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Learn to do a pull-up with our 5 prep moves

learn to do a pull-up, whether at the gym or at home
Fitness Editor
Julia is a qualified fitness trainer. She writes our articles about nutrition and fitness. She also makes free workout plans for our site.

You’re in great shape, but still break into a sweat just thinking about pull-ups? Then it’s time to start our pull-up training! Here are the 5 best exercises to learn to do a pull-up, no matter your gender or body type! 

Pull-ups are the core of all bodyweight exercises for your back muscles. But many athletes – even champion athletes – fail to complete even a single pull-up.

If you don’t naturally have a lot of upper body strength, it can be hard to get started. But it doesn’t have to be! We’ll show you how to learn to do pull-ups, from a preparatory movement or two to your very first pull-up.

Learning Pull-Ups – The Basics

Pull-ups are like any other exercise, you need to practice regularly to have any success. The following 3 principles will serve as your framework for learning pull-ups and chin ups.

But before we get into them: without the right nutrition, even the best training plan is useless. Your muscles need protein to get stronger. Whether you’re building muscle or aiming for your feel-good weight, protein may help you achieve your goals. And protein shakes can taste just as delicious as your usual milkshake!

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Frequency

To learn a new movement, you need to work on it regularly. 3-4 times a week is a good guideline. When you do a pull-up – the name says it all – you pull yourself up, with your back and arm strength. But your muscles usually aren’t prepared, so your body can’t coordinate the whole movement, even though your mind knows what you want to do. That’s why you need to stick to frequent practice more than ever!

That’s why related back exercises, focusing on your lats for example, should be part of all strength workouts for beginners: rowing, kneeling pull downs, knee lifts, and ring rows help you improve coordination and build up the strength to get to your first pull-up. The next section explains how these exercises work in detail.

Already able to do a few pull-ups? Then do a few sets in each workout to get better and master the move! Or try some pull-up variations and up your pull-up game!

Progression

Are 2 sets x 4 reps of assisted pull-ups starting to get easy? Great! Time to step it up! To build strength, you need to continue to challenge your muscles more and more and gradually reduce the amount of assistance.

Once you realize you’re not at your limit after 2 sets of 4 reps, reduce the supporting weight on the pull-up machine or use a thinner resistance band.

Recovery

Work out frequently and push your limits. But if you notice that you really can’t do it anymore, give yourself a break until you feel ready again. This could mean 1, 2, or 3 days: Take as much time as you need.

Then start your sets and reps again refreshed! In the recovery time between sessions, your muscles will get stronger and your coordination will improve.

A sufficient supply of zinc and magnesium is especially important for your muscles to function normally. They can only reach their full performance potential if they have enough macro- and micronutrients. Then you can give it your all!

Find out more

Preparatory Exercises

The best way to learn pull-ups is with movements that focus on all the muscles used in the full pull-up. With a beginner pulling exercise you can build up the strength to eventually pull up your own body weight. At the same time you’ll also train the coordination you need to finally get your chin over the bar. Our exercises will up your fitness level and prepare you perfectly for your first pull-up.

1. Slow Motion Mountain Climbers

A white woman in sports gear with a ponytail does slow-motion mountain climbers, a good exercise to learn to do a pull-up.
©foodspring
Difficulty: Easy-Medium
Muscles worked: Core, shoulders, back, arms, chest
Tips: Pull your knee as close to your chest as you can. Spread your fingers wide, place hands under shoulders, and press the floor away from you with your hands. Elbows are only slightly bent. Hold the tension and imagine you’re pressing the heel of your extended leg against a wall.
Variations To make it easier, hold the position for a shorter time. For a greater challenge, hold the position longer and pull your knees up higher.

2. Bar Row

A white, thin woman demonstrates a bent-over row with a barbell as an exercise to prepare to do a pull-up
©foodspring

 

Difficulty: Medium-Difficult
Muscles worked: Back, arms
Tips:

 

Activate your core muscles. Keep your shoulder blades sliding down your back and muscles engaged. Your whole back – including your lower back! – stays straight. Stand with both feet planted firmly on the floor. Weight is evenly spread across your whole foot.
Variation – easier: Reduce the weight. Bar too heavy? Use light dumbbells. Make sure you move both hands at the same speed.
Variation – harder: Increase the weight. Add weights to the bar or work with kettlebells. Move both arms at the same speed.

3. Ring Rows

A white, thin woman performs ring rows on a large indoor sports frame. She rests her heels on the floor, holds the rings in front of her chest, and pulls her body upwards and downwards towards and away from the rings. Her body stays straight.
©foodspring

 

Difficulty: Hard
Muscles worked: Arms, back, core
Tips: Hands shoulder width apart. Tense your abdomen and legs. Your whole body should be straight as a board. Start with 2 sets of 6-8 reps
Variation – easier: Begin with your body a little further back, so your chest isn’t directly under the rings, and your body is less parallel to the floor.
Variation – harder: Place your feet further forward. Bring your body parallel to the floor so that your shoulders are directly underneath the rings at the starting point.

