Can’t Do a Pull Up Yet? Here’s How to Get it Done

Pull ups are my favorite exercise of all time.

They work all of the “pull” muscles in your body – your back, biceps, forearms.  They are indicative of your level of fitness – anybody that can do a pull up is in pretty good shape…anybody that can do 10 or more is clearly in great shape.

And damnit, pull ups make you feel like a badass after doing them.

However, pull ups are also hard as hell, especially if you’re just getting started. Unlike other exercises that can be completed with just your body weight (like squats, lunges, and push ups), pull ups and other exercises that strengthen your pull muscles require at least one piece of equipment!  On top of all of that, if you can’t do one yet, how the heck are you supposed to work on them to get better?

I’ve recently received dozens of emails from fellow rebels who are working towards their first pull up but aren’t there quite yet.  Whether you’re 300 pounds overweight and can’t even look at a pull up bar without freaking out, or you’re half an inch away from finally being able to do your first pull up, this article is for you – sorry it took so long for me to write!

Pull ups are quite the intimidating exercise, but like Optimus Prime has taught us, we can make small changes and improvements over time that will result in the ultimate goal:

One. Freaking. Pull Up.

A few tips to get started

  • This should hopefully be obvious, but the more you weigh, the more you have to lift in order to complete a pull up. If you’re truly serious about completing a pull up, start by getting your diet under control.  I’m a HUGE fan of the Paleo Diet, because I know it works.  A few folks have already lost 10+ pounds in just over a week following the Paleo Diet in the Nerd Fitness Academy.  As you start to weigh less, you’ll have less weight to pick up and move up over that bar!  Got it? good.
  • MAKE YOUR BACK EXERCISES A PRIORITY. A lot of people do every other exercise before doing any back-related exercises, if they do any at all.  After warming up properly, your first exercise should always be the stuff that you want to work on the most – in this case it’ll be your back.
  • The progression below is just a path that I’ve created, but does NOT need to be followed to a T. I give sample sets and reps and when to move up, but if you feel like you can progress sooner or want to try doing full pull ups sooner than I recommend, that’s OKAY.  This is the slower progression method, where some people will want to do less reps and progress to the next levels sooner – that’s okay.
  • I recommend moving up to the next level when you can do 3 sets of 8 reps of a particular exercise. If you want the accelerated path, move on up as soon as you can do 3 sets of 5 reps.
  • Almost every exercise below has a video to show you how to do it. Click on the picture or the video below it.

Level 1: Bent Over Dumbbell Rows


Bent Over Dumbbell Row Video

We’re going to start with these, the most basic of back exercises, in case you’re starting from ABSOLUTELY square one. For these exercises, focus on lifting more and more as you get stronger.  Every OTHER day, pick up a dumbbell that you can lift for three sets of 8 repetitions with a 2 minute break between sets.  As soon as you can do 3 sets of 8 reps, it’s time to move up to a heavier dumbbell.

  • As soon as you can do dumbbell rows with at least a 25-pound (10kg) dumbbell or heavier, consider moving up to the next level.
  • If you are a little bit bigger than the average bear, you might want to stick with this step until you lose a little bit more weight and get stronger – maybe go to 35 or 40-pound (18kg) dumbbells.

Level 2: Body Weight Rows


Body Weight Rows Video

Body weight rows are the PERFECT precursor to pull ups – they work the same muscles, just at a different angle.  You can also make adjustments.  You know how I HATE HATE HATE exercise machines?  Here, I wholeheartedly recommend the use of a smith machine…but ONLY for rows!  Because you can adjust the height of the bar, you can adjust how difficult the exercise is.  If you’re just getting started, put the bar very high, so you only have to lean back slightly.  If you’re stronger, you can start with a lower bar.

Here’s a whole post I did on body weight rows (also called inverted rows).

