But what if you can’t do a pull-up yet?
The answer: read this ultimate guide on getting your first pull–up ASAP!
Let’s do this thang.
In the video above, Coach Jim walks you through the exact progression system we use with our coaching clients who want to get their first pull-up (or chin-up).
Before we get into exercises to progress into a pull-up, let’s chat about some general strategies.
Consider the following three points when attempting to get your first chin-up or pull-up:
#1) This should hopefully be obvious, but the more you weigh, the more you have to lift in order to complete a pull-up.
If you’re truly serious about completing a pull-up, start by getting your diet under control.
#2) MAKE YOUR “PULL” EXERCISES A PRIORITY. A lot of people do every other exercise before doing any back-related exercises, if they do any at all.
Until you get your first pull-up done, focus on the back exercises detailed in the levels and workouts in this guide.
#3) The progression we outline is a path that works for most people, but does NOT need to be followed to a T.
We give sample sets and reps and when to move up, but if you feel like you can progress sooner or want to try doing full pull-ups sooner than we recommend, that’s OKAY.
This is the slower progression method, where some people will want to do fewer reps and progress to the next levels sooner – that’s okay.
We recommend moving up to the next level when you can do 3 sets of 8 reps of a particular exercise. If you want the accelerated path, move on up as faster as you can do 3 sets of 5 reps. You do you boo.
We’re going to start with bent-over dumbbell rows, the most basic of back exercises, in case you’re starting from ABSOLUTELY square one.
Level 1 Pull-up Workout:
Whatever allows you to get to at least 5 reps a set.
Once you can do 3 sets of 8 reps (each arm), it’s time to pick up a heavier dumbbell.
This will allow you to get stronger and stronger.
Make sure you give yourself at least 48 hours until you do the Level 1 Dumbbell Rows again, so you can include these dumbbell rows for your workouts on:
As soon as you can do 3 sets of 8 reps, it’s time to move up to a heavier dumbbell.
Want help designing your own workout routine? I’ve got two options for you.
Bodyweight rows are the PERFECT precursor to pull-ups – they work the same muscles, and have you lifting your own bodyweight, just at a different angle.
For this level, we’ll provide you with two options: You can also make adjustments.
OPTION A: IF YOU HAVE ACCESS TO A GYM OR WANT TO JOIN A GYM:
At your gym, find your Smith Machine and set the bar at about chest height.
A higher bar makes the exercise easier to start:
And as you get stronger, you can set the bar lower:
If it helps, here is a video demonstration with gymnastic rings, but you can start with a bar as displayed in the images below.
If you need to make the exercise less challenging, bend your knees and put your feet flat on the ground:
Level 2 sample workout routine:
(And then go underhand, overhand, underhand the following week)
OPTION B: IF YOU DON’T HAVE ACCESS TO A GYM FOR INVERTED ROWS:
You have 4 paths here:
1) Purchase a door frame pull-up bar, hang a pair of gymnastic rings from them. And then follow the same advice as above!
2) Use your kitchen table for rows (BE CAREFUL):
4) Move up to Level 3 and progress with caution there.
It’s the type of program that helped single mom Leslie lose 100+ pounds and start training with gymnastic rings and handstands!
Okay! It’s time to get to ACTUAL pull-ups here! Personally, I don’t like using the assisted pull-up machine in a gym as it doesn’t give you the full feeling of a pull-up, but it’s certainly better than nothing.
Instead, I recommend doing one of these alternatives:
#1) Assisted Pull-ups with a chair
Either one foot or two on the chair, depending on your needs. Your feet are ONLY there for support, use your upper body as much as possible.
You can also use a box or similar-sized object for the same result:
#2)Assisted Pull-ups with exercise band:
You can get different types of exercise bands with different levels of strength, or a variety pack for easy progression.
Put your foot in the exercise band and pull yourself up.
#3) Assisted pull-ups with a partner:
Have a friend hold your feet behind you and help you complete each rep. Have them use the least amount of help possible to get you through your workouts.
