Pull-ups are my favorite exercise of all
They work all of the “pull” muscles in your body – your
back, biceps, forearms.
They are indicative of your level of fitness – anybody that
can do a pull-up is in pretty good shape.
And anybody that can do 10 or more is clearly in great
Lastly, pull-ups make you feel like a badass after doing
However, pull-ups are also hard as hell, especially if
you’re just getting started. Unlike other exercises that
can be completed with just your body weight (like squats, lunges,
and push ups), pull-ups and other exercises that strengthen your
pull muscles require at least one piece of equipment or something
to hang from!
On top of all of that, if you can’t do one yet, how the heck
are you supposed to work on them to get better?
I’ve recently received thousands of emails from fellow rebels
who are working towards their first pull-up but aren’t there
Whether you’re 300 pounds overweight and can’t even look at
a pull-up bar without freaking out, or you’re half an inch away
from finally being able to do your first pull-up, this article is
for you – sorry it took so long for me to write!
Pull-ups are quite the intimidating exercise, but like Optimus
Prime has taught us, we can make small changes and improvements
over time that will result in the ultimate goal:
One. Freaking. Pull-up.
It will take a combination of two things to get your chin up
over that bar:
- Decreasing body fat so you have less weight to pick up!
- Increasing strength to pick up your bodyweight and move above
I realize doing those two things is much easier said than
What most people don’t realize is that they spend too much
time on the strength part, not realizing that decreasing their body
weight is as important and impactful (if not more so!).
Which is why most people never get to do a pull-up!
After all, there’s nothing more frustrating than putting in
the effort for months (or years) and not seeing results and getting
demoralized. And unfortunately, this is what I see from most
people: Lots of well-intentioned but misguided effort in the gym
and no changes.
You probably don’t have years to make the mistakes that I did
and want to skip this problem, and you just want to start getting
In addition to the free resources below, we also offer 1-on-1 Online
Coaching, where you’ll get personalized instruction for your
body type and goals, and professional accountability from a Coach
on Team Nerd Fitness!
You can schedule a free call with our team to learn more
about coaching by clicking on the image below of
Christina! She’s one of our coaching clients who went
from 0 pull-ups to now doing sets of 10!
But enough of that, let’s get into the nitty-gritty of how to
get your first pull-up!
A few tips to get started
This should hopefully be obvious, but the more you
weigh, the more you have to lift in order to complete a
pull-up. If you’re truly serious about completing a
pull-up, start by getting your diet under control. I’m a HUGE fan
Paleo Diet, because I know it works. A few folks have already
lost 10+ pounds in just over a week following the Paleo Diet in the
Academy. As you start to weigh less, you’ll have less weight
to pick up and move up over that bar! Got it? Good.
MAKE YOUR BACK EXERCISES A PRIORITY. A lot of
people do every other exercise before doing any back-related
exercises, if they do any at all. After warming up properly, your
first exercise should always be the stuff that you want to work on
the most – in this case it’ll be your back.
The progression below is just a path that I’ve
created, but does NOT need to be followed to a T. I give
sample sets and reps and when to move up, but if you feel like you
can progress sooner or want to try doing full pull-ups sooner than
I recommend, that’s OKAY. This is the slower progression
method, where some people will want to do fewer reps and progress
to the next levels sooner – that’s okay.
I recommend moving up to the next level when you can do
3 sets of 8 reps of a particular exercise. If you want the
accelerated path, move on up as soon as you can do 3 sets of 5
Almost every exercise below has a video to show you how
to do it. Click on the picture or the video below
If you want to know how to incorporate the progressions below into
a regular training routine, you can put your email address below to
download our beginner bodyweight workout! It’s a great way to get
strong as you also get better at your pull-ups!
- Complete this workout at home, no equipment required
- Avoid the common mistakes everybody makes when doing bodyweight
- Learn how to finally get your first pull-up
Level 1: Bent Over Dumbbell Rows
We’re going to start with these, the most basic of
back exercises, in case you’re starting from ABSOLUTELY square
one. For these exercises, focus on lifting more and more
as you get stronger. Every OTHER day, pick up a dumbbell that you
can lift for three sets of 8 repetitions with a 2-minute break
between sets. As soon as you can do 3 sets of 8 reps, it’s time
to move up to a heavier dumbbell.
