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Scientific Training

How to do Your First Pull-Up (Exercises and Programs below!)

Do you want to do your first pull-up? In this post, I will be showing you how to do exactly that!

You’ve seen it countless of times. People pulling themselves up and down the bar with so much suave and ease. It looks so effortless. Yet, when you grab ahold of the bar and pull with all your might, you find yourself swinging just barely off the ground.

Don’t lose hope! You CAN do pull ups. Those guys you see repping out five, ten, twenty… fifty! of them couldn’t do it before either.

I remember the first day I did my first pull-up. I was so ecstatic because I had so much self-doubt. In my mind, pull-ups was an exercise that only seriously fit people could do. I had tried it so many times before and was never able to lift myself a few centimetres off the ground. But after a few weeks of consistent training, I noticed an increased distance between my body and the ground… and suddenly my chin was resting against that darn bar! FINALLY!

And you know how we celebrate the first milestones of things like birthdays/school/job (ahem, I meant pay check)?

YOU will be adding FIRST PULL UP to your list of first milestones.

I can guarantee it if you follow my progression program that I have outlined for you below. I would also guarantee your money back but I’m not taking your money in the first place so… what is there to lose!

Factors at Play

I like transparency – seeing the thought process behind someone’s idea or concept. I feel like if I understand some things (if not all), I’m more likely to remember/enjoy/apply it. So I’ve included this section where I show you what the determining factors are in achieving a pull-up. From there, you can see how I’ve formulated my pull-up progression guide.

Factor 1: Muscles

A pull-up is a compound exercise. This means a multitude of muscles are working hard together to produce that seamless transition from a dead hang to getting that chin over the bar.

The primary mover of the pull up is the latissimus dorsi muscle. One of its primary function is shoulder adduction (brings your arms down toward the sides of your body). When you activate this muscle against a fixed bar, your will move vertically up and towards it. The teres major works synergistically with the lats and helps with this movement.

As you go up, your upper arms move slightly backwards due to the posterior deltoids and pectoralis major. The biceps, brachioradialis and brachialis allows elbow flexion while their antagonist, the triceps, stabilises the arm.

The trapezius, pectoralis minor, rhomboids and levator scapulae muscles allows you to descend down in a controlled manner. They retract and bring your shoulder blades downwards. This overall stability is further enhanced by the rotator cuff muscles (stabilises the shoulder girdle), the abdominal muscles and the erector spinae.

So in order to do a pull-up, you’ll need to strengthen these muscles of the upper back, shoulders and abdominals.

source: Patrick Malleret (Unsplash)

Factor 2: Body Mass

This is kind of a no-brainer. If you’re pulling your entire body up vertically, then your body mass is an important factor. The ability to do a pull up is inversely proportional to how much you weigh. The exercise is a great indicator of your body fat composition (read more here: —).

I’m not saying that you can’t do a pull-up if you’re on the heavier side. It just means that it’s harder for you to achieve the rep compared to someone who is lighter.

So if you really do want to get that pull-up, working towards a leaner body mass will help you achieve this (amongst other benefits!).

Source: Kira auf der Heide (Unsplash)

Factor 3: Gravity

Another no-brainer! Unless you’re reading this article from space… it’s the only factor out of the three here that you can’t change.

SOURCE: NASA (Unsplash)

Pull-Up Progression Guide: The Exercises to Do

There are so many exercises out there that you can do – hundreds! But we want to workout smarter, not harder. So I’ve selected the best exercises that will optimise your efforts in getting your first pull-up.

I have divided my exercises into: activation, main and supplementary exercises.

Activation exercises will help activate the muscles used during a pull-up. If you have never done a single pull-up before, then you should start off with these exercises rather than jumping straight into the main exercises. If you can do pull-ups, use these activation exercises as a warm-up beforehand. These exercises will get your joints and muscles used to the movements as well as teach your body (and mind) how to optimally activate them when you do the main exercises.

Main exercises will replicate the vertical pull-up motion. This allows the muscles that will be used in a normal pull-up to go through all the ranges of motion. These main exercises will comprise the majority of the program and ultimately, be responsible for strengthening the muscles you will be using to get your first pull-up. Once you can do a few pull-ups, you can use these exercises to identify your weak areas.

Supplementary exercises are not optional here! Although they don’t look like they’ll help you in getting a pull-up, they truly do. Supplementary exercises are important in achieving good form and technique. Good form and technique is what prevents injury, pain and loss of function. It helps you use your energy efficiently whilst doing a pull-up, so you can further advance your single pull-up to multiple reps to weighted pull-ups and so on. These exercises will also help fast-track your results so you can get that pull-up faster! So don’t skimp out on them!

Activation Exercises

Bar hangs with scapular retractions

  • Same as bar hangs above
  • This time, you move in and out of the ‘packed’ and ‘unpacked’ upper back position.
  • Start off by just hanging with a dead ‘unpacked hang’ and now engage your upper back muscles by moving your shoulder blades backwards and downwards. Hold there for 10-15 seconds. Relax for 5 seconds and then repeat.
  • Form check: focus on your grip strength, contract your core, squeeze your glutes, your chest/thoracic should be open, keep your legs straight

Chin holds

  • Use a plyo box or bench to start at the top of the bar – you might need to do little jump!
  • Start where you would be at the top of the pull-up movement – your chin is above the bar and your chest is near/touching the bar
  • Hold there for as long as you can
  • Form check: focus on your grip strength, contract your core, squeeze your glutes, your chest/thoracic should be open, keep your legs straight

