A step-by-step guide to mastering your first pull-up
Every winter in my elementary school gym, our whole class was rounded up and tested on our physical fitness. From the shuttle run to our sit-and-reach flexibility test, this yearly exercise was one we all dreaded. Even twenty years later, I think back to myself in 1999 feeling anxious and embarrassed. Not only were the exercises extremely public, as we watched each classmate get tested, one-by-one, our results were compared with how we performed the year before. It was a rude awakening for a kid.
The toughest part of the test was always the pull-ups for boys and flex-arm hang for girls. Regardless of whether or not this was fair, I was horrible at both. My kind of pull-ups was like that of the gym scene in “Sixteen Candles” — with my feet firmly on the ground. Every year, I hung limply from the bar, my grip slipping after the first few seconds, trying not to turn beet red in front of my classmates.
Let’s just get it out there. Pull-ups are tough, for both women and men.
In 2017, the US Marine Corps even lowered their physical fitness test requirements from three pull-ups to zero because more than half of the women recruits couldn’t do them. Now, both men and women can opt to do push-ups instead.
Yet, pull-ups are consistently the best exercise for overall upper body strength. Normally, this wouldn’t resonate with me, except once I learned how to do them, it was the exercise that single-handedly caused my weight loss transformation before my wedding.
As a skinny-fat, petite girl, I thought my body would always look the same. I had run half a dozen marathons and worked out to various cardio and HIIT routines since college. My weight and physique never changed after the age of 15. After I started doing pull-ups, though, I lost 5 lbs. and my ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos showed that the weight was all carried in my back. Who knew?! My back now had that flattering V-cut, without any fat hanging over the back of my sports bra like before.
I attribute this success to pull-ups.
A year and a half before my wedding, I joined my fiancé in his weightlifting workouts and began doing pull-ups with our removable pull-up bar secured to our closet doorframe (I recommend a bar like this). It took some time to master the pull-ups, but are a vital few tricks got me going in a month. With a little effort and a few minutes a day, you too can get to your first, unassisted pull-up in a month. So, how do you do pull-ups?
Your First Pull-Up, Step By Step
1. First, a refresher, what is a pull-up?
The standard pull-up is when your arms are shoulder-width apart, your palms facing away from your body. Squeeze your shoulder blades, utilize your core, and bend your elbows upward until your chin makes it above the top of the bar. Doing this from a straight arm, dangling position without a kick for momentum (aka kipping) constitutes your pull-up.
Variations of pull-ups include the wide pull-up — when your arms are wider than shoulder-width apart — and the chin-up when your palms face your body. For many, chin-ups are easier than pull-ups because they utilize more bicep muscles, making it part bicep curl, part lats (latissimis dorsi).
2. Get assistance.
Trying to do a pull-up straight off the bat can be demoralizing if you can only make it a few inches. Plus, it won’t get your muscles practicing the right motion so you can easily do them in the future.
As a Military.com interview with former Navy SEAL, Stew Smith, says, “One thing I have learned is that women and men cannot do pull-ups without practicing pull-ups.”
No matter how many push-ups, weighted overhead presses, or pulls with a resistance band you knock out, it won’t help you get to your first pull-up.
The big secret to doing pull-ups is to get started with a pull-up assist band. With a pull-up assist band, you can do assisted pull-ups, right now. The pull-up assist band clips straight into the middle of your pull-up bar, with a non-slip loop for one of your feet (this is the band I use). The number of elastics can be adjusted so that you can change how much bodyweight you carry until you’re able to do pull-ups on your own.
Pull-up assist bands are safe, but do not make a DIY band. You don’t want to get hit in the face if your homemade resistance band breaks!
3. Progress to 20 Assisted Pull-Ups Every Day.
Start with the lightest setting on your pull-up assist band and work towards 20 assisted pull-ups. Change the weight your band carries until you feel like your arms will give out at your twenty-first pull-up. Keep on this setting for one week, and then make it harder for week 2 and week 3. For those overachievers out there, add on 20 chin-ups after your 20 pull-ups. Even at my weakest point, this all took less than 15 minutes a day.
Don’t try doing unassisted pull-ups yet. Wait until you’ve done your daily assisted pull-ups for a month before attempting your first unassisted pull-up.
4. After One Month, Test Yourself.
If you practice daily, you’ll be able to rack up over 600 assisted pull-ups in your first month!
When I tested myself for the first time, I was able to do 3 unassisted pull-ups followed by 5 unassisted chin-ups, and felt like a total boss for the rest of the day!
Without the use of the pull-up assist band, I would never have been able to do these after one month.
Regardless of where you’re at today, the important thing is to keep putting in the work and doing pull-ups to strengthen your back, shoulders, and arms. Once you’re able to do a few pull-ups, it will be easier to add on more repetitions.
One day, it will just click. So go get up on that bar! You won’t know how your body will change until you do it.