How to Master the Pull-Up

I’ve always liked pull-ups, partly out of spite. There’s a common fitness refrain that women can’t do and I don’t like being told I can’t do something, especially if the reason is my gender. As a teenager, she pushed lawnmowers and hauled rocks just to prove that being a girl didn’t mean being weak.

I love how pull-ups make me feel: powerful, strong. There is nothing like the feeling of getting up. Pull-ups are also beautiful in their simplicity. They require nothing more than a barbell and engage at least a dozen muscles, from your lats to your glutes. Experts say they improve upper-body strength, shoulder mobility, and core stability, while helping hone coordination.

Doing a pull-up is “an amazing feeling,” said Chilasa King, a weightlifter and trainer at LiftedMBK in New York. Exercise boosts confidence and turns heads at the gym, she said. “It’s a simple exercise that’s really hard to do.”

Therein lies the paradox of pull-ups: pull-ups are simple, but difficult, and many people who think they can’t do them actually could, if they put in the effort and time.

Everyone has a good chance of pulling off a pull-up if they train for it, said Meghan Callaway, a Vancouver, Canada-based strength coach and creator of The ultimate pull-up program. Most people who fail to master pull-up wrestling aren’t because they’re physically incapable, but because they’re not training the right way, she said. The trick is to focus on proper technique and approach your training with patience and deliberation.

The first thing to understand is that pull-ups are a full-body exercise. “A lot of people think of a pull-up as simply an upper-body exercise and neglect what happens from the chest down,” Ms. Callaway said. Her body should be stiff, not loose. Which would be easier to move, Ms. Callaway asked, a rigid board or a flexible sandbag with the same weight? If your torso, hips, and lower body are stiff, it’s much easier to lift than deadlifting. (kicking pull-ups, done by swinging your legs to gain momentum, they’re a completely different exercise, he said).

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Grab the bar slightly larger than shoulder-width apart with your palms facing out. (Keeping your palms facing you would be a pull-up, a different exercise, and most people say it’s easier.) Your body should be aligned in a relatively straight line with your feet slightly in front of your body so you’re in a very slight arch. It’s best if the bar is within easy reach of your toes, but if you’re doing them in a doorway, it’s okay to bend your knees with your feet back, Callaway said.

To start the pull-up, draw your shoulder blades toward your spine (think of it as the opposite of shrugging) while simultaneously driving your elbows toward your ribs. Keep your abs and glutes tight to maintain a rigid body position. As you stop, don’t lift your chin, Callaway said, but instead keep your chin tucked in, your neck in a neutral position and your eyes looking straight ahead.

Not everyone can do a pull-up the first time. Before you can even do a full pull-up, you can break the movement down to its component parts and train for each of them. Use these four exercises to help you get stronger and more skilled at the essential parts of the pull-up movement.

The first step is learning to hang in a rigid position, rather than limp. Ms. King has beginners practice hanging by grasping the bar, contracting their abs and glutes so their body becomes stiff as a board, and then holding for 30 to 45 seconds.

These are a way to practice the initial movement of pull-ups. Start by hanging from a bar and then engage your mid and upper back muscles to move shoulder blades toward spine. As you do this, you will feel yourself lift only a small amount. Hold for a moment in this raised position, then slowly lower back to the starting position. Don’t bend your elbows. Your arms should be straight throughout the movement.

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Start in the top position of a pull-up with your head above the bar (stand on a chair to get up there if you need to), then slowly lower to a hanging position in a controlled, fluid motion.

This exercise strengthens the back and improves shoulder mobility. Get under a barbell as if you were about to bench press. But instead of lying on a bench, hang from the bar with your heels on the ground. Keep your body in a straight, rigid line and rise up, initiating the movement using your back muscles, rather than your arms. Return to the starting position in a slow, controlled movement. Imagine moving your shoulder blades away from your spine and around your rib cage.

“Be patient,” Mrs. King said. Getting your first pull-up “requires time and a lot of perseverance; It doesn’t happen overnight.” Consistency is crucial, she said. “There is no way around this. You have to work at it, week after week and month after month.”

For Casey Johnston, a health and science writerPull-ups were just one part of a larger quest to get stronger. She had been lifting weights for about a year before he was finally able to do one, but it was worth it for the sense of accomplishment in mastering this quintessential show of strength. “No one is forced to do pull-ups,” she said. “I have long arms and I’m relatively big, both of which are challenges.”

It’s true that pull-ups are easier for some people than others. “In general, as mass increases, the strength-to-weight ratio decreases,” said Greg Nuckols, founder of StrongerByScience.com and a weightlifter who holds three world records. A tall person is likely to have more mass to lift than a shorter person, even if they have a similar build. Some may never be able to handle a pull-up, no matter how long they try, and others may decide it’s not worth it.

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I will never set any pull-up records with my long arms and legs and taller than average height. But I do have some advantages: good upper-body strength from years of cross-country skiing, and not too chubby middle-aged. I still have to work on pull-ups, but the reward is very satisfying.

“Getting on something (a pole, a fence, a wall) makes you feel like a superhero,” Callaway said. Not only that, he added, but it also makes the monkey bars at the nearby playground a little more fun.


Christie Aschwanden is a writer based in western Colorado and the author of “Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery.”

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