Pull-ups are hard! But, you can do it with a set of progressions to make this exercise less overwhelming and totally doable.
In This Post:
- Muscle Groups Worked
- Progression Overview
- Tips for correct technique
- The Plan and Details for the Pull-up Progression
Muscle Groups Worked
- Primary: Back
- Secondary: Biceps
- Difficulty: Intermediate
- Equipment Options: Pull-up bar, Smith Machine, Power Rack, Rings, Weight Vest, Ankle Weight, Bands, Assist Pull-up Machine
Pull-up Progression Overview
*breakdown of each exercise under Plan and Details.
- Reverse Pull-Ups (aka Horizontal or Australian pull-ups)
- Jackknife Pulls or Assisted Pull-Ups (machine, bands, chair etc)
- Negative Pull-ups
- Half Pull-ups
- Full Pull-Ups
A few tips:
*A pull-up is done with your palms facing away from you. A chin up is done with your palms facing you. We are focusing on palms away pull-ups in this post.
* Keep your shoulders “tight.” Don’t hang so your shoulder joints are loose and your body weight is pulling on them. If you hang from the bar and relax your shoulders, the ball joint stretches in the socket being held by ligaments- you want to keep your shoulder tight and held by your muscles. Your shoulders are extremely versatile ball and socket joints which makes them prone to injury.
*For all exercises, keep your body from swinging and do these is a safe and controlled manner with even cadence.
The Plan & Details
- Work through the progression goals as stated below.
- To maximize your strength and conditioning and take body-weight exercises to it fullest, first master one progression goal then move onto the next (ideally, beginner to intermediate to advanced then the next pull up exercise). This allows for your muscles, ligaments and tendon’s to gain full strength to be able to move on successfully.
- If your only goal is to do a few pull-ups, the progression goals can overlap. For example, you may not have completely mastered the 2 sets of 20 reverse pull ups, but you can also start working on the jack knife pull ups.
- Even though I can do 10-12 pull ups, I keep all of the following exercises in my regular workout program.
- Do 3 sets of the appropriate progression goal (or 3 sets of the amount of reps you can do to start), 3x per week or every other day.
- Try to improve as time goes on with less rest or more reps.
- This is a difficult exercise and will take time and perseverance to master! Don’t give up!!!!
1) Reverse or Horizontal Pull-Ups
You can use a smith machine setting the bar low, about the height of your hips. You can also do this under a sturdy table or desk.
- Beginner: 1 set of 10
- Intermediate: 2 sets of 20
- Advanced: 3 sets of 30
Keep your body locked straight and aligned, your weight should go through your hands and your heels. Pull yourself up smoothly until your chest touches the bar. Lower and repeat.
Easy– keep knees bent with feet flat on floor. Bar at chest height.
Harder– keep legs straight. Bar at hip height.
Hardest– put legs up on a bench so you are horizontal or your feet are higher than your upper body. Bar at hip height.
2) Jackknife Pulls or Assisted Pull-Ups
You can use a smith machine setting the bar at chest height with a bench or a pull up bar with a high backed chair.
- Beginner: 1 set of 10
- Intermediate: 2 sets of 15
- Advanced: 3 sets of 20
Grab the bar, hands shoulder width apart. Place feet on a bench so your feet are at hip height. Now smoothly pull yourself up. You can use your straightened legs to help you by pushing down on your heels. Pull up until your chin is over the bar.
You can also put your feet up on a chair so your knees are bent at a 90 degree angle.
3) Negative Pull-ups
You will need a pull-up bar and a chair or stool (optional- you can jump up as well)
- Beginner: 2 sets of 5
- Intermediate: 2 sets of 10
- Advanced: 3 sets of 10+
Grab the pull up bar- You will need to be able to touch the ground with your feet so you can push off the ground to get your chin above the bar or have a bench or chair to lift yourself so your chin is above the bar. Once you get your chin above the bar, begin to lower yourself back down IN CONTROL.
4) Half Pull-ups
For this you will need a pull up bar. This is the first exercises of the progression where you are required to lift your entire body weight up without assistance. This can be a place where you will progress slower, especially if you are overweight. Losing body fat (aside from getting stronger) definitely helps as you will have less to lift.
- Beginner: 1 set of 8
- Intermediate: 2 sets of 11
- Advanced: 2 sets of 15
Grab bar, hands shoulder width apart. Jump up so that there is a right angle at your elbow joint (forearms are parallel to the floor). Smoothly pull yourself up until your chin clears the bar. Ideally, your legs should not be a part of the movement but hanging straight down.
5) Full Pull-Ups!
All you need is a pull up bar and your body weight.
Doing at least 1 of course Moving beyond that…
- Beginner: 1 set of 5
- Intermediate: 2 sets of 8
- Advanced: 2 sets of 10
Once you have mastered this, you can move onto Close Pull-ups, Uneven Pull-ups, 1/2 One Arm Pull-Ups, Assisted One Arm Pull-ups and One Arm Pull-Ups! The Ultimate and totally my goal!
The pull-up: Hang with arms fully extended from the bar (aka-dead hang), arms shoulder width or a bit wider apart, palms away from you. Your feet should not be touching the ground. Lift yourself in a smooth and controlled manner up until your chin clears the bar. With control, lower yourself back down with arms fully extended and repeat. Try for a cadence of 2 second up and 2 seconds down.
This is considered a heavy calisthenics exercise. If you need to give yourself a tiny push with your foot from a stool or the ground , go ahead. Be sure to wean that out as time goes on.
Other exercises to strengthen your back:
- DB rows
- T-Bar Row
- Seated Cable Row
- Lat pull down
Disclaimer: This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Exercise programs are very individual and the information provided by this website is not a substitute for a face to face consultation with your physician or a personal trainer, and should not be construed as individual medical or nutrition advice. It is intended as sharing of knowledge and information from the research and experience of Heather Owen and her community. Make your own health care decisions based upon research and in partnership with a qualified health care professional.
Portions of the above progression goals can be found in Convict Conditioning by Paul Wade.