We meet new members all the time who come to us with a goal to do their first pull up, or to be able to do pull ups again after not having done them for many years. This is a goal that definitely gets me really excited because I absolutely love pull ups, and I remember how awesome it felt to see months and months of patient practice pay off when I got my first one!
Pull ups are challenging, but being able to do them is an attainable goal, provided you have a process for practicing. Just jumping up on the bar and “trying your best” with sloppy technique will not get you where you want to go. So, I’m going to share a progression that we have used to help many people learn to get their first pull up, or perfect their technique to be able to do pull ups for reps!
But first, I should warn you that it will require patience…There are no short cuts, and it may take a while depending on where you are already at in the process. Master each step below before you move on to the next. One of the biggest reasons we see someone’s progress stall out is that they try to move too quickly through the earlier progressions. OK – here we go:
Progression 1 – Straight Arm Hollow Hang. It is critical to develop a good hollow position right from the beginning of your journey. In hollow position your body forms a “saucer shape” (or what I often call a “forwards banana”) by tipping the pelvis in a posterior tilt so that the waistband of your pants moves toward your forehead (you can also think of tilting your pubic bone toward your belly button, or tucking your tailbone under). You should engage the abdominal muscles very strongly by shortening the distance between the ribcage and the hips, and the lats (armpit muscles) should be firing to keep the shoulders packed in their sockets. The glutes should also be contracting, and the legs should be squeezing together or crossed to generate tension. Grip the bar with a palms forward pull up grip, and maintain hollow position as you hang. If you have a hard time finding hollow position on the bar, spend some time practicing on the ground first. Once you have built up to a straight arm hang of around 1 minute, move on to Progression 2.
Progression 2 – Flexed Arm Hollow Hang. Now you will practice hollow hold in the top position, but switch your hand position to chin up grip with the palms facing backward. You can use plyo boxes at a height that you can just step off of, or have a friend assist you up to the bar. Once you have built up to a 30 second flexed arm hang, move on to Progression 3.
Progression 3 – Chin Up Negatives. Start at the top position and lower yourself slowly, and with smooth control until the arms are straight. Now you will get to see if you can maintain hollow position while you are in motion. One important thing to practice here is keeping the shoulders packed and the lats engaged as you lower – don’t let the shoulders come up around the ears or let the elbows flare out. Check out a video demo here. Once your negative is smooth and takes about 5 seconds to descend, move on to Progression 4.
Progression 4 – Assisted Chin Ups. You can use bands in a couple of different ways, or have a coach or training partner spot you on the way up as needed. You will have to play around a little bit to find what assistance works well for you. One thing I have noticed is that sometimes when people start using assistance, they might “forget” the technique they have been building in the previous progressions. Don’t rely on the band or your coach to do all the work for you – keep your hollow position, and approach your practice as is if you were not using any assistance. If you do this, and you have taken your time with the previous steps, you should be able to progress fairly quickly to doing an unassisted chin up.
Progression 5 – 3 Unassisted Chin Ups in a Row. Now that you can do 1 perfect chin up (congratulations!) keep practicing chin ups until you can consistently do 3 in a row.
Progression 6 – Assisted Pull Ups. Now you are ready to switch your grip to palms forward and start practicing pull ups using assistance… and before you know it, you will be doing your first pull up on your own!
A few final things I should mention… First, body composition does play a role in being able to do pull ups. The closer you are to your ideal body weight, the easier this practice will be. BUT – even if you have a weight loss goal, you can absolutely start practicing these earlier progressions as you are on that journey! We have seen people of just about every age and size learn to straight-arm hang, and progress to flexed-arm hang.
Second, depending on your injury history, and your shoulder and thoracic spine mobility, there may be certain things you need to address before, or in conjunction with your pull up practice. If you have pain in the shoulders or elbows, or if you find you cannot straight arm hang with your arms in line with your body, you should discontinue your practice and get the assistance of an experienced coach.
Lastly, this type of practice is best done “grease the groove” style… Meaning you need to spread out your practice sessions throughout the day with lots of rest in between. For example, when I was first learning to do pull ups, I would do a set first thing in the morning, then late morning, then in the afternoon, then again in the evening. That way I was always fresh and able to “grease the groove” with quality reps in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to do if I tried to do all four sets in an hour long training session.
Remember, there are no short cuts, and you will only run into trouble down the line if you move on to the next progression before you are ready. Enjoy the process! I look forward to hanging out at the bar with all of you!
Strength and love,
PS – Just for extra credit, here is another video of chin ups and pull ups in action!