Pull ups are easily one of, if not the, most psychologically intimidating exercises for people who are just starting out.
If you grew up in the U.S. you may still be haunted by memories like mine – as a fat kid in junior high I was subjected to the most distilled form of public humiliation inflicted by a school upon its students, the Presidential Fitness Test.
The mile run wasn’t so bad, I managed to walk most of it and still get in under the 12 minute cut off. The push up test wasn’t too bad either – sure I was fat but one of the benefits of moving a large volume of lard around on a regular basis was at least enough strength to outdo some of my skin-and-bones peers. At 26 push ups or so in a minute I wasn’t the best, but I wasn’t the worst of the boys either.
Then there were the pull ups.
Some of you are already nodding in solidarity as you read this, but if you were never a fat kid you may not understand my vitriol and psychological baggage in regards to this particular exercise. Imagine being an obese middle schooler for a moment. Your self-confidence is already severely damaged by a horrendous body image and the crushing force of being immersed on a daily basis into a viciously hierarchical social structure. (Seriously, there are no creatures more emotionally and psychologically destructive than teenagers)
Now that baseline of negative self-esteem is the norm for day to day activities. From there, picture yourself being commanded to come over to the pull up bar, in front of everyone, in a gym uniform that pretty much by definition accentuates how fat you are. You are then told to grab the bar and do as many pull ups as you can. You jump up and grab on and fight, struggle and squirm – hoping with all your might to get at least one so you won’t be the very worst of everyone.
After several seconds of futile dangling and thrashing on the bar like a panicked whale being airlifted back to sea by helicopters, it becomes clear that you aren’t going to even do a single one and you’re told you’ll be tested on how long you can hang there instead. So, publicly defeated, you are forced to hang there in your shame in front of everyone as they judge your inadequacy.
You can see why some of us are a bit scarred from these experiences.
There is hope though. I have gone from being completely unable to do a single pull up to currently doing multiple sets of them with additional weight hanging off of me and you can do the exact same thing. All you have to do is follow these easy progressions and you’ll be rocking out pull ups in no time.
Getting Your First Pull Up
The way this program works is to slowly build you up through exercises progressing from easier to more difficult all the way up to a pull up. You’ll want to start at the beginning and then work your way up – you’ll do at least three workouts per week with each workout consisting of three sets of each exercise of how ever many reps you can do up to 12. Once you hit 3 sets of 12 reps on an exercise you can then move up to the next one for your workouts.
I’ll lay out the program in an easy to follow way at the end – first though let’s look at the movements we’ll use.
1. Bent Over Dumbbell Rows
Many people will actually be able to skip this step, but this is where you’ll start if you are a complete, absolute beginner. To perform a dumbbell row you’ll find a bench, couch, wall or pair of chairs about knee height. Hold the dumbbell in your right hand and place your left knee on the bench, then bend over and place your left palm on the bench so that your left arm is straight below your shoulder. Your right leg should be straight down to the ground and you should be bent over with your back flat like a table and your right arm hanging straight down holding the dumbbell.
From there you want to use your shoulder muscles to pull the dumbbell straight up to your right armpit, kind of like starting a pull lawnmower. Make sure to pull with your shoulder and arm muscles and not twist your torso to the left to cheat. Once you’ve done your set on the right side, switch to your left.
Once you can do three sets of twelve repetitions on each side without any trouble increase the weight you’re using. When you can do it with 30 pound dumbbells for three sets of twelve you’re ready to move up to the next weight. If you’re a little heavier yourself, make it 40.
Don’t have dumbbells? No problem, pack a backpack or tripled-up shopping bag full of cans, books, rocks or whatever you’ve got on hand and weigh it to see what you’re working with. You can also make fairly heavy dumbbells by filling an empty plastic milk jug with sand and then running water into it until all the sand is thoroughly soaked.
2. Inverted Bodyweight Rows
Our second movement on the path to your first pull up is the inverted bodyweight row. To do an inverted row ideally you’ll need some kind of bar between chest and knee height – playground equipment, a tree branch, smith machine or broom stuck between two chairs all work.
