Learning to Do a Pull-up

September 16, 2010 // Al Kavadlo

The pull-up is my all-time favorite exercise, so naturally I write about it a lot.

Unfortunately, not all of my readers can do a pull-up…yet.

Many of you have told me you feel like you’ll never be able to do a pull-up.

Well that’s crap!

If I can do it, so can you.

Pull Yourself Together (And UP!)
As is the case with all bodyweight exercises, the heavier you are, the harder it is to do a pull-up, so the first area to assess is your weight. Hopefully, you’ve already started cleaning up your diet. Once you drop the fat, doing a pull-up gets way more realistic.

Another reason you may be having a hard time doing pull-ups is lack of upper-body strength. This is more often an issue for women. It’s just biology ladies – you don’t have as much natural upper-body strength as men. This does not mean you are incapable of pull-ups, it just means that you have to work a little harder for it. (Check out my pull-up tutorial for women for more info).

You Don’t Need Machines
When I was a rookie trainer, I used to put clients on the assisted pull-up (Gravitron) machine. In theory, every few weeks I’d be able to lower the amount of assistance until they didn’t need it at all anymore. In theory.

In reality, none of my clients ever made the leap from not being able to do a pull-up to being able to do one using the Gravitron. The problem is that it takes most of the stability away from the exercise, making it closer to a lat pull-down than an actual pull-up.

How to Work Towards Pull-ups
The best ways to work towards pull-ups are manually assisted pull-ups,
flex hangs, slow negatives and Australian pull-ups.

Manually assisted pull-ups are when you have your trainer spot you on the way up by pressing on your mid-back with their hand(s). I prefer this method over the “hold the feet” method for the same reasons I dislike the Gravitron.

The term “flex hang” refers to holding the top position of a pull-up, and is performed for time.

Negative pull-ups are when you lower yourself down from the top position of the pull-up. Performing slow negatives is a fantastic way to get a feel for the movement pattern of the full pull-up, without having to perform the entire range of motion.

Start by holding a flex hang for as long as you can. When your arms start to fatigue, lower yourself to a right angle at your elbow and hold there. Continue to fight gravity the rest of the way down, carefully lowering to a full hang.

And of course, there’s the good ol’ Australian Pull-up.

Things like lat pull-down machines and Gravitrons aren’t totally useless, but they should not be used as your sole means of working this movement pattern. Moving your own body weight is a unique skill that requires practice and patience.

For more information about pull-ups, pick up a copy of my book, Raising The Bar: The Definitive Guide to Pull-up Bar Calisthenics.