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How to Do a Pull-Up (Science-Based Exercises and Tips)

Learn how to do a pull-up with this guide.

Wondering how to do a pull-up, and questioning whether it’s even possible for you?

If you have heard that women shouldn’t do pull-ups simply because it’s a ‘men-only’ exercise, you have probably been told yet another women’s fitness myth. I promise there are actual videos of women doing pull-ups later in this article, so you would be convinced.

The pull-up is an amazing compound exercise everyone should master. That said, it is challenging.

Lifting your entire body requires more than arm strength. Your traps, lats, and forearms – muscle groups that are often weak for most females – are all involved in the motion. 

Thankfully, with the right pull-up workout programming, you can rep out a whole series of pull-ups, too! 

It’s time to learn how to do a pull-up, and look like the badass chick you are in the gym!

What muscles do pull-ups work?

More often than not, if you’re struggling with your first pull-up, one (or more) of the following muscles are too weak to lift your body to the bar.

So – having a knowledge of the muscles worked in pull-ups allows you to better judge which ones you’ll have to focus on in training. 

The muscles which are most activated during pull-ups are the lats, biceps, traps and core.

According to research, the muscles most activated (and, therefore, involved) in the pull-up are (1, 2):

  • Latissimus dorsi (‘lats’): The latissimus dorsi (also known as the lats) is a broad, flat muscle on your back that stretches out to the sides of the body. One of its main functions is shoulder adduction, which is the bringing of your arms down towards the sides of your body (same motion as during a pull-up) (3). 
  • Biceps: The biceps is a muscle on the front part of the upper arm. It has two heads – the short head and the long head, which are preferentially targeted with different biceps exercises. For brevity’s sake, we’ll think of biceps as a single unit. Its primary functions are the flexion and supination (outward rotation) of the forearm (4).
  • Mid- and lower-trapezius (‘traps’): Your traps are a large, diamond-shaped muscle that covers the upper back of the shoulders and neck. It is divided into 3: the upper, middle, and lower traps. The mid- and lower- traps’ functions are to bring the shoulder blades back and down, respectively – both ‘primer’ motions of a pull-up (5).
  • Core: Your core is not just ‘toned abs’ or a nice six-pack. Instead, the core actually consists of different muscles that run the entire length of the torso (6). These muscles act to stabilize the spine, pelvis, and create a solid base of support for movements of your arms and legs. As such, the pull-up would undoubtedly activate your core.

Strengthening these muscles is key

By targeting these muscles more specifically, you can strengthen them. With time, they will become strong enough to cumulatively get you to your first pull-up.

Yay! Definitely a good start for anyone who used to wonder how to do a pull-up.

And if you can already bust out a few reps, training these muscle groups will also boost your pull-up strength so you can go from ‘barely-making-it-to-5’ to ‘easy-10.’

Summary

The muscles most activated during the pull-up are the lats, biceps, mid- and lower-traps, and the core. Strengthening these muscles individually is crucial for achieving your first pull-up.

Benefits of pull-ups

Are there any significant benefits to doing pull-ups – other than looking like you’re killing it in the gym?

Yes, of course!

And here are just a few of them:

  • Convenient to do: You can do pull-ups anywhere. So long as you have access to a solid bar, you can rep out a few at the gym, at home, at the park, anywhere!
  • Compound exercise: As a compound exercise, the pull-up activates multiple muscle groups – back, biceps, and core – at the same time. Talk about a time-saver!
  • Builds your grip strength: Given that you need to hold your entire body weight with just your hands, there’s really no better grip strength exercise than the pull-up. 
  • Variations: The many variations available (e.g., reverse-grip and close-grip pull-ups) target slightly different muscle groups, so you can get the aesthetic look you desire.
  • Allows weight progression: You can wear a weighted vest, or even hang weight plates around your hips any time your body weight becomes too easy.

Summary

In addition to helping you look like a badass in the gym, the pull-up is also a compound exercise that works many upper-body muscles at the same time.

Step 1: Build your grip strength 

It’s going to be impossible for you to pull yourself up to the bar if you’re unable to support your full body weight with just your hands. 

The answer to ‘how to do a pull-up’ starts right there.

And this involves grip strength – the ability of the flexor muscles of your fingers to hold onto something without reaching to open (7, 8, 9). 

In other words, it can be thought of as the ability of your fingers to maintain a closed-fist position. Except, of course, you’re now holding onto something.

Because grip strength is usually the main limiting factor for many people, we’ll take the first 2 to 4 weeks of the program to build up your grip strength through 3 different exercises. 