My advice:

  • Clench your butt and keep your abs tight and body straight throughout the exercise.  Focus your mind on PULLING with your arms.
  • Set the bar at a height where it’s challenging for you to complete 3 sets of 8 reps with two minutes of rest between sets.
  • As soon as you can complete all 3 sets of 8 reps, lower the bar!
  • If you need to make the exercise easier, bend your knees and put your feet flat on the ground.  You can drop your hips too to make things easier.

A sample routine that starts with your back exercises

  • Monday - 3 sets of 8 reps of overhand body weight rows
  • Wednesday – 3 sets of 8 reps of underhand body weight rows (hands reversed)
  • Friday - 3 sets of 8 reps of overhand body weight rows
  • (And then go underhand, overhand, underhand the following week)

As soon as you’re doing body weight rows where your body is at a 45 degree angle or lower, you can progress to level 3.

IF YOU DON’T HAVE ACCESS TO A BAR FOR INVERTED ROWS: Try using your kitchen table, or move up to Level 3 and progress with caution there.

Level 3A: Assisted Pull Ups


Assisted Pull Ups Video

Personally, I don’t like using the assisted pull up machine in a gym as it doesn’t give you the full feeling of a pull up, but it’s certainly better than nothing.  Instead, I recommend doing one of these alternatives:

  • Assisted Pull Ups with chair – (either one foot or two depending on your needs) – your feet are ONLY there for support, use your upper body as much as possible.
  • Assisted Pull Ups with exercise band(you can get different types of exercise bands with different levels of strength).  Put your foot in the exercise band and pull yourself up.
  • Assisted pull ups with a partner - (have a friend hold your feet behind you and help you complete each rep).  Have your friend use the least amount of help possible to get you through your workouts.

My advice:

  • Clench your butt and keep your abs tight throughout the exercise – try not to swing like crazy.
  • Keep your shoulder blades pinched behind you throughout the movement and focus on PULLING the bar down with your arms.
  • Use the least amount of assistance that you can handle – as soon as you can do multiple pull ups with both feet on the chair, switch to just one foot.
  • If you’re using an exercise band, try to get a few bands of varying tension so you can decrease the resistance as you get stronger.
  • As soon as you can do 3 sets of 8 with assistance, it’s time time move on up.

A sample level 3 routine:

  • Monday – Assisted Pull Ups – 3 sets of 8 reps
  • Wednesday – Body weight rows – 3 sets of 8 reps
  • Friday – Assisted Chin Ups – 3 sets of 8 reps

Level 3B: Negative Pull Ups

Now, let’s say you don’t have a rubber band, you don’t have somebody to hold your feet, and you don’t have a chair – you ONLY have a pull up bar. That’s okay – you can do what we call negatives.  When doing a negative, you jump above the bar and try to lower yourself slowly and in control until you’re at the bottom of the movement.   This can be very dangerous if you’re very overweight, which is why I’d recommend moving slowly through steps 1-3A first.

However, once you have a decent amount of back strength, doing negatives is a great way to build arm and back strength.

You can either jump above the pull up bar, and then begin to lower yourself back down IN CONTROL, or you can hop up on a chair to get above the bar and then lower yourself back down.  Again, the name of the game is “in control.”  You don’t need to lower yourself so slowly that one repetition destroys you…lower yourself in a controlled speed – Counting to three during the movement is a good tempo.

Here’s a sample workout using everything up to this point:

  • Monday – Assisted Chin Ups – 3 sets of 8 repetitions
  • Wednesday – Body Weight Rows – 3 sets of 8 repetitions
  • Friday - Negative Pull Ups – 3 sets to failure – capped at 5 repetitions for each set.

For your negative pull ups, do as many as you can (up to 5 reps) per set – jump and lower yourself in control, then jump right back up and lower yourself.  If you can do 5, wait 2 minutes and then start again.  If you can’t do 5, do as many as you can in control, wait 2 minutes and then start again.

Once you’re doing 3 sets of 5 repetitions on your negative pull ups, along with your assisted chin ups and body weight rows…you’re ready.

