You Can Progress to a Pull-Up

Make your fitness dreams come true once and for all, starting with the classic pull-up!

Pull-ups are one way to showcase ultimate strength and conditioning, and they're no easy feat for the beginner. But both men and women can achieve pull-up status with the right training. Keep in mind that the terms pull-ups and chin ups are often used interchangeably. Feel free to work on using an overhand (palms facing away) grip, which relies heavily on back strength, or an underhand grip (palms facing you) grip, which puts intense focus on the biceps. The following exercise progressions will help strengthen the major muscles involved in pull-ups until you're strong enough to do them on your own.
Time Involved: Two 10-minute sessions a week, for several weeks
Muscles Worked: Back and Biceps

How to Train at the Gym
Using the strength training machines at the gym is probably the best way to train for pull-ups.
  • Phase 1: Start your training on the seated lat pulldown machine. Start lifting about 25 percent of your weight until you can perform two to three sets of 12 to 15 repetitions in good form. Then, move to Phase 2.
  • Phase 2: Continue on the lat pull-down machine, but perform the exercise while standing up instead of sitting (a cable cross machine will also work in this phase, if you're familiar with using it). Increase your resistance over time until you can lift 50 percent of your body weight as resistance for two to three sets of 12 to 15 repetitions in good form. Then you're ready for Phase 3.
  • Phase 3: Continue performing the standing lat pull-downs (or, if your gym has it, move on to the assisted pull-up machine). Increase your resistance over time until you can lift 80 percent of your body weight as resistance for two to three sets of 12 to 15 repetitions with good form. Once you can do this, you're ready for the real thing!
  • Phase 4: Pull-ups! Once you've mastered Phase 3, you should be able to perform about two to five pull-ups without assistance. Congratulations!
How to Train without Equipment
If you do not have access to gym equipment, that is okay. If you have access to a pull-up bar (or even some monkey bars at a playground!), then grab a friend for some help. Be sure to use good form (grab the bar at about shoulder-width, crossing your feet and ankles, and bending your knees so that your feet are off the ground, as if kneeling). Your friend can assist you by grabbing your feet and legs to assist you as you lift to the top position. Try to lower yourself back down each time on your own, without assistance. Over time, have your friend give you less and less assistance as you get strong enough to lift more of your weight on your own.

If you are alone, you can still work on strengthening your pull-up muscles, even without a spot. To do so, stand on a box, grab the bar, take a little jump to the "up" position. Lower yourself down as slowly as possible. This "negative phase" of the exercise will still strengthen the muscles to help you with pulling up. Try to do two to three sets of as many reps as you can, assisted or unassisted, three to four times each week and you'll be doing the real ones on your own in no time!

General Training Tips
  • Be sure to rest these muscle groups for one to two days after each of your training sessions. Resting is just as important as training, because recovery is what will help you repair, rebuild and get stronger.
  • Eat right. You can't make muscles out of just any old food—you need to fuel them properly before and after each workout to ensure you're getting the most of your workouts.
  • Don't neglect your other muscles. A sound strength training program, which targets each of your major muscle groups, is important for avoiding injury and creating balance.
  • Mix it up. It will take several weeks to master pull-ups if you're starting from square one, and you're sure to reach a few plateaus along the way. If you experience several weeks of stagnant progress, change things up.
  • Keep at it. If you don't continue to practice your pull-ups, you'll lose the strength that took you weeks to build up. Practice your pull-ups on a regular basis, aiming for 2 training sessions each week to maintain your newfound strength and skills.
Good luck reaching your goals!

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Member Comments

Great! Report
I needed this article, this is where I am lacking Report
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A pull up is on my bucket list. Thank you for the inspiration and new tips on ways to make it happen. TY! Report
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I never could do a pull up Report
Like this about life--no matter where you are starting from, if you just make a plan and stick to it, putting in consistent effort towards the goal, you eventually get there! Report
Thanks for sharing, I can do this Report
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About The Author

Jason Anderson
Jason Anderson
Jason loves to see people realize the benefits of a healthy, active lifestyle. He is a certified personal trainer and enjoys running races--from 5Ks to 50K ultramarathons. See all of Jason's articles.