A Guide to Pull Ups | Learning and Progressing

by Marianne  - October 27, 2011

Hi everyone,

Sorry I have been absent for so long but I have had internet issues and some sort of stomach “bug”, so I have been silent on the web. A workout will follow soon, but in response to several questions about Pull Ups I thought it was high-time I made a tutorial.

Performing your first pull up is an amazing feeling and a major landmark in your strength-training journey – so I think that everyone should have the chance to experience that feeling of achievement. It is probably one of the most challenging exercises that a female can perform as it requires upper body strength and good grip endurance; never mind the mental strength and determination.

In order to allow you to master the exercise, I will take you through a tutorial on proper form, assistance techniques and some progressions.

The Tutorial

Learning proper form from the get-go will ensure you get the most out of this amazing exercise. Not only will you build your upper body strength, but you will improve your shape, posture and overall training potential. The carry over to and from other exercises is vast because having a strong back and grip will be a recurring theme through any training programme, whether it be withΒ Kettlebells, the Barbell, the Sandbag or Dumbbells …

Let me recap on proper technique pointers from the video:

  • Regardless of whether you choose neutral, underhand or overhand grip, the following sequence remains the same.
  • Beginners are best to use neutral or underhand grip to allow them to more easily perform the full range of movement by utilising more of their biceps, rather than relying on their back, forearms and grip.

Shoulder Packing

  • To reap the benefits from the exercise, you must learn to tuck your shoulder blades flat against your back, pull them together and slide them down your back. Like you are trying to “tuck them in” a back pocket in your jeans. This helps you stabilise the shoulders by strengthen the upper back muscles around and under the shoulder blades. You need to be strong at this skill for many other types of training; such as Kettlebell training and barbell lifts (like deadlifts and back squats). Shoulder packing helps you keep your shoulders in their sockets even as resistance tries to pull them out; it also helps you to keep your “chest up” during other lifts. The pull up will help you master this skill and get those shoulder packing muscles stronger!

How to perform a Pull Up

  1. Choose your grip and hang from the bar; gripping with your fingers and thumb rather than your whole hand – this will help your grip endurance by relying more on the tendon strength over your forearm endurance.
  2. Hang relaxed with your arms straight
  3. Initiate the pull from the elbows and follow through using the upper back muscles (packing the shoulders), pulling the sternum towards the bar. Don’t shrug your shoulders. If this happens, your shoulders aren’t packed!
  4. The rest of the body remains neutral throughout the exercise.
  5. Reverse the movement under control and return to the starting position (hanging relaxed with arms straight).

Improving Grip Strength and Endurance

  • Static hangs: Hang fully relaxed with straight arms from the bar for a set time. For example: Beginners aim initially for 3 sets of 20 – 40 second holds and gradually progress the time. Either perform this drill on days you are not doing resistance training or after your resistance training so you do not pre-exhaust your grip.
  • Farmer Carries/Walks/Holds: Grip a Kettlebell or Dumbbell in each hand and either stand still to hold for time, or walk with the weights for distance/time. Progress the duration of the hold or the weight carried.
  • You can also perform static holds with the barbell while in the top position of a deadlift.

Assisted Pull Ups

  • Assist your pull up using a chair or bench to push off with one foot. Β This method will be most common for trainees at home. Remember to always make it challenging and don’t cheat too much by pushing more with the foot.
  • Band Assisted: Bands can be bought from Pullum Sports or EliteFTS. The thicker the band the easier the pull up. This is a great way to measure progress because the level of assistance require is predetermined. As you improve your form and strength with the thicker band you can progress to thinner bands.
  • If you are looking to improve your pull up numbers then you can use bands to assist your pull ups after your bodyweight max. This time you start with the thinner bands and work to the thicker ones. After you reach failure on one band, then you can continue your reps using more assistance etc.

Isometric Holds and Negatives

  • By holding the pull up at the top (iso hold) or lowing slowly (negative) you place the muscles under tension and stretch for longer allowing them to build strength.
  • Both methods allow you to build pull up strength from the top down.
  • Isometric Holds can be performed for 3 sets of 10 – 20 seconds (for example)
  • Negative: Lower from the top position over 5 – 10 seconds x 3 sets

Always keep the goal in mind and don’t forget to practice your pull ups from time to time – for example, you can test your pull ups every day, as long as you are not performing too many. So performing one pull up at a time several times per day (depending on your ability and your recovery rate). Β If you are a beginner then you can still practice every day, but avoid training the assistance exercises everyday. You can do grip training, assisted pull ups, ios holds and negatives 2 or 3 times per week. Always remember that recovery is equally important to your progress.

Some Progressions

  • Overhand grip
  • Wide Grip
  • Using Fat Gripz
  • Weighted Pull Ups

This should be enough to get you started. While numbers and max strength are important, the main thing with pull ups is proper form, so pay attention to that and you will benefit from the exercise regardless of you numbers. Progress is not just about numbers.

