Completing your first pull-up is almost like a right of passage in the fitness world. Chances are you want to be able to do one, but even though it’s one of the more straightforward movements, it’s also one of the most difficult.
As a child I struggled with pull-ups, which encouraged me to get better. Now, pull-ups are no task at all, and I want to provide you with some of the very same tips and techniques that I used to complete my first pull-up and even brought me to the ability to achieve weighted pull-ups.
In this article, I’ll discuss 7 tips and techniques to help you complete your first pull-up.
Try Doing A Pull-up
Whenever I have a client who wants to be able to do pull-ups, the first recommendation I give is to try and do a pull-up. Doubt is one of the leading reasons why people fail, and you never know what you’re capable of doing until you try.
Sure, you might not be able to do a pull-up, but when you at least try to complete one, you get to understand how far you have to travel to be able to pull yourself up successfully.
Further, by at least attempting to do a pull-up, you can observe which muscle groups are holding you back, and which might provide additional direction with your training. Perhaps your grip strength is weak or maybe your lats fatigue too quickly, or perhaps it’s both!
If you’ve made completing a pull-up a primary goal of yours, make sure to work on pull-ups often and put forth great effort when you do. Each time you work on pull-ups, I suggest that you try to do a pull-up unassisted for at least three good tries.
Too often, my clients get discouraged because “they know they can’t do a pull-up,” which results in a subpar effort. I suggest that you give maximum effort each time you try. Even if it takes months to finally reach your goal, attempting to get better every day will take you there.
Use Assisted Pull-ups
The best way to get better at pull-ups is to try and do pull-ups. Whereas in the first section I recommend you try to complete pull-ups on your own, I also suggest that when you’re finished with that, you complete full sets of pull-ups that are assisted.
The first way you can do this is by using an assisted pull-up machine. These are typically good options for someone just looking to get better. By utilizing a pull-up assistance machine, you’ll be able to complete the actual movement, even if you can’t do it yourself.
Second, I recommend that you get a full resistance band set. Resistance bands are great because they can provide varying levels of assistance. Better yet, when you use bands, you’re also more closely matching the actual movement. Compared to a standard pull-up, using bands as assistance will most closely match the actual movement patterns of a pull-up.
Progressively Reduce Assistance
Building off the last section, you should still practice progressive overload by progressively reducing the assistance that you’re receiving from the assisted pull-up machine or resistance bands.
For example, if you start doing pull-ups with the two most assistive exercise bands, the next time you train, you can remove one of the bands and complete fewer repetitions.
This will help ensure that you’re building the strength necessary to pull yourself up successfully. Eventually, you’ll be able to entirely remove any assistance you currently use.
If you use assistance, I suggest that you progressively attempt to reduce the amount of aid that you’re receiving. This will ensure that you’re moving in the right direction on your way to completing your first pull-up.
Use Varying Grips
The cool thing about pull-ups is that you can use virtually any grip you like. Traditionally, pull-ups are completed using a pronated grip (palms facing away), a supinated grip (palms facing you) or a neutral grip (palms facing each other).
The interesting thing about switching your grip is that by rotating your hands, you place greater emphasis on specific muscle groups. For example, if you supinate your grip, you can expect much higher bicep activation than if you are completing a pronated grip. Further, a neutral grip will likely have more even dispersion of muscle activity than the other grips.
By occasionally adjusting your grip, you’ll activate different muscles to different extents, which can increase your overall strength and ability. I suggest that you alternate grip each time you train for the pull-up. Keep in mind though, that you should use the grip you like best as much as possible as this grip will likely give you the most significant chances of success.
Use “Negative” Pull-ups
Did you know that your muscle functions differently during the “upward” motion compared to the “downward” portion of the lift? Interestingly, science has shown us that the maximum amount of force that you can lift eccentrically (downward) is greater than the amount of force your muscles can produce concentrically (upward).
For a pull-up, this presents us with an exciting opportunity. Chances are, you’re unable to complete a pull-up if you’re reading this. That’s because right now, you can’t produce enough concentric force to overcome the inertia of your bodyweight. However, it’s very likely that you can control yourself on the downward portion. This is because you can produce higher force eccentrically than concentrically.
Because of this reality, I suggest that you attempt to complete “forced negative pull-ups” in your training. That means having some assistance on the way up and then controlling yourself alone, during the downward portion. By doing so, you’ll grow your “pull-up muscles” to a greater extent than if you were not completing negatives.
To do negatives, I suggest using a tall box or having a partner assist you on the upward portion. After you’ve reached the top, attempt to resist yourself on the way down as much as possible. Once you reach the bottom, repeat as you’re able.
Work On Abdominal Conditioning
One issue with pull-ups is the inability to control movement. In my opinion, this starts with core strength. By having appropriate core conditioning, you’ll ensure that you have optimal control over your body and command of the movement.
Over the years of attempting to perfect the pull-up, I’ve found that my abdominals significantly contribute to my ability to complete a pull-up. In fact, many times when completing weighted pull-ups, my abs get incredibly sore the next day.
Because of this, I suggest that you try to strengthen and condition your abs if you want to be good at doing pull-ups. Consider adding in core specific workouts to your routine that use resistance. This will improve abdominal conditioning fastest and to the most significant extent.
Work On Grip Strength
One limiting factor of pull-up ability is grip strength. In fact, there’s a good chance that your lack of grip strength is the number one reason you can’t do a pull-up.
The truth is, other muscles that are involved in the pull-up, like your lats and biceps, are likely strong enough to pull your body weight. If you were deadlifting or rowing your bodyweight, it’s likely that you’d have no problem.
That’s where grip strength comes in. Hanging from just your hands is quite tough, especially when you’re factoring in your entire bodyweight below your hands. This is without mentioning that you’ll need to maintain this grip strength throughout the set.
In this situation, I suggest two things. First, I recommend that every third pull-up workout, you use wrist straps. Second, I suggest that you do independent grip work as well.
For the first suggestion, it’s a bad idea to let you grip strength limit the growth of other important muscle groups like your lats. However, you don’t want your lat strength to grip strength ratio to get too large. That’s why I suggest using straps only once every three workouts.
Second, working directly on your grip strength will be a great way to improve pull-up ability. I suggest first starting with dead hangs. This will translate to pull-up ability greater than any other movement. To complete, merely grab a pull-up bar and hang for as long as possible. Then, try to increase duration each time.
From there, consider using wrist curls, farmer’s walks and just holding onto heavy things. Make sure that you practice progressive overload and only use these movements after you’re done with pull-ups or on opposite days.
Tips To Do Your First Pull-up
Pull-ups are an interesting exercise because they are quite simple but one of the more difficult movements that we do. Being able to do your first pull-up is quite the achievement and even one that many would consider a milestone, which is why they are so crucial to a lot of individuals.
Hopefully, with these tips and techniques, you’ll be on your way to doing your first pull-up and eventually even a weighted one.