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How to get your first pull-up

By stephdorworth

November 8, 2022


Intro

Today’s blog is based on a full and complete guide to pull-ups that just went out yesterday over on my YouTube!! It includes everything you could possibly want to know about building up to your first pull-ups. And even if you can do a few pull-ups, you’ll still want to go watch it (or read it in blog form here) to see how to use proper form and progress with pull-ups over time. So for the visuals, check out the video here:

Pull-ups vs Chin-ups

Today is all about one of my favorite empowering exercises - the pullup. As a tiny woman, I haven’t always been able to do a pull-up. Even as a child who did gymnastic for a few years, I was never able to do a pull-up. It wasn’t until I had been strength training strategically for about a year that I finally attempted and achieved my first chin-up (which is different from a pullup, yes).

What’s the difference?

  • Chinups are done with an underhand grip where the palms face you (targeting the lats and biceps more)

  • Pullups are done with an overhand grip where the palms face away from you (targeting the lats mostly) 

  • Neutral-grip pullups are done with a neutral grip where the palms face each other

Since the chin-ups utilize the biceps more, they tend to be easier for newbies to achieve first. I suggest you begin the program I share today and attempt a bodyweight chin-up once a week until you can get one. Try that chinup first. And after a few weeks and months as you get stronger, you can eventually switch to pullups from there.

So why do pullups or chinups in the first place?

Why Pull-ups are Important

Not only does it feel amazing to be able to walk up to a pullup bar and knock out pullups like a boss… but it also also a fantastic compound exercise. It works the entire upper body, back, and core in a challenging way! 

Building up your lats will create more of a V taper in your back, therefore making the waist appear smaller.

And flexing your lats… come on - it’s so fun!

From a Physical therapist perspective, having a strong back is helpful for posture, scapular stability, spine stability, and overall pull strength.

Common Pull-up Mistakes

You already know that pullups are quite challenging. Even once you’re able to do a couple, you’ve got a long way to go - but what a nice challenge! 

Instead of focusing only on getting more reps or volume in (sets x reps), you should also be focusing on your pullup form.

Some common pullup mistakes to be aware of are:

  • Elevating the shoulders

  • Not engaging the lats actively

  • Using momentum/swinging

  • Not keeping the spine neutral - hyperextending

  • Not getting full range of motion - not getting the chin above the bar or not straightening the arms fully at the bottom

The Best Mobility Warmup for Pull-ups

As you know, I’m the mobility queen and 100% believe that everyone should do a mobility warmup before all exercise. So before your upper body pull day or pullup practice, please do these couple exercises to properly prepare your muscles and joints.

The Pullup Warmup:

  • Dowel rod around the world x 10

  • Dowel rod child’s pose x 10

  • Dowel rod shoulder extension x 10

  • Standing QL stretch x 5ea

  • Wall snow angels with posterior pelvic tilt x 8

Watch them in action here:

The Best Strength Exercises to get your First Pull-up

Next I’ve put together a list of my favorite preparation exercises. These are exercises that will specifically prepare you to be able to do your first pullup. 

They focus on the ability to keep a posterior pelvic tilt, the ability to keep the shoulder blades down, vertical pull strength of the upper body, and grip strength.

You can write your own workouts and include these 2-3x/week for better results with getting your first pullup.

Exercise ideas:

  • Posterior pelvic tilt in tabletop (to improve core strength)

  • Hollow body hold with arms at sides (to improve core strength)

  • Hollow body hold with arms overhead (to improve core strength)

  • Incline bench reverse crunch  (to improve core strength)

  • Standing overhead dowel rod scapular elevation and depression (to improve scapular stability)

  • Scapular pull-ups (to improve scapular stability)

  • Dead hangs (to improve grip strength)

  • Dumbbell pullover (to strengthen the lats)

  • Cable bar pulldown (to strengthen the lats)

  • Lat pulldown (to strengthen the lats)(try various grips with this one like narrow, wide, neutral)

  • Inverted row  (to strengthen the traps and rhomboids for scapular stability)

  • Negative chinups or pullups (to strengthen the lats)(jump up to the bar and lower down slowly)

  • Band-assisted chinups or pullups (to strengthen the lats)

For all of these exercises, remember that you can start basic. And eventually add more advanced lifting techniques like:

  • Increasing range of motion

  • Increasing time under tension / slowing it down

  • Adding an eccentric (3-4 second lengthening phase)

  • Adding a pause (2-10 second pause in shortened phase)

The Pull-up Program

I didn’t want to leave you hanging (literally…from the pullup bar) without one full pullup workout. I’ve written this with a PT and Certified strength coach mindset focusing on appropriate exercise order, volume, and priorities. So here’s an idea of what I believe is the perfect pullup strengthening workout.

How often you do this upper body pull day workout is up to you. But if your goal is to get a pullup, I recommend 2-3x/week.

The Pullup program:

  1. Bodyweight pullups - 3 sets of AMRAP (as many reps as possible)

  2. Negative chinups - 3 sets of 3 (lower as slow as possible)

  3. TRX inverted row - 3 sets of 10 (legs straight or bent)

  4. Eccentric dumbbell pullovers - 3 sets of 8 (4-sec lowering)

  5. Chest-supported DB rows - 3 sets of 8

  6. Cable bar pulldown - 2 sets of 10

  7. Cable 1-arm pull-in - 2 sets of 10ea

  8. Hollow body hold - 2 sets of 30sec

Wrap Up

Include the pullup program into your routine regularly and after a few weeks or months, you’ll be well on your way to getting your first pullup and even getting more advanced with them!

Dream about doing weighted pullups, eccentric accentuated pullups, and even pullups with fun different grip variations… it’s all possible!

The more perfect practice, the better you’ll get at them. So keep practicing!

If you follow this program and are able to get your first pullup, I’d love to see it! Record it and message it to me on Instagram @stephdorworth so I can celebrate this huge win with you.

I recall the day I got my first pull-up with my husband cheering me on and it is a day I will never forget. I felt so accomplished. And now, I’m doing weighted pullups and knocking out ten of em which is more than many males can do! Girl power!

Happy Pullup-ing! 🙂

Thanks for reading!


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About Dr. Steph

Doctor of Physical therapy and Online Training & Nutrition Coach with a passion for teaching men and women how to train despite injury.

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