So You Wanna Do a Pull-Up…

By April 20, 2018blog


Is this you? It should be!

Pull-ups are an amazing exercise that really target your latissimus dorsi (lats) and biceps. Pull-ups are also a prerequisite for becoming a superhero. Just sayin’.

Note the overhand grip. That’s a pull-up.

I remember doing pull-ups on a barbell on the squat rack in our basement maybe 7 or 8 years ago. (I’m just a tad over 5 feet tall, so I can do that.) Ever since I could do one pull-up, I’ve always done pull-ups … I have for years. Heck, one year I even did 70+ pull-up variations to raise money for charity (over the course of a few hours!).

They’ve always been in my program because I noticed they become A LOT harder when I took a long time off. And just in the past year or so, I’ve started working more with weighted pull-ups. I’ve been working consistently for several months and have added 7 pounds to my pull-up to be able to do one rep at a time with 22 lbs. attached. My point? It takes time, persistence, and planning!

Lots of ladies have a goal to do a pull-up and they (and you) can do it!! Here’s the thing though — you absolutely have to work at it. It has to be on your radar each and every week, and not just when you feel like it or when it comes up in group programming.

See the underhand grip? This is a chin-up!

Several of our members are working on their pull-ups right now during our 6-week Spring into PRs Challenge. (This is a FREE challenge where our group members get a little extra advice and support on how to train for their goal in and out of classes, and our personal training members get some extra support outside of their sessions while their goal is plugged right into their current program. We work on it for 6 weeks, then we go for it and celebrate our hard work at our PR Party in May!)

If you have a goal to do a pull-up but aren’t sure where to start or how to progress, here are some awesome ways you can get going! These are some progressions that we use at the studio and I’ve seen success with, with my own training and with others.

Chin-Ups vs. Pull-Ups

First of all, let’s differentiate between pull-ups and chin-ups. Chin-ups are usually the starting point for many women because your palms are facing your body (in an underhand grip) and you can utilize your biceps more. Pull-ups, on the other hand, have an overhand grip and rely more on a strong back. Once you can do a few chin-ups in a row, then you can typically do one pull-up.

Here’s how to get there. Start with:

Step 1: Hollow-Body Hang

With your hands about shoulder-width apart, or slightly wider, hang with your arms straight, pulling your shoulders down (shoulders packed and away from your ear). Use a grip with your palms facing away from you.

Your body should be tight (if you’ve done the Hollow-body Hold exercise we do on the ground, your body should look like that!).

Overall goal: about 1 minute. You may have to work up to that minute. Many ladies start with just a few seconds. And it may feel really hard or you may wonder why in the beginning if you can’t hang for very long, but I promise your hard work will pay off!

In fact, one of our personal training members started at about 10 seconds, eventually hit the one-minute mark, and then graduated to weighted hangs! She’s now hanging with 15 pounds for 30 seconds — multiple times!

Here’s a little more advice for increasing your hang time.

Step 2: Scapular Pulls

Use scap pulls for lat activation. Start in the hollow hang position outlined above. Keeping your arms straight, pull your scapula (shoulder blades) down, hold, and then release. Don’t shrug your shoulders when you release, instead stay tight and return to the hollow hang position.

Add these in to your program when you are just starting out. I also like to use these to get warmed up for pull-ups — so they’re a great exercise no matter where you are in your progression!

Step 3: Scap Pulls Plus

Initiate a scap pull and engage your lats before pulling into a slight elbow bend. This has you really working hard in the beginning phase of the pull-up.

Step 4: Flexed-Arm Hangs

After you’ve mastered the hollow-body hang, move on to these. Find a box that puts you almost in position — you can work flexed arm hangs with your chin over the bar or under the bar. Think about where you feel you need the most work (where is your weakest spot?).

Keep your hands in the chin-up grip (underhand), with your elbows down. Step off the box, and keep track of how long you can hang. Gradually increase time as you get stronger. Work up to about 45 seconds.

Step 5: Weighted Hangs

Yes, you can add weight on even if you are not doing a full pull-up yet! I promise it will just make you stronger and make your bodyweight work feel lighter!

Step 6: Negatives

Work on descending slowly (3 to 5 seconds) from the top of the pull-up position. As you get stronger, add in a 3 to 5 second hold at the top and make your descent even longer.

Step 7: Trainer Assisted Pull-Ups

If you are very close to a chin-up or pull-up, then you may benefit from having a trainer assist you. We assist by putting both hands on our member’s back, just below the shoulder blades, and only giving that light push when needed. If I have to push too much, then I suggest going back to one of the above.

Side note: We stopped using bands for assistance. While there’s nothing wrong with using bands, I feel that these progressions are much more effective at building strength. 

Step 8: Chin-Up/Pull-Up

Start in the hollow hang position. Engage your lats by pulling your shoulder blades down. Think about breaking the bar. Look forward and slightly down as you drive your elbows down to pull yourself over the bar. Stay tight!

BOOM! You made it! Start working singles now. That’s 1 rep, break, 1 rep, break. Keep them strong!

Step 9: Weighted Chin-Up/Pull-Up

When you’ve got one solid chin-up or pull-up and can do a few within a workout, add 5 pounds (and so on) as you get stronger. Work singles. It might sound crazy, but as mentioned above, it will help your bodyweight ones feel lighter and stronger!!


So there you have it! Those steps will have you doing pull-ups in no time!