A process to get your first pull-up

Source: Jen Theodore, via Unsplash

A pull-up is a simple exercise of pulling your body up with your hands. You need to have the strength to pull yourself up, and not be too heavy to not pull yourself up. This is why a pull-up is a good marker of being strong and lean.

In this post, I’ll detail the process of getting your first pull-up. This is based on what worked for me personally. This may not work for everyone, and might not be the optimal way to get a pull-up. But you might just find something that’ll help you on your journey to your first pull-up.

Two things you can’t do without

The two main requirements of a pull-up are pain and patience. Of course, you’ll need a pull-up bar, but that comes later. More than any piece of equipment you need to be willing to endure physical and mental pain for a long period of time. That’s just the hard truth of life.

Physical pain: The reason you’re learning to do a pull-up is because you can’t. That’s a beginning and at the beginning of anything (especially a physical feat), there’s bound to be pain.

Mental pain: Unlike most physical progressions, a pull-up’s feedback loops are few and far between. The feeling of not being able to pull your body up will make you curse your lack of strength and excessive weight. That’s not a bad thing. Take it in your stride and change both these things by learning the pull-up.

You’ll often feel like giving up. But stick with it. The ability to pull your body up in the long-term will be worth more than the physical pain and mental roadblocks in the short-term.

So, before you end up buying workout equipment, signing up for a gym membership, or watching that motivational video, ask yourself this — am I willing to be patient and endure the pain?

Now let’s get to the why.

Why the pull-up?

This is a common question to ask — what’s so great about the pull-up?

The way I see it, a pull-up is — simple, effective, and minimal.

Simple: Unlike many fancy exercises involving the body, it is simple. It only requires you to pull your body weight up. Nothing else. Intuitively it’s simple. No fancy mechanics, not a lot of flexibility and mobility required. You just have to be strong enough to lift your body up and light enough to be lifted up.

Effective: It forces you to be strong and lean. If you’re very strong and big but not very light, you won’t be able to do a pull-up (or not a lot of pull-ups). A pull-up uses your back, biceps, forearms, and abs. It works several muscles at once.

Minimal: A pull-up can be done anywhere, on a bar, ledge, pipe, or even a strong tree branch. You don’t need need any equipment at all.

A pull-up is difficult. You need a certain level of strength to do a pull-up. It’s not something that can be achieved through form-correction and changing your shoes. These remedies work (to an extent) for exercises like a squat, but not a pull-up. Unlike a push-up (which is also a great simple exercise), a pull-up requires a higher degree of strength. In a pushup, you’re pushing the upper body’s weight, not the entire body. In a pull-up, you’re forced to, whether you like it or not, pull-up your entire body.

Pull-ups build calluses. Calluses, when doing pull-ups, are those cuts you get on your palms, right below the fingers. Use it as a sign that you’re doing something that’s difficult. Never, ever let those calluses fade away. Let it remind you to keep doing pull-ups wherever you are. That’s a little something I learned from David Goggins.

These factors — simplicity, effectiveness, minimalism, difficulty, and a reminder are my whys to do the pull-up. Find yours.

What do I need?

Now that you know the mental requirements and the reason to achieve the pull-up, we’ll look at what equipment you should look at.

  1. A pull-up bar:

In order to do a pull-up, you need something to pull-up from. If you’re doing this at home, get a good pull-up bar. A good pull-up is judged based on two things — its build, and location.

Build

There are two kinds of pull-up bars, ones that are bolted to the wall, and ones that are fixed between a door’s hinges. I use the former.

The bar bolted on the wall is stronger and safer. Because of this, there is no fear of falling. This is worth more than the extra bucks you’ll have to spend compared to the bar that locks between the door’s hinges. I’d suggest the bolted pull-up bar.

To be fair, I haven’t used the door hinges bar. But on talking to people who have I can say — the door pull-up bar is clunky and requires a lot of adjustment. Plus, there’s always a fear that it’ll loosen. You don’t want a bad experience like that when you’re starting off a difficult task. Get a bar that you can bolt on the wall.

Of course, if you have certain non-negotiable constraints like the absence of a strong wall, landlord issues, and more, go ahead with the pull-up bar on the door. Whatever gets you started.

