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How to do pull-ups - Everything you need to know to get started!

Updated on March 17, 2017
Nikhil Moorthy profile image

I help people transform their bodies without losing their minds. I approach fitness and nutrition with a scientific, fact-based approach.

Pull-ups are one of the best exercises you can do - period.

They stimulate so much muscle growth that they are probably the ultimate upper body exercise. In fact, doing pull-ups can have the following effects on your body:

  • Broader back
  • Broader shoulders
  • Bigger arms
  • Stronger forearms
  • Stronger grip strength

So you look like Spike, the bulldog!

Just kidding.

They're one of the best exercises I've every used - and they deliver results very fast, especially if you haven't done pullups before. You'll see changes to your body in less than 2 weeks, if you do them everyday.

However, pullups aren't easy. In fact, most people can start doing pushups pretty easily, but pullups require some practice - most people actually don't have the strength to do even one pullup.

So how do you build strength to do pullups, and then reap the advantages of this fantastic all-round muscle builder?

Here's how.

Building strength to do pullups

The only way to get strong enough to do pullups is to actively train for it. You need patience, but if you can invest in this for a few weeks, you’ll easily conquer the pullup.


Phase 1: Eccentrics Only

  • To begin with, you need to focus on the eccentric portion of the movement, which is when you lower yourself to the bottom. This is also called a ‘negative’, and is where you start to build a lot of the strength required for pullups.
  • Simply jump up and grab the bar and using either momentum from your jump or with a chair, position yourself at the top of the movement with your chin at the bar.
  • Then, release your legs from the chair (if using one) and lower yourself to the bottom AS SLOWLY AS POSSIBLE.
  • This is a single rep exercise, and you want to try it no more than 4 times, so 4 sets during a session.
  • Your goal is to work towards stretching your negative from top to bottom for as close to 20 seconds as possible. Meaning - it should take you 20 seconds to get from top to bottom. Once you can do this on all four sets, you’re ready for the next phase.


Phase 2: Eccentrics with Pauses

  • Same as Phase 1, get to the top of the bar, but this time, while lowering yourself, pause half-way down.
  • Hold your pause for 8–10 seconds.
  • Then lower yourself two-thirds down.
  • Hold for another 8–10 seconds.
  • Then lower to the bottom.
  • Rinse and repeat, 4 sets the same way.
  • Once you can do this, move to Phase 3.


Phase 3: Spotter + 2-ankle hold

  • By now - you should be ready to start cranking out full range chin-ups with support. Here’s where having a friend or a spotter really helps.
  • Grab the bar, assume the bottom position of the chin-up and crook your ankles together, and have a friend/buddy grab your ankles with a firm grip.
  • This way, when you push down your ankles into their hands, you’ll push yourself up.
  • Do this and work towards getting out 12 reps in a set. When you can do that, move to Phase 4.


Phase 4: Spotter + 1-ankle hold

  • This phase is the same as the previous, but now your spotter will only grab 1 ankle to support you.
  • This forces you to use more of your stabilizer muscles to generate the power for the lift.
  • Do this version till you can get 12 reps in a set.
  • Then move to the next phase.


Phase 5: Spotter + waist support

  • Final phase - the spotter will now support you by holding you at the waist, while you pull yourself up towards the bar.
  • Once you can get 12 reps this way, you are ready


Test

Now, you should try to perform a un-supported strict chin-up. If you followed the program you will already be able to do about 4–5 clean reps with no help at all.


From here on, it’s all about practice and practice. Keep at it and watch your numbers go up!

Final Words

If you can only do 4 pullups - keep doing sets of 4 as often as you can - you'll very quickly progress to 5, and then 6, and then so on.

The other way to do it is to set a number goal - so let's say you decide to do 25 pull-ups in one go, but you can only do 4 at a time. Do the 4 pull-ups. Take a short break, maybe 30-60 seconds. Then do 4 more. Then take another break. Now try again - you may only get 3 reps, and that's fine. Do the 3, take a break, do a more. Keep going till you get 25. You'll have to grind them out and so you may end up with a series that looks like this:

4, 4, 3, 3, 2, 2, 2, 1, 1, 1, 1 ,1

And that's perfectly OK. The next time you try, it may look like this:

4, 4, 4, 4, 3, 2, 1, 1, 1, 1.

Keep going - eventually you'll need fewer sets to get to 25, which means that your max pullups per set has automatically gone up from 4 to 5 to 6 to 7 and so on.

Once you can do 10+ reps in one set - it’s time to add weight. You can do that either with a dumbbell between your legs or by wearing a weighted vest.

That's it. This is how you get better at pull-ups. This is a great muscle-building move, so make sure you add them to your routine.

© 2017 Nik Moorthy

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