Progressions to Dominate Your First Pull-up (Part 2)

There is a stark difference in how boys and girls were raised back in my day (that’d be the 80’s, people). My brother was encouraged to climb trees, break bones and cause problems. I was encouraged to speak softly, cross my legs, and mind my manners. My brother had G.I. Joes and I had helpless Disney princesses and Barbies with arms the size of a sewing needle. Physical strength was not the feminine thing to do. The word ‘pull-up’ wasn’t even in my vocabulary.

Unfortunately for my parents I climbed trees, played football and street hockey with the boys and I talked very loudly in an unladylike manner. I still do. I also watched movies like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and wondered how I too could be an athletic, vampire slaying heorine in my own life.

A 90's classic and a must-watch

A 90’s classic and a must-watch

I can’t remember if Buffy ever did a pull-up but I imagine that a time will come when you’ll need to hoist your body over a fence to save yourself from a deadly vampire. So yes, pull-ups could actually save you!

Even if vampire slaying isn’t really your thing, pull-ups or chin-ups can do a lot more for you in the long-run than any other pull exercise. Here are just a few we covered in Part 1:

– Stronger back and arms

– Improved grip strength

– Ability to carry all your groceries in one trip

– Most bang for your buck pull exercise

– Level of badass-ery quadruples

– Ability to slay zombies, vampires, and dragons – no Prince Charming required

Getting your first pull-up or chin-up is 100% doable for anyone. It doesn’t matter where you are in your fitness journey because we all start somewhere. Below are a few pull-up or chin-up progressions you can start incorporating into your routine:

Level 1: Bent over rows

The classic bent over dumbbell row is great for beginners who need to build back strength and great for experienced lifters as an accessory exercise. Key point to remember:

– Learn to turn on your lats during this exercise. This is the dominant muscle you’ll work in the pull-up and without turning them ‘on’ you won’t get very far.

– Maintain a neutral spine during the movement, avoiding rotation in the torso. If you have to rotate the torso to lift the dumbbell, get a lighter weight.

– Use a dumbbell or kettlebell, single-arm or both arms. Here’s a quick video demo.


Level 2: Dead hang

Part of the reason many people can’t perform a pull-up or chin-up is because they can’t hold on for long! Enter the dead hang. Grab on to a pull up bar with an overhand grip (pull-up) or underhand grip (chin-up) and hang on. Key points:

– Use them lats! If you feel your arm ripping out of your socket then your lats aren’t engaged. Start practicing this early – imagine you’re squeezing a pencil between your shoulder blades.

– If the bar is too high, stack up some plates or a small box to a height where you can reach the bar with minimal effort.

– Hold this position for 3-4 sets of 5-20 seconds. As you get stronger, the longer you’ll be able to hold on.

– The goal is to build up grip strength so grab on tight to that bar!

Dead hang

Level 2.5: Isometric holds

This is a lot like the dead hang except you’re holding the position at the top of the movement instead of the bottom. Step up on a box or bench and assume your pull-up position with chin over bar, chest to the bar. Hold for 5-10 seconds. Key points:

– Avoid shrugging your shoulders when you’re holding this position

– Work your way to 3-4 sets of 4 reps for up 10-15 seconds.

– This is a good exercise for someone that is weak at the top of the position. For those of us still learning to engage the right muscles, this exercise will also serve to build up your strength at the top of the position and teach you to recruit your lats and keep your neck relaxed.

photo (33)

Level 3: TRX rows 

This row variation is a basic back strengthener. Unlike the bent over rows, here you’ll use a TRX or suspension trainer to groove the movement pattern needed to do a proper pull-up. It’s an easy exercise to progress or regress with a few adjustments to the TRX or your body’s position in relation to it. Make it easier by bringing your feet further away from the suspension trainer (towards vertical / standing position) or make it harder by moving your feet away like you see in the photo below. Key points:

– Start with your arms fully extended and legs straight. Pull your abs in, squeeze your butt and legs together.

– Imagine you’re holding to a newspaper underneath both armpits to get those lats engaged.

– Pull your chest towards the suspension trainer while keeping your body rigid and in a straight line.

– TRX not required. Any suspension trainer or gymnastics rings will work here.

photo 4 (1)photo 2 (6)



Level 4: Eccentric pull-ups / Negatives

We tend to be weakest at the bottom of the pull-up. Negatives teach us to control the movement during the hardest phase – the eccentric, or downward phase, of the pull-up. To start, step on a box or bench to get your chest up to the bar and chin over bar. You can also use a band for assistance if a box or bench is unavailable. From here, lower yourself to a dead hang with control. Key points:

– Work up to 3-4 sets of 4-6 reps, lowering down for up to 5 seconds each.

– I used a band for my eccentric pull-ups to help hoist me up after I hit bottom. If you decide to use a band, avoid letting it do all the work in the downward phase.

– The keyword here is control. If you start kipping all over the place or drop down fast there’s no benefit to this exercise. Here is a demo eccentric pull-up.


Level 4.5 Band-assisted pull-ups

Getting your first pull-up or chin-up takes practice. Band-assisted pull-ups help you practice the movement with full range of motion (ROM) when no partner is available for help. Of course, it’s easy to let the band do all the work or lose control and start kipping. If this is you, go back to doing negatives. Band-assisted pull-ups helped me do more reps with good form until I could finally do one without assistance. That’s not to say the other exercises weren’t important – they all played a role in developing my strength. Use it wisely. Key points:

– Maintain solid form throughout the movement and avoid kipping. The goal is to make your movement pattern stronger while getting a few extra reps then you normally would without.

– Keep the body rigid. With the band’s help there’s no excuse to let your arms do all the work or to engage your hips in the process. Here’s a demo.

– Use different bands to regress or progress the exercise. There are lots of bands that offer more assistance than others, therefore making it easier. Check out Rogue for some sweet options

Final thoughts

The only way to get good at pull-ups or chin-ups is to do them often. Spend up to 2-3 weeks on each ‘level’ 3-4x a week, and do them at the start of your workout when you’re fresh. There’s more tips in Part 1 (seriously guys, read it!) that will help you as you work your way to your first pull-up. And don’t be afraid to email me, tweet me, or send a question via the comments or carrier pigeon along the way.

Now go be your badass, pull-up crushing self!




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