How to Master the Pull Up

May 28, 2015 4 Comments

Oh pull ups. A fitness staple that pits your bodyweight against a simple bar. Where you strive to defy gravity and haul your mass just high enough to get a glimpse of the glory that lies over the crest of that bar.

For a movement that looks so easy when done by pro's, it is a damn hard one to master for many.

The pull up is a functional favorite that harnesses strength in multiple upper body muscles to complete one conrolled movement. The primary muscles targeted will be your traps, rhomboids, pecs, delts, lats, subscapularis and of course, your mighty biceps. 

Besides being a staple in many WODs and a pesonal milestone, there are several other reasons you should want to master the pull up. For one, they are one of the most convenient exercises since they only require you and one pole...or a tree limb if you're getting creative.

Secondly, they are a compound upper body workout meaning pull ups target several muscles at the same time and in doing so, stimulate the release of your body's natural growth hormone.

Pull ups are also easy to increase intensity. By simply adding a weighted belt you can build both intensity and muscle. They are also a fantastic exercise for improving your grip strength, which is fundamental for bodybuilders and WODers alike.

Finally, pull ups can help with fat loss by boosting your heart rate. Just increase your sets and limit the time in between  and you'll be winded in no time!

All of this is well and good, but if you are like many others out there, you don't want to hear about the benefits; you want to know how to progess. 

There are several exercises you can progress through that will help you acheive your first strict pull up. If you follow these exercises in order, you will be completing unassisted pull ups in no time. 

1. Static Bar Hold

To help you build your muscles and confidence, we're going to start by having you hold at the top of the bar. You can use a box or have someone help you reach the top position, where your chin is just above the bar. Hold this position, arms flexed for at least 10 seconds. This may take some time, but once you are able to hold this position for 10+ seconds, move on to the next exercise.

Quick note: if you are totally uncomfortable with the bar, you can start by practicing dead hangs. Literally hang off the bar, fully extended so that you can improve your core stability and grip strength. If you can do this for 10+ seconds then the static bar hold will be a breeze!

2. Negative Pull Ups

Negative pull ups only utilize the second part of a pull up, the downward (or eccentric) motion. From the static hold position, very slowly allow your body to release your flex and move into the hang position. This allows your back muscles to start building the strength essential for completing a full pull up.

3. Ring Rows

Once your negative pull ups become slow and controlled downward movements, it's time to start moving into ring rows and focusing on the concentric movement of pulling your bodyweight up. To do this correctly, ensure the bottom of your rings touch your hips and are spaced shoulde-width a part. Standing parallel to the rings and holding them, lower your body until your arms are fully extended and your body is suspended between the ground and your grip on the rings. 

Channel the strength in your back muscles and biceps and pull your body up until your arms are flexed and the rings are in line with your chest. Extend and repeat. 

The aforementioned exercises are all examples of unassisted pull ups, but don't necessarily mean that you'll be able to crank out stricts just because you can do 20 ring rows in succession. Many of us require a little more assistance. The most common is banded pull ups.

4. Band Assisted Pull Ups

Resistance bands are great tools for helping you get closer to your first strict pull up. Resistance bands come in several different sizes so you can choose one that is best suited for your current body weight. (Check out our resistance bands here and grab your very own!)

Tie your band around the pull up bar then secure your foot on it while holding the bar with your hands. The resistance should help give you the little push you need to make it past the breaking point and get your chin above the bar. 

It's best to start with a thicker band and as you build confidence and strength you can use smaller and smaller bands. Once the smallest band becomes easier try giving completely unassisted. Take a breath in, engage your core (I like picturing my body in the hollow rock position) and then pull up. 

If you are still struggling getting past the mid-arm flexion you can have a friend or coach very gently push you over that hump. In many cases I find that people's lack of confidence in their ability is what is holding them back at this point. Often times it's just the touch of a hand that gives them the confidence to complete the movement.

Pull ups are frustrating and can take time to master. If you actively work on your progressions you will reap the rewards and see the results. Stick with it - we believe in you! 

Tell me; have you been struggling with pull ups? What stage of the progression are you at now? Share in the comment section below and let's support one another!


4 Responses

Nancy Mooney
Nancy Mooney

September 24, 2015

I am 59 yrs old. I have not been doing Crossfit too long this year. Maybe 6 months. Enjoy how much strength I have in my core. I can do strict pull ups. A little at a time but I can’t do anything with my hands gripped in front of me. I don’t have any strength. What can I do to make myself stronger in that way of using my hands on a pull up?

Team WOD Nation
Team WOD Nation

June 01, 2015

Hey Lester – that’s great. Our suggestion to continue building strength (which will ultimately help you achieve more reps of strict pull ups!) would be to start doing sets of weighted pull ups. Try a 3×3 with a weighted belt carrying 5-10lbs. If that feels easy, up the reps and/or weight.
As for transitioning to kipping, I would definitely suggest reading our post on Kipping Pulls ups, which you can find here:
Recognizing that strict pull ups serve a very different purpose from kipping is essential. Best of luck!


May 28, 2015

So I can do 8-12 unassisted strict pull ups in my first round and then gradually decrease as I continue attempting more sets. Is there something additionally I could do or should be doing to help me maintain my reps throughout my sets? Any advice for transitioning from strict to kipping?

Joseph Marrone
Joseph Marrone

May 28, 2015

Thanks for your help.Wil let you know how it goes.Thanks for the tips.

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