Learning your First Pull-up

Nov 23, 2013

Pull-ups & chin-ups* are considered one of the benchmarks of bodyweight strength. My pull-up journey started young. It is the reason my Mum cut her long hair in February 1979. At 6 months old I started using her hair as a rope, grabbing hard and pulling myself up.

When I started gymnastics at 6 years old, I could already do multiple pull-ups. I didn't have to work hard to get them and it was probably one reason why I had the nickname Muscles. It wasn't something I had to learn and it wasn't something I had to work hard for. Now as a coach, I believe that everyone, young and old, can learn a pull-up. My own ease at learning this skill is not the reason behind this claim. It's my years of experience working with hundreds of kids and adults that has lead me to this conclusion.

*Pull-ups= fingers facing away from your face

*Chin-ups=fingers facing towards your face

My experience with women and pull-ups

I have coached competitive and recreational gymnastics of 4 different ages of kids: 3-5 year olds, 7-10 year olds, 11-14 year olds and then grown-up kids (adults). It is really interesting to see the difference in pulling progress at these different developmental stages. At 3-5 years old, many girls can do pull-ups and if not, then they usually learn them faster than the boys. At ages 7-10, a lot of girls can do them or learn them in a few months. By age 11, the girls are really struggling with pull-ups, not just physically but also in terms of their own belief in their capabilities. And this worsens with age. By the time we have grown up, most women have decided that they are too tall and/or heavy to be able to do them.

Why do women struggle with pull-ups?

It is completely true that as women age, our centre of mass shifts downwards. But this alone shouldn't make a difference. The goal in a pull-up is to move your body in a vertical direction. Whether your centre of mass is higher or lower should not affect how much force is required to make that movement happen.*

However, women tend to have more body fat and less lean body mass which makes all bodyweight exercises more challenging. This is the harsh reality of calisthenics training for women. And while it can make movements such as pull-ups more challenging, it by no means makes them impossible. In order to perform these skills there is absolutely no requirement to lose fat. While there is nothing wrong with that if it is your goal, my focus as a coach and athlete is always on strength. Learn to do a pull-up by making the best use of the strength that you have and adding more strength where you need it.

*for advanced science see my Big Butt Theory article.

My first adult student and her first pull-up

When I began coaching bodyweight strength training, my first adult student had the goal of doing a single pull-up. It took about a year and I think I learnt 100 times more about how to coach pull-ups than she learnt about how to do them, but she made it! Since her first pull-up, she has made it up to 5 reps and she has had to work hard for each and every rep.

My top tips for getting your first pull-up

So what did I learn that helped my student surpass her goal by so much?

  1. Get rid of the elastics
  2. Learn to use the muscles in your back!
  3. Build strength using progressions, e.g ring rows and assisted pull-ups
  4. Train isometric holds and negatives
  5. Practice & don't give up

Get rid of the elastics

Using pull-up bands can be nice for your ego during a workout. If you want an easy way to modify full pull-ups then it can be a nice option. However, it may not be the best way to progress to a full pull-up. With my first adult student, she had lots of fun bouncing around with the elastic but I think this stalled her progress for the first 6 months of training. Here are the issues with using an elastic band for assistance:

The band is most stretched at the bottom of a pull-up, making the initiation of the pull fairly easy. But this is the hardest part of the pull and where many people get stuck. By training with bands you never stress and build your muscles in this position and so they will never get stronger at this crucial pulling section.

Bands are also springy and it can be tempting to use a little (or more) bounce to assist as you start getting tired.

Remember to get stronger you need to stress your body in such a way that it responds by making more muscle. And pull-ups require major upper body strength! This is discussed next.

Learn to use the muscles in your back!

Everyone wants bigger biceps BUT that doesn't mean that you should be doing your pull-ups entirely with this muscle. In fact doing so can put a lot of strain on the tendons close to your elbows.

Instead use the muscles in your mid and upper back. Initiate your pull by using these muscles to drive your shoulder blades down and back. As you pull up, maintain this shoulder position as you drive your elbows down and back. If you start doing a "hunched up" pull-up, then this is a sign that you need to start building and engaging your lat muscles more.

The pulling prep, as shown in the videos above & below is a great drill for training this movement.

Build strength using progressions

If there is a workout that calls for pull-ups and you are not yet able to perform this movement, then consider one of the following exercises (shown in next video) rather than using a supporting elastic band:

  • Ring rows: while this is a horizontal pull vs. a vertical pull there is good carry over of muscle strength to a pull-up.
  • Assisted pull-ups: the goal with this exercise is to keep your feet on the floor and use your legs as little as possible to pull over the bar. Once you are close to the full pull-up, tuck your toes under. Unless you are a ballet dancer and used to putting weight on the tops of your toes, this feeling is fairly unpleasant and will encourage you to use your legs less when you get tired.*

* You can also bend your legs and have a mean coach hold onto your feet and give you as much/ little assistance as required.

Train isometric holds and negatives

Isometric (static) holds are a great way to increase strength at various stages of the pull-up. The most common isometric hold is at the top position. This will really help with the top part of your pull-up.

Once you can hold at the top, the next step is to train the negative. Jump to the top position and then slowly lower. At first it will be a depressing free fall, but you will quickly develop strength and control while you lower yourself. The goal is to do the slowest negative possible so every time you train try and go a little bit slower. Count numbers out loud and try and surpass those numbers in your next training session. The slower you can lower the better. The nice thing about this "negative" movement is that it is easier than a pull-up but you will be building strength in all the positions that you will eventually need for your full pull-up.

The other use of isometric holds is to overcome sticking points. You might find that you are weak at a certain point of your pull-up where you just stall and eventually quit. One great approach is to train isometrics on either side of this point, so slightly below and slightly above. Do maximum holds at both of these positions. This will allow you to work in positions where you have some strength and that will help bridge strength across the weaker position.

Practice & don't give up

Pull-ups are hard! You are pulling up your bodyweight and this requires tremendous muscle strength! Many of the adult women that I have coached have less-developed muscles in their back so this will take a while (months-years) to build. So you really need to devote the time to training them and perseverance is key! Focus on your form and technique, put in the time (2-3 times a week) and don't give up.

Your first pull-up may surprise you. With my adult students they do the drills and once a week try a pull-up from a full hang. For a long time, this will be an exercise in futility and students often hang there with a single tear rolling down their cheek. But one day, when the phase of the moon is correct, you have eaten the right breakfast and gotten a perfect sleep (and put in a shit ton of hours of pulling work), the pull-up will suddenly happen. I remember vividly when this happened with my first adult student. A group of us were watching her and expecting very little and she suddenly just hauled herself right over the bar. There was much surprise, screaming and celebration! The pull-up is such an amazing accomplishment and I recommend working towards it for everyone!

Where to start

If you are completely new to pull-up training here's a simple routine to get started:

2-4 Rounds

  1. Pulling Prep x 6-12 rep
  2. Ring Rows x 5-10 reps
  3. Hang x 10-60 seconds

Each week that you do the routine, try to increase your reps or time. Good luck.