4. Hanging Knee Lifts

A white, thin woman hangs on a bar in a frame indoors. She lifts her knees up to her chest and lowers them down again.
©foodspring
Difficulty: Medium
Muscles worked: Arms, core, back
Tips: Keep your elbows slightly bent when in the hang position. Pull your body up a little towards the bar.
Variation – easier: Pull up one knee at a time.
Variation – harder: Raise both knees to your hip level. Extend one leg, hold briefly. Extend the other. Still too easy? Lift both legs as far as you can, keeping them straight.

5. Kneeling Pull-Downs

A white thin woman in sports gear pulls a resistance band down behind her shoulders so she can learn to do a pull-up
©foodspring
Difficulty: Medium
Muscles worked: Back, arms
Tips: Keep your neck long and look straight ahead. Keep tension in your core and avoid hollowing out your back.
Variation – easier: Use a thinner resistance band.
Variation – harder: Use a thicker resistance band.


6. Supported Pull-Up

A white thin woman performs supported pull-ups with a resistance band under one foot as she learns to do a pull-up.
©foodspring
Difficulty: Hard
Muscles worked: Back, arms
Tips: Choose the amount of assistance you need to do 2 sets of 3-4 reps. Place the band under the middle of your foot or – if you are keeping your legs bent – under your knee. Then grab the bar and let yourself sink down slowly. Grab the bar with your palms facing you to work on a chin-up.
Variation – easier: Use a stronger resistance band.
Variation – harder: Use a weaker band. Until you don’t need one anymore and you’re ready for a full pull-up!

 

Tip: Still find the coordination of the movement difficult? Try negative pull-ups! Stand on a box, grip on the bar, and lower yourself down to the floor in slow motion. Aim for 2 sets of 4 reps.

Which Muscles Do Pull-ups Train?

Which muscles you use and how much strain they’re under depends on the grip or pull-up variation. While the chin-up (when your palms face you) engages the front of the body more, there are 5 main muscles in the back that are more or less in focus in all variations of the pull-up motion.

  • Latissimus dorsi (lats) – green
  • Trapezius (traps) – yellow
  • Rhomboid muscles – red
  • Teres major – purple
  • Deltoid muscle (delts) – blue

 

An illustration of the muscles worked by a pull-up. The trapezius is marked in yellow, the lats in green, the rhomboid in red, the teres major in purple, and the deltoids in blue.
©foodspring

Other relevant muscle groups: your arms, especially your forearms, are also working pretty hard in this exercise. The grip strength in your fingers and hands themselves is relatively small, so most of the strength you use to hold on to the bar comes from your forearms. The grip variation you choose determines whether or not it’s your triceps or biceps that are more in focus.

How Many Pull-Ups Should I Aim For?

It’s impossible to say one ideal number of pull-ups that applies to all people everywhere. But everyone starts with one. Once you’ve got that down, 3-5 are fairly easy to reach and a good number for most people. If you naturally acquire upper body strength quite easily, then 10-15 pull-ups, executed cleanly of course, is a good goal.

How important is my upper body strength?

If you have less muscle mass and more bodyweight, pull-ups are, logically, going to be more difficult, because you have to get your chin above the bar with less muscle. But you don’t have to give up there! Every healthy body can overcome muscle weakness and build up strength, which means most people can eventually manage a perfect pull up. You just have to get started!

Pull-Up Bar – Find the Right One For You

Want to practice pull-ups, but don’t have pull-up bars nearby? We bet you do, it just might take some looking.

Outdoor workout spaces, sturdy trees, or playgrounds often provide a pull-up option or two for beginners and up. There are also various bars for pull-ups that you can install in your house or apartment. The most common options are:

1. Pull-up bar to clamp into a door frame:

    • Advantage:
      • attaches without screws.
    • Disadvantages:
      • unstable
      • can still damage the door frame.

2. Pull-up bar to screw into a door frame.

    • Advantage:
      • stable.
    • Disadvantage:
      • can damage the door frame.

3. Pull-up bar to screw into the wall or ceiling.

    • Advantages:
      •  stable
      • no damage that cannot be repaired.
    • Disadvantage:
      • requires stable walls or ceilings.

Conclusion

  • Pull-ups require a lot of strength and coordination.
  • Preparatory training will help you get your first pull-up.
  • Regular training is the key to success.
  • Any healthy person can learn to do pull-ups.
  • Various pull-up bars make at-home workouts easy.
  • Your muscles need protein to get stronger.
Article sources
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