Main Exercises

Negative/Eccentric-only pull ups

  • Start at the same position as the chin-holds above
  • Hold at the top for as long as you can and then slowly make your way down once – the slower the better. Even when you’re at the near bottom, still go as slow as you can before your elbows are fully extended.
  • Form check: focus on your grip strength, contract your core, squeeze your glutes, your chest/thoracic should be open, keep your legs straight

Band-assisted pull ups (On knee vs on foot)

  • Hook a long resistance band around the bar and place it around your mid-foot
  • Do pull-ups with the band assisting you
  • As it becomes easier, choose bands with less resistance (thinner ones vs thicker ones)
  • You can also hook the band around the knee to make it harder (less force downwards and less momentum)
  • Because this helps you get over the bar relatively well, you should be pushing hard at that last rep at the end
  • Form check: focus on your grip strength, contract your core, squeeze your glutes, your chest/thoracic should be open, keep your legs straight

Machine-assisted pull ups

  • You can use this machine if your gym has it instead of the band-assisted pull ups
  • As with machine-oriented exercises, they don’t ‘force’ you to engage your core and other muscles as much as when you’re doing it without the machine (i.e. with the band)
  • But if you find this easier to start off with then definitely use this!

Lat pull downs or Cable Machine pull down

  • Use the lat-pull down or cable machine pull down (for single sided work) to develop more of your latissimus dorsi muscles
  • When doing the lat pull-down, slightly lean backwards and pull the cable/bar to your chin, slowly release it back up in a controlled manner
  • Use the cable machine pull-down for single sided work. This will also engage the core more as you’ll need to stabilise your sides.

Supplementary Exercises

Abs

  • Ab wheel roll-out
  • Reverse crunch
  • Hanging leg raise

Posture exercises

Check out my video and post here to see how these exercises are done!

  • Cable face pulls
  • Banded pull-aparts
  • Banded pull-apart to Y

Pull-Up Progression Guide: The Program For Beginners

Don’t worry, I’m not sending you away with just these exercises! I have curated two programs (yes two!) so that you don’t have to worry about how you will go about incorporating all of these exercises into your workout sessions. What you do need to worry about though, is how sore you’ll be AND how EXCITED you’ll be when you get your first pull up!

The Go-To program is designed for those who want less commitment (2-3x per week) while the Intensive program is designed for those who have more time (3x per week).


The GO-TO Pull-up Program for Beginners (Commitment 2x per week)

Alternate between Workouts A and B making sure to have at least 48 hours between workouts.

For example, Tuesdays and Thursdays are your chosen days for this workout. On Tuesdays you’ll do main workout A and accessory exercises A. On Thursday, you’ll do main and accessory B.

Every fortnight after a thorough warm-up and very light lat-pull down or machine assisted pull-ups or THICK banded-assisted pull-up, attempt to do an UNASSISTED pull-up to see how you’re progressing. If you can do one, push for two and more!

Warm up (do before every session)

General warm up – I simply like to use any cardio based machine for 5-10 minutes to get my heart rate up and blood flowing until I work up a sweat. I find that it makes me better-abled to do my workout and even more motivated!

Activation Exercises (do before every session)

  • Bar Hangs with Retractions 3 x 10-15 seconds
  • Chin holds 3 x 10-15 seconds

Main workout – A

  1. Negative/Eccentric pull ups 5X for as-long-as-possible (ALAP)
  2. Band-Assisted pull ups warm up to 3-4 x 6-8 reps
  3. Lat pull down 3-4 x 10-15r eps

Accessory exercises – A

  1. Band pull aparts 3 x 15
  2. Ab wheel roll-outs

Main workout – B

  1. Negative/Eccentric pull ups 5X ALAP
  2. Machine assisted pull ups 3-4 x 6-8reps
  3. Cable machine pull downs 3-4 x10-12reps

Accessory exercises – B

  1. Face pulls 3x 15
  2. Banded pull apart to Y 3×10
  3. Reverse crunches (+ variations) 3×10

The INTENSIVE Pull Up Program for Beginners (Commitment 3x Week)

As above, make sure to have at least 48 hours recovery between workouts.

An example of spreading out these workouts would be Monday – A, Wednesday – B and Friday – C with the other days for rest or other muscle groups.

Warm up + Activation Exercises as above

Workout A – Strength day

Main:

Primary: Banded pull ups Warm up to 3-4×5 reps

  • Using larger bands to start off with and gradually decreasing their size with each set, complete 2-4×5-7reps Warm up sets until you find a band that you can not complete more than 5 reps with. The complete a further 2-3 Sets X 5 reps using that band. It should be really tough!!

Secondary: Machine assisted pull ups 3-4 x 8-10 reps

Supplementary:

  1. Banded pull apart 3×10-15
  2. Ab wheel 3×10

Workout B – Repetition day 1

Main:

Primary – Machine Assisted pull-ups 3-4×8-12

Secondary – Lat pull down 3-4×8-15

Supplementary:

  1. Banded tension to Y
  2. Reverse Crunches Or Decline bench reverse crunch

Workout C – Repetition day 2

Main:

Primary: Negative/Eccentric Pull-ups 5-7XALAP

Secondary: Close grip pull down 3-4x 10-12 reps

Supplementary:

  1. Face pulls 3×10-15
  2. Unilateral Cable rows 3×8-10
  3. Hanging Leg raise 3×8-10

After every week, attempt to do an unassisted pull up (or many!!) after a thorough warm up. You will be surprised how quickly you will progress.