A pull-up is one of the most challenging bodyweight movements — but once you achieve it, it’s incredibly rewarding.
I can distinctly remember the first time I attempted to perform a pull-up many years ago…
It looked simple enough. No biggie, right?
But as soon as I gave it a go, I was quickly humbled. I could barely lift myself! That moment was the catalyst for my next goal: conquering the bodyweight pull-up. And when I finally did it? The sense of pride and accomplishment was mind-blowing.
And you can do it too!
In this article, I’ll give you step-by-step instructions on how to do a pull-up. You’ll also learn:
- How to avoid common pull-up errors.
- How to effectively build strength and train for your first pull-up.
- Three pull-up variations you can use to make things easier (including an assisted pull-up option).
Plus, I’ll teach you four ways to strengthen your pull-up and take your training to the next level once you’ve mastered the basic movement.
How to Do a Proper Pull-Up
To complete a full pull-up, you have to lift your body upward from a dead hang position to bring your chin above the pull-up bar. Pull-ups use an overhand grip on the bar, as opposed to the underhand grip of chin-ups.
The pull-up is a pillar in many functional strength training programs because it’s an effective way to improve your overall pulling power, develop your upper body, and strengthen your back muscles. It’s a closed-chain movement that targets several muscle groups, including your latissimus dorsi, deltoids, trapezius, rhomboids, biceps, triceps, forearms, and core.
On average, women have 50–60 percent of the upper body strength of men, primarily due to men having more upper body muscle than women. As such, many women will find it more challenging to perform a pull-up in comparison…
… but that should never be a discouraging factor.
If anything, look at it as added motivation to be able to complete them.
For many women, chin-ups are often easier than pull-ups. Check out these 6 quick tips for improving your chin-ups.
Step-by-Step Guide to Doing a Pull-Up
Ready to try a pull-up? Watch the video below to see how the movement should look, and then follow these steps.
- Stand on a block or a bench just below the bar.
- Grab the bar with an overhand grip (wrists pronated, with palms facing away from you) with your hands about shoulder-width apart.
- Allow your feet to come off the block/bench and gently let your body hang. In this dead hang position, your arms should be fully extended.
- Engage your core and find full-body tension by squeezing your glutes and flexing your quads.
- To initiate the pull, depress your lats (imagine pulling your shoulder blades down and into your back pockets) and then start pulling upward to bring your chin over the bar.
- Complete the pull by squeezing your lats together.
- Slowly extend your arms to return to a full hang position while maintaining full-body tension.
Common Pull-Up Problems
Using the proper pull-up form helps to prevent injury and encourages muscle recruitment. While that sounds simple enough, there are some common mistakes women often make while doing pull-ups.
The good news? The following four errors can be corrected easily. And actively working to avoid them will ensure ultimate efficiency when you perform your pull-up.
Error #1: Eye Position
If you look at the bar during the movement, you will actually move your body further away from the bar, making the motion more difficult.
Correction: Aim to maintain a neutral neck position throughout the entire movement by keeping your gaze directly in front of you, rather than on the bar. Think of holding an orange between your chin and chest.
Error #2: Lack of Lat Engagement
When it comes to initiating the pull, lack of lat engagement is a common issue that can affect your form and ability to complete the pull-up motion.
Correction: Before beginning your pull, think about setting your lats down and back. This will allow for better lat recruitment and less biceps pulling.
Error #3: Lack of Full-Body Tension
When in the midst of our pull-up, it can be easy to focus purely on pulling our bodies upward — and forget to maintain full-body tension. This can leave us less able to complete the movement.
Correction: Focus on generating and maintaining full-body tension during your pull-up. Keep your core engaged and imagine spreading tension from your glutes down to your toes. This will help you not only complete the rep but also get stronger.
Error #4: Lack of Strength and Elbow Drive
A lack of strength and elbow drive at the top of our pull can lead many of us to shrug our shoulders to get our chin way up and over the bar. When we shrug up, we are over-recruiting our traps and under-recruiting our lats.
Correction: Instead, imagine squeezing your elbows together and maintaining a long neck position.
How to Get Strong Enough to Do a Pull-Up
Most women need to train before they can get their first pull-up. It requires solid upper body strength, and it’s a movement that doesn’t get a ton of cross-training in our normal daily lives!
Several exercises will help build the foundational strength you need. And don’t forget about them once you become strong enough to complete a pull-up — incorporating these movements into your long-term training program will help you continue to improve your strength, fitness level, and efficiency.
6 Exercises to Train Your First Pull-Up
Use the following exercises to build your strength and prep for your first pull-up. Complete 3–4 sets of 8–10 reps each.
- Lie on your back and contract your abs while pressing your lumbar spine (lower back) into the floor.
- Slowly raise your head, arms, and legs off the ground.