This is the most crucial part, too, so don’t slack off here!

Exercise 1: Dumbbell holds

Dumbbell holds are one of the simplest but most effective ways to develop grip strength. And as implied by its name, all you’ll need for this exercise is a pair of dumbbells.

To perform the dumbbell hold:

  1. Grab a pair of heavy (for you) dumbbells and hold them by your side.
  1. Keeping your core tight, arms still, and eyes straight ahead, hold onto the dumbbells for either one minute or until failure – whichever comes first.
  1. Perform 3 sets of this.

Do experiment with different dumbbells until you find a weight that is challenging but still allows you to hold them for an extended period. 

If your grip is loosening after just 10 seconds, the dumbbells are too heavy for you. And if, on the other hand, you can sprint with them, then they’re too light for you. 

Exercise 2: Plate pinches

The killer exercise that’ll build up your finger-pinching power: plate pinches. 

As you can probably tell, this exercise will work a different – but equally crucial – part of your finger muscles as the dumbbell holds. 

To perform the plate pinches:

  1. Grab 2 small weight plates (try 5 or 10-pound plates for starters) and pinch them together in one hand, holding them down by your side. 
  1. Your thumb should be flat against the plate closest to your body, and your fingers completely flat against the opposite side. 
  1. Hold the pinching until your grip fails. 
  1. Be sure to let down the plates slowly once this happens, so you don’t accidentally drop them on your feet (ouch) or incur the wrath of the gym owner.
  1. Do 3 sets.

With this exercise, you want to aim to add a few seconds every week to your previous weeks. 

You can also gradually increase your weight load when it becomes too easy (so you don’t end up holding the plates for hours).

Exercise 3: Dead hangs

This exercise mimics what you’re eventually going to do on the pull-up bar: hang with your body weight! 

To perform the dead hang:

  1. Use a secure (important!) overhead bar. Do make use of a step or bench so you can easily reach the bar with your arms – you don’t want to jump straight into a dead hang.
  1. Grip the bar with an overhand grip (palms facing away from you). Keep your arms roughly shoulder-width apart.
  1. Move your feet off the bench or step, so you’re hanging on to the bar.
  1. Keep your arms straight; don’t bend your arms.
  1. Hang for a minute or as long as you can – whichever comes first. 
  1.  Step back onto the step or bench before releasing your grip.
  1. Repeat 3 times.

If you’re new to this exercise, you’ll likely only be able to hang for 10 seconds. 

Don’t despair! 

Focus on adding 5 to 10 seconds to your hangs every time you do them, and you’ll see the duration climb incredibly quickly.

Application to your training routine

To wrap this section up, here’s a sample grip strength workout you can do using the exercises previously discussed:

To do a pull-up, start building the grip strength you need with dumbbell holds, plate pinches and dead hangs.

If you’re working out three times a week at the gym, for example, you can just do this grip strength work out as a finisher. It won’t take up much of your time!

You can move on to the next step once you’re able to achieve 1-minute holds or hangs in all three exercises consistently. For a complete beginner, this typically takes 4 weeks. 

Good things are worth the wait – don’t be impatient!

Summary

To perform pull-ups, you need enough grip strength to support your entire body weight with just your hands. You should, therefore, increase your grip strength with dumbbell holds, plate pinches, and dead hangs.

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Step 2: Strengthen muscles worked in pull-ups

Congratulations – your grip strength is now something to marvel at. You’re now ready to strengthen the muscles involved in the pull-up!

As mentioned earlier, with sufficient training (and, therefore, strength), these muscle groups will then work to lift your body to the pull-up bar.

Here, we’ll also make use of 3 different exercises to target the prime movers activated during the pull-up.

Exercise 1: Scapular pull-ups

Think of these as dead hangs – but upgraded. 

Instead of simply hanging from the bar like a dead fish, you’ll be using this exercise to learn how to engage and utilize your lower trap muscles to pull yourself up. 

This is essential as it prevents you from over-relying on your arms to get your chin above the bar. 

Perhaps more crucially, the exercise’s movement is an essential component of the pull-up (10). You may think the pull-up is one fluid motion, but it’s not. 

The pull-up consists of two phases:

  • Phase 1 – Scapular retraction (motion of moving your shoulder blades down towards your ribs)
  • Phase 2 – The actual pulling-up towards the bar

To perform the scapular pull-up:

  1. Hang from the pull-up bar with an overhand grip (palms facing away from you). Your hands should be slightly wider than shoulder-width distance apart.
  1. Without bending your arms or swinging, press your shoulders down and gently squeeze your shoulder blades together. Hold this position for a second. Focus on using your back – not just your shoulders.
  1. Release back to a dead hang with shoulder blades level and apart.
  1. Repeat 10 to 12 times – depending on your ability.

