How To Do A Pull-Up: The Beginner's Guide
Pull-ups are a functional bodyweight exercise that are great for building holistic upper-body strength. And yet they are commonly known as one of those hard-to-master exercises that can be tricky for beginners to perform.
Despite common misconceptions, it’s possible for anyone — even those without strong arm and back muscles — to master a pull-up. You just need to know where and how to start, put in the time and effort, and learn the correct form.
Once you’re able to perform pull-up variations (and eventually a full pull-up), you’ll be able to reap the physical benefits of a strong upper body, while feeling great about mastering a challenging move.
- What are pull-ups?
- What muscles do pull-ups use?
- Benefits of pull-ups
- The difference between pull-ups and chin-ups
- Proper form for pull-ups
- How to progress to your first pull-up
What are pull-ups?
Let’s start with the basics: what exactly is a pull-up? A pull-up is an upper body exercise that involves hanging from a pull-up bar by your hands facing away from your body, and lifting your entire body up with your arm and back muscles until your chest touches the bar. The pull-up movement uses multiple muscles at once, making it a compound exercise.
When performing the movement you should focus on using your arms and shoulder muscles, and avoid shrugging your shoulders up.
Just like any bodyweight back exercise this movement uses your body weight as resistance rather than external weights. While the exercise itself is relatively simple, mastering it can be tricky for those who are new to strength training.
What muscles do pull-ups use?
Pull-ups primarily use your lats and biceps to hoist your body up. They also utilise your entire upper body, including your abdominals, traps, deltoids, and pecs.
While pull-ups focus on your lats (which start at the middle of your back and run up towards your armpit and shoulder blade), the movement helps to build holistic upper body strength that’s great for your overall health.
What are the benefits of pull-ups?
Pull-ups have many benefits for your physical health, from building muscle to improving your quality of life.
Build holistic upper body strength
Because pull-ups utilise many muscles in the one movement, they are known as a compound exercise. Compound exercises mimic natural movement, and help improve coordination. They also train the nervous system and muscle tissue at the same time (as opposed to isolation exercises).
If you struggle to perform high-impact exercises due to sore joints or injury, pull-ups are a low-impact exercise that will allow you to build strength and become fitter without placing additional strain on your joints.
Improve your overall physical health
According to a 2012 study published in Current Sports Medicine Reports by Quincy College Department of Exercise Science, resistance training has been shown to drastically improve overall health, with it being connected to better overall physical performance, walking speed, control of movement, and cognitive ability.
Better mental health and mood
Getting stronger and fitter is proven to help boost your mood and mental health. According to a 2010 review published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine by the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Georgia, strength training has been found to improve anxiety symptoms, depression, sleep and fatigue, and cognition in older adults (among other key benefits).
Performing pull-ups is just one way to perform strength training that can improve your overall mental health.
Tone your upper body
Building muscle in your upper body has the added effect of toning and sculpting these muscles. When you do pull-ups regularly, you’re also helping to strengthen the muscles in your arms, back and shoulders, toning them for a great-looking upper body.
Why are pull-ups so hard?
Pull-ups are so hard because they require you to lift your entire body up with just your arms and shoulder muscles. If you don’t already have significant strength here, doing this can be quite a challenge.
Because they require so many muscles to perform, you need to have holistic upper-body strength to perform them. If you’re lacking in one area, this can make the movement more difficult to master.
They also require correct form and technique to get them right — ensuring you’re activating the right muscles at the right time will make performing the movement easier and ensure you’re doing it right. But don’t be discouraged — there are many ways to progress to a pull-up (we talk about pull-up progressions later in this article), no matter the strength level you’re starting from.
What’s the difference between pull-ups and chin-ups?
The key difference between pull-ups and chin-ups is primarily the position of your hands — a pull-up involves an overhand grip (where your palms face away from your body), while the chin-up uses an underhand grip (where your palms face toward your body).
How to do a proper pull-up with perfect form
Now, finally onto how to perform a pull-up the way you should. There are a few tips and tricks that make performing a pull-up not only easier, but ensure you will reap the full benefits of this powerful exercise.
Here’s how to do a pull-up with correct technique:
- Start by standing directly below a pull-up bar. Place your hands in an overhand grip (palms facing away from your body) with your hands slightly further than shoulder-width apart. If you can’t reach the bar from standing on the floor, you can place a box beneath you and stand on that instead. Once your hands are holding onto the bar, you’re in your starting position.
- Inhale, then exhale. Lift your feet up from the floor or box so that you’re hanging from the bar, and engage your core by pulling your belly button in toward your spine. Pull your shoulders back and down.
- Engaging the muscles in your arms and back, bend your elbows and raise your upper body up toward the bar until your chin is over the bar. You can imagine bringing your elbows toward your hips if that makes the movement easier. As you move, avoid swinging your legs around or shrugging your shoulders up. You want to make sure your shoulder blades remain back and down throughout the exercise.
- At the top of the movement, inhale. Then extend your elbows and lower your body back down to the starting position.
This movement might not be possible for you to perform as yet — which is totally OK (and very common!). If you can’t perform a pull-up like this off-the-bat, then you can perform exercise progressions to gradually increase your strength, until you get there.
How to progress to your first pull-up
It’s very normal to not be able to perform a full pull-up, particularly for women who haven’t done a lot of strength training before. But there are plenty of ways to progress up to a full pull-up — no matter what strength level you’re starting from. When training to do a pull-up, you might feel overwhelmed and exhausted. Don't give up! Here are a few ideas to guide your pull-up progression training.
Assisted pull-ups with a resistance band
One way to learn the pull-up technique if you can’t perform the full movement is to use a resistance band. Start by looping the resistance band around the pull-up bar so that one end is secured around the bar, and place your foot in the loop at the bottom. You can then perform the movement as normal, but the band should lessen the resistance and allow you to pull your body up.
The thicker the resistance band, the easier the movement will be. Once you’ve mastered the pull-up with a certain band thickness, gradually start to use thinner bands each time you do your pull-ups. Eventually, you should be able to master the movement with no band at all.
An isometric hold on the pull-up bar involves jumping up to the top of the movement so your head is above the bar and your chest is against it (rather than pulling yourself up). Once you’re there, hold onto the bar in that position for as long as you can. Repeat this hold three times as part of your strength training routine.
To do a negative pull-up, place your hands in an overhand grip just wider than shoulder-width apart. Use a box or sturdy chair to jump up to the top of the pull-up movement so that your chest is touching the bar. Then, slowly lower your body down until you reach the starting position of the pull-up movement.
This movement still builds strength in the same muscles as pull-ups, but it is a modified pull-up that is easier to perform for beginners. You can add negative pull-ups to your exercise routine by performing these in three sets of 12, ensuring you take a break in between each set.
Mastering tough strength-training exercises
There are plenty of resistance exercises that are tricky to master, especially if you are new to strength training. But you shouldn’t feel discouraged from doing them if you’re not quite there yet — there are always substitute exercises you can try to suit your skill level.
When you’re learning how to start working out, or even if you’ve been exercising for a long time, there are so many ways to progress your pull-ups and move on to trickier strength training exercises — we all start from somewhere and building up confidence and strength can take time! The trick to learning how to do a pull-up, and progressing to more challenging exercises in general is giving them a go, and progressing towards them with easier variations.
* Results may vary. Strict adherence to the nutrition and exercise guide are required for best results.