You’re Doing It Wrong: The Ultimate Guide to the Pull-Up

woman in top pull up position on a pull up rig

This is a guest blog post by Adam Farrah, author of The Paleo Dieter’s Missing Link and Functional Fitness, Kettlebell, Yoga and Meditation coach.

Pulling is a fundamental human movement—and the pull-up is a powerful expression of that movement.

The pull-up is executed by reaching up overhead with the arms to a stationary bar, grabbing on and “pulling up” the rest of the body until the chin is above the bar. The exercise uses the arm, shoulder, and upper back muscles. Grip strength is also trained in the pull-up.

At the same time, the pull-up can be challenging to practice. Its use of bodyweight resistance makes it a lower-rep exercise for many, and it can even be impossible to perform at first for others. Grip strength and upper-body pulling strength may also need special development before a true pull-up can be attempted.

That’s why we created this Ultimate Guide to teach you the fundamental techniques and concepts that will make your pull-up safer, stronger, and more effective. And if you can’t do a pull-up yet, this guide will help you move toward your first one safely and quickly.

In this Ultimate Guide, we’re going to explore how to do a pull-up the right way, by teaching you:

The Pull-Up is a Foundational Upper-Back Exercise

The pull-up is underrated. This movement is to minimalist upper-back and biceps training what the push-up is to minimalist chest, shoulder, and triceps training. Although push-ups and bench presses tend to get all the attention online and in the print muscle magazines, a strong upper-body pull is just as important to overall health, conditioning, and program balance.

In my past ten years of coaching experience, I’ve rarely encountered a trainee who can’t learn to do some version of a pull-up with proficiency. It can take some creative coaching, and a few tools and tricks, but the pull-up is accessible and beneficial to most people.

Building a Safe, Strong Pull-Up

I use several form cues and coaching ideas to keep pull-ups safe and effective when I’m training clients who are targeting pull-up proficiency.

Gripping the Bar

The bar should be gripped tightly to generate tension in the body and increase focus. I prefer to have thumbs around the bar, but I don’t get too upset if a trainee feels more comfortable with a “false grip” that doesn’t involve the thumbs.

hands clasped around pull up bar with full grip

Thumbs around the bar grip.

hands clasped around pull up bar with false grip

A “false” or thumb-less grip.

Packing the Shoulders

We visited “packing the shoulders” in “The Ultimate Guide to the Push-Up.” To get a feeling for packing the shoulders, simply raise your arms straight overhead and contract your upper back muscles to pull the shoulders down and into the sockets. This is a safe and stable position from which to pull and press.

man in starting pull-up position with shoulders out of sockets

WRONG: Shoulders out of the sockets

man in starting pull-up position with shoulders engaged

CORRECT: Shoulders packed

Tensing the Body

As with most functional movements, tensing the rest of the body allows the working muscles to generate more power. Pack the shoulders as described above, tense your abs as if you were drawing the navel to the spine through your abdominal cavity, and think of “pinching a coin” between your glutes.

Set Your Legs

I like to cross my legs and bend at the knees slightly. This gives me some tension in my lower body and allows me to focus my efforts where they’re most needed. I also recommend wrapping the leg around bands—check out Scaling with Bands below for information on how to do that.

man hanging from the pull up bar in starting pull up position with feet crossed

Pull Yourself Up!

Some coaches say the rep counts if your chin is over the bar. Others say the chest has to touch the bar for the rep to count. For a strict, non-kipping pull-up, chest to bar is a lot harder than chin over bar. As far as I’m concerned, if the chin is over the bar, the rep counts.

Rep Range

Fitness instructor Pavel Tsatsouline considers exercises like pull-ups or push-ups to be “bodyweight powerlifts.” For this reason, training pull-ups are approached as “practice” instead of a “workout” and trained with reps no more than five. I do sets of one to three several times a week for practice. Within a workout, reps can be varied from low to high and everything in between depending on the trainee’s skill level.

Training Frequency

Again from Pavel, training for pull-ups is approached as “practice” and can be trained daily or more frequently, as long as rep count has you ending the set well before failure.

What About Women?

For all the great pics online of women doing high reps of kipping pull-ups or heavily weighted strict pull-ups, the majority of women I’ve worked with haven’t had strong pull-ups to begin with. This is not a judgment—just an observation. Pull-ups have the added complication of a grip strength requirement and, for some, the added “intimidation factor” of hanging from a bar with the feet off the ground.

Regardless, preparation for pull-ups is something I start almost immediately with new clients—men and women—using some of the modifications in this article.