If you’re struggling with the idea of this exercise, just imagine that someone has a finger on your spine between your shoulder blades. 

Squeeze that finger by drawing your shoulder blades together. 

Or, you can also imagine that you’re trying to bend the pull-up bar – without bending your elbows.

Exercise 2: Inverted row

The inverted row is the perfect precursor to pull-ups – it primarily works the same muscles (with preferential targeting of your mid-traps) and gets you lifting your bodyweight right away (11, 12, 13). 

Just at a different angle, of course.

To perform the inverted row:

  1. Set the bar (on a squat rack or Smith machine) around waist-height.
  1. Position yourself under the bar, lying face-up.
  1. Grab the bar with an overhand grip (palms facing away from you). Your hands should be slightly wider than shoulder-width distance.
  1. Contract your glutes and abs to elevate your body into a straight line. It should look like you’re doing a plank. Except you’re hanging from the bar.
  1. Pull yourself up to the bar until your chest just about touches it.
  1. Lower yourself back down in a controlled manner.
  1. Repeat 10 to 12 times – depending on your ability.

If this movement is too challenging for you from the get-go, don’t worry. All you have to do is set the bar higher, so when you lean back, your body is maybe around 45 degrees to the floor. 

Remember: the higher the bar, the easier the movement becomes. That’s because it then takes more of your bodyweight out of the equation.

That said, as you get stronger, you’ll want to gradually drop the bar height until you’re parallel to the floor when pulling yourself up.

Exercise 3: Kneeling lat pulldown

Interestingly, even though many people use the seated lat pulldown in hopes of seeing strength transference to the pull-up, it typically fails them. 

Why? 

Well, because of the lack of core activation in the seated lat pulldown, research highlights that there’s a relatively weak association between the two exercises (pull-ups and seated lat pulldown) (14)! 

Instead, a better exercise to make use of will be the kneeling lat pulldown, which activates the same muscles as pull-ups (15). 

Simply put, this exercise provides a better strength transference to your pull-up than others. 

Get strong at this, and you’ll soon achieve your first pull-up.

To perform the kneeling lat pulldown:

  1. Kneel in front of a cable machine with a lat pulldown bar positioned at the high setting.
  1. Grab the bar with an overhand grip (palms facing away from your body). Your hands should be roughly shoulder-width apart.
  1. With your glutes and abs contracted, pull the bar down until it just about touches your chest. Hold the contraction in your back for a brief moment.
  1. Slowly return to the starting position.
  1. Repeat for 10 to 12 times – depending on your ability.

As you get stronger at this exercise, you must increase the resistance. Only then will your muscles continue getting stronger.

Application to your training routine

To wrap this section up, here’s a sample back-strengthening workout you can do using the exercises previously discussed:

Improve the strength of the muscles used to do a pull-up with scapular pull-ups, inverted rows and kneeling lat pulldowns.

You’d want to include these back exercises in your routine for 4 weeks. For optimal results, perform this at least 3 times a week. 

When you’re able to perform the inverted row where you’re almost parallel to the floor, you’re ready to move onto step 3 – the final stage to go through before you bust out your first complete pull-up!

Summary

To perform pull-ups, you need enough strength in the prime movers of the pull-up motion. You should, therefore, train these muscle groups with the scapular pull-ups, inverted rows, and kneeling lat pulldowns.

Step 3: Perform assisted pull-up variants

Here’s where things get exciting – we’ll get in some actual pull-up training! 

Obviously, because you’re (likely) unable to do a pull-up, we’ll use various assisted pull-up exercises to accomplish this.

Exercise 1: Banded pull-ups

There’s a reason why banded pull-ups are so popular – they’re the closest exercise you’ll get to a full pull-up. 

Also, it’s going to give you a major confidence boost when you’re finally able to get your chin above the bar. 

Especially after all that hard work you’ve put in over the past 8 weeks.

To perform the banded pull-up:

  1. Loop the resistance band over the top of the pull-up bar and pull one side through the other – so you can tighten the band around the bar at the top.
  1. Pull the band down towards you, and put your foot in the loop.
  1. Grab the bar with an overhand grip (palms facing away from you). Your hands should be slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  1. With one foot still securely on the resistance band, pull yourself up towards the bar.
  1. Do 8 to 10 reps, or till failure – whichever comes first.

