Want To Get To Your First Pull-Up? Here's How
Nailing your first pull-up is one of those fitness achievements you won’t forget in a hurry. They don’t come easy, you’ve got to put in the work, and sometimes it will feel like you’re getting nowhere. But, wow, does it feel good when you get it!
So how do you reach that point? If you keep attempting pull-ups over and over again, you’ll probably get there in the end, but it’s going to take you a long time if you don’t strengthen the muscles you need to do the movement.
So let’s start there.
Muscles to strengthen to help your pull-up
A pull-up is not just about having bulging biceps. There are some major muscles you need to condition to be able to master this gymnastic movement.
- Latissimus dorsi: The lats attach to your humerus (upper arm) and originate from the middle of your back all the way down to the bottom of your lumbar spine, forming a V-shape down the back. They’re the biggest muscles in the upper body and help rotate the shoulder blade during a pull-up, helping to pull your arms down and in, towards your body.
- Rhomboids: These are the back muscles between your shoulder blades – the spot you want your massage therapist to get their elbow into! These also help with rotation of your shoulder blades and aid in good posture.
- Posterior deltoids: The deltoid (shoulder) is made up of three muscles, and while they’ll all be activated during a pull-up, the most important one is the one at the rear (the posterior one), which teams up with the rhomboids and lats to pull you skywards.
- Biceps: The biceps need little introduction. Anything with a pulling motion typically engages the biceps, particularly if you’re doing underhand grip (chin-ups).
Core: When using correct form, your body should be in a slight dish (as if you were laying on your back with arms and legs outstretched and lifted slightly off the ground, pushing your spine into the floor) with toes forward, meaning your core is totally braced during a pull-up.
Your lats attach into the spine and associated connective tissue of the area......which is the same location as your core musculature. So if you have a strong core during pull-ups, it means that the lats have a strong and stable point to pull from.
- Lower trapezius: These help initiate the pull-up movement. They originate on the spice and attach to the shoulder blade, helping with downward rotation and retraction.
What exercises can I do to get closer to a pull-up?
Now you know the main muscles you need to condition, it’s time to get to work. Here are a few exercises you can add to your training regime to get you on the path to your first pull-up.
Bar hangs: Practising a dead hang (with your body limp) sounds simple, but try and stay there for as long as you can to build grip strength.
Also try alternating between a dead hang, and an activated hang – with your core engaged and your body tight, pull your scapula (shoulder blades) towards the floor – almost like you’re trying to bend the bar between your hands without bending your elbows.
Dish and arch: Hanging from the pull-up bar in an activated hang, slowly shift your body into a dish position with toes pointed slightly out in front of your body, back slightly curved, pushing your arms in front of you.
From here, slowly shift into the exact opposite position, pushing your chest out in front and heels behind you. Keep your whole body tight the whole time – no flapping about.
Bent-over barbell row: With a barbell, stand with your feet slightly wider than hip distance apart. With a small bend in your knees, lean forward with a straight back so the barbell hangs just above your knees. Keep the barbell close to your body, activating your lats by pulling your scapula down towards your tailbone.
Pull the barbell towards your belly button in a rowing motion, squeezing your scapula together at the top of each lift before slowly straightening your arms back into your starting position. Keep your back and legs in the same position throughout the complete movement.
Inverted row: Set the height of the Smith machine bar to approximately hip height. Place both hands on the the bar with an overhand grip (palms facing down) wider than your shoulders. Slowly walk your feet forwards until your chest is positioned directly below the bar.
Extend your elbows and rest on the heels of your feet, ensuring that the rest of your body is elevated off the floor. This is your starting position.
Using the muscles in both your arms and back, bend your elbows to bring your chest towards the bar. You should feel a small squeeze between your shoulder blades. Extend your elbows to lower your body and return to the starting position.
- Lat pull-down: The lat pull-down machine is basically a simulation of a pull-up, but you’re seated. To get a full upper-body workout, vary your grip on this machine, from wide to normal to narrow, as well as underhand and overhand.
Strict bicep curls: Stand with feet under hips and a dumbbell in each hand, arms hanging by your sides, parallel to your feet. Bending only at the elbow, bring one dumbbell up towards your chest, rotating the dumbbell so your palm is facing in and the heads of the dumbbell are now parallel with your shoulders.
Lower the dumbbell in the same way and repeat on the other arm. Keep your whole body tight during this movement – no bouncing or swinging.
- Jumping pull-ups: Stand under a pull-up bar that you can reach with your feet flat on the floor. Jump as high as you can, grabbing the bar in an overhand grip and pull yourself up until your chin is over the bar. Lower yourself down slowly – this is where the hard work is done.
- Negative pull-ups: Speaking of a slow lower, isolate this to its own movement. Using a box or step to hoist yourself into the top of a pull-up, slowly lower yourself down until your arms are straight (about three to five seconds). Repeat.
- Banded pull-ups: The ultimate pull-up practice, banded pull-ups will get you doing the proper movement, with a little help. Loop a resistance band (or multiple) around the bar and put one foot in the band. Do a pull-up! Reduce the number of bands as you improve and pretty soon, you’ll be ready to go without.
What does perfect pull-up form look like?
The answer to this question depends on who you ask. But, when looking at the origin of the movement – gymnastics – there is a ‘correct’ way to perform the standard pull-up.
- Set your hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart, hanging from the bar in an overhand grip (palms facing away).
- Point your toes, pushing them in front of you and engage your core, back and shoulders so your body is in a slight dish.
- Keeping your body tight (not flailing about), pull yourself up towards the bar until your chin is above the bar.
- Lower yourself back down, maintaining tension the whole way down. Lower yourself until your arms are completely straight – failing to lock out is cheating!
Proof is in the pull-up
When it comes to the pull-up, there are multiple variations – wide grip, narrow grip, strict, kipping, butterfly (they’re more advanced CrossFit-style versions; let’s leave those for another day!) it’s hard to know where to start. Well now you know! Unless you already have excellent strength, hoping to master the pull-up in one session is unrealistic for most of us, so learn to walk before you run.
Splicing these exercises through your training schedule (no doubt you’ll find a few of them in my FIERCE program) will have you on the path to a pull-up in no time!
Keep me posted with your progress on social media by tagging me in your posts @chontelduncan and #fierce!
* Results from FIERCE may vary. Strict adherence to the program is required for best results.