how to get your first pull up

About a year ago, I tried to do a pull-up during a workout – and didn’t even get close. I’m talking not even a tiny bend in the elbows. Like anyone who wants to learn how to get your first pull-up, I realized I needed to master how to train for them properly.

What really lit the fire under my butt was that I’d been training other people to do pull-ups. But here I was – a personal trainer who couldn’t do a single pull-up herself. I KNOW.

Pull-ups are exceptionally difficult because they involve lifting your entire body. Unlike a bicep curl where you can simply decrease the dumbbell weight if needed, it takes some creative solutions to find easier variations of pull-ups that allow you to gradually progress.

Pull-ups also involve working the latissimus dorsi (lats) a TON, which is a back muscle that many other moves don’t work quite as intensely.

Trying to achieve your first pull-up is kind of like trying to land your first job; in order get it you need to have done them before. There’s a reason why “how to start doing pull-ups when you can’t” is a pretty popular Google search.

But while it may seem impossible at first, you may be surprised how fast you can achieve your first pull-up. I definitely was.

In fact, fast-forward to today and my pull-up max is now 10! I’ve also helped multiple clients learn to do pull-ups – and do more than they ever thought possible.

Let’s get into the moves and training plan that will unlock your first pull-up!

Please note: Check with your physician before starting any exercise routine or starting any particular diet. See this Disclaimer for more details. This post may contain affiliate links. For details, please visit my Disclosure page. Thank you!

Top 4 Moves to Get Your First Pull-Up

1. Negative Pull-Ups

My No. 1 secret for how to get your first pull-up (yes, I’m giving it away right away), is negative pull-ups.

A negative pull-up is when you start at the top of a pull-up and slowly lower yourself until your arms are straight. At no point are you actually “pulling up.” You can think of it more as a controlled release from a pull-up.

Why they work

Negative pull-ups are so darn effective because they still place the muscles you’re training under tension. They force you to work hard as you prevent yourself lowering too fast. And unlike using a machine or band to take on some of your weight, your back, arm, and core muscles are still having to support your entire body weight.

Make no mistake – negatives are no joke. But they work. As soon as I added these to my routine, I began getting much stronger.

How to incorporate them

For a beginner, place a chair near the bar so you can step off into the upper pull-up position and immediately begin lowering. Once you get a little stronger, jump up instead.

The reps will depend on your current fitness level. For a beginner, I’d start with 3 sets of 3 reps. Lower as controlled as you can, which may only be 3 seconds. Over time, increase your reps. For example, 3 sets of 5 reps, lowering over 5-8 seconds. Don’t forget to breathe while doing them!

2. Banded Pull-Ups

I personally didn’t use banded pull-ups prior to getting my first pull-up, but that’s simply because I didn’t have a band at the time. To perform, wrap one end of a long, stretchy circular resistance band around your pull-up bar. Place either your foot or your knee into the loop at the bottom, then straighten your arms and pick your feet up off the floor. Then you complete a pull-up as normal, just with the band taking on some of your weight.

Why they work

I think of banded pull-ups as pull-up endurance training. They allow you to work the muscles involved with less weight. The benefit of these over negative pull-ups is they still allow you to actually perform the “pull-up” portion.

These still aren’t easy, and the difficulty level depends vastly on the stretchiness of your particular band. If still too difficult to complete a pull-up, you’ll need to get a thicker or higher resistance band.

How to incorporate them

Starting out, I would aim for 3 sets of 3-5 reps. Over time, increase the number of reps, such as up to 8-10 reps. I wouldn’t entirely replace negative pull-ups for these, though, since those allow you to practice with your entire bodyweight. A good option may be 2 days/week: sets of negative pull-ups, 1 day/week: sets of banded pull-ups.

3. Chin-Ups

What makes a chin-up different is your hand placement on the bar. With a chin-up, you hold the bar with an underhand grip (palms facing you). With a pull-up, you hold the bar with an overhand grip (palms facing away).

Why they work

Chin-ups are very similar to pull-ups, but a little bit easier. This is because the different positioning of your hands on the bar allows your biceps to take on more of the weight.