Once you’re feeling comfortable with the hollow hold, you can progress to hollow rocks by rocking your body back and forth while maintaining the hollow hold position. The angle of your shoulders and hips should not change or be used for momentum.
- Hang with straight arms from the pull-up bar with an overhand grip.
- Pull your body into the same hollow position you did on the ground with hollow rockers and hold for 10–30 seconds.
- Maintain tension throughout your body, from your shoulders to your feet.
- Follow the cues above to find your hollow hang position.
- While holding the hollow hang, draw your shoulder blades down and back.
This is an excellent way to learn how to initiate a pull-up with your lats, and it will strengthen the infraspinatus, teres minor, teres major, and latissimus dorsi muscles while also teaching you to stay tight at the start of your pull.
Kettlebell Bottoms-Up Hold
- Start with your feet shoulder-width apart and the kettlebell in front of you, its handle perpendicular to your body. Grab the kettlebell with one hand, and either clean it or curl it to a bottoms-up position.
- With the bottom of the kettlebell facing upward, begin with a single-arm bottoms-up hold.
- To prevent the kettlebell from falling, engage your core, activate your lat, and maintain full-body tension.
This drill will help increase your grip strength, core strength, and shoulder stability. When you’re ready, you can progress to a bottoms-up overhead press.
Learn how to get started — and reap massive benefits — with bottoms-up kettlebell training.
- Lying in a supinated position, grab the rings (you can also do this with a TRX).
- Engage your core, flex your quads, and squeeze your glutes. Row to bring your body toward the rings so that your body is parallel to the ground.
- Extend your arms to return to your starting position.
In the video, I demonstrate the inverted row with my feet elevated on a box and my legs straight. To regress this exercise, remove the box or bench and keep your heels anchored to the floor and your legs straight.
If the inverted row is still too challenging to perform with straight legs, modify the movement by bending your knees until you can pull your own bodyweight safely.
Slow Negative Pull-Ups
- Start in a flexed hang position, holding yourself up with your chin above the bar.
- Slowly allow your body to descend until you reach a hollow hang position. The key here is controlling the drop.
Negative pull-ups are great bodyweight exercises that give you the chance to work the full range of motion while gaining strength.
3 Variations to Make Pull-Ups Easier
If you’ve been training the first six exercises but are still not quite able to get your first pull-up, three variations can help (and take you beyond the pull-up machine). While these pull-up “relatives” are slightly easier than the full movement, they will still give you a major challenge when it comes to your grip and upper body strength.
Neutral Grip Pull-Ups
In a neutral grip pull-up, your palms will be facing each other and your grip will be narrower. This allows for more biceps recruitment and less strain on your delts, and typically results in an easier movement.
As I mentioned before, the main difference between the pull-up and the chin-up is the grip. For the chin-up, you’ll use an underhand grip where your palms are facing you. Just as you would for the pull-up, engage your lats, pull your body up, and squeeze your elbows together to bring your chin up and over the bar.
To do this assisted pull-up, attach a resistance band to the bar. Place one foot inside the band, and grab the bar in a pronated grip with your hands about shoulder-width apart. Extend your leg, pressing into the band, and bring your chin over the bar. Maintain full-body tension to prevent your legs from swinging. Allow your body to descend until your arms are fully extended.
You can progress this movement by increasing your reps and decreasing the resistance of the band.
4 Exercises to Improve Your Pull-Ups
Once you’ve managed to perform a perfect pull-up, there are four fun movements you can incorporate into your training. These will help improve your pull-up quality, increase the number of reps you can do, and get you even stronger!
Towel Hangs & Towel Pull-Ups
Depending on your preference, you can use the towel in a hollow, flexed hang position, or you can begin doing towel pull-ups (check out the video demo below). Both are great assistance drills to improve grip strength.
Want to mix it up even more? You can also do these movements with ropes.
Deadlifts are my answer to everything! They are one of the ultimate strength-building exercises, and you can add heavy deadlifts to your training program to improve your lat recruitment, build grip strength, and develop your core stability (plus, you’ll feel like a badass). Deadlifts are also versatile — you can perform them with barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells, to name a few.
While it sounds simple, removing your thumb from your grip will give you a new-found appreciation for your grip and respect for the movement! This one is tough but fun, and it’s great prep work if you’re looking into rock-climbing.
Once you can comfortably perform pull-ups with your own bodyweight, start adding weight to give yourself an even bigger challenge.
Are you an advanced lifter? Learn how to take your pull-ups to the next level with these 10 advanced variations.
Ready to Pull-Up?
Getting your first pull-up may feel like a lot of work, but I encourage you to enjoy the process!
Take time to focus on training and stay consistent. I promise you’ll be rewarded with a huge sense of accomplishment. Being able to achieve something we might not have thought possible before is one of the best feelings in the world.
The goal? Finding strength in our bodies and our movement. And of course, having fun with it!