That being said there is a number I would be thrilled to see: The First One!

Let me know your progress so we can congratulateΒ you on your achievement πŸ˜€

Thanks for reading.

Additional reading from Tony Gentilcore:

Chin-Up Progressions Part 1

Chin-Up Progressions Part 2

Chin-Up Progressions Part 3



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  1. I watched this video back in January or febuary when I first wanted to do chin ups/pull ups. I am happy to report I can do sets of 5-6 with underhand & neutral grip and 2-3 overhand. Your instruction helped me a lot, at 48 I had never learned proper technique & I don’t believe I had ever done one ever. Thanks for the great video.

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  4. I just wanted to say how helpful I’ve found this vid! I’ve recently sorted my head out in terms of my fitness goals, and have been working on a goal of reaching 12 good range press ups by the end of November. This was going well (yay! πŸ™‚ so a couple of weeks ago I started to look for my next goal to set, and came across your video which made me think chins are achievable. I’ve bought a bar and surprised myself by being able to do 1 following your advice on form. I’m seeing improvements on the number I can do band assisted too. I know it will take some time to move from that 1 chin up to a small set, but I feel like you’ve given me the tools to work with.

    I wouldn’t have even attempted this without having watched your video – Many, many thanks for this!!!

    1. Thanks so much for the feedback June. I am really pleased for you and your new goal. Even better that you are stronger at pull ups than you thought πŸ˜€ Great Job!!

  5. Hi Marianne,

    Thanks for the tutorial on pullups. I’ve been on a journey to do them over the last 6 months. I started by using the lat pull down machine, once I could lift 2/3 of my body weight (60kgs), I attempted to do a chin up – to my great surprise I could do 2!

    I’m now up to 6 sets of 6 chin ups and I’ve just bought a chin up bar and an assisted band because in addition to improving my chin ups, I’m trying to progress onto pull ups (underhand grips?? I thin). On a good day I can go do two so I’ve got a long way to go.

    I also noticed that once I start to get tired, I can’t get my sternum over the bar. What’s your advice – stop or continue but just bring my chin over the bar? I love your site by the way, I can’t seem to find anyone else in the UK who’s into strength and conditioning!!

    Keep up the good work!


    1. Frances well done on your progressions! 6 x 6 ?? wow that’s amazing πŸ˜€

      Chin ups are underhand, pull ups are overhand πŸ™‚

      As for range of movement, I think it’s ok that you try for that last few reps are less “pretty”, so long as you are not using any dangerous compensating mechanisms like rolling the shoulders forward. Even then, I don’t think anyone can do every rep perfect, especially if you are trying to increase the numbers each time. Chin to the bar on that last few reps is fine. Because the next time it will get higher. You can’t progress unless you try, right? And how will we know what we need to do unless we give it a shot!

      That’s how I look at it. If your form REALLY sucks on that last rep, then taper back on the next set and leave it for another day.

      Some days I can do 7 perfect chins and 1 not-so-perfect. Then another day I can only do 6 perfect and the 7th is a little dodgy – so that day I don’t try for 8. It all depends on you overall fatigue and focus etc.

      Hope this helps and thanks for the UK support πŸ˜€ Spread the word !


  6. Hey marianne, need some advice and guidance. At my gym, we have an assisted pull up machine that you can adjust the assisting weights. Now should i do a 1-1-1-1rep approach and drop the weight til failure or should i find a good beginning weight assist and do 3×10 and drop the weight every week…or do a mix of both, maybe 3 weeks out of the month, do the 3×10’s and 1week of 1-1-1-1’s…my pull ups suck! Lol…thanks for the time and your tutorials

    1. Hey Tonyb,

      Honestly I would say do both methods, but mix it up throughout the week rather than month. So one day start with your MAX unassisted reps and rest for a few minutes (maybe even add a vertical push exercise here like overhead press), then return for another set on pull ups – this time use the assisted machine and do as many reps, do a push exercise in between while you recover your pulling muscles and repeat. Do 4 or 5 sets.

      Then a second day in the week perform either the 3 sets of 10 assisted, eventually dropping the weight each week or do max unassisted. Try not to always stick to 1-1-1-1, try 2-1-1-1, then 2-2-1-1 and so on until your first set is getting higher. Don’t be afraid to mix unassisted and assisted in the same session.

      Finally, remember recovery! Train intensely with pull ups maybe twice a week, but you can always try a few single sets each day. Like if you’re just walking past the pull up bar – do a pull up.