How to incorporate them

If you are able to perform a chin-up, you’re likely not too far away from a pull-up. Try incorporating them by completing 1-2 chin-ups in place of the first reps of your negative or banded pull-ups.

4. Lat Pull-Downs

Lat pull-downs are performed on a specific gym machine. In a seated position with pad or bar resting on your thighs, you perform the move by pulling the bar down to your chest.

Why they work

Similar to banded pull-ups, lat pull-downs allow you to practice the pull-up range of motion without using your full bodyweight. Instead of pulling yourself towards the bar, you’re pulling the bar towards you. Once again, it’s a great way to mimic the pull-up and work the same muscles.

How to incorporate them

If you have access to a lat pull-down machine, add them into your back or upper body workouts. A good go-to starting place is completing 3 sets of 10 reps, using the highest weight that allows you to complete all reps but feel a burn for the final few in each set. Once you feel comfortable with those, increase the weight and try 4 sets of 6-8 reps for increased hypertrophy (muscle growth).

My Favorite Home Pull-Up Bar

Side Note: If you don’t have a gym at your disposal, getting a home pull-up bar is a must. This is the exact one I use. It does screw into the door frame, but honestly after seeing videos featuring tons of the “no-screw” bars falling, I wasn’t messing around with those. I’ve never had any issues with this one.

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How to Get Your First Pull-Up: Other Strengthening Exercises

It definitely helps to have a strong foundation from other back, shoulder, and arm exercises when you’re learning how to get your first pull-up. Especially if you are an exercise beginner.

Here are some other beneficial moves to master so you can learn to do pull-ups:

1. Overhead Reach

These work your lats and shoulders. It’s a great option for anyone training at home who has limited equipment available.

2. Rows

Rows are a back and shoulder staple. To perform, hinge over while pushing your butt back and keeping your back flat. Imagine squeezing your shoulder blades together at the top.

3. Shoulder Raises

Another great shoulder move, you can do raises in all different directions: lateral (out to the side), scaptions (raising arms slightly more in front, in a Y-like shape), and front (straight out in front of you).

4. Bicep Curls

Pull-ups will engage your biceps as well, so it’s helpful to strengthen them too.

To really strengthen and grow your biceps, check out this bicep workout with dumbbells.

5. Scapular Retraction

This is one of my favorite moves for working on the initial part of a pull-up. It’s a subtle move, but can start burning quickly. If you find them too hard, you can do a dead hang (simply hanging from the bar) instead. Just holding onto the bar will send your grip strength through the roof.

6. Shoulder Shrugs

Another shoulder and upper back staple.

7. Overhead Press

While overhead presses are a push move instead of a pull, they help you work on your strength in the same range of motion.

How to Train for Pull-Ups (Frequency and Sets/Reps)

A pull-up involves using multiple muscles in the upper body. From personal experience, I’ve found that training them can often make me sore for not just 1-2 days, but even a few days afterwards.

Listen to your body as you get started. You may be surprised that only a few reps can keep you feeling it for multiple days. This means that you may want to only train pull-ups 2 times a week in the beginning. I wouldn’t do any less than that though, or your progress will be quite slow.

2-3 days per week is a perfectly appropriate amount to see progress. If you’re still feeling too sore by your next workout, you may need to back down on your reps or intensity.

Sets and reps will vary greatly based on your past workout experience. But if you can’t do a pull-up yet, doing as many as 3 sets of 3 reps of negative pull-ups or banded pull-ups may be enough. Once you start getting stronger, keep increasing the amount of reps. You can also take a good amount of rest in between sets typically, such as 90s, since pull-ups work so many muscle groups.

If you’re desperately wondering how to get your first pull-up, this is it! These moves aren’t easy, and sometimes it will take putting on some loud pump-up music to convince yourself to get the training in that day, but this is how it’s done. It’s such a good feeling when you finally get your first one after putting in the work. Give these tips a try and let me know in the comments when you get your first pull-up!

How to get your first pull-up