The progression from not being able to hang from a pull-up bar all the way to a strict, unassisted pull-up is a remarkable achievement. It’s a major training high point that, as a coach, is something to strive for with as many clients as possible.

What About Heavier Trainees?

Heavier trainees may or may not ever get to the point of being able to do a strict, unassisted pull-up. Depending on body type, body composition, and training goals, it may not even be a training focus worth pursuing.

Obviously, bodyweight is a factor here. For heavier trainees, my approach is to focus on fat loss (when appropriate) and pull-up modifications so that upper-body pulling strength is progressing while bodyweight is decreasing. Somewhere in there, when bodyweight is low enough and strength is high enough, the pieces come together to allow a pull-up to happen for the first time.

Exercise Variations and Modifications

Chin-Up Grip

The chin-up is a pull-up variation with a supinated grip—that is, the palms are toward the face as you grip the bar. This variation has a high degree of biceps involvement. I also find it a bit easier on the shoulders, so it’s a good one to try if you have shoulders that are sensitive to a regular pull-up.

man hanging from pull up bar with finger facing toward him

Scaling with Bands

Scaling with bands is my go-to for clients who can’t do a strict pull-up unassisted. I have a bunch of ½-inch and ¼-inch bands that I mix and match depending on the situation. For warm-ups and practice, start with more bands, and gradually use fewer as strength increases.

resistance bands attached to pull up bar

Loop the band or bands around the top of the pull-up bar.

man doing pull up on pull up rig with assistance of resistance bands

For safety, put one foot into the bands at the bottom and wrap the free leg around.

Ring Rows

These are a favorite of mine for clients. They’re highly adjustable, they offer additional degrees of instability to challenge core and focus, and they have a direct application to learning the strict pull-up. They can also be scaled for difficulty by changing the trainee’s body angle by raising or lowering the rings. For trainees who can’t do pull-ups—or just to change things up for variety—ring rows are a great option.

man hanging from rings with arms locked out in reverse plank position

man hanging from rings in reverse plank position arms bent in top of ring row position

What About “Jumping” Pull-Ups?

Once upon a time, it was common to see trainees in CrossFit gyms standing on a box to get closer to a pull-up bar and then doing a pull-up that was a combination of pulling with the upper body and “jumping” with the legs to assist in getting the chin up over the bar.

When I took my CrossFit Gymnastics Certification with Jeff Tucker back in 2009, Jeff was adamantly against the jumping pull-up. His rationale? He’d seen several accidents where boxes had tipped or trainees had come down and missed the box entirely. Done deal. I don’t do them with my clients or recommend them anymore.

Kipping—Speed-Focused Variations

I don’t believe there’s anything inherently wrong or unsafe about kipping pull-ups. They are, however, an advanced pull-up variation that’s suitable for competition or speed work, and I’ve avoided them in this article because they need a dedicated article to address them properly. That said, if kipping pull-ups are of interest to you, be sure you have a strong strict pull-up and can do three to five excellent reps in that style. Once you have that, you can check out CrossFit.com for more on kipping pull-ups

The Ultimate Pull-up Workouts

For these workouts, I’ve deliberately avoided workouts with higher pull-up reps. I did so because most workouts that prescribe higher-rep pull-ups are assuming that a kipping pull-up is going to be used. The following workouts were deliberately chosen for pull-up rep numbers that makes sense for a strict-style pull-up or one of the above strict, assisted variations.

CrossFit Cindy

Author’s Note: Before you get cracking with this workout, review the push-up and the air squat (Part 1 and Part 2) so your form is nice and tight!
As many rounds as possible (AMRAP) in 20 minutes:
5 pull-ups
10 push-ups
15 air squats

Swing, Pull, Push

Author’s Note: This workout is a very adaptable combination I use with all my clients. Everything can be adjusted up or down to challenge anyone at any fitness level. For example, I have one client with a very strong swing and weak push-ups and pull-ups. She’ll get a heavier kettlebell (16 kg), five pull-ups with two ½-inch bands or five bodyweight ring rows and five regular push-ups or 10 push-ups on her knees. Essentially, this is an easily individualized, full-body workout that can be customized to put anyone in the “sweet spot” of challenging but achievable.
3–5 rounds for time:
50 kettlebell swings (12 kg for Women/16 kg for Men)
5 pull-ups
10 push-ups

CrossFit Helen

3 rounds for time:
400 meter run
21 kettlebell swings (16kg/24kg)
12 pull-ups

Do you have a favorite pull-up variation? How do you incorporate pull-ups into your workouts? Let us know in the comments section below!


Also published on Medium.