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How To Do A Pull-up: Everything You Need To Know

how-pullup-alli-red-tank-450x338“I CAN’T do a pull-up!”

Does this comment resonate with you? Well, you are not alone. In my opinion, there are three big reasons most females (and some males) have a hard time doing pull-ups:

First, you have listened to someone tell you that you can’t.

Second, you have convinced yourself that you can’t!

Third—and probably the only real reason you cannot currently do pull-ups—is that you are not training them regularly enough or not training them properly.

We have been hearing that women can’t do pull-ups—and all the “reasons” why—for far too many years, but that is a myth!

More and more women are catching on to the importance of strength training, and getting excited about proving this myth wrong. In October 2012, the New York Times started a ruckus by publishing an article titled “Why Women Can’t Do Pull-Ups!”

I was in your shoes for many years and believed this to be true until I dove seriously into strength training. I actually achieved my first unassisted pull-up by accident in June 2008. I was at the gym and a friend swore that I could do a pull-up. I said, “Look, see I can’t even do one”, all while jumping up, getting on the bar and knocking out my first pull-up in shock!

pullups-karen-smith-sfgtanktop-375x400I was completely astonished and truly believe the only reason I achieved it that day was because I had gotten strong and lean. (To be clear, you don’t have to be lean to be able to do a pull-up, but common sense tells us that the lighter you are, the easier a pull-up might be.) I had been doing kettlebell training for a year at that point and was the strongest and leanest I had ever been.

When training with kettlebells, the military press in particular, we use an active negative by pulling the bell back down after each press (mimicking the pull-up movement) to increase back strength.

We also use planks to build core strength, plus the top of many kettlebells moves finish in a standing plank. These moves teach full body tension and strength. Guess what happens next?

I believed that I could do them, I became addicted, and I began to train them regularly.

I also began adding more pull-up training in for my students. I began testing many drills and progressions with them and tracked which struggles I saw the most and which progressions worked the best.

Remember, if you want to do pull-ups you must practice them often!

You cannot expect to get a pull-up if you are not strength training or never get on a pull-up bar.

An added bonus is that pull-ups are one of the quickest ways to change your body composition. You will get a nice strong defined back and shoulders, while also defining your whole body if you are doing proper pull-ups.

Most Common Problems With Pull-Ups:

  • Eye Position: looking at the bar causes you to move further away from the bar.
  • Start of pull: lack of lat engagement when initiating the pull.
  • Middle of pull: lack of strength and full body tension.
  • Finish of pull: lack of strength and elbow drive.

I use the following progressions to fix the above listed problems and gain strength to obtain your first pull-up, increase your current pull-up numbers, or to advance to weighted pull-ups.

Before we get into the specific exercises to help your pull-up, it’s important to understand the difference between a pull-up and a chin-up. Here is a video demonstration I put together of each.

As you can see, in a pull-up the palms face away from the body, whereas in a chin-up the palms face towards the body.

10 Exercises to Improve Your Pull-Ups:

NOTE: Each of these progressions will be discussed in the brief video at the end of this article.

1. Hollow Rockers

  • Lie on your back and contract your abs while pressing your lumbar (lower back) in the floor.
  • Slowly raise your head, arms, and legs off the ground.
  • Rock your body back and forth while maintaining this position. The angle of your shoulders and hips should not change or be used for momentum.

2. Hollow Hangs

  • Hang with straight arms from the pull-up bar with an over hand grip.
  • Pull your body into the same hollow position you did on the ground with hollow rockers and hold for a time.
  • Your body should be tight from your shoulders to your feet.

3. Lat Activation Drill

  • While holding the hollow hang, connect, and disconnect your shoulders into the socket.
  • This drill will strengthen infraspinatus, teres minor, teres major and latissimus dorsi while also teaching you to stay tight at the start of your pull.

4. Flexed Arm Hangs

  • Climb onto a box that puts you above the bar or almost to the bar and jump into a flexed hang with your chin over the bar.
  • Hang over the bar with hands facing you (underhand grip), elbows flexed by your sides, and chin over the bar.
  • Hang for time and gradually increase time as your shoulder stabilizers and biceps get stronger.

5. Weighted Hollow Hangs/Weighted Flex Arm Hangs

  • Use the same technique from above but add weight to your body via a weighted vest, a belt holding a kettlebell or plate.
  • Many students think I am crazy to load weight when they cannot pull their own bodyweight yet, but this drill will increase strength and make them feel lighter when doing bodyweight hangs, chin-ups or pull-ups.

6. Slow Negatives

  • Working on descending slowly from a flexed hang will give you a chance to work the full range of motion for your pull-ups while gaining strength.

7. Towel Hangs/Towel Pulls

  • Great assistance drills to improve grip strength. This can also be done on ropes.
  • You can use the towel and hang in hollow, flexed hang, or begin doing pulls as seen in the video.

8. Neutral Grip Pull-ups

  • Neutral grip is sometimes easier, as you grip will be narrower and palms facing each other, this allows for more biceps recruitment.

9. Chin-ups

  • Same grip as the underhand flexed arm hangs but now you are going to pull for the full range of motion from hollow hang.
  • Engage your lats, pull-up, and over bar. Chin-ups are usually easier for females to get strong at before pull-ups.

10. Pull-ups

  • Hang in the hollow position with hands slightly wider than your shoulders, thumb-less grip and pull the full range of motion until the chin is over the bar.
  • When you are close to getting over the bar, shoot your elbows down and back to increase the height that you will get over the bar.

For a FULL instructional video of all 10 Exercises to Improve Your Pull-ups, watch this video to see demonstrations from Coach Karen.

After training many students and testing many drills I have found that on average if a female works up to a 30 to 45 second flex arm hang that she normally can do at least one chin-up. Once she has at least one chin-up, I would have her start “GTG training” (greasing the groove) daily with chin-ups. After she has multiple chin-ups, I would then add training ladders into her program.

For example: 3 chin-ups, 2 chin-ups, 1 chin-up. Rest and repeat.

Once she achieves three chins-ups she will normally have one pull-up. At that point I would either have her train GTG pull-ups until she has multiple reps, or add the pull-up into the ladder.

For example: 3 chin-ups, 2 chins-ups, 1 pull-up. Rest and repeat.

Important Progression Tips:

  • NEVER train to failure: training to fail only makes you better at failing!
  • STAY fresh with proper technique and stop before setting in a bad pattern.
  • PRACTICE often.
  • LIFT heavy to increase strength.
  • STRONG deadlifts make for easier pull-ups.


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About The Author: Karen Smith

Karen Smith is a highly-respected trainer and coach specializing in kettlebell and bodyweight strength training. She is a StrongFirst SFG Master Instructor and Chief Bodyweight Instructor. Karen travels the world instructing and certifying individuals through StrongFirst, and works with clients online and in person. Learn more about Karen on her website and connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.