Getting that Pull-Up

by Melissa gut, Fitness Coach & Lead for Women’s Training, Pinnacle Performance

So girls, you want to get your first pull-up? Like many women, when I first started strength training, I would idolise anyone I saw doing pull-ups, and never thought a day would come when I could manage my first (strict) one. Achieving your first pull-up is like everything else in the Strength and Conditioning world – you must take a systematic approach to achieve or master the movement and commit the time and dedication. “But how am I supposed to work on something I can’t even do yet”? I hear you ask. Well below are Pinnacle’s key focus areas for this idolised show of strength.

1. Mobility: like all compound movements, if you don’t have the mobility to perform the action correctly you may risk injury. The pull-up requires you to be able to get into an overhead position without any pinching or pain. If you have tight Lats, Upper Thoracic, and/or Chest you are already over-stressing your shoulders and spine. In a society where most of us spend all day sitting at a desk, our upper back muscles are already under-developed and we could all do with more shoulder and upper-thoracic mobility work. If an unloaded overhead position aggravates, then try some Shoulder Capsule Distraction to increase shoulder joint capability for range.

2. Grip: Most people don’t realise how much grip strength plays into your ability to do a pull-up. A great exercises is the Retracted Dead Hang. While in the Dead Hang position work on learning to activate your lats in the first phase of the pull-up. Do this by pulling your shoulders back imagining putting them in your back pockets and creating a long neck. If you are just starting out, try holding this Retracted Dead Hang for 3 sets of 30sec and then work your way up to 1min-2min per set. A single arm side to side swing is only a few weeks away…

3. Pull Strength: As a compound movement, the Pull Up uses all of your back muscles, biceps, forearms, and notably your trunk.  As well as working on the vertical hang, horizontal pull work accessorises the upper body posterior chain training. Ring Rows are a great way to regress / progress by simply changing your positioning beneath the rings. The closer you can get your body parallel to the floor, the more challenging this exercise will be. Keep your hips up and imagine holding the longest position you can from head to toe to prevent sag. Activate your retraction again and pull yourself in one straight motion, bringing the rings into your armpits with your elbows pointing directly behind you.

4. Negative Pull-Ups are the daddy of all overload exercises to get your first pull up in sights. Your muscles create more force as they lengthen, so use this advantage and overload the exercise by climbing above the bar and slowly lowering yourself down pausing at 3-4 segments (sticking points). The bottom half of the pull-up is where the majority of people need the most strength training so don’t rush this final phase of the negative, keep a steady pace until you find yourself in a retracted dead hang at the bottom.


5. Assisted Pull-Up: The technique and recruitment of this exercises means that you do need to practice the action too. Similarly to squatting with a lighter bar, we need to appropriately lighten the pull-up load by assisting your body weight with these de-load ideas:

a) Box Assisted Pull-Up: Place a bar on the squat rack and a box several feet in front of the bar. Placing your feet on the box and hang from the bar with a vertical torso as if you were sitting on the floor. Your upper body should be in the pull-up position, but with your feet elevated you can distribute some of your body weight in order to lessen the load you are pulling. Start with the bar relatively high on the rack, distributing more of your bodyweight onto the box. This movement can be progressed further by lowering the bar, making it harder to pull yourself up as less weight is distributed to the box.

b) Partner Assisted Pull-Up: Grab a friend and work on getting your first pull-ups together.  In your active hang from the bar, have your partner place their hands directly under your scapula (armpit area). From here, your partner can offer as much, or as little assistance as needed in different stages of the pull-up. Maybe you need more assistance at the bottom of the pull-up and less once your break past that first barrier. Having a partner allows you to determine where you need the most assistance and where you may need no assistance at all.

6. Accessories: Focusing in on your upper back and trunk will be the most beneficial to aiding your goal of your first pull-up. Exercises like the Prone Row, 3pt Row, Banded Face Pulls, Rope Sled Pulls, Rope Climbs and Hollow Holds are all great examples of pulling strength exercises and building core strength to achieve your first pull-up or strengthen your pull-ups if you already can do them.

Consistency is going to play the biggest role when trying to build up strength for any movement. If you are just starting out in the squat and you want to be able to squat your bodyweight, it takes time and a complete program designed to build your strength in this movement. So do not get discouraged if you are not able to perform a strict pull-up. You are having to pull your bodyweight in a compound movement, and similar to the squat, it takes time and a well designed program. Ask any of your Pinnacle Coaches if you want to take the next steps to obtaining your first pull-up or improving on your already existing pull ups.


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