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How to get your first pull-up

Getting your first pull-up is a huge fitness milestone. It is far and away the most common movement accomplishment goal we see in the gym. For many people, it takes months, maybe even years of hard work to build enough strength to execute a perfect strict pull up, but don’t let that discourage you! Just because something is hard doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it! It is an incredibly empowering feeling to be able to lift your body up and overcome gravity. It makes you feel powerful, strong, and confident that you are in control. So how do you take the first step toward getting a pull-up?

Assess your weakness

There are two ways to improve your ability to perform a pull up. 

  1. Get Stronger
  2. Weight less

The first of two is the focus of today’s blog, but know that for most people it is much easier to lose 10 lbs than it is to increase strength enough to pull-up 10 extra lbs. If you are someone who knows they have some weight to lose, coupling that with strength work is going to help a ton!

So, we have to get stronger. But what muscles need to get stronger? What parts of the movement need to be stronger? One thing I really like to do with clients is simply have them try to do a strict pull up and watch where they fail. If you’re someone who can’t get started from a dead hang you are going to need different exercises than someone who can do ¾ of a pullup but can’t finish.

I can’t get my pull-up started

Alright, so you can’t seem to get your body moving upward at all. Completely normal! We need to start building enough strength to create some upward momentum at the bottom of the pullup. We first have to have enough scapular strength to pull our shoulder blades back and down. Next, you need enough strength in your lats and biceps to get you moving. At the bottom of the pullup, your biceps play a much bigger role than they do at the top. So, if you’re failing at the bottom you’ll need to work on those guns! You’ll also want to find something that gives you a little help at the bottom of the pullup. Banded pull-ups are great for this because the band helps you more at the bottom of the pullup than at the top.

In short, if you’re failing at the bottom, your two specific exercises are banded pull-ups & bicep curls.

I can’t finish the pull-up

If you can’t finish the pull-up, you’re lacking strength at the top of the movement. Those who fail here less likely have a bicep or scapular limitation, and more likely have a lat limitation. The exercise we love to use to address a top half pull up limitation is an eccentric only pull up. To do this you’ll jump to the top of your pull up (chin over bar) and control down as slowly as you can, really making sure you control the top half. You can even add a pause at the top of the movement. The other exercise we love is a cable lat pulldown with a pause at the chest and slow negative. Use a slightly wider grip that you would use for your pull up. This is really going to work your lats and focus on your strength at end range.

In short, if you are limited at the top half of your pull up, do eccentric only pull-ups and lat pull downs with a pause.

Other exercise to do regardless of where you are limited

Some exercises are going to help you regardless of where you might fail a pull up. 

1 arm high pulls are not only great development strength around the shoulder, but also a necessary add in for shoulder health if you’re going to be do a lot of pull up work. The same goes for a 1 arm DB Press. 

Horizontal rows are also crucial to developing strength for a pull up. 1 arm DB rows, bent over barbell rows, ring rows are all good variations. In general, you want to do more horizontal rows than you do vertical pulling (pull ups) in order to maintain shoulder health. Also, horizontal rows are awesome at adding strength to your entire back and to your biceps and both will help with getting a pullup.

Isometric core exercises like a plank, hollow body holds or rocks, and L sits are also very important in a pull up. We have to create as much tension and rigidity as possible in our core and lower body when we do a pull up or else we leak energy and you’ll feel weaker. Your body works as one unit, so even though a pull up seems like an upper body only exercise, what the rest of your body is doing makes a difference.

I hope this gave some of you the courage and confidence to start attacking your first pull up. If you still don’t know how to approach this and really want to start trying, I highly recommend getting some kind of one on training, whether it be a customized program to attack these goals or personal training. If you interested in getting some help or have any questions send me an email  andrew@yankeecrossfit.com

If any of you get your first pull-up, make sure you record it and tag us on social media so we can show the world how awesome you are!