What you need
Your gym – when it eventually opens up – should have a pull-up bar. If it’s too high, stand on something stable, such as a plyometric box or a step aerobics bench, to reach it.
In the meantime, the just-right tree branch or the monkey bars at your local playground can stand in as a pull-up bar. Or, if you have one nearby, head to an “outdoor gym,” where you should find a bar designed just for pull-ups.
By engaging the posterior chain – the muscles along the back of the body, including your rotator cuff, erector spinae, lats, glutes and hamstrings – pull-ups help create tissue resilience, making us “better movers” and preventing injuries.
Meghan Wieser, US-based physical therapist and strength coach
If you’re installing a pull-up bar at home, it should be high enough to allow your arms to extend fully, Gargano says. She suggests finding one that hooks securely to the top of a door frame. If you’re too tall to use a door frame and you have the space, a free-standing pull-up bar (available for under $300) or a wall-mounted one (available for under $150) are “secure and safe” alternatives, she says.
You won’t even need a bar at first. Gargano’s clients start with foundational moves requiring limited or no equipment. They might be boring, but she says nailing the fundamentals is a game-changer.
Y’s. These simple drills promote shoulder mobility and stability. To do a Y, lie on the floor facedown with your arms outstretched so your body is in the shape of the letter Y. With your thumbs facing the ceiling, lift your arms up and down, squeezing your shoulder blades together. Gargano suggests aiming for three to five sets of 10 to 20 reps, two to three times a week.
Hollow holds. Ward agrees that “unsexy” moves are a vital part of mastering the pull-up. To increase your ability to maintain full-body tension during the movement, he suggests adding hollow holds to your routine: Lie on your back and lift your straightened legs about six inches off the ground. Then, raise your arms overhead, keeping them about six inches off the ground. Hold this position, focusing on driving your lower back into the floor. “Think about doing a plank but laying on your back,” he says. Do five 10-to-20-second holds, and repeat for three sets, two or three times a week.
Dumbbell or kettle bell carries. These will help improve grip strength. Start with two or three 30- to 60-second carries, two times a week, Ward says.
Pulling exercises. Wieser suggests these at least three times a week. You can do dumbbell rows or TRX suspension cable rows, or just hang on the bar with an overhand grip. You can also perform inverted rows if you have access to a squat rack and a barbell; increase the difficulty by lowering the bar or elevating your feet. Shoot for three to five sets of 10 to 12 reps, at least twice a week.
How long it takes to get your first pull-up depends on a variety of factors, including your fitness level and how often you train. In the meantime, you can progress by doing pull-up variations.
Negative exercises. Wieser recommends negative, or eccentric, training, which involves using assistance (such as jumping or standing on an elevated surface) to help get your chin above the bar, then slowly lowering your body. But proceed with caution. “The soreness that comes with that is insane,” she says. She advises doing no more than 20 in one workout.
Banded pull-ups. By securing one end of a heavy-duty loop band to the bar and stepping into the other end with one or both feet, you get a boost at the bottom of the move. If you do these, Gargano says, make sure your band tension is light enough that “you’re actually able to feel your muscles activate.” Otherwise, the band does too much of the work for you.
Chin-ups. These work many of the same muscles but are a bit easier, Ward says. By using an underhand grip (palms facing you) rather than overhand, you get slightly more biceps engagement while still working your lats.
Do’s and don’ts
Do start from an active position and not a dead hang, Wieser says. Then, with your hands gripping the bar in an overhand position and your elbows extended, retract your shoulder blades by engaging them and aiming them down toward your back pockets. It can also be helpful to imagine trying to bring the bar toward you.
Do make sure your core, glutes and quads are engaged and your feet are together before your body moves an inch above the floor. Squeezing your glutes helps with lat engagement, Gargano says. Then, maintain full-body tension as you bring your elbows toward your rib cage to get your chin over the bar.
Don’t make the mistake of looking up at the bar and tucking your feet behind you. Both movements cause your back to arch. This precludes core engagement, an important but often overlooked component of the move.
Don’t favour one side of the body, says Gargano. “One side’s normally a little stronger than the other.” She suggests having someone film you from behind so you can see any asymmetry for yourself.
No matter where you are in your pull-up journey, consistent practice is the only way to move forward. How often you should train depends on your goals; she recommends at least three to four sessions per week and varying your exercises.
Like most goals worth achieving, getting your first pull-up requires dedication and patience. “You’re going to have good days. You’re going to have bad days,” Gargano says. “Nothing happens overnight.”
Pam Moore is a certified personal trainer and endurance athlete. She hosts the Real Fit podcast, featuring conversations with female athletes on body image, confidence and other topics.