Pull-ups are one of those exercises that will instantly have you feeling like a badass whether you can do one amazing rep or 10. But we’d be lying if we said they were easy to nail. If you’re up for a challenge and ready to learn how to do pull-ups, we’ve got the game plan straight from certified trainers.
How to start training to do pull-ups
One reason pull-ups are so challenging: They work all the major muscles in your upper body—your lats, traps, rhomboids, posterior deltoid (the back of your shoulder), and biceps—so you’ve got to make sure they’re all strong in order to bust them out.
“The best place to start when it comes to doing a pull-up is looking to increase your overall upper-body strength,” says Kayla Itsines, NASM-certified trainer, co-founder of Sweat, co-creator of High Impact with Kayla. Itsines recommends adding upper-body pulling movements—like bent-over rows, seated rows, inverted rows, lat pulldowns, and reverse flys—into your training routine twice a week to begin.
In addition to adding pulling movements into your routine, she recommends strengthening the stabilizing muscles around your shoulders and upper back with exercises like triceps dips to help build upper-body strength and prevent injury.
Cass Olholm, creator of the High Intensity Strength program on the Sweat app agrees with Itsines, and also recommends adding functional movements and high-intensity exercises into your workout routine. In addition to bent-over rows and seated rows, Olholm likes to challenge people with ring rows. And depending on your ability and strength level, she recommends adding resistance band-assisted pull-ups into your routine.
Once you’ve consistently been working on your upper-body strength, you can begin to progress to practicing actual pull-ups. Itisines has a simple, three-step progression for you to follow if you’re ready to do your first pull-up or increase the number of reps you can do.
Step 1: Hang from a bar
“Start by spending time hanging from a pull-up bar,” Itsines says. Ten-second holds for three rounds is a great starting point.
Step 2: Hold yourself in the top position of the pull-up
Once you’re comfortable hanging from the bar, Itsines says to hold yourself in the top position of the pull-up, with your chin over the bar for 10 seconds. “Once this feels achievable, you can mix it up with holding at the top, middle, and bottom for 10 seconds each.” If 10 seconds seems too long, you can always decrease how long you’re holding each position as the main goal is to increase your strength throughout each part of the pull-up.
Step 3: Start doing eccentric pull-ups
As the first two steps become easier for you to do, Itsines says to add eccentric pull-ups into the mix. Start by holding yourself at the top position, with your chin over the bar, and then slowly lower down until your arms are fully extended. Once you’ve nailed this, you should be ready for the standard pull-up with a resistance band for support or with your bodyweight alone.
How long it will take to start doing pull-ups
If you’re thinking to yourself: “Okay, I’m putting in all this work, but when am I going to see results?” we get it. Like most things in the world of fitness, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, and according to Itsines, it’s all about consistency. Not to mention factoring in your beginning strength level. For example, if you’re new to strength training it will more than likely take more than four weeks to see results versus someone who has been strength training for a few years.
“If you are making the effort to show up each week and complete your upper-body strength sessions and push yourself to progress, then you can start noticing improvements in your strength after five-to-six weeks,” says Itsines.
Ready to start strengthening your upper body? Try this 25-minute workout:
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