How to Get Your First Pull Up (and Beyond)

The pull up is an amazing move for building your back and your biceps.  If you are serious about getting strong, then start working on pull ups today.  Here’s how to work up toward your first pull up.

Preliminaries: Some Terminology

I want to make a note here of the difference between a pull up and a chin up.  The difference is this: a chin up is performed with palms facing you, and a pull up is performed with palms facing away.

In this article I will be talking about pull ups, but you could substitute “pull up” with “chin up” and it would read the same.

Got it?  Good.  Then let’s get to the good stuff!

Stage 0: Scapular Retraction

Before we start talking about pulling movements, we need to talk about the scapula.  Specifically, scapular retraction.  This is a fancy way of saying, “Trying to get your shoulder blades to touch behind you.”

This is something we want to do before we initiate any pulling movement.  A great way to practice this is by placing your hands on a wall with your arms extended straight in front of you.  Try to pull your shoulder blades back and together.  Once you get comfortable doing this against a wall, you can start using it on the bar.

Stage 1: Bodyweight Rows

The first progression toward getting your first pull up is the bodyweight row.  Find a low bar and grab on.  Letting your arms hang straight and keeping a straight bodyline, begin to pull yourself to the bar while squeezing your core and your glutes.

You can also try switching up your grip to change things up a little: have your palms facing you one day and facing away the next.

Incorporate these into your routine by doing them three days a week, like Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and work up to doing 3 sets of 8.  Once you’ve done that, congratulations!  It’s time to move on to stage 2.

Stage 2: Pull Up Negatives

The word “negative” here refers to the downward phase of the movement.  This phase is usually easier because gravity is on your side!

To do a pull up negative you’ll need a bar.  If you don’t have one at home (I highly recommend it), then you can find them at the gym or at the playground.  Monkey bars, anyone?

Once you have your bar, you’re ready to do your negative.  Grip the bar a little wider than shoulder width apart and jump to the top position.  Be sure to get your chin over the bar and engage your core and your glutes for extra stability.  The most important cue here is to drive your elbows down and into your sides, creating stability in the back.  Also, remember to keep your scapula retracted throughout this exercise.

From the top position, lower yourself down slowly and with control.  Be sure to go all the way down so that your arms hang straight.  It is more important to perform full range of motion than to do lots of reps.  Always choose quality over quantity.

The curious thing here is that performing the negative phase actually strengthens your body for the upward phase of the movement.  Seems weird, but it works.

Once you can do 3 sets of 5, it’s time for stage 3!

Stage 3: The Pull Up

And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for.  You’re ready to do your first pull up.

This will be very similar to the pull up negative, only this time you will start in a dead hang (hanging from the bar with straight arms).  Retract your scapulae, then pull yourself smoothly up to the bar while pulling your elbows down and in to your sides.  Don’t kip for extra momentum here; keep it clean.  Remember, quality over quantity.  Engage your glutes and core to keep your body tight.

Congratulations!  You’ve pulled yourself to the top!  But don’t rest now; the downward phase is just as important.  Remember to lower yourself down with control, don’t just fall to the ground.  And that’s one pull up.

Stage 4? (Beyond Pull Ups)

So now that you can do a pull up, what’s next?  Work towards doing 3 sets of 10.  Once you can do 10 pull ups in a row you are ready to move on to more challenging progressions.  I would recommend side-to-side pull ups as a way to work up to a one-arm chin up, or start doing pull ups on gymnastics rings in preparation for a ring muscle up.

Whatever your goals, pull ups are an incredible way to build back and arm strength and they open doors for many other movements down the road.  Wherever you are in your fitness journey, I would encourage you to begin working on one of these progressions today.

If you achieve your first pull up after reading this article, shoot me an email and tell me about it.  I’d love to celebrate with you!