How to do Your First Pull Up

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So if you follow my Facebook, Instagram or Twitter you might have seen me put up a video of my first pull up! Ok… maybe it was my second because I asked my coach to film it after I’d managed to get my first one… but that’s beside the point. I got my first pull up!

Since I put the video up I’ve had loads of you ask me how I did it and what progressions you might be able to do to be able to get your first pull up – so I thought I’d write a post!

This is by no means an exhaustive list of things you can do to work towards your first pull up, but it includes the exercises I would recommend along with guidance of how many reps and sets to do, and how to vary for your ability. The exercises go in a rough order of easiest to most challenging (though this may vary from person to person) – try them all to see where you need to work.

So let’s go…

Pull Up Progressions

1. Ring Rows

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One of the first progressions we do for pull ups at CrossFit is ring rows. This exercise works your back and biceps, just like a pull up does, but at a slightly different angle. The other thing this exercise does is encourage you to keep your body straight and strong – just as you should in a pull up.

  • Starting with your feet below the anchor point (where the rings are attached to) hold the rings and lean back – let your toes come off the floor so you’re anchored on just your heels.
  • Engage your back muscles by pulling your shoulders back and then slowly bend your arms to bring your chest up to the rings.
  • Straighten your arms to return to the start position.
  • To make this easier simply step back so your feet are further behind the anchor point, or to make it harder, step forwards so your feet are further in front of the anchor point.

How many?

3 x 8-12 reps at an angle that makes the last rep or two of each set a challenge.

2. Jumping Pull Ups

Another great pull up progression is jumping pull ups. These take some of the hardest part of the movement out (the initial shrug) and allow you to work on your pulling strength in the same angle that you would a pull up.

  • Place a box underneath the pull up bar that allows you to stand on it while holding on to the bar.
  • Bend your legs until you’re at a “dead hang”, i.e. your arms are fully straightened out.
  • From this position, take enough of a jump to get you to a point where you can pull yourself the rest of the way – too much of a jump and it will be too easy, not enough and you won’t get your chin above the bar.
  • To make this harder, either jump less, or pull yourself so your chest touches the bar.

How many?

You could quite easily do more reps as this is a less “strict” movement, but work within the range of 8-12 reps for building strength… for 3 sets.

3. Floor Assisted Pull Ups

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These are another great variation to work on that pulling strength. It’s closer to a pull up than a row, and you can change the amount of weight you’re supporting yourself with just by changing your foot position.

  • Place a bar in the rack at a high enough height that you can hang from it without your butt touching the floor.
  • Slowly pull yourself up, starting by pulling your shoulders down, and then bending your arms rather than initiating the movement with your arms – you want your back to do the hard work!
  • Pause at the top, and then lower back down to the start position.
  • You can have your legs straight out in front (pictured), underneath you in a half-kneeling position, or elevated on a box so you’re in a V position – whatever gives you enough of a challenge.

How many?

3 x 8-12 reps at whichever variation you feel works you hard enough.

4. Band Assisted Pull Ups

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These are probably the exercise that I feel helped me the most – to me, it’s the closest to a “proper” pull up that you can get. There are varying “weight” bands out there – I have four different coloured ones, all different thicknesses to allow me to change up how much of my body weight I am pulling.

  • Loop a band around the bar and step one foot in (you may need to step on a box to help you!). Cross the other foot over the top.
  • As always, start by pulling your shoulders down to initiate the movement, then bend your arms to take you the rest of the way.
  • Try to keep the movement as strict as possible, i.e. not swinging or hitching, then lower all the way back down to straight arms.
  • Try different thickness bands, or combinations of bands, to get to the right amount of assistance for you.

How many?

3 x 8-12 reps with a resistance band that makes the last one or two reps challenging.

5. Eccentric (or Negative) Pull Ups

In case you don’t know, eccentric is the lengthening phase of a movement (whereas concentric is the shortening phase). So an eccentric pull up is where you get to the top of a pull up with assistance and then lower back down under control. I always remember one of our coaches telling us that if you could do 7 x 7 second negatives, you were very likely to be able to do one pull up.

  • Place a box underneath the bar and hold on to the bar.
  • Jump up to the top of a pull up and pause, then lower yourself slowly and controlled until your arms are straight.
  • Start with 3 second lowers, then work up to 5 and then 7 seconds.

How many?

3 x 5-8 reps of whichever duration fits your level. I’ve put this at a lower rep-range because it’s the eccentric portion of a movement that gives you the most muscle tears and therefore aching the next day! You’ll thank me for it…

Your First Full Pull Up

When you feel ready, try your first full pull up. I tried on the off-chance and managed to do it, so keep checking in as often as you feel you can. Make sure you’re well warmed up to avoid straining your muscles, and don’t feel disheartened if you don’t get it – just go back to the progressions and keep working – it WILL come!

Here’s my first pull up below:

Hopefully this post has given you the confidence that you can work towards a full pull up – I didn’t think it was going to happen for me, but with a bit of consistency and effort it did! Keep trying, and work with the progressions that you can, either through equipment availability, or whatever you feel is bringing you the most gains in strength. If there’s one you find particularly hard, it’s probably the one worth working on the most as this can often highlight weak areas!

Let me know if you try any of the moves, or have any other progressions you feel helped, or are helping, you! And let me know when you get your first pull up! I’d love to share in the joy!

12 Comments

  1. 27th January 2016 / 9:50 am

    Thanks for this. Great post. I started CrossFit 8 month ago and the first pull up is my 2016 goal.

    • Georgina Spenceley
      2nd February 2016 / 10:19 pm

      Thank you! Oh cool, how are you finding CrossFit so far? Good luck with the pull ups!

      • 3rd February 2016 / 1:38 pm

        I’m addicted to CrossFit and dragged rest of my family into as well 🙂

    • Georgina Spenceley
      2nd February 2016 / 10:19 pm

      Thanks for reading 🙂 Let me know how you get on!

  2. tessietickle
    27th January 2016 / 11:07 pm

    AMAZING. This is one of my goals that’s been following me around a couple of years but I’ve never committed to getting it done. Tough Mudder in September so need to work on upper body strength! Thanks for this post – bookmarking!

    • Georgina Spenceley
      2nd February 2016 / 10:20 pm

      Thanks Tess! I was supposed to do Tough Mudder last year but got injured in the summer! It’s supposed to be a great race. Good luck with the upper body work!

  3. Graham Haslam
    28th January 2016 / 10:05 am

    Great post, really enjoyed this.

    • Georgina Spenceley
      2nd February 2016 / 10:21 pm

      Thanks Graham! Glad it was useful!

  4. 22nd November 2016 / 5:35 pm

    Pull-ups are an exercise I find myself returning to time and time again. Along with rows, deadlifts and pull-downs, they’re one of the best exercise for building a strong and wide back, but I see too few trainees performing them!

    • Georgina Spenceley
      22nd November 2016 / 7:43 pm

      They are such a good exercise aren’t they! I think a lot of people are intimidated by them, and may also not know alternatives/assisted versions that they can do to get them there. Hopefully they’ll become a more popular exercise with social media making things that much more accessible these days!

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