Now, many band packs come in a variety of resistance, which means you can choose the most appropriate tension for yourself. Here’s a comprehensive guide on resistance bands.

Make sure to start with a heavier band with more resistance. Then, as you get stronger and more familiar with the pull-up motion, you can move on to lighter and lighter resistance bands.

Exercise 2: Negative pull-ups

As you know, the pull-up consists of both the concentric (pulling yourself up) and eccentric (lowering yourself down) movement. 

If you’re weak in either, your pull-up performance will be compromised. 

Given that we’ve only focused on the concentric movement till now, we’ll make use of the negative pull-ups to target this potential weakness.

Also, this motion will get you more comfortable with the feeling of controlling your body weight against gravity. 

So, you know, you don’t just ‘drop’ to the starting position with every pull-up rep.

To perform the negative pull-up:

  1. Grab onto the pull-up bar with an overhand grip (palms facing away from you).
  1. Jump up or use a step up to get yourself to the top position of the pull-up.
  1. Descend as slowly as you’re capable of.
  1. Do 8 to 10 reps, or till failure – whichever comes first.

At first, you likely won’t be able to control your descent very well. But with enough practice, this will very quickly improve. 

Hang in there – literally!

But here’s a heads-up, the first few sessions of these eccentric movements can be really challenging for your body in terms of muscle soreness and fatigue.

You would want to pay attention to recovering well between your workouts so you move closer to your pull-up goal! Here’s a helpful article on recovering from sore muscles after workouts.

Exercise 3: Partner-assisted pull-ups

This exercise is pretty much like banded pull-ups – except now, your friend is the resistance band. 

To perform the partner-assisted pull-up:

  1. Grab the pull-up bar with an overhand grip (palms facing away from you). 
  1. Have your friend hold your feet behind you.
  1. Pull yourself up till your chin crosses the bar. Have your friend use the least amount of help possible through the motion.
  1. Do 8 to 10 reps, or till failure – whichever comes first.

Now, you might have realized that I didn’t include the assisted pull-up machine as one of the above exercises. 

It’s not a bad exercise per se, but it just doesn’t activate the same muscle groups as the pull-up (16). 

And that means getting stronger at it doesn’t necessarily translate into actual strength gains on the pull-up bar. 

So, I’ve excluded it.

Application to your training routine

Instead of doing all three exercises together within a single workout, you’re going to alternate them. 

So, at this stage, here’s what your 3 sessions are going to look like:

Add different types of assisted pull-ups, such as banded pull-ups, negative pull-ups and partner-assisted pull-ups, to your training plan.

This stage would be particularly tough so you’re going to have to do everything you can to stick to the plan. Here are some helpful workout motivation tips to keep you going!

After 4 weeks of this workout, you’ll likely gain enough strength to complete your first ever, proper pull-up! Hooray!

But the fun isn’t over yet. Once you can successfully do 10 to 12 clean pull-ups in a single set, you’re going to want to move into the 20s range. 

And that means you’re going to have to progress beyond only using your bodyweight. 

Of course, be sure to manage your reps, sets and training volume carefully so you’re making progress over time.

Summary

There’s no better way to get better at pull-ups than to do assisted pull-ups (banded, partner, and negative pull-ups). These 3 exercises help familiarize you with the motion of the exercise.

Step 4: Get stronger at pull-ups

Now, this stage is straightforward. 

All you’re going to do is to add additional resistance to your pull-ups. You can do so by wearing a weighted vest or by hanging dumbbells and weight plates around your hip area.

Doing so allows you to continue overloading your pull-ups so you can breeze into busting out 10 pull-ups in the gym (17). 

Here’s how you should program in weighted pull-ups:

You can do weighted pull-ups in addition to the existing exercises to increase the number of pull-ups you can perform.

For best progressive results, do this workout twice a week. Be sure to increase the weights slowly.

Use 2.5 pounds of additional weight, then continue adding more only once you can complete 3 to 4 sets of 10 reps with the previous weight.

But by now, you should be a pro at the pull-up. Congratulations – you’ve made it!

Remember to keep pulling

I hope you’ve found your answer to ‘how to do a pull-up’. And to be super clear, with the right workout programming, anyone can achieve a pull-up. 

Now, go forth, be brave, and get started. And when you finally achieve your first pull-up, I want to be the first to know – tell me all about it on Facebook, Instagram or even through email!

PS: No matter what workout you’re on, always ensure you’re eating right so you’re able to recover and perform. That’s one area many people tend to overlook when jumping onto a new program.

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