If there is one thing that makes a woman, in particular, feel strong, I think it is being able to pull her body weight up to a bar (AKA a pull up).
In this blog, you’ll learn how to get your first pull up.
It sounds simple, but it is a much more complex skill than people might realize, and it may take more than just doing more pull-ups to get your first pull-up or set a five because once you do one, the next question quickly becomes…
Now, how do I do three or five or repeated sets of pull-ups?
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My name is Annie Miller, certified strength and conditioning specialist, and I help you learn as you train and enjoy your lifts.
Again today, if you don’t have 100% of everything you need to get your first or five pull-ups outside of actually following a program then I have failed.
As a sort of disclaimer, I work exclusively with women, so that’s the population that I am specifically talking about today with training.
I consider myself lucky to have grown up with a pull-up bar in the entry of my sister’s bedroom because her bedroom before she existed was my dad’s weight room, so we used to swing from it and do pull-ups and pull throughs (when you swing your legs through the bar and over the top all of the time).
On top of that, when I was 11, I won the marine pull-up competition for boys and girls at the Clark County Fair and I was sure on that day that I was going to grow up to be a marine.
Needless to say, that is not the route that I took in life and for the first time since I can remember in my life, in my postpartum journey, I could not perform a single pull up nor did I expect to.
I got one chin up and that was about it at three months postpartum, but I am implementing everything that we’re going to go over today in order to regain that skill.
I will go from zero to one just like you and then from one to two, two and a half to three and so on…
All that is to say I thought that being able to do a pullup was normal until I reached high school and I saw that I was somewhat of an anomaly. Most of my female counterparts even in athletics could not do a single pullup or even a chin up.
Now, perhaps this adds to why it feels so powerful to be able to perform this movement. Either way, if you are reading this blog, I want you to be able to do a pull-up and three and five and repeated sets. I want you to see pull-ups in your program and be excited and ultimately I want them to become your norm with that.
To gain a skill means we have to be willing to get uncomfortable with our current ability level and choose to continue moving forward.
That is quite literally the only way that we are going to improve. I say we because I am currently in this boat with you, so we’re going to look at the pull-up as a movement first. I think if you understand the movement and what is required to do it proficiently, you’ll have a better adherence in working on “said skill”, whether it’s a pull-up or something else.
This is generally more challenging than a chin-up where your palms are facing you and you’re using more of your bicep strength versus your upper back.
You’ll likely achieve a chin-up first before a pullup.
Then you’ll get a narrow grip pullup and then a wide grip pull-up in that progression. But make no mistake, you will work all of those variations in your quest to do your first pullup of any variation, so all pull-ups are a vertical pull, meaning that your lats are your prime movers.
Therefore, working on your lat strength is going to be helpful in your quest to do a well-performed pullup.
The scapulas or your shoulder blades are going to downwardly rotate as you pull. This means they’re going to glide across your rib cage in a downward and slightly inward motion.
This is where many women in my experience can struggle is just initiating that pull…
So when you see what we call scapula pulls on the list of skills that I want you to practice… That’s what we are working on is your initial pull and ability to get your shoulder blades in place before continuing with the rest of your pull.
I do think that many women might think of the pull-up as an arm exercise and that you need really strong arms. That’s not necessarily the case.
We certainly can’t do a pull-up without our arms. However, arms work secondary to your back muscles when performing a pull-up.
Before getting into the segments of a pull-up as a movement, we cannot leave out the core. As I said earlier, the lats are your prime movers. That’s the main muscle working to pull you up to the bar.
Your arms work secondary to the lats. Your lats are a huge muscle and they connect from your upper arm across your scapula, all the way down to your low back (lumbar spine) and connect at the top of your hip bones.
They’re a massive muscle. Think about it, we have this huge muscle on our backside working to contract your entire back doing a pull-up.
One of the main things that I hear from postpartum women in particular who did pull-ups pretty effortlessly before giving birth only to not be able to perform a single rep after giving birth. It feels like their core just feels completely disengaged… And that is why they can’t complete or even initiate.
Often their back and arms are probably strong enough, but if they can’t connect their core. This means a pull-up is simply not going to happen.
This is going to be essential for your success and the first thing that you’re probably going to work on now that you know all of the kinds of pieces you need to get a pull-up:
You’re bound to have what’s called a sticking point, which is your speed or velocity slows during a movement. This is not restricted to just a pull-up. You can see this in many movements.
You might find this at three different parts of the pull-up (bottom, middle or top).
The sticking point will likely be where you get stuck if you’re trying it unassisted or where you significantly slow down and struggle if you’re doing them assisted.
These will be skills directly related to the different pull-up variations.
Typically, we can lower down more weight than we can press or pull up. Think about being able to successfully lower down to the bottom of a squat with control and then getting pinned at the bottom, not being able to stand up because we lack the strength in that concentric part of the movement.