Location

Here, location does not mean where you get the bar from, but where you fix it. Once you decide where the bar should be consider these points:

  1. Height: Makes sure it's high enough that you can’t reach it with your hands extended overhead. In order to touch the bar, you should have to stretch. Note, stretch does not mean jump. If you go on your toes and your palms (or at the very least your fingers) should just about reach the bar, that’s a good enough height. This ensures that your lats are engaged when lifting your body up. If you can reach the bar without a stretch, it's too low. This will prevent you from engaging your back muscles. This will also bring your legs into play, which shouldn’t happen. On the other hand, if you have to go on your toes or jump, it is too high. This will force you to put a larger load on untrained and weak muscles. Lastly, a bar that’s higher than the ideal height is better than a bar that’s lower than the ideal height. This is because you can compensate for the extra height with a stool, bench, or chair. You can compensate for a lower height by bending at the knees. But I’d prefer the chair to the bend.
My bar.
  1. Distance: Here, distance refers to the distance from the wall. Make sure the bar is at least an arms-length (shoulder to fingernail) away from the wall. This will prevent you from hitting the wall and if you want to add another piece of equipment (like gymnastic rings). When you start off, in order to get some momentum as you lift yourself up you will either jump or swing. This is not a bad thing at the start. But once you develop some strength, you should unlearn this. If you have some space between the bar and the wall, you will not hit the wall. Once you develop the pull-up you can move on to gymnastic rings. This is not only advanced, but it incorporates other muscle groups. In order to use rings, you need space. If you maintain an arms-length distance, you do not need to re-adjust the pull-up bar to workout with rings.
Pull-up bar with rings and TRX Suspension bands

Now that you have the main equipment, let’s move onto supporting equipment.

2. Resistance bands:

If you can’t do a single pull-up, you’ll need resistance bands. These bands are wrapped around the bar on one end. You put your feet on the other end. They’ll give you a boost when going up. It feels like someone is pushing you upwards as you pull-up. Resistance bands help in getting the body used to the movement of pulling its weight up.

Here’s a video on resistance bands during pull-ups:

The resistance bands used for pull-ups are different in two ways. Firstly, they are thicker. Since they pull the entire body up, they have to be thick (about 2–3 inches). The bands have to be wrapped around the bar and feet, they need to be long in length. But don’t stress about the length and breadth of the bands, just search for resistance bands for pull-ups specifically. Here’s a good example.

Don’t get regular resistance bands. They are meant for other exercises. They can’t be used to learn the pull-up.

In terms of how many to get — get three of increasing resistance. The thicker the band the more it’ll help you. The idea should be — work your way from all the bands — thickest — thinnest — none. Use each one as milestones that set in positive feedback loops.

3. Dumbbells:

Dumbbells aren’t specifically required. However, it helps target your forearm and biceps which aren’t worked primarily during the pull-up. You have to use your forearm and bicep during different parts of the pull-up. Hence, you need them to be strong as well. Dumbbells allow bicep and forearm training to keep up with back and lats training. Think of this as supporting work for the overall pull-up.

Get whatever weight of dumbbells suits you. Go light and increase the weight as you get stronger.

Training — the real work begins

Exercises

Once again, I’d like to reiterate, I do not have any personal training (PT) experience. As such, this isn’t a tutorial or training program for a pull-up specifically. This is just what worked for me.

That said, the three muscles you should focus on should be:

  1. Back

Ab-work is also important. Although, personally, it does not break into my top-three.

Here are a few exercises for each group:

  1. Back

Always start with a row. It is what it sounds like. A row is a movement to pull an object closer to your body or pull the body closer to the object. Either way, it involves pulling. Hence, the carryover to a pull-up. It primarily works the back, but also the biceps and forearms.

You can perform a row with a dumbbell, barbell, rings, TRX bands, resistance bands, or even a table. Whatever you use, make sure you’re pulling correctly. If it's with a moveable object like a dumbbell or barbell, bring it as close to the lower chest as possible. Avoid flaring out the hands when doing so.

Here’s a video on how to perform dumbbell rows:

Personally, I’d suggest doing ring-rows. This is because getting used to your body weight is crucial to learn pull-ups.

