pull-up

Learn to do pull ups – ultimate guide

Learn to do pull ups: The pull-up, for many novice athletes, is high on their list of goals. And that’s a good thing because pulling yourself up builds a tremendous amount of strength. It is indeed one of the key movements in calisthenics. And even though the pull-up is not an easy exercise, with the right training, almost anyone can learn it.

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What is a Pull up?

Before you can learn to do pull ups, you need to know what it means to do a pull up.
The pull-up is an upper body exercise where you hang directly under a bar or rings with your palms facing away from you. From this hanging position, you pull yourself up until your chin is above the bar.

The pull-up is fundamentally a bodyweight exercise, meaning your own body weight is the resistance you train with. And although there are no additional weights involved, it’s a significant challenge for many novice athletes to master pull-ups. You engage a lot of muscles simultaneously when performing the pull-up, and exercises of this kind are also known as compound exercises.

Which muscles do you use during the pull-up?

For the pull-up, you primarily use back muscles (lats) and biceps, but your abdominal muscles, shoulders, and forearm muscles are also needed to pull yourself up. During the pull-up, you engage the entire body. It’s not just about your arms and back—it’s a fantastic way to work on your functional strength due to the involvement of so many muscles.

What does a proper pull-up look like?

  • Choose a bar where your feet are just off the ground when hanging. This is the ideal height to fully engage your body. If this isn’t possible, bend your knees to ensure your feet don’t touch the ground.
  • Hands are approximately shoulder-width apart. The wider your hands, the more challenging the exercise becomes. First, push your shoulders down and back while keeping your arms straight. This ensures that you pull yourself up using the (larger) muscles of the back rather than relying on your arm muscles.
  • Engage your core and glute muscles.
  • Pull yourself up vertically until your chin clears the bar.
  • Then, lower yourself slowly until you are fully hanging straight under the bar.
 
 

Learn to do pull ups in 4 steps

Can’t do pull-ups yet? It can be frustrating to hang from the bar each time, hoping to make it up. But rest assured, almost everyone can learn a pull-up. You just need to know how to train for it.

You do this by building strength with easier progressions of the pull-up. The beginner’s guide explains how training with progressions works and how applying progressive overload makes you stronger.

Following these principles and the 4 steps below, you’re definitely going to master the pull-up!

Step 1: Building Grip Strength with the Dead Hang

When you start training for the pull-up, simply hanging from the bar can already be quite challenging. That’s why you’ll first work on your grip strength by training specifically for it. The goal is to be able to hang in a dead hang for at least 3 sets of 30 seconds each (see the left photo below).

Continue training the dead hang even after achieving the above goal, such as hanging from one hand. Grip strength is crucial for almost all calisthenics exercises, so you’ll benefit greatly in the long run.

If you need extra grip during training, use liquid chalk.

deadhang
deadhang
active hang
active hang

Step 2: SCAPULA PULL-UPS / ACTIVE HANG

In addition to grip strength, your shoulder blades are crucial for pull-ups. A common mistake when training pull-ups is trying to pull yourself up immediately. The initial movement should come from your shoulders, not your arms. To follow a nice vertical path upward, it’s essential to transition from the dead hang to an active hang. Do this by pressing your shoulders down and back.

The transition from the dead hang to the active hang is also called scapula pull-ups. Make sure you master the scapula pull-up before moving on to pull-up training. The goal here is to perform at least 3 sets of 6 repetitions.

Step 3: Building Pull-Up Strength

Once you’ve mastered the scapula pull-ups, it’s time to build the strength for the pull-up. You’ll do this by working with lighter progressions of the pull-up, namely the eccentric and assisted pull-up.

#1: Eccentric Pull-Up

In an eccentric pull-up, also known as a negative pull-up, you train the portion of the pull-up where you lower yourself from the top position (chin above the bar) until you’re back in a dead hang. To reach the top position, use an elevation (such as a box). When in the top position, lower yourself in a controlled manner for 3 to 5 seconds. Then release the bar, step back onto the elevation, and start again in the top position.

This exercise is perfect for training the strength needed for the pull-up because resisting your own weight is always easier than pulling yourself up. Aim for at least 3 sets of 4 to 6 reps to build your strength.

#2: Assisted pull-ups

The best way to train assisted pull-ups is by using elastic/resistance bands.

The biggest advantage is that these bands come in various strengths. In the beginning, you’ll need a strong band (with high resistance) to assist you in coming up. However, as you train assisted pull-ups more frequently, you’ll need to exchange the strong band for a lighter one. This way, your body gradually gets used to the pulling motion until you no longer need the band.

For assisted pull-ups, aim for 4 sets of 4 to 6 reps. When you complete all 4 sets with 6 reps, it’s time to switch to a lighter band.

Step 4: Increasing the Number of Pull-Ups

If you’ve followed the previous steps, there will come a moment when you can do pull-ups without the band. But one pull-up is certainly not enough for you!

How do you ensure that there are more? You do this by combining pull-up sets with the lighter progressions from step 3. For example, you can start each set with your maximum number of full pull-ups. When you can no longer perform a rep, grab a (light) band and finish the set. This way, you challenge your body intensely and still complete enough reps to get stronger.

Common beginner mistakes

Of course, you want to maintain the right technique from the beginning. To ensure you don’t develop incorrect habits, it’s good to know what the most common beginner mistakes are.

#1 Use of Momentum

The pull-up is a pure strength exercise, and it’s crucial to train it as such. It’s not about performing as many reps as possible but about executing each rep as effectively as possible. This means avoiding the use of momentum.

What is meant by momentum? It’s kicking your legs, creating upward speed. Keep your entire body engaged, and if you can’t come up anymore, stop your set. It’s more important to learn the technique correctly than to do sloppy extra reps.

#2 Lack of Full Range of Motion

In most gyms, you see it happening. Broad men pulling themselves up. But instead of fully extending their arms, they stop halfway through the eccentric part and go back up. This is a real shame. You’re missing out on a lot of strength growth here. You’re skipping the entire part of the scapula pull-up from step 2. Always return to the dead hang before starting the next repetition.

#3 Insufficient Rest

For beginners, the pull-up is a strength exercise. Therefore, it’s essential to take sufficient rest, preferably at least three minutes between sets.

What after you learn to do pull ups?

You might not be there yet, but it’s still nice to know where you can go once you’ve mastered the pull-up. You have two options: training with more challenging pull-up progressions or adding weight to your pull-ups.

Dynamic pull-up
Dynamic pull-up

Learn to do Pull up progressions

There are many different variations of the pull-up. Below are some listed from easy to difficult:

  • Eccentric pull-ups
  • Bodyweight pull-ups
  • Wide grip pull-ups
  • L-sit pull-ups
  • Typewriter pull-ups
  • Dynamic pull-ups
  • One-arm pull-ups
Watch this video for more pull up inspiration

How do you add weight to your pull-ups?

Is your body weight no longer enough? If you want to discover how strong you can become, I recommend adding weight and doing weighted pull ups. The best way to do this is by purchasing a weight vest or a weight belt.

Additional tips for the pull-up

  • Don’t train pull-ups every day. Your body needs time to adapt to the new demands. Training pull-ups 2 to 3 times a week is more than enough, providing sufficient training stimuli. Training more frequently only increases the risk of injuries.
  • Follow a structured program like our: free calisthenics workout plan for beginners  
  • Reduce your body fat percentage. Your body weight is your resistance, so if you decrease this weight, pull-ups automatically become easier. Lower your body fat percentage, and you’ll soar over the bar effortlessly.
  • Don’t have a calisthenics park nearby? Then buy rings or a pull-up bar for home.
 
 
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