A Guide to Pull Ups | Learning and Progressing

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 with 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.  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).  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 congratulate you on your achievement 😀

Thanks for reading.

Additional reading from Tony Gentilcore:

Chin-Up Progressions Part 1

Chin-Up Progressions Part 2

Chin-Up Progressions Part 3


  • October 27, 2011

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