- As soon as you can do dumbbell rows with at least a 25-pound
(10kg) dumbbell or heavier, consider moving up to the next
- If you are a little bit bigger than the average bear, you might
want to stick with this step until you lose a little bit more
weight and get stronger – maybe go to 35 or 40-pound (18kg)
Level 2: Body Weight Rows
Body weight rows are the PERFECT precursor to
pull-ups – they work the same muscles, just at a
different angle. You can also make adjustments. You know how I
HATE HATE HATE exercise machines? Here, I wholeheartedly recommend
the use of a smith
machine…but ONLY for rows! Because you can adjust the
height of the bar, you can adjust how difficult the exercise is.
If you’re just getting started, put the bar very high, so you
only have to lean back slightly. If you’re stronger, you can
start with a lower bar.
Here’s a whole post I did on
body weight rows (also called inverted rows).
- Clench your butt and keep your abs tight and body straight
throughout the exercise. Focus your mind on PULLING with your
- Set the bar at a height where it’s challenging for you to
complete 3 sets of 8 reps with two minutes of rest between
- As soon as you can complete all 3 sets of 8 reps, lower the
- If you need to make the exercise easier, bend your knees and
put your feet flat on the ground. You can drop your hips too to
make things easier.
A sample routine that starts with your back
Monday – 3 sets of 8 reps of overhand
Wednesday – 3 sets of 8 reps of underhand bodyweight
rows (hands reversed)
Friday – 3 sets of 8 reps of overhand
- (And then go underhand, overhand, underhand the following
As soon as you’re doing bodyweight rows where your body is at
a 45-degree angle or lower, you can progress to level 3.
IF YOU DON’T HAVE ACCESS TO A BAR FOR INVERTED
ROWS: Try using your kitchen
table, or move up to Level 3 and progress with caution
IF YOU HAVE ACCESS TO A GYM OR WANT TO JOIN A
GYM, I know they can be intimidating! We have multiple
chapters on how to find a gym and get started using the
equipment, in our free guide Strength Training 101: Everything You
Need to Know. Grab our nerdy guide when you join the Nerd Fitness
Rebellion with your email in the box below:
- Everything you need to know about getting strong.
- Workout routines for bodyweight AND weight training.
- How to find the right gym and train properly in one.
Level 3A: Assisted Pull-Ups
Personally, I don’t like using the assisted pull-up
machine in a gym as it doesn’t give you the full feeling of a
pull-up, but it’s certainly better than nothing.
Instead, I recommend doing one of these
Pull-ups with chair – (either one foot or two
depending on your needs) – your feet are ONLY there for support,
use your upper body as much as possible.
Assisted Pull-ups with
exercise band – (you can get different types of
exercise bands with different levels of strength). Put your foot
in the exercise band and pull yourself up.
Assisted pull-ups with a partner – (have a
friend hold your feet behind you and help you complete each rep).
Have your friend use the least amount of help possible to get you
through your workouts.
- Clench your butt and keep your abs tight throughout the
exercise – try not to swing like crazy.
- Keep your shoulder blades pinched behind you throughout the
movement and focus on PULLING the bar down with your arms.
- Use the least amount of assistance that you can handle – as
soon as you can do multiple pull-ups with both feet on the chair,
switch to just one foot.
- If you’re using an exercise band, try to get a few bands of
varying tension so you can decrease the resistance as you get
- As soon as you can do 3 sets of 8 with assistance, it’s time
to move on up.
A sample level 3 routine:
Monday – Assisted Pull-ups – 3 sets of 8
Wednesday – Body weight rows – 3 sets of 8
Friday – Assisted Chin Ups – 3 sets of 8
Level 3B: Negative Pull-Ups
Now, let’s say you don’t have a rubber band, you
don’t have somebody to hold your feet, and you don’t have a
chair – you ONLY have a pull-up bar. That’s okay –
you can do what we call negatives. When doing a negative, you jump
above the bar and try to lower yourself slowly and in control until
you’re at the bottom of the movement. This can be very
dangerous if you’re very overweight, which is why I’d recommend
moving slowly through steps 1-3A first.
However, once you have a decent amount of back strength, doing
negatives is a great way to build arm and back strength.
You can either jump above the pull-up bar, and then begin to
lower yourself back down IN CONTROL, or you can hop up on a chair
to get above the bar and then lower yourself back down. Again, the
name of the game is “in control.”
You don’t need to lower yourself so slowly that one repetition
destroys you…lower yourself in a controlled speed – Counting to
three during the movement is a good tempo.
Here’s a sample workout using everything up to this
Monday – Assisted Chin Ups – 3 sets of 8
Wednesday – Body Weight Rows – 3 sets of 8
Friday – Negative Pull-ups – 3 sets to
failure – capped at 5 repetitions for each set.