The same thing applies for your pull-ups. You can likely lower down with more control than you can actually pull up.
Yes, this even applies to assisted pull-ups. You can do any of these exercises in this “on the bar” section with assistance. That is absolutely still allowed. I prefer a band on a pull-up bar to an assisted machine, but you need to use whatever you have access to and that’s totally fine in terms of applying eccentrics.
Shoot for at least a three second eccentric, starting with a controlled pause at the top, so don’t just get on the bar and start dropping. Work up to five seconds, three to eight reps for three sets depending on your ability.
This is simply training the start position that we want to attempt and keep throughout the movement.
Application: Time yourself for a maximum hold. You can also accumulate 30 seconds on the bar until you can hold through that 30 seconds without a break.
You could do this as a warmup or at the end of a workout with core work either would apply.
I mentioned these earlier. I’d pair these off the back of active hangs that we just went over. This is practicing that initial pull. It can be done in a pull-up or a chin up grip, but it’s most commonly done in a pronated pull-up grip.
This is looking at: Can you control your scapula and pull them down into your back pockets? That’s a cue that you can use.
Pull your scapulas down, hold and then release. That would count as one rep.
In terms of application, shoot for 10 reps, 1-3 sets in a warmup. They can be assisted or not.
You can use a band like you’re assisting a pull-up or you can actually do them underneath a squat bar if you have a bar in the J hooks and you can have your feet on the ground to assist you in somewhat of a squatting pattern.
Isometrics are underrated for gaining strength in a specific degree of motion. You can gain significant strength within 15 degrees in either direction of wherever the isometric position is taking place.
Application: You will want to do your isometric holds close to wherever you have that sticking point. This will be difficult because this is also where you are the weakest in the movement.
Doing top holds (holding at the top of the bar) is going to increase your ability to finish and pull all the way to the top of a rep.
A hold somewhere in the middle or to that 90 degrees is going to increase your strength through the middle of a pull-up.
You can do these individually in place of practicing an actual pull-up within a program. So if you are following a program that has pull-ups scheduled, you can replace that with the same amount of sets and reps, but the reps are going to be a 3-5 second hold in whichever position you choose (top or middle hold).
Wherever you struggle most is where you’ll want to focus.
Yes, I will want you to do BOTH of these.
This is where getting in reps of the actual movement is required and will be beneficial because again, a pull-up is simply a skill and you do need to practice the actual skill in order to improve.
For applying this, I recommend doing high volume reps with more assistance one day per week and doing low volume reps with less assistance on another day per week.
This allows you to build both strength and capacity at the same time for a given movement. As far as choosing chin-ups or pull-ups (so what variation you’re going to use), this really depends on whatever program you’re following and whatever is programmed.
Regardless, you will want to work in both of these throughout your training unless you are keen on getting one specific one, then you can just work one of them.
You can also feel free to apply all of this to one of the variations or all of the variations being pull up, chin up or wide grip pull-ups.
These are exercises that will train the needed muscle groups for performing a pull-up, but not on the pull-up bar.
These are much like the active hang. This is going to train your body to engage both the lats as well as the core at the same time and to maintain that contraction as an isometric hold for an extended period of time.
For applying your hollow rocks or holds: Time yourself for a max hold or try to accumulate 30 seconds until you can hold all the way through that 30 seconds without taking a break.
Both of these movements engage the lats, the upper back and the core at the same time, which you know that we are after.
A plank roll is going to be the regressed version of an ab rollout.
Both require your ability to remain neutral or hollow without breaking at the hips, entering into flexion or extension. That’s the point of doing this exercise.
Application-wise, do these for reps…
A Plank Roll: Shoot for more high volume as it’s a shorter range of motion. Think 20 to 30 reps, maybe two sets once a week. It could be a part of your warmup or core work at the end of a workout.
You have a wide, narrow, and reverse grip to choose.
I am open to playing with more arched back or neutral back. There are benefits to both of these, but to train lats best along their muscle fibers, I would suggest doing more of a neutral position than a big arched position.
Application of lat pulldowns, I would do them as accessory work on any upper body day.
Shoot for reps of 8-12 on the higher side of volume with a challenging load. That’s what you’re going to be after.
Maybe this information was what you expected or maybe it was more than you bargained for in answering the question: “How do I get my first pull-up?”
Let me know in the comments below if you’ve ever been able to do a pull-up or if you have any other questions about doing pull-ups, I am happy to answer them for you.
I hope you enjoyed these educated gains and I will see you in the next blog.
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I'm an adventurous introvert from Vancouver, Washington who lives on sleep + "me time." I'm a lover of lifting weights, dinosaurs, real talk and traveling with my husband. I am here to help you move better, lift more, bust the myths of the fitness industry, and inspire you to love the process.
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