You Can Progress to a Pull Up

Make your fitness dreams come true once and for all, starting with the classic pull up!

Pull ups are one way to showcase ultimate strength and conditioning, and they're no easy feat for the beginner. But both men and women can achieve pull-up status with the right training. Keep in mind that the terms pull ups and chin ups are often used interchangeably. Feel free to work on using an overhand (palms facing away) grip, which relies heavily on back strength, or an underhand grip (palms facing you) grip, which puts intense focus on the biceps. The following exercise progressions will help strengthen the major muscles involved in pull ups until you're strong enough to do them on your own.

Time Involved: Two 10-minute sessions a week, for several weeks
Muscles Worked: Back and Biceps

How to Train at the Gym
Using the strength training machines at the gym is probably the best way to train for pull ups.
  • Phase 1: Start your training on the seated lat pulldown machine. Start lifting about 25% of your weight until you can perform 2-3 sets of 12-15 repetitions in good form. Then move to Phase 2.
  • Phase 2: Continue on the lat pull down machine, but perform the exercise while standing up instead of sitting (a cable cross machine will also work in this phase, if you're familiar with using it). Increase your resistance over time until you can lift 50% of your body weight as resistance for 2-3 sets of 12-15 repetitions in good form. Then you're ready for Phase 3.
  • Phase 3: Continue performing the standing lat pulldowns (or, if your gym has it, move on to the assisted pull up machine). Increase your resistance over time until you can lift 80% of your body weight as resistance for 2-3 sets of 12-15 repetitions with good form. Once you can do this, you're ready for the real thing!
  • Phase 4: Pull ups! Once you've mastered Phase 3, you should be able to perform about 2-5 pull ups without assistance. Congratulations!
How to Train without Equipment
If you do not have access to gym equipment, that is OK. If you have access to a pull up bar (or even some monkey bars at a playground!), then grab a friend for some help. Be sure to use good form (grab the bar at about shoulder-width, crossing your feet and ankles, and bending your knees so that your feet are off the ground, as if kneeling). Your friend can assist you by grabbing your feet and legs to assist you as you lift to the top position. Try to lower yourself back down each time on your own, without assistance. Over time, have your friend give you less and less assistance as you get strong enough to lift more of your weight on your own.

If you are alone, you can still work on strengthening your pull up muscles, even without a spot. To do so, stand on a box, grab the bar, take a little jump to the "up" position. Lower yourself down as slowly as possible. This “negative phase” of the exercise will still strengthen the muscles to help you with pulling up. Try to do 2-3 sets of as many reps as you can, assisted or unassisted, 3-4 times each week and you'll be doing the real ones on your own in no time!

General Training Tips
  • Be sure to rest these muscle groups for 1-2 days after each of your training sessions. Resting is just as important as training, because recovery is what will help you repair, rebuild and get stronger.
  • Eat right. You can't make muscles out of just any old food—you need to fuel them properly before and after each workout to ensure you're getting the most of your workouts.
  • Don't neglect your other muscles. A sound strength training program, which targets each of your major muscle groups, is important for avoiding injury and creating balance.
  • Mix it up. It will take several weeks to master pull ups if you're starting from square one, and you're sure to reach a few plateaus along the way. If you experience several weeks of stagnant progress, change things up.
  • Keep at it. If you don't continue to practice your pull ups, you'll lose the strength that took you weeks to build up. Practice your pull ups on a regular basis, aiming for 2 training sessions each week to maintain your newfound strength and skills.
Good luck reaching your goals!

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Member Comments

Thanks Report
thanks Report
I never could do a pull up Report
Like this about life--no matter where you are starting from, if you just make a plan and stick to it, putting in consistent effort towards the goal, you eventually get there! Report
Thanks for sharing, I can do this Report
Thanks for sharing Report
Thank you for this. Report
I have a real sense of accomplishment when using the assisted lift machine at the gym! I can do 75% of my weight when using it, and I'll be really proud when I get to that 80%. Report
Used to do these as a kid in high school couldn't recall how I got started (was OK until the board I was using at the time -a plank nailed under the floor joists) gave way. Wasn't too badly hurt- switched to the door way to the work room where my weights were as it was open on one side and the perfect height used to do 20 after lifting weights. Report
I know of two other ways to build up to a full pull up, which are used in my CrossFit gym.

1. Use a giant elastic band to assist with the up portion of the movement.
This is more advanced than option #2, but so much fun. the band should be looped around the pullup bar and extend to the level or your knee or so. Stretch the band and place one foot in the bottom end. Let your body hang from the bar, supported by the band. You're now ready to try an assisted pullup. If you have the band strength right, your muscles plus the pull of the elastic will allow you to do it exactly as if you had the strength to do it on your own.

2. Ring rows are an easier option. This also work for people with at-home bars for their doorway. Some gyms have rings hanging from the ceiling. They should be adjusted to about shoulder height. At home, attach a sheet, towel, or strapping to your pullup bar, or trap a knotted sheet above a closed door. Grasp the rings/sheet/towel
/straps near the level of your armpits, lean back, and then pull up (using your back and shoulders only). Make it easier: step back. Make it harder: step forward.

Ring rows are also excellent training for progression to full pullup Report
i've had unassisted chinup/pullup on my bucket list for years. it's time to scratch it off! thanks for this article! Report
I think it will take months not weeks for me. I started with negative chin ups (b/c it is easier) and am working on negative pull ups after a month. My goal is to do a pull-up on my own for Christmas. Report
This sounds like my next big goal. Report
My hnand I got a pull up bar for Christmas and I, having never been able to do a pull up EVER, I am going to do it :) Report


About The Author

Jason Anderson
Jason Anderson
Jason loves to see people realize the benefits of a healthy, active lifestyle. He is a certified personal trainer and enjoys running races--from 5Ks to 50K ultramarathons. See all of Jason's articles.