      Does this make sense? You can also follow the 50 pull ups protocol πŸ™‚

  7. Hi Marianne,
    Many thanks for that!! I’ve managed my first pull-up!! Doing two in a row is my next BIG challenge: )
    One question: In order to supplement my training on pullups I’m using the lats pulldown machine to build some extra back strength. I’m wondering, should I be doing over- or under- grip lat-pulldowns? which grip helps most?
    Many thanks!!

    Waiting for news and videos from Baltimore ; )

    1. Hey Anna,

      Do you have any bands to assist your actual pull/chin ups? It would be better to train the same movement for your pull ups. But, the lat pull down will also help build your vertical pulling strength. As for which grip to use; underhand will be easier and will require less effort from the back, because the biceps assist more; overhand will use more back. Therefore, I would use over hand grip on the lat pull down and underhand on pull ups to build your overall strength.

      We will have the edited video back from our cameraman in the next few days and I have one from the Kettlebell day still to edit. Lots of photos too. Not sure of you are on facebook, but they are up on our page already.

      Flying home today πŸ™

      1. Thanks so much! Unfortunately I don’t have an assist band, but will try build some extra strength with the lats machine…although not the best, i’ll add it for now until I manage to do a few proper consecutive chin-ups unassisted! Will get there!

        I’ve seen some photos on fb, I follow both you and Girls Gone Strong! You look like you had a fab time! Well deserved though πŸ™‚

        thanks again!! xx

  8. hey came across this tutorial yes by chance,guess what???? yesterday was dreaded back exercises so i watched, read & learned. Then off i popped(full of motivation) with my new found knowledge of grippin the bar(ive been doin negs, holds and assisted using smith bar lowered so i could reach the floor)but not gettin anywhere, i work out alone at home. I DID 3 SETS OF 4 using my pullup station. YOHOOOOOOOOOOO major achievement i have FM and upper body strengh and grippin not my strong points. Its a cause of constant disruption in my life. thanks for excellent advise

    thanks mill

  9. Great tutorial Marianne, I am still a long way from doing pull ups, but I will keep practising….just like I did with push ups and they are doing just nicely now – thanks for all your great advice – I love this site!

    1. Awesome Marianne! I finally did one chin up from a standing position (bar in door frame). It felt amazing! Thanks so much for your help.
      I’d love you to write about your breathing during deadlifts and heavy squats. I see you and your bad ass friends do this and would like to learn about how that helps you lift heavy?
      Thanks so much!

      1. THAT’S GREAT NEWS!! Congrats Girl πŸ˜€ Well done!

        Thanks for the suggestion, I think that would be a great post to write. I will put it on my “to-do” list πŸ™‚

  10. Thanks for the post. I’m looking forward to being able to rep out some chin ups. My max reps at the moment is only 2…I almost think I could get a third if I had better grip strength. Will try your tips. πŸ™‚

  11. hi marianne

    looking to get my account activatied,registered a couple of weeks ago.username was muriod.your website is awesome love your workouts.

  12. Oh Marianne!!! I have tried and tried – I’ll do 100 single leg hip trusts and 100 burpees, but I cannot do ONE pull up! Have been trying Chin ups (palms facing you) and can almost do one, but legs kick out in front of me, back arches…etc!!! Thank you for this and I will try, try, try again with your suggestions to build up my back first and do the isometric holds..etc. I really hate these, but want sooo badly to conquer at least one good one! Needed this tutorial! Have a great day!!!!

  13. awesome video and info! I just posted a video of me doing some band assited chin ups..wow since doing them I feel SO much stronger, I was so happy to be introduced to the bands!! I cannot wai tto be able to do a full unassited!

    1. Having something to strive for is the thing that keeps us going. Thanks for posting your chin up video – keep it up! If I might offer a suggestion? Hope you don’t mind. But perhaps you could actually do with a slightly thinner band. The reason I say this is the tension on the one you were using was almost too much meaning that you never made it all the way down to the arms being straight. Maybe this is on purpose (to work the upper range of movement) but, even from time to time, try lowering all the way down to initiate the stretch reflex in the muscles from the arm all the way to the shoulders and back. It might help πŸ™‚
      #Great work!

  14. Marianne,

    Thanks for the tutorial. I’m wondering if you can address the issue of elbow flaring in pull-ups – my partner is adamant about ensuring that pull-ups are done with elbows tucked in. He talks about rotating your shoulders “in” towards you body to lock them in the socket, almost like a corkscrew being twisted into your shoulder socket.

    I am far from doing my first pull-up, and the fact that it’s so hard to achieve and takes thoughtful practice makes me excited! So much room for growth!

    Go myomy-ers! Lol πŸ™‚


    1. Hey Claire, I would be inclined to agree that it’s best to aim to pull the elbows in. The shoulder should be back and down, not forward.So if this is what you partner means, I agree.

