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Oct 27 / Jeremy

How To Do A Pull Up – Technique and Progression

The pull up is one of the best exercises for building size, tone, and strength in your back.  Unfortunately, it can also be one of the more frustrating exercises since many people get discouraged with how long it can take to develop enough strength to complete even one pull up, let alone high repetitions of pull ups.  Below we will look at the reasons why you need pull ups in your workout routine, and we will provide strategies for helping you achieve your first pull up.

[Listen to JT sing about bringing sexy back while we teach you how to build one.]

Why Pull Ups need to be Part of Your Workout Routine

The pull up is considered the greatest exercise for your mid and upper back because it builds real-life functional strength, works all of your mid to upper back muscles plus your biceps, and when performed correctly it is an injury free exercise that does not put any pressure on your spine.

The muscle worked the hardest in the pull up is the latissimus dorsi, usually referred to as the ‘lats.’ Most people are surprised to learn that the lats are actually the largest muscle in the upper body.  Many people assume it is the pectoralis major since priority tends to be a given to pushing muscles as opposed to pulling muscles.  As lats are the largest muscle in your upper body there is tremendous potential for strength gains once you learn how to engage them properly during the pull up.  Lats respond very well to continuous stimuli and developing your lats will help you achieve a nice v-shaped upper body.  Stronger lats will also increase your strength when performing pushing lifts such as the bench press, push-ups, and shoulder press.  Implementing a pull up workout will lead to tremendous gains in functional strength.

Proper Pull Up Workout Technique

The proper technique for a pull up is actually fairly simple; however, there are a few key points that should be highlighted in order to ensure you are getting the maximum benefit from each repetition.

Pull Up Grip Type and Position

There is a lot of discussion about whether or not an overhand or underhand grip is better when completing pull ups.  The underhand grip (palms facing in) is often referred to as a chin up instead of a pull up and is usually a bit easier for people since the mechanics allow you to use your biceps a bit more to help with the lift taking some of the tension off of your back muscles.  We will discuss form for both grip positions but for ease of writing we will use the term ‘pull up’ to mean either grip position throughout the post.  Keep in mind that we do recommend alternating between overhand and underhand grips from workout to workout, and since many people find chin ups easier it may be good for your mental health to work towards achieving your first underhand grip chin up before moving to the more challenging overhand grip pull up.

When just getting started with overhand grip pull ups your hands should be placed slightly wider than shoulder width apart.  As you progress you can widen your grip to make the pull up workout more challenging.

If you are starting with the underhand grip chin up then your hands should be placed exactly at shoulder width.

Pull Up Workout Arm Position

When completing pull ups during your workout you should never allow your arms to fully extend.  This will take the tension off of your muscles and put all of your weight on your tendons.  You want to keep a slight bend in your arms when you lower yourself from the bar.  Just before fully extending your arms start pulling yourself up for the next repetition.

Pull up to Chin or chest?

When doing pull ups as part of your regular workout there is no need to try to raise your chest up to the bar; simply getting your chin above the bar is enough.  Also, just to be clear, you should always keep your shoulders back so that you keep the bar in front of you.  Lifting yourself so that the bar comes behind your head takes your shoulders out of alignment and has no added benefit to developing your strength.

Building Up to Your First Pull Up

If you are struggling to achieve your first pull up then the following pull up workout progression will help you get there.  Start by doing two sets of the first exercise described below.  Add a repetition to each set every time you do a pull up workout.  Once you reach the target number of repetition in both sets then move on to the next exercise in the progression.  Remember to stay patient and keep working hard.  Your efforts will pay off.

Two-leg Assisted Pull Up Workout

The two-leg assisted pull up are completed with the help of a lifting partner or some other object like a chair or a bench to take some of your body weight out of the equation.  Start with both feet resting on the chair putting only as much weight on your feet as you needed to complete the pull up.  Work towards achieving two sets of twenty repetitions with as little weight on your feet as possible. Then move on to one-leg assisted pull ups.

[Here is a quick example of a one-legged assisted pull up. Remember to use your legs as little as possible.]

One-leg Assisted Pull Up Workout

Now place only one foot on the chair.  Again, put only as much weight on the foot as necessary to complete the pull up. Work up to two sets of 15 then move on to reverse pull ups.

Reverse or Negative Pull up Workout

Reverse pull ups use only the negative or eccentric part of the exercise.  In the pull up it is the part of the exercise where you lower yourself down as opposed to when you are pulling yourself up.  Start with your chin above the bar.  This can be done by jumping up to the bar or by using a chair.  Hold your chin above the bar for a two count, and then very slowly lower yourself down.  You should try to do this as slowly as possible.  Try to do two sets of 8 reverse pull ups for a slow five count on the way down.   Once you completed all three phases of the progression you should be ready for your first pull up.

[This is a good example of how to do only the eccentric part of the pull up exercise. Lower yourself as slow as possible. The slower you go the stronger you will become.]

Lateral Pull Downs

The above progression is the best way to build up to your first pull up.  I am also going to suggest that you can use a lateral pull down machine after completing your two sets of any of the exercises described above to help you develop the necessary strength to complete your first pull up.   Many people feel that using a lateral pull down machine is a waste of time and will not help you get to your first pull up any faster.  I tend to disagree.  I think that using the lateral pull down machine can help you get to your first pull up faster but you have to use the machine properly.

To get the full benefit of using a lateral pull down machine you have to use the machine in a way that will replicate the pull up as much as possible.  This means placing your hands the same distance apart as you would in a pull up as well as keeping your back vertical.  Do not lean back when using the lateral pull down machine.  This will take the tension off of your lats and put more tension on your trapezoids and rear deltoids.  To use this exercise to build strength for a pull up you have to keep the tension on your lats.  Pull the weight down to just below your chin.  Check out the video below to see the best way to use the lateral pull down machine to improve build strength for pull ups.

[This video demonstrates the proper technique to get maximum benefit from the lateral pull down. It also shows you impropoer form if you want to maximize tension on your lats to improve pull up strength.]

Is Your Weight a Problem?

The simple fact of the matter is that pull ups will be easier if you are lighter.  I’ve seen the loss of only five pounds increase the number of pull ups done in one set by as many as 3 repetitions.  If excess fat is limiting your pull up workout potential then take some time to learn how to take control of your diet to lose weight and keep practicing your pull ups.

For those football stars and veteran weight lifters that weigh over 250 lbs. then I would recommend using kipping to help you complete a pull up workout.  Check out the video below to watch a 316 lbs muscle man use kipping to complete a 21 pull up workout.  This is about the only situation where I would recommend kipping.  Otherwise you should simply focus on building your strength by using the dead hang pull up techniques in this post.

[Think that you are too heavy to do pull ups? Then use the kipping technique as shown in this video.]

Remember, repetition and consistency is the key to achieving your first pull and continuing to add repetitions to your pull up workout.  Keep working at it using the techniques and tips in this post.  You will get there.

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  1. I also agree that everyone should try to make pull ups as part of their back routine. Although many try to skip this exercise because of its difficulty it can definitely be learned.

    Doing assisted pull ups either with a chair, bench or even with a partner is the first step to learning how to do them. Also, doing pull downs and bicep work can help strengthen the back and arms, respectively, in order to gain strength and soon complete a pull up.


  2. Chris / Nov 16 2011

    I love pull ups and hate them. They are hard but really good for you. The key for me to being able to finally get to the point to where I could do them was to focus on doing the negative pull ups. Doing that allowed me to build up that little bit of extra strength I needed to start being able to do them.

    After I finally got going I can now easily do 30 or more inside of a few sets. It is fun, and soon I will be adding weight to the workout as well.

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