Level 4 – Chin Ups and Pull Ups


Pull Up Video

My dear rebel, it’s time.

Depending on your weight, your level of fitness and strength, and how far along you are in these progressions, you might be able to start with more than one pull up.  For MANY people, especially if you have spent time in the gym in the past working on your biceps (like most guys do), you might find it easier to start with chin ups (with your palms facing toward you) for your first exercise before trying pull ups (with your palms facing away from you).

I’ve already covered how to do a pull up/chin up in another article, so I won’t get into it too much here…just focus on these things:

  • Pull your shoulder blades back as you’re going through the movement, and focus on pulling the bar down.
  • Again, keep your butt clenched and your abs tight throughout the movement.
  • Get your chin above the bar, or it doesn’t count as a full rep.
  • Do whatever you need to get through the full rep.
  • If you can only do one rep, try to do at least 3 sets of one rep…after your three sets, add in some negatives to exhaust the muscle.

At this point, here’s a Level 4 routine set up for a week:

  • Monday – Chin ups – 3 sets for maximums repetitions
  • Wednesday – Inverted Rows – 3 sets for max repetitions
  • Friday - Pull ups – 3 sets for maximum repetitions

Level 5 – Next steps

Once you’re able to do 3 sets of 10 pull ups or chin ups, you have a few options:

Personally, my favorite thing to do in a gym is weighted pull ups; if you’re at this level and interested in doing so, here’s what you need to do:

  • Get a weight belt. I bought this one (affiliate link) on Amazon and it’s worked out incredibly well for me.  I’ve tried doing the whole “put weights in a backpack” and it certainly works, but the angle of the weights hanging off your back is weird.  With a weight belt, the weight hangs down between your legs (not a euphemism) so it feels more natural.
  • Add small amounts at a time. Most gyms will have 2.5 lb (roughly 1kg) weights; you might feel stupid putting on a big weight belt and only hanging a tiny weight off it, but you need to start somewhere.
  • Consistently add more weight. I’ll warm up with two sets of 5 pull ups with no extra weight, and then do 3 sets of 5 weighted pull ups.  If I can complete all 3 sets of 5 reps (with my chin over the bar for every rep), I’ll make a note to add 2.5 or 5lbs (1 or 2kg) to my weight belt for the next time.

So, here’s an advanced sample routine for back exercises:

  • MondayWeighted Chin Ups – 3 sets of 5 reps
  • Wednesday - Elevated Feet Body Weight Rows – 3 sets of max repetitions
  • Friday - Wide Grip Pull Ups – 3 sets of maximum repetition
  • (The following week, I’d alternate by doing the chin ups without weight, and then doing weighted pull u

Get it done

My work here is done – it’s now up to you to take care of business. No matter your starting point, whether you’re a guy or girl, you CAN do pull ups.  And you WILL do pull ups.  You don’t need to follow the progression above exactly – it’s merely one path that you can take in order to reach the promised land…where the pull ups flow like wine and the women instinctively flock like the Salmon of Capastrano.

Follow the path that works for your schedule, your experience, and your level of comfort with this movement – there’s no shame in going slowly and progressing safely.  And if you’re gung ho about pull ups, ready for negatives and trying to squirm for that first rep, feel free to go for it.  Just be safe.

When you DO finally do a pull up, I want to be the first to know – email me at [email protected] and tell me about it!

For the Rebellion,

-Steve

###

Get The Rebel Starter Kit

Enter your email and we’ll send it right over.

  • The 15 mistakes you don’t want to make.
  • The most effective diet and why it works.
  • Complete your first workout today, no gym required.
  • These are the tools you need to start your quest.
  • Anand ravi

    Thank you for the tips. Will try my level best to do so.