All you do is lay beneath your bar of choice and pull your chest up to it keeping your body rigid and your heels on the ground like a hinge. The more horizontal you are the more difficult the movement becomes, so if you start out with a chest height bar you can slowly move your feet away from it to increase the difficulty. If you can’t find anything else to use, you can also do these by lying underneath a kitchen or dining room table facing up so your head is poking out one side and pulling yourself up to the edge of the table.
Once you can perform three sets of twelve completely horizontal with your feet on the floor, prop your feet up on something like a chair so your feet are the same height or higher than your hands to increase the difficulty. Once you can do three sets of twelve with your feet elevated without any issues move on to…
3. Assisted Pull Ups or Negative Pull Ups
The next step gives you the choice between using either assisted pull ups or if you’re more comfortable with them negative pull ups.
Assisted pull ups can be done a handful of ways. The most ideal though hardest to do for most people are band assisted pull ups. These are done with an assistance band or a bunch of surgical tubing lopped over the bar and then beneath your feet to help take some of the weight off of the pull up.
Since these can be expensive, the next option would be self-assisted or partner assisted pull ups. For partner assisted pull ups you bend your knees and have a friend stand behind you and hold on to your feet or knees, As you do your pull up they help push you up just enough that you can complete the rep but not so much as to make it too easy. Self-assisted push ups are done by placing a chair behind you then bending your knees and placing the tops of your feet on the back of the chair so that you can push up with your legs as needed while you do your pull ups.
For band assisted pull ups, reduce the strength/size of the band every time you reach three sets of twelve reps. For partner or self-assisted pull ups when you can do three sets of twelve take one leg away so only one leg is using the chair or friend as assistance. When you can do three sets of twelve that way, move on to the next movement.
If you find the assisted pull ups aren’t really doing it for you, give negatives a try. To do a negative you either use a stepping stool or just jump to get into the top position of the pull up with your chin above the bar. (Careful not to lose any teeth here if you’re jumping)
Once you’re in the top position lower yourself back down as slowly as possible. From the bottom climb or jump back up and repeat. When you can do three sets of twelve reps with each rep taking at least 25 seconds to get from top to bottom then you can finally move on to…
4. Your First Real Pull Up!
Ok, so technically this will be your first real chin up, but that’s ok. What’s the difference? A chin up is done with your palms facing toward you and a pull up is done with your palms facing away from you. It may seem like a minor difference, but chin ups are actually much easier than pull ups.
The way you’ll make the jump from negatives to pull ups is to start by working in a single chin up rep at the beginning of each set of negatives. Then next workout go for two chin ups and ten negatives, then three and nine and so on.
Once you can do three sets of twelve chin ups (honestly, once you can do three or four per set really) you’ll be more than able to do a pull up, and likely will be able to do several.
The Full Pull Up Progression
Here’s the full progression laid out in one big list.
Done three days per week with one day of rest between each workout. When you can complete three sets of twelve of each exercise move down to the next on the list.
3×12 Bent Over Dumbbell Rows – Increase weight up to 30 lbs. then move on to next movement.
3×12 Inverted Bodyweight Rows – Move feet away from bar or elevate feet once parellel to increase difficulty. Move on to next movement after 3×12 with feet elevated becomes easy.
3×12 Assisted Pull Ups or Negative Pull Ups – Move on when 3×12 assisted pull ups with only one foot under assistance is easy, or when you can complete 3×12 negative pull ups with a 25 second descent on each rep.
3×12 Mixed Chin Ups & Negative Pull Ups – Start with one chin up and eleven negative pull ups per set, then two chin ups and ten negatives, then three chin ups and nine negatives until you achieve 3×12 chin ups.
Go Rock Out Some Pull Ups!
The first thing to note is since you’re moving your own bodyweight being able to perform your first pull up may come down to both increasing your strength and decreasing your bodyweight so you don’t have to lift as much. That means if you’re particularly heavy, learning how to get your nutrition into check and shed some excess fat can make a big difference.
The second thing is to do your best not to cheat. That means when doing your actual chin ups and pull ups when you get to that point resist the urge to bend your legs and wiggle and fling yourself around. Sure it makes it easier, but you’re cheating yourself out of the benefit of doing a strict pull up or chin up and you’ll find your progress stalling out quickly.
Have you tried this program to finally get your very first pull up? How did it go? Do you have any suggestions or additional tips to help out? Let us know!
Photo Credit: OhKyleL