Earning That First Pull-Up

So you want to get that first strict Pull-Up? Somewhat idolized in the fitness world, pull-ups are a great performance marker for upper body strength. But, like most performance goals, you aren’t going to snap your fingers and be able to pull your bodyweight over a bar. It takes time, a systematic approach, and CONSISTENT work in order to master the Pull-Up.

Contrary to what some people might think, the pull-up is going to be a lot more than just building up arm strength. The pull-up takes strength in your arms, upper back, core and grip as well as a lot of body awareness and control in order to obtain. So, if you have made pull-ups one of your performance goals and still feel like you aren’t even close to getting your first one, try to follow the steps below. Most importantly, remember, consistency is key!


The most important factor to look at first is mobility. If you don’t have the mobility to perform overhead movements, then you may risk injury. The pull-up requires you to get into an overhead position without any pinching or pain. If you have tight Lats, Upper Thoracic, and/or Chest you are already over-stressing your shoulders and spine. You can try the Back Against the Wall Shoulder Flexion Assessment Test first to see if you can get into the proper overhead position. If this unloaded overhead position aggravates you, then try some Upper Thoracic stretches to increase mobility.


Most people don’t realize how much grip strength plays into your ability to do a pull-up. You can have a strong upper body, but if your grip is weak then your pull-ups are going to suffer. Some great exercises to improve grip strength are the KB Farmers Carries and Retracted Dead Hangs. Make sure to maintain a neutral posture when performing the Farmer Carries and keep the core engaged. Keep a full grip on the KBs or DBs as you walk. For the retracted hang, make sure to keep your shoulders retracted by engaging your lats and pulling your shoulders down and back. Try holding this position for 30sec and build your way up to 1-2min.

Pulling Strength

It is important to understand how it feels to pull your bodyweight and to know the muscles that should initiate the movement. A good starting point is to work on some horizontal pulls through the Inverted Row. By simply changing your positioning under the bar, you can regress and progress this movement dependent on your abilities. The closer you can get your body parallel to the floor, the more challenging this exercise will be. Keep your hips up and imagine holding the longest position you can from head to toe to prevent any sagging. Initiate the movement by activating that same retraction we used in the Retracted Dead Hang and pull yourself to the bar in one straight motion. Make sure to keep your elbows pointing towards your feet and not out to the side throughout the movement.

Negative Pulls

I know it may be hard to work on something that you can’t even do yet. This is where negative pulls come into play. You can try Eccentric Pull-Ups as well as 4-point Isometric Pull-Up Holds. For both, jump or climb above the bar and slowly lower yourself down. For the eccentric pull-ups, keep the decent at a slow and constant pace until you reach the retracted hang hold. For the 4-point isometric holds, pause at 4 points throughout the pull-up (top, middle, lower, and retracted hang) for 3-5sec at each point. The bottom half of the pull-up is where the majority of people need the most strength training, so don’t rush through these final phases.

Assisted Pull-Ups

The technique required and the recruitment of specific muscles needed for the pull-up means that you need to practice the full movement in order to achieve your first unassisted pull-up. Similarly to squatting with a lighter bar when starting out, we need to appropriately lighten the load by assisting your body weight with these de-loading ideas:

  1. Jumping Pull-Up: set yourself up so that you have a slight bend in your elbows underneath the bar. I find that using a Smith Machine works great for this as you can adjust the height of the bar to fit your height. Lower yourself underneath the bar by bending your knees until your arms are straight. Then jump up to lift yourself over the bar. The idea is that you can still work on the top half of the pull-up strength, so don’t over jump your way straight over the bar. Try to only jump as much as you need to get the movement started.

  2. Bench Assisted Pull-Up: you can use the Smith Machine again and place a bench just in front of the bar. Placing your feet on the bench, hang from the bar with a vertical torso as if you were sitting on the floor. Your upper body should be in the pull-up position, but with your feet elevated you can distribute some of your body weight onto the bench to lessen the load you are pulling. Start with the bar relatively high and knees bent so you can distribute more bodyweight onto the bench. This movement can be progressed further by lowering the bar and/or straightening the legs making it harder to pull yourself up as less weight is distributed to the bench.


  3.  Band-Assisted Pull-Up: Grab a resistance band and attach it around the pull-up bar. (You can also use an assisted pull-up machine if you have one at your gym). Place your foot into the bottom loop of the resistance band and grab onto the pull-up bar. Straighten your leg and wrap the other leg around the band. From here, make sure to retract the shoulders to initiate the movement and pull yourself over the bar. To progress this exercise, you can simply choose a lighter resistance band until you no longer need assistance. 

Accessory Exercises

Focus on your upper back, lats and core will be the most beneficial to aiding your goal of your first pull-up. As most of us are stronger on one side vs the other, doing single arm rows and pulls will help correct any imbalances you might have. Single Arm DB Rows, Single Arm Lat Pull Downs, Single Arm Cable Rows, Single Straight Arm Pull Downs can all be used as accessory work to any upper body program.

You can also add in some isolated strength exercises into your program to target some of the key areas we are trying to strengthen. Try adding in Bent Over Rows, Cable Rows, Lat Pull Downs, Incline Straight Arm Pull Downs to help strengthen your Lats and Upper Back.

For the Core, it is important that you can hold a Hollow Position to make sure your core is staying engaged throughout the movement. Try these Hollow Holds for 30sec and build yourself up to Max Holds.

As I said before, consistency is going to play the biggest role when trying to build up strength for any movement. If you are just starting out in the squat and you want to be able to squat your bodyweight, it takes time and a complete program designed to build your strength in this movement. So do not get discouraged if you are not able to perform a strict pull-up right away. You are having to pull your bodyweight in a compound movement, and similar to the squat, it takes time and a well designed program. Reach out to EVOLVE by Melissa today to get started with a fully individualized fitness program available online via an easy to use app. Let me help you reach your goal of getting to that first pull-up!


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