  • Pingback: The Chuck Norris Guide to Life Domination | Nerd Fitness

  • Pingback: Mad-Eye Maryann and the Quest for One Measly Pull Up | Mad-Eye Maryann

  • Pingback: Paleo Diary: Day 12 « bubble and squeak

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/NNU36B7GS7NFDWEINI45JXT4OM Kai

    if you cant go to the gym, find a pull up bar, or a low lying treebranch, get creative. find something that is in your reach while your feet is on the ground.(and can hold your weight up) ….like takeing 2 chairs, put a metal bar between the space in the chairs with both ends on a seat, get on your back and pull up. wala! homemade gym.

  • Pingback: 6 Species You’ll Encounter in a Commercial Gym | Nerd Fitness

  • Grayowens20

    Awesome this gives me lots of encouragement. Thanks

  • TJ

    That’s interesting – 6 months.  I got a new pullup bar three weeks ago and immediately could do two, but no more.  Now, 3 weeks later, I can do two – no more.  I wonder what’s up.  Glad to hear it takes time.  I’m just worried that at my pace, I’ll be 95 when I get to 3 sets of 8.  Thoughts?

  • Anonymous

    Try other exercises that work out your back and shoulders. Also, losing weight is the best way to increase the number of pullups you can do (at least it was for me). 

    A LOT of pullups is mental in my experience. The more I push myself to try just one more the more likely I am to increase my reps. 

    Hope some of that helps! 

  • Pingback: 60 Pounds Overweight to 6-Pack Abs: A Success Story | Nerd Fitness

  • Pingback: Avatar cosplay inspired weight loss thread - Page 5 - Tree of Souls - An Avatar Community Forum

  • Pingback: The Matrix Guide to Rapid Skill Acquisition | Nerd Fitness

  • Moon Geunho

    Thanks this post. I am inspired.
    I will do pull ups hard.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003349885703 Marc Newman

    What a great, encouraging site. From a chiro I purchased a strap made out of seatbelt material that has two handles in it. The thing closes in the door frame (like elastic band workouts) and allows me to do the body weight rows. It is really portable and goes on the road with me. Now I am going to get a door frame pull up bar and give this program a shot. I am 52 and want to be in great shape.

  • S Horelik

    what equipment do i use for the body weight rows? am i missing something?

  • Pingback: Pull-up Bars - 3 Fat Chicks on a Diet Weight Loss Community Weight and Resistance Training

  • Fred

    I couldn’t find a link on this post to back exercises. I don’t go to a gym, so what sort of exercises can I do?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003349885703 Marc Newman

    After 3 weeks of doing negatives and body rows, I DID A PULLUP TODAY! I hope to get to three sets of one in a few weeks. I recently turned 53, and I know that I have a set of 10 somewhere in my future.

  • Shobo4

    Did this blog go away?

  • Pingback: Upcoming Workouts | Deadlifting Toddlers

  • Rvera3287

    How many negatives did you do each workout?

  • Mike

    Hi Steve,

    Thank for this article, it has helped me a lot I have finally achieved my fir pull up.  Now I aspire to one day be like my idol Hannibal, check him out ( http://www.hannibalforking.com ) he is a beast on the pull up bar

  • potpotsie

    Hahaha nice! It’s Funny cause I know exactly what you’re talking about. I’m 6’5 and a little, and my knees are totally on the ground when I use the bar lol

  • Cornnut10

    I can do negatives easily and I can do assisted pull ups with just one foot on a chair but I can barely do a pull up. Am I missing something?

  • Pingback: My Archenemy, The Pullup | You + Me = Fit

  • Pingback: 7-27-2012 DOUBLE-HEADER FITNESS CHALLENGE ANNOUNCEMENT « Muddy J

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003349885703 Marc Newman

     I kept working at it until I could do three sets of five, then I knew I was ready to try a pull-up.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003349885703 Marc Newman

     Thanks to Steve’s helpful article, I am now able to do 15 pull-ups (5-3-3-2-2). I’m 53 and was in terrible shape when I started. If I can do it, anybody can.

