Pull-up progression | Your first steps to pull-up success

For a lot of us, we may have been “tested” on pull-ups in elementary school, failed to do even one, and decided we would never be able to do a pull-up ever.

Do not despair!

There are tons of pull-up progression programs and YouTube videos providing instruction on how to do a proper pull-up. Most gyms have multiple bars and at-home pull-up bars are adjustable, portable, and affordable, so there’s really no excuse.

Here, we go over why pull-ups should be part of your lifting routine and how to progress to the perfect strict pull-up.

Why do pull-ups

Pull-ups are an awesome bodyweight exercise. It works every back, arm, and shoulder muscle. And because it’s a compound movement, the muscles work together, getting stronger together, which is great training for other lifts that may isolate certain muscles.

So if you’re looking to build strength, improve posture, and get that toned back and arms, then doing any variation of pull-ups is going to be your special sauce.

How to do a proper pull-up

Quick programming note: a chin-up (gripping the bar with your palms facing up) is commonly mistaken for a pull-up. We will consider it a variation for the sake of this blog post. But if a drill sergeant tells you to perform a pull-up and you do a chin-up, you will get no-repped and probably chewed out.

Placing your hands on the bar (palms facing down) shoulder-width apart, let your body hang. Engage your shoulder and back muscles. You should rise a few inches when you properly engage. If you are able, pull up until your chin comes above the bar. Lower in a controlled fashion and repeat.

How to modify

There are a few ways to modify pull-ups, depending on how close you are to the strict standard. No matter what modification works for you, performing three sets of five of these movements, two or three times per week, should get you to a strict pull-up within a few weeks.

Can knock out one rep, but want more

Work on the hollow body position, engaging the back muscles and improving grip strength. Grip the bar and let your body hang in a dead hang.  Engage those shoulders and back muscles. You will notice when your muscles engage that you rise a few inches. Hold for 3-5 seconds then relax. Repeat for five reps.

This exercise is great if you have between one and three pull-ups in a row. Do as many pull-ups as you are able until failure. Then complete these reps. By doing this workout, you will tax the appropriate muscles and strengthen your grip so that you should be able to add several pull-ups to your max within a couple of weeks, assuming you do these three times per week.

So close you can taste it

If you have trouble doing a strict pull-up, you can do deficit pull-ups. Grab a box and place it under the bar. Standing on the box, jump and pull up until your chin is above the bar and hang for as long as possible. Lower as slowly as possible. Repeat.

Chin-ups are also great modification if you are close to nabbing that strict pull-up. True, they place more emphasis on the bicep muscles and less on the back, but grip strength and general range of motion for the shoulder is being worked. Always start with the pull-up grip, but if you fatigue before hitting three sets of five, finish up your sets with chin-ups.

Want it so bad

If deficit pull-ups are too difficult, do not despair. Check the ego and grab a resistance band. The bigger the band, the more weight it will hold. Choose a band that still requires you to do the work. You are not going for a ride.

Place one foot in the band and perform the movement as strictly as you can. Use the same sized band for one week’s worth of sets (three sets of five, at least twice per week). The following week, choose the slightly smaller band. And so on until you are band-free.

Want more? Stay tuned for more pull-up variations and workouts.

16 Replies to “Pull-up progression | Your first steps to pull-up success”

    1. Haha! I bet you’d be surprised what a week or two’s worth of these exercise would do! Maybe March is a pull-up challenge?

  1. I always had a goal of doing a pull up–I did hollow holds for the longest time. But for some reason, I just can’t do it. Then I developed tendonitis in my elbow. Maybe I’ll get there!

  2. Ugh. I have so little upper body strength. No matter what I do it feels like I’ll never get stronger up top. I would love to do a pull up one day, but it’s pretty discouraging.

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