Here’s a video on how to perform ring rows:

As mentioned earlier, the basic concept with any form of rows is pulling, either your body or a weight. This works the back and arms for the pull-ups.

You can use the resistance bands for rows but these are very low intensity. I’d suggest sticking to ring or dumbbell rows.

2. Forearm and Bicep:

The reason this is combined is you can do one exercise to work the forearm and the bicep — hammer curls. These are similar to bicep curls we all did in front of the mirror as kids, except the dumbbells are pointed to the ground, not sideways.

Here’s a video to learn how to do hammer curls:

The last exercise I’d urge you to do is the simplest of them all — dead hangs. That’s the fancy name for it. It just means hold on to the bar with both hands and your feet off the floor. You’ll initially be able to do these only for a few minutes. Time yourself and work to improve each day. The more you can hang on to the bar, the stronger your arms are, and the closer you are to doing the pull-up.

Movement

The above exercises work the muscles indirectly. Meaning, you aren’t training the movement of the pull-up. You’re training the muscles to help you do the pull-up. In this section, we’ll focus on the movement.

  1. Resistance bands:

As mentioned earlier, you have to use the resistance bands in a descending manner. Start off with a combination of resistance bands. This will give you a great amount of assistance. If you can perform a few pull-ups initially with the help of the bands, great. Get your body used to the movement of being pulled up by the arms. The muscle memory of doing the pull-up movement (even with the resistance bands’ assistance) will have a carry-over to when you actually perform pull-ups.

2. Negatives:

Another great way of developing the pull-up movement is through negatives. This is the second half of the pull-up — the part where you descend down from the bar to the floor.

Place a chair, box, or something sturdy below the pull-up bar. Stand on it with the pull-up bar right above it. Jump off the box until your chin is over the bar, and slowly descend down. If the box is high enough that you’re chin is already over the bar, that works as well. When descending, you’ll notice this is immediately easier than pulling up to the bar. Go down from the bar to the floor, or the box (based on your strength) as slow as possible. This will help work the second half of the pull-up movement. I can’t stress how important this is to the overall movement.

Here’s a video on negative pull-ups:

Once you incorporate both the individual muscle training and the movement training, you’re on course to doing pull-ups. These exercises and movements are working on strengthening the muscles. However, given the pull-up requires you to be light (or at least lighter than you currently are) you should also look to decrease your weight. Two things have to work in parallel — getting stronger and lighter.

I’m unfamiliar with what works to decrease body weight (or more specifically body fat), either through exercise or diet, hence I’ll refrain from commenting on the same. But remember, learning how to do a pull-up is as much about your weight as it is about your strength.

Muscle and movement

Your training should comprise of two things — muscle training and movement training. For the muscle training work on three muscle groups — back, forearm, and bicep. For the movement training work with descending resistance bands and negatives. Add in some conditioning work to reduce the body fat so that you can pull yourself up.

This is just the skeletal structure of what should go into your pull-up training plan. Fill in the details with the exercises that you prefer. But always follow this two-pronged plan — muscle, and movement.

Getting better

The only way to get better at pull-ups, or to do more pull-ups is to do more of it. It's really that simple. If you can do just five pull-ups, do three a day, every day. Don’t max out. Don’t overtrain. Just keep it consistent. Do a few pull-ups every day, spread across a few hours. Don’t hammer them out in one hour and be sore for the rest of the day. Or worse, for the rest of the week.

Here’s a video that talks about this:

Hit the bar

As mentioned earlier, this is not a tutorial. This is just what worked for me. Not everything might work for you. You might add and remove some parts. That’s completely fine. This is by no means the final word.

What I hope you take from this is the importance of learning pull-ups. It requires strength, leanness, pain, and patience. It is simple, minimal, and effective. It isn’t easy and it always always leaves a reminder in the form of calluses in your hands. The road to getting your first pull-up is long and hard, but it’s worth it.

If you think I should add something to this process, you can reach out to me on Twitter here. If you’ve made it this far, I thank you. But more than that, your future self will thank you for taking on this challenge.

Writing as opposed to keeping the thoughts locked in my head.

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