  • Elliott

    I can do 56 pullups currently, but I want to do more???? I cant. How??!?!??

  • http://twitter.com/AlfredHatton Colin Hatton

    Pull-ups are the bane of my excercise routine. I’m fine at everything else – I can run for 14 miles without stopping, can sprint 200 yards, do lots of pushups, squats, burbies etc. I do a lot of cycling, hiking, boxing, but if I manage 1 pull up its a good day! Its probably the result of a youth focusing more on asthetic muscles (bicepts, chest, shoulders) then the really important muscles. Still, I’m going to persevier and hopefully like absentmindedprof I’ll be doing more like 7 of them in 6 months time. I watched a guy do twenty in a gym once while holding weights between his leg and I thought it was genuinely amazing so I asked him for advice and his was similar to Steve’s.

  • Pingback: 10 Ways to Gamify Your Life Today | Nerd Fitness

  • Guest

    I was in the same boat as you for a long time. Now I can do 2. I am working for more. I can do 7 chin ups though. Sometimes when I try doing the pull ups I can tell that I am trying to use my arms/shoulders too much and not focusing enough on my back.

  • Pingback: The Mario Kart Guide to Momentum | Nerd Fitness

  • Tim Buchanan

    This looks really helpful! Can’t wait to give some of this stuff a try! Thanks!

  • Rv

    Did you do them everyday or every other day?

  • Pingback: SixPackTummy.com

  • Abhisek parichha

    Dude u are my inspiration!!

  • Phil

    Following on from the techniques already mentioned, I found another good technique was to put a pull-up bar in a place that you regularly pass in your house (i.e. your kitchen door). EVERY time you walk past, try and bust out 1 pull up. Consistency and also getting your muscles used to the plane of movement is often the key with this type of exercise.

  • Pingback: Are You Boring!? | Nerd Fitness

  • JoeSDSanDiego

    Yeah, I had the same problem as well for the longest time. I could only do 2-3 and mostly from arm strength. The moment I focused on squeezing my shoulder blades together, keeping my shoulders back and down, I went from 2-3 to 8 in a matter of 5 weeks. I’m much less fatigued in my arms now and I actually feel my lats working (never felt that when I was doing them wrong). Looking up at the ceiling/sky and focusing on keeping your shoulders back and down really help concentrate the back contraction vs arm usage. Your back muscles are Clydesdales vs your pony arms. Pull the weight w/clydesdales.

  • Pingback: Meet Athena: The Goddess Who Lost 40 Pounds | Nerd Fitness

  • Pingback: 2013 New Year’s Resolutions | cucina_kristina

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001091448862 Joseph Ricardo

    Instead of doing it Mon-Wed-Fri, can i do the levels every other day?

  • Pingback: My Ambitious and Motivational New Years Goals for 2013 « Soul-Wholesome

  • Pingback: crazy goals: pull ups «

  • Pingback: 5 TIPS TO RESOLVE THE SHIT OUT OF 2013 (IT'S NOT TOO LATE!) | Culture | The Main - Montreal

  • anotherfellowblogger

    Check out my blog for another pull up guide
    http://bodyweightexerciseguides.blogspot.com

  • FluidDynamics

    Sir, I thank you for this magnificent, simple and no-nonsense guide. I’m 43 now — at 18 I could do 10 pull-ups after eating a pizza (myself — College). Recently I tried a pull-up and you know the rest. The clock starts on me NOW. 

  • anotherblogger

    I think the author wants you to have a two day break to give your muscles an extended rest, in my opinion doing it every other day would be fine as long as you don’t see any symptoms of over training.
    i too have made a guide on pull ups, check it out if your interested http://bodyweightexerciseguides.blogspot.com/2013/01/how-to-do-pull-ups-and-chin-ups.html

  • Pingback: Pull-ups | Fitness Fundamentals - My Way!Fitness Fundamentals – My Way!