For another reference, Coach Jim and Staci show you how to do a variation of assisted chin-up right here:
This is probably the TOUGHEST level before getting your pull-ups. If you get stuck on “assisted pull-ups” and “assisted chin-ups”, you’re not alone. This is where most people get stuck.
Finally, a workout that includes Level 3 pull-up exercises
This will help you ramp up to Level 4.
Alright, so we’ve started off great! We’re working those pulling muscles and assisted variations – but an actual chin-up might feel miles (or kilometers) away.
Heck, just even holding onto the bar may be a challenge without some assistance.
What should we do now?
How about we work on holding onto the bar!?!
Before we work on doing full range, unassisted chin-ups or pull-ups, it’s really helpful to be strong and confident in holding unassisted parts of the movement.
This is where Top Holds and Bar Hangs come in!
#1) A Top Hold is exactly what it sounds like – we hold the top position of the chin-up or pull-up for several seconds (5 to 10). You’ll likely find holding the top of the chin-up (palms facing you) easier than the pull-up.
This is definitely something that you want to first do assisted. We’ll then work to transfer more weight – bit by bit over several workouts – off our feet and onto our arms until we’re holding ourselves unassisted at the top.
Using a band is a good option for assisted chin-ups, but using a box, bench, or another sturdy object will be a better option here.
It will allow you to shift that weight onto your arms a little easier.
That said, if all you have is a band for this exercise then that’s ok! Look to use thinner and thinner bands, while lifting the feet and knees up a bit to further reduce assistance (as the band won’t be stretched as far).
#2) On the other side of the movement, we have the Bar Hang…which is pretty much what it sounds like too!
To perform a bar hang:
To further supercharge this exercise: once you are hanging unassisted, work on retracting your shoulders down away from your ears.
This small movement is TOUGH (and you can even practice it assisted) but getting strong here will set your shoulders in an even better position for your first chin-up/pull-up.
We’ll look to hang from the bar (assisted or unassisted) for a total time of 30 seconds to 1 minute. At first this time may be broken up into several sets (e.g., 10 seconds, 10 seconds, 10 seconds), but you should eventually work up to one full set.
So how should we integrate either of these into our training?
#1) For the Top Holds, do this at the start of your workout (after your warm-up) for 3 sets of 5 seconds. Make sure you give it your all! Really squeeze the muscles tight and put as much weight on the arms as possible!
With all that effort, you’ll want to give yourself 30 seconds to a minute rest in-between. I know that sounds like a lot for just 5 seconds of work – but if you were working hard enough, you’ll need it!
#2) For the Bar Hang, do this at the end of your workout for 30 seconds to a minute. Again, look to complete this in as few sets as possible, while making the exercise as challenging as possible. Move from assisted to unassisted, with the shoulders retracted downwards.
If you have to take a break during the bar hang time, then take enough rest so that the next hold is productive.
Here Are the Exercises You Can Include for Your Level 4 Workout Routine:
When you’re able to perform the Top Holds and Bar Hangs unassisted, then it’s time to move to the next level!!!
What’s this??? Secret hidden exercises?
I just wanted to bring your attention to a great addition to any of these workouts – especially as things really ramp up.
Ready for it?
It’s . . . the front plank!
The front plank (or any of your favorite midsection stabilization exercises) is a great exercise to do, should holding a Top Hold or a Bar Hang prove tough.
If you haven’t already felt it during the previous pull-up workouts – your middle needs to be involved too!
During a pull-up or chin-up, if we squeeze through the midsection and glutes, the nearby muscles are able to contract stronger through a phenomenon known as muscle irradiation.
Besides sounding like something the Fantastic Four encountered in space, this cool “trick” can help engaged nearby muscles in the midsection, including those big back muscles that pull us up!
You can see muscle irradiation for yourself if you’ve ever been asked to flex your biceps for someone. You’ll instinctually squeeze your hand tight, because it helps the biceps engage stronger!
