How To Get Your First Pull-Up

Pull-ups are TOUGH!

Pull-ups are my favorite exercise because they are a great way to improve both strength and endurance. They do this by engaging some of the largest muscles in your upper body: the latissimus dorsi on your back. While this is a great exercise, pull-ups are TOUGH! If you’ve never done one, don’t expect that you’ll be able to get a clean pull-up right away. While it takes a lot of work and practice to get to your first pull-up, but before you know it you’ll be knocking out sets of 5 without breaking a sweat! There are a bunch of different training programs to help you get to your first pull-up, before even beginning, it is vital that you understand the movement mechanics. This will keep you from getting injured, and will make sure that your pull-up form is solid.

1. Get a grip

The pull-up is a full-body exercise that starts with your grip. Your grip on the bar should not look like this.

This is a poor grip, don't do this.

My entire body-weight is being supported by the tiny muscles in my fingers, which are going to be first to fatigue while I’m working out. I don’t want that, I want my lats to be the first thing that fatigues!

Your grip on the bar should look like this.

Solid grip on the pull-up bar. Notice the Lev Fitness pull-up bar wraps.

My hands are wrapped tightly around the bar, and my knuckles are pointed towards the ceiling. I feel the pressure evenly between the calluses on my palm and the first knuckle on my fingers. My hands are just big enough to loop my thumb over my first finger (a “hook” grip). This grip leverages all of the muscles in both my forearms and hands to support my body-weight. If you struggle to just hold on to the bar, try locking in this grip while on a stool, then slowly getting into a hang.

2. Learn how to hang

The pull-up is not an “arms” workout, it is a total body workout. This means that you need to engage as many muscles in your body as possible, from your shoulders to your lats to your core and even your legs! The result is what is known as a “dead hang”. A dead hang does not look like this.

BAD Dead Hang. Do not do this!

My shoulders are fully extended, my lats aren’t engaged at all, my core is relaxed, and my grip on the bar is all fingers, no forearms. Hanging on the bar like this is exhausting! Even experienced athletes would have trouble getting a pull-up from this starting position.

A dead hang should look like this.

Solid Dead Hang. Do this to get solid pull-ups.

Notice how my shoulders are rolled back and down, and my lats are engaged, my core is tight with my toes pointed somewhat forward, and my grip on the bar is firm with my knuckles pointed towards the ceiling. I’m even engaging my quads and my calves here!

3. Develop your dead hang

Before you can get your first pull-up, you need to have a solid dead hang. If you struggle to hold a dead hang for more than a few seconds there are probably a few weaker muscles to blame. To develop these muscles, start by getting into the best dead hang you can manage, with tension throughout your entire body. Next, relax only your upper back, easing your body down until your shoulders are half-way extended. Pause for a heartbeat, then re-apply tension, pulling your body back up into a solid dead hang. The purpose of this movement is to develop all of the smaller muscles that give you the stability that you need before you start developing your bigger muscles.

Build your dead hang by doing this 3-5 times

If you are just starting out, do this movement 5 times, then get off the bar and call it a day. We need to avoid early injuries! The next day, judge how sore you are. If you feel fresh, like you didn’t do anything, try doing this for 3 sets of 5 repetitions. If you feel a little sore, do this for 3 sets of 3 repetitions. If you feel pain, rest a day, then start over. The key is to NOT OVERDO IT. The fastest way to derail your progress is to injure yourself early. If you ease into it, progress will start out slow and then rapidly accelerate. If you start with more work than you’re ready for, your progress will stop before it starts.

4. Bands to build

Once you are able to get into and hold a decent dead hang for at least 20 seconds, it is time to start developing your pulling ability. There are two tried-and-true ways to do this. One is with resistance bands, the other is with “negative” pull-ups. Resistance bands are a great way to build muscle strength while doing full-range-of-motion pull-ups, and they generally cost less than $10 at your local fitness store.

To start, hook your band up to the bar like this

The safe way to hook your band up to your pull-up bar

Set a stool or bench next to your pull-up bar, hook the band either under one foot or one knee, and get into a solid dead hang. Don’t put both legs into the band! If your grip slips, you want that free leg to catch your fall.

Hook either one foot or one knee in your band

Once you are in your dead hang, engage both your back and arms and lift yourself up until your chin clears the bar. Hold this position for 1-2 seconds, then lower yourself back down.

If you are just starting out, do this 3-5 times, then call it a day. The next day, judge how sore you feel and do either 1, 3, or 5 sets of 3-5 repetitions.

5. Go negative to get positive

If you don’t have resistance bands, or feel like you’re close to getting your first pull-up, try doing negatives. To start, you need to get your chin above the bar with as little effort as possible. The easiest way to do this would be to set your stool or bench next to your bar, get a solid grip, and do a combination jump/pull to get your chin above the bar. (To avoid injuring your shoulders, I would advise against doing a kipping pull-up this early in your progression).

Pause until you have a tight, solid position with no swing (known as a “flex arm hang”), then lower yourself down as slowly as possible, while counting down from 5 (at “3” your arms should be at a 90 degree angle, at “0” you should be in a solid dead hang).

Use a stool to help get started on the bar

Again, if you are just starting out, do this 3-5 times, then call it a day. The next day, judge how sore you feel and do either 1, 3, or 5 sets of 3-5 repetitions.

6. One Pull to Build Them All

Once you can do 5 sets of 5 negatives, it is time to start trying for your first pull-up. Get into a solid dead hang, take a tight breath, and using both your back and your arms, pull smoothly until your chin clears the bar!

An example of a nice, smooth pull-up

Your first few times trying, you will probably get close, but not quite there. This is normal! Don’t get discouraged, and remember all of the progress that you have made. Pull as high as you can, hold it for 3-5 seconds, then slowly lower yourself down. Do this 3-5 times, then switch back to doing negatives. After a couple of days of this, you will get your first pull-up!

Final Pointers

You will be tempted to swing your body or kick your legs to get above the bar. While this will result in your chin getting above the bar, it isn’t a true pull-up, but is rather a “kipping” pull-up. Some athletes work these into their programs, but that isn’t what we’re trying to do here! We are trying to get a single, solid, strict pull-up!

For breathing, you should be taking a “tight” breath in at the bottom before your first pull-up, evenly breathing out as you pull yourself up. Once you are stringing together multiple pull-ups, breathe in on the way down and out on the way up.

Don’t get discouraged if you start off slowly, this is normal! It will generally take your body a couple of weeks to get used to the new demands that you are making. If you commit to training as little as a few minutes each day, you will get your first pull-up, and before you know it you’ll be stringing together sets of 5, no problem!

Do you have any pointers that helped you get your first pull-up? Let other athletes know about it in the comments below!

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