I’ve never been a good songwriter. Rather than trying to be the next Phil Collins or Dave Grohl, I was happy to just be a drummer. That didn’t stop me having the occasional go though, it just never worked out the way I’d hoped. One time I thought I’d cracked it. The chord progression was awesome, and the melody sounded ready to get A-listed on radio one. However, just as I rushed to record it, something became immediately apparent; it was, note for note, a David Bowie song. It turns out original thought is not my speciality.
I’ve wanted to write an article about pull-ups for a while. One, as a nice break from only releasing nutrition blogs, and two, because I was sure that my approach to helping people complete their first full rep was not only successful but also entirely original. Through a combination of experience, and my take on the scientific literature, I had come up with a protocol over the years that I was super happy with. Maybe I’d even make it an ebook, or a video series. #nailedmyfirstpullup anyone? This could be big.
After writing this article and filming the different progressions, I thought I’d check the internet to see what the military advised. You see, while I’m au fait with what the fitness industry recommends, no one does more pull-ups than the forces, and I was interested in their different training programs. There I found it. A website dedicated to getting Royal Marines ready for basic training had, what I thought was, my exact original protocol laid out in full. Well, screw it. I might never be another Grohl or Collins, but I’m happy to share the stage with original thinkers. Here’s how to nail your first pull-up.
The pull-up is unique. The first time you squat, you can use just the bar, or maybe even no weight at all. Same with the bench press, or anything really. With a pull-up, you can’t do one until, well, you can do one. This leaves the problem of having no clear starting place, which is where most advice on building up to a first pull-up goes wrong.
The common advice, apart from the Marines, of course, starts you out with either a pulldown machine or by raising you over the bar assisted with bands or a counterweight. But does this help you get closer to the goal of an unassisted pull-up?
- A study using elite-level female swimmers showed that training a lat pull-down machine radically improves your strength on that piece of equipment, but doesn’t correlate with improved pull-up performance.
- Another study took a group of, non-athlete, college-aged women and put them on a 12-week training plan using an assisted pull-up machine. At the start of the study, 2 out of 19 of the women could get one rep in the pull-up, and they then went on to train assisted pull-ups exclusively for the 12 weeks. By the end of the study, 4 more of them could do one, legit, pull-up rep, but 15 women didn’t improve.
To design a plan to smash a pull-up from a dead hang to where your chin is above the bar, you need to learn a little bit about what parts of your body you’ll use during the exercise. While lots of muscles are activated during the movement, we only need to focus on three; the lower and middle fibres of the trapezius, the latissius dorsi, and the biceps.
At the bottom of the pull-up, the bit where you are hanging and your shoulders are up by your ears, it’s the traps that get you started. Going from a dead hang to being able to bend your elbows is where most people start and fail. This is why we will spend time training this specifically.
To train the beginning and end of a pull-up in the same exercise is a recipe for failure. Instead, we’ll use an approach that trains the bottom and the top of the movement independently, and then ties the two together. Here’s how.
The bottom-up approach
The traps, which help us get the movement started, are trained more with your palms facing away from you on the bar, so that’s the method we will use here.
Progression #1: The straight arm pull
- Hang from the bar and let your shoulders come up toward your ears
- Suck your shoulders down. Imagine you are pushing your chest to the ceiling and putting your shoulder blades into your pockets.
- Train this exercise hard, doing reps until you can’t do any more.
Progression #2: The straight arm pull with momentum
- From the same starting position, suck your shoulders down explosively and try to generate enough momentum to bend your elbows.
- As you progress this movement, you should be aiming for more and more bend until your elbows are parallel with the floor.
The top-down approach
The idea of this approach is to train the lats and biceps at the very top of the movement, gradually getting lower and lower until it joins up with the bottom-down approach.
As the biceps are used a bit more with your palms facing towards you on the bar, we will use that grip at first on these progressions.
Progression #1: Jumping pull-ups
- Find a box or something to stand on if you are not tall enough.
- Jump until you are near the top of the movement.
- Grab the bar near the top and finish the very last part of the movement off.
- Don’t worry if you are only lifting yourself a tiny amount at first, the idea is to use the momentum from jumping to help you. As you get stronger, you can jump less and lift more, but don’t force it at first.
Progression #2: Jumping pull-ups for reps
- After a few sessions of jumping pull-ups, you can start doing them for reps.
- After jumping most of the way and finishing the rest of the lift by pulling yourself up right at the top, lower yourself down a little bit and pull yourself up again.
- Start with only the very top of the movement and lower yourself only a small amount.
- Do reps until you are starting to fail.
- As you get stronger, increase the range of motion by lowering yourself deeper until your elbows are lower than parallel.
Putting it all together
Train these progressions a minimum of twice a week, and a maximum of four times. For the first few sessions do bottom-up progression 1 followed by top-down progression 1 for single reps until you can’t do a full rep anymore.
Once you start feeling stronger, switch to this:
- BU progression 1–3 sets to failure
- TD progression 1–3 sets to failure
As that improves, it’s key to start working on being explosive and increasing your range of motion. To do this, try :
- BU progression 1–5 single reps
- TD progression 1–5 single reps
- BU progression 2–3 to 5 sets to failure
- TD progression 2–3 to 5 sets to failure
Once your range of motion is getting better in both the bottom-up and top-down 2 progressions, start aiming for your first full rep.
This takes time. I can’t give you an exact time course because peoples different bodies and starting levels are all different. What I can say is to be patient. Sometimes a week or more of seemingly no progress will be rewarded by a sudden breakthrough. Stick with it, and don’t deviate from the plan if you want to get your chin over that bar.
Nailing your first pull-up is about getting specific. Forget about assisted chins and banded pulls; use the top-down and bottom-up method to smash your first pull-up in half the time.