      It’s great that you mean such a challenge with a positive edge πŸ™‚

  15. Thanks a ton for posting these helpful hints on the Pull-Up. I’ve struggled forever to get any number of reps under my belt, and I’m fairly certain it’s been my lack of grip strength that’s been holding me back, so I’ll definitely be trying out your suggestions.

    Much appreciated as always!

    1. No problem Marty, I hope it helps. Perhaps it is too much grip STRENGTH and not enough grip ENDURANCE?? Either way using the fingers rather than the whole hands helps loads!

      Good luck!

  16. I am 67 y.o. and live in Florida (USA). I have been learning kettlebells approximately one year. No certified instructor within 100 kms. To me your tutorials are priceless. Thank you for being a great teacher IMO.

  17. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I forgot about recovery and was doing a few (poorly executed) negatives every day and wow was I sore. I’m looking forward to achieving this goal!

  18. Great video and post Marianne! Thank you for posting this its like you read my mind πŸ™‚ I was definitely doing the chin over bar before and the chest to bar really makes such a massive difference!! I am determined to get these!

    Lol this might show you were I’m at……might be a silly question but how do you breathe doing these? I have a tendency to hold my breath :/

    1. This is a great question actually! With any strength exercises I tend to take a deep breath in before I begin the movement then during the highest tension of the lift I continue to hold my breath until I am past the most taxing phase then I slowly release the breath. Holding the breath helps create more tension and support through the body and helps keep everything tight and under control.

      I was guilty of the chin over the bar too. Now that I aim for sternum, it’s harder, but I feel my back working much more πŸ™‚

    1. A static hang is better than no hang πŸ™‚ If you can combine the static hangs with some iso holds then you will help build your upper back strength and your grip too.


  19. Hi Marianne,

    Thank you for this tutorial….it could not have come at a better time. Doing pull ups was probably the second goal I aimed for since I started training. Though it has yet to achieved πŸ™‚
    I have come close a couple of times, but have been training outside with kettle bells and other body weight stuff since March.
    Now that winter is creeping back in I will be retiring to the gym again.
    It is a bit scary thinking about trying to do pull ups again hopefully the brain block against them will not return πŸ™‚ but your tutorial is so helpful and as always you are an inspiration!!!
    I will keep you updated on how I go, my deadline is March….going back to Sydney for a holiday and I’m determined to show my old trainer I can finally do pull ups!! πŸ™‚
    Thank you again, love your work!

  20. Great instruction! Marianne, don’t worry about missing a few days blogging here or there. There is a wealth of instruction on your site. I know I speak for others when I say that I look forward to your blogs and videos. We certainly don’t want it to turn into a chore for you. Blog when the inspiration hits you. I encourage everyone who uses this site to send in a donation often to support it. Where else can you get a virtual personal trainer like this?
    Great job!

    1. Thanks Kim! It’s no chore to update my the site, but I can’t help but feel bad if I haven’t done a new workout or post in a while – it’s a good “pressure” to have because it keeps me focused on the content here!

      I appreciate your understanding and I very much appreciate the donations made to date. Thank you!

  21. pull ups are still one thing that I struggle with. I can do one and the rest usually assisted. I am thinking of getting the bands to help.
    I can do renegade rows and rows with heavy weight but the pull up is usually a struggle and a big challenge which I guess is a good thing to work towards.

    Thanks for the tutorial.

    1. Have you heard of Greasing the Grove? This type of training means that you do 1 rep multiple times throughout the day. Some people suggest that each time you walk past the pull up bar, do 1 rep. This might help you reach your second consecutive rep. But Bands will also help with your strength endurance. Something I am working on too πŸ™‚

      I’m a long way off, but I want to do this when I grow up:

      NIA is seriously/freakishly strong!!

      We all have to have our inspiration and she is one of mine.

      I look forward to hearing about your second rep πŸ™‚

  22. Great video and instructions! Thanks a lot! I would love to one day be able to do a pull up, for now I do the negatives and the assisted . Thanks again!

  23. Once again a great video. I can’t wait to get back to being able to work out. I go in Monday for carotid artery surgery, so maybe in a month or domi should be able to get back to it.

    Marianne, once again awesome work

      1. Marianne,

        Yes, my left is 98% blocked and my right is about 70%. Surgery is first thing Monday morning. Can’t wait to back to the workouts! I will be keeping zmy eye on your workouts! Lol

        1. Goodness! Well, take care of yourself and I hope you’ll be fighting fight as soon as safely possible. We will all be sending you positive thoughts for monday and your recovery Mike.

          Marianne πŸ™‚

          1. Marianne,

            You really are the best!! Half a world away and I feel like I have a great friend!!!

    1. You’re very welcome πŸ™‚ I got mine at a second hand shop here, but you can get them on Amazon. If you scroll to the bottom of the page, you’ll see a small picture gallery with some of my recommended equipment and links to Amazon where you can buy them. It’s a great sturdy bar, I love it!

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