If needed, throw in some front planks work near the end of your workout.
You can even start on your knees:
Look to hold 30 seconds to one minute of total time.
Alright, back to our regular scheduled programming!
Okay! We are now DANGEROUSLY close to getting our first pull-up!
The big step at this level is doing a negative pull-up:
WARNING: This can be very dangerous if you’re very overweight, which is why I’d recommend moving slowly through steps 1-3 first.
However, once you have a decent amount of back strength (which you got from Levels 1, 2, and 3), doing negatives is a great way to build arm and back strength.
You have two options for negative pull-ups:
You don’t need to lower yourself so slowly that one repetition destroys you…lower yourself at a controlled speed – Counting to “three Mississippi” during the movement is a good tempo.
Here are the exercises you can include for your Level 5 Workout Routine:
OH BOY! My dear Rebel, it’s time for a…
At this point you have two options:
A chin-up is when you grab the bar with an underhand grip with your palms facing towards you.
Many find chin-ups slightly easier than…
A pull-up is when you grab the bar with your palms facing away from you. Seeing as this is a pull-up guide…
Depending on your weight, your level of fitness and strength, and how far along you are in these progressions, you might be able to start with even more than one pull-up.
Level 6 routine weekly schedule:
Congratulations! You’re now doing pull-ups. Make sure you watch that video above to make sure you’re doing pull-ups with proper form. Nearly everybody does them incorrectly, with bad form.
They’ll also build a workout program that’s custom to your situation, which will have you doing sets of 10 pull-ups in NO time!
Once you’re able to do 3 sets of 10 pull-ups or chin-ups, you have a few options:
OPTION #A: Continue to get better at doing more reps – 3 sets of 12, 3 sets of 15, 4 sets of 20, etc.
OPTION #B: Start doing other types of pull-ups.
#1) WIDE GRIP PULL-UPS (grab the bar WAY out with both hands):
#3) SIDE TO SIDE PULL-UPS
#4) RING PULL-UPS
OPTION #C) Add weight with a weight belt and do weighted pull-ups or weighted chin-ups:
Personally, my favorite thing to do in a gym is weighted pull-ups; if you’re at this level and interested in doing so, here’s what you need to do:
Where do you go from here? How about working towards one of the most impressive exercises of all time? The MUSCLE UP (warning: uber advanced)!
Our new app, Nerd Fitness Journey, not only has an adventure to get you your first pull-up, but we’ll also show you exactly how to do cool bodyweight tricks like the muscle-up too. No guesswork needed here, just jump into the app and follow the missions and workouts for the day.
You can try your free trial TODAY, right here:
No matter your starting point, you CAN do pull-ups.
And you WILL do pull-ups with this guide.
You don’t need to follow the progression above exactly – it’s merely one path that you can take in order to reach the promised land…where the pull-ups flow like wine and the women instinctively flock like the Salmon of Capistrano.
For people looking for the next step, we’ve built 3 options that might float your boat:
You’ll work with our certified NF instructors who will get to know you better than you know yourself, check your form, and program your workouts and nutrition for you.
#2) Exercising at home and need a plan to follow? Check out Nerd Fitness Journey!
Our fun habit-building app helps you exercise more frequently, eat healthier, and level up your life (literally). We even have an awesome adventure to help you get your first pull-up!
Try your free trial right here:
3) Join our free community, the Nerd Fitness Rebellion, and we’ll send you our free Strength 101 Guide, which you can get when you sign up in the box below:
Follow the path that works for your schedule, your experience, and your level of comfort with this movement – there’s no shame in going slowly and progressing safely.
And if you’re gung ho about pull-ups, ready for negatives and trying to squirm for that first rep, feel free to go for it. Just be safe.
When you DO finally do a pull-up, I want to be the first to know – email me at [email protected] and tell me about it!
For the Rebellion,
PS: Check out our other three articles on pull-ups: