Just put a bar in your door and start….it doesn´t matter if you take 1 week or 2 months, you will get it. also make all the repetitions you want even if you use a chair or jumping pull ups.

  13. This does not work, after months I still cannot do a full pull. Should I change my routine and focus on other core muscles or keep plugging away hoping that I will get stronger in the future and be able to start doing pull ups.

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