For your negative pull-ups, do as many as you can (up to 5 reps)
per set – jump and lower yourself in control, then jump right
back up and lower yourself. If you can do 5, wait 2 minutes and
then start again. If you can’t do 5, do as many as you can in
control, wait 2 minutes and then start again.
Once you’re doing 3 sets of 5 repetitions on your negative
pull-ups, along with your assisted chin-ups and body weight
Level 4 – Chin Ups and Pull-Ups
My dear rebel, it’s time.
Depending on your weight, your level of fitness and strength,
and how far along you are in these progressions, you might be able
to start with more than one pull-up.
For MANY people, especially if you have spent time in the gym in
the past working on your biceps (like most guys do), you might find
it easier to start with chin ups (with
your palms facing toward you) for your first exercise before trying
pull-ups (with your palms facing away from you).
I’ve already covered how to do a
pull-up/chin-up in another article, so I won’t get
into it too much here…just focus on these things:
- Pull your shoulder blades back as you’re going through the
movement, and focus on pulling the bar down.
- Again, keep your butt clenched and your abs tight throughout
- Get your chin above the bar, or it doesn’t count as a full
- Do whatever you need to get through the full rep.
- If you can only do one rep, try to do at least 3 sets of one
rep…after your three sets, add in some negatives to exhaust the
At this point, here’s a Level 4 routine set up for a
Monday – Chin ups – 3 sets for maximums
Wednesday – Inverted Rows – 3 sets for max
Friday – Pull-ups – 3 sets for maximum
Level 5 – Next steps
Once you’re able to do 3 sets of 10 pull-ups or
chin-ups, you have a few options:
Continue to get better at doing more reps –
3 sets of 12, 3 sets of 15, 3 sets of 20, etc.
Start doing other types of pull-ups – like
wide grip pull-ups (grab the bar WAY out with both hands),
side to side
pull-ups, uneven pull-ups,
- Add weight and do weighted pull-ups
Personally, my favorite thing to do in a gym is weighted
pull-ups; if you’re at this level and interested in doing so,
here’s what you need to do:
Get a weight belt. I
bought this one on Amazon and it’s worked out incredibly
well for me. I’ve tried doing the whole “put weights in a
backpack” and it certainly works, but the angle of the weights
hanging off your back is weird. With a weight belt, the weight
hangs down between your legs (not a euphemism) so it feels more
Add small amounts at a time. Most gyms will
have 2.5 lb (roughly 1kg) weights; you might feel stupid putting on
a big weight belt and only hanging a tiny weight off it, but you
need to start somewhere.
Consistently add more weight. I’ll warm up
with two sets of 5 pull-ups with no extra weight, and then do 3
sets of 5 weighted pull-ups. If I can complete all 3 sets of 5
reps (with my chin over the bar for every rep), I’ll make a note
to add 2.5 or 5lbs (1 or 2kg) to my weight belt for the next
So, here’s an advanced sample routine for back
Monday – Weighted Chin Ups
– 3 sets of 5 reps
Wednesday – Elevated Feet Body
Weight Rows – 3 sets of max repetitions
Friday – Wide Grip Pull-ups – 3 sets of
- (The following week, I’d alternate by doing the chin ups
without weight, and then doing weighted pull-ups
Don’t Make These Pull-up Mistakes!
My work here is done – it’s now up to you to take
care of business.
As you start to get stronger with your pull-ups, it’s
important to check in and make sure you’re doing them
correctly. 90% of people I see doing pull-ups in a gym are doing
Here are the 5 big mistakes people make when doing a
I want this for you so badly, because in my head there’s no
greater exercise than a pull-up. It makes you feel like a badass,
you get super strong, and it’s an amazing benchmark and milestone
on the path to a leveled up life!
Just ask Christina, who can now do multiple sets of pull-ups –
her story is incredible:
who lost 50+ lbs and now does chin-ups with her daughter on her
I know you might be overwhelmed right now, and you might be
worried you’re gonna spend months without getting results.
Although that happens for many, it’s because they don’t have
the right plan (or nutrition) in place!
You can absolutely do this on your own and follow the program
above, but if you’re looking for more specific guidance or you
want to avoid the guesswork and be told exactly what to do on what
days to get to a pull-up on schedule, check out our coaching
We’ve helped tons of men and women get their first pull-ups
with our 1-on-1 Online
coaching program, where our coaches build a program that
incorporates pull-ups and fits your busy life!
You can schedule a free call with..
Source: FS – All-FitnessBlogs
Can’t Do a Pull-up Yet? Here’s How to Get it Done