Your First Pull Up: A Step by Step Guide

For many people, doing their first pull up is a big deal. It isn’t something we are born to be able to do easily. We spend most our time on our feet, so naturally our biggest and strongest muscles are in the lower body. This is why we find squating and jumping much easier than pull our bodyweight up.

In saying that, we all know that person that didn’t do any training and can just bust out several pull ups. Some people have higher muscle tone and can build muscle easier in their upper body. Others are just athletic and light, so they find them easy. But there is no point dwelling on others peoples’ starting points. We all have different bodies and our we all respond to training differently. This blog is for those that want to build strength required to perform their first pull up. For those that can already do them, you can utilise these same steps for a one arm pull up!

When I was 15, I had a sudden urge to train to do a pull up. It was around the same time I joined my first gym, and started doing strength training. I was quite skinny, with not much muscle tone, so this was a huge challenge for me. Being light helped out, but becuase of my gender/genetics, I found it hard to build muscle. I did a lot of research, and stayed persistent to my goal. I would like to share with you what I did to achieve my goal.  

Firstly, this is the order of training I would recommend if you want the best chance at doing your first pull up. But do be adaptive if you do not have access to certain equipment, or you feel you are ready for a different level. As usual, get help from Personal Trainers so you know you are keeping to good form and avoiding injury. This program will require 12 weeks of motivation and consistency. Remember to fuel your body well, and choose to have a rest day if you feel too fatigued.

1. Understanding: Before you begin, you must learn what muscles you need to strengthen for a pull up. In general, your Lats, Shoulders and Biceps have a huge role to play. They are sometimes known as your ‘pulling’ muscles, as their job is to pull your arms into the torso. Familiarise yourself with where these muscles are. This initial step is important, as it helps your brain activate these muscles and get them ready for some action.  

Pull Up Muscles

2. Activate Back Muscles: You need to wake up your back (lat) muscles if you want to build the correct strength for a pull up. The Lat muscles can take some practice to engage properly initially. Strength machines at the gym such as the Seated Low Row and Lat Pull Down are great. Machines are great as you can set the resistance low and feel you are in a safe position. Start with 3 Sets of 10 Reps, 2/3x a week for 4 weeks. 

Seated Row

Lat Pull Down

3. BodyWeight Exercises:  Ok, so you have woken up these ‘pulling’ muscles and have seen progress with strenghtening your upper body. You can continue to do the above exercises, but you are ready to add in some bodyweight exercises too. These are great as they require minimal equipment.  The next exercises to incorporate are the Incline Pull Ups and Eccentric/Negative Pull Ups. Both these can be done using a bar at a playground, or at a gym. You can do both in a session, or choose one to do, then the other for your next workout. Do these 2 exercises for another 4 weeks.

3A. Incline Pull Ups: You will need to find a low bar or rings. Whilst keeping your body straight, and your heels on the ground, you will pull your chest up towards the bar. At the top, hold for 3 seconds then lower slowly. Repeat 3 Sets of 12 Reps, 2/3x a week. You can increase the difficulty by lowering yourself further, or resting on only one heel.

Incline Pull Ups

3B. Eccentric/Negative Pull Ups: These are still one of my favourite exercises to strengthen your lats. I feel that they are the most effective exercise to move through your pull up progression plateau. For this one, you will need a higher bar that you can hang under, and a bench/chair for your feet. Place your hands shoulder width apart on the bar, and using both legs, jump up and hold your body so your chin is above the bar. Hold here for 5 seconds, then lower down slowly. Do 3 Sets of 8 Reps, 2/3x a week. These should feel very fatiguing and get more challenging to lower with control. Make sure you can complete all reps with control before advancing to the next phase.

Eccentric/Negative Pull Ups

4. Assisted Pull Ups: Using a resistance band, loop it over your high bar. You will then place your feet inside the band, to complete your pull ups. Choose an appropriate level of resistance for you. Keep your hands wide on the bar, and still control your lower with the band. Complete 3 Sets of 12, 3x a week. Do this one as well as the Eccentric/Negative Pull Ups (above: 3B) for the next 4 weeks.

Band Pull Ups

5. The Pull Up: This is the stage where you attempt a full pull up! You have done the training, and seen progress in your upper body strength. You have built the appropriate muscles required for your first pull up. Get a good grip on the bar, start with your arms straight, hanging under the bar. Engage your lat muscles by squeezing your shoulder blades together, then continue pulling your body up. Note how far you get up. If you are able to complete your first pull up, congrats! If you feel it is still very difficult, then you can repeat the above steps you feel appropriate. 

The Pull Up

6. Maintainence: Now that you have done your first pull up, don’t stop there! You lose what you do not use! So if you stop training, your strength can decline and you may find you need to re-start your training. Keep the muscles worked, increase your intensity, and aim for a harder goal, such as 5x pull ups, or 10, or 20! Enjoy!

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