How to do a pull-up?
February 4, 2015 7:39 AM   Subscribe

I have never been able to do a single pull up in my life. Please teach me how to do one.

I have some pretty strong legs, but my arms are like jelly. I have some minimal strength due to being a mostly pedestrian and carrying stuff around in bags and backpacks, but mostly, my arms are pretty weak - I can barely do 1-2 good pushups. While I am not looking to get all presidential-fitness in my pull up skills, I would like to be able to do one (or two) by year’s end. I have access to a gym (and playgrounds with monkey bars), but I feel shy and uncomfortable and utterly clueless on any machine that isn’t cardio related. But I’m willing to try and break out of that comfort zone to do a pull-up.

I’m female, about 130lbs, and would appreciate some specific guidance. What kinds of strength exercises should I be doing? What kinds of machines (names, pictures of)? Reps? Sets? How often?

[extra credit bonus: while I’m working on my upper body, I would absolutely welcome any ideas for potentially helping tone/tighten my upper arm wings, to armpits, to sides, after losing 30% of my body weight - though yes, I know the only “real” fix is surgery]
posted by raztaj to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
Stumptuous has a detailed guide here.
posted by susanvance at 7:46 AM on February 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

Just so you know, you can buy an over door pull up bar for about 25 bucks. They work great. We had one all growing up.

It would give you a place to practice away from other eyeballs if that would help.
posted by phunniemee at 7:47 AM on February 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

I am (or somewhat was) like you. Does your gym have vinyasa yoga? That's a great place to build shoulder and tricep strength, with the cover of lots of other people, which I always like. Plus it works all those little ligaments and tendons and corners that sometimes get overlooked by repetitive machine stuff, making you stronger overall.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 7:59 AM on February 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

My gym has an assisted pullup machine, where you rest your knees on a pad attched to a counterweight. Whatever you set the weight on the machine for is actually subtracted from your effective body weight that you're lifting, so its basically the only machine where more weight means easier. You do a pullup, but the counterweight helps lift your body.

If you don't have one of those, you almost certainly have a lat pulldown bar. Its usually on multi-function machines, and has a small bench with some pads above the bench that your knees will fit under; this setup has you facing the machine and the weight stack, and there's a cable connected to the stack that comes out right above the bench. Basically the same motion as a pullup, only you're moving a bar with weight attached to it instead of your body.
posted by LionIndex at 8:03 AM on February 4, 2015 [6 favorites]

The pullup is one of the most difficult exercises for women, because we hold much of our weights and our largest muscles below the waist. Pulls and chins will recruit almost all of the muscles above the waist, and chins are one of the best ab exercises.

It will take you 3-6 months to do a chinup, which is easier than a pullup. This was true for me and two of my other lfiting lady friends. We also started in a pretty fit, strong state. Once you have a chinup, it will take a couple more months to do a pullup. The pullup uses more arms and back, and the chin uses more bicep and abs.

The Stumptuous guide is good. I will say the only way I was able to accomplish them was through negatives (eccentric movement), and I think jumping is a poor idea since it's uncontrolled. Climb up there in a controlled way and control your trip down. SLOWLY.

Stay away from the pullup machine. It won't help you progress. I think bands are good but not as good as just doing negatives.

You can experiment with grip - facing you, facing away, hands facing each other.

A rough guide to getting to one rep:
For now, plan to just do negatives. For the first two weeks, do three sets of 5. If you cannot move your arms after day one, you'll have to dial it back. Yes, when I started I couldn't move my arms for a few days when doing negatives.
For the coming 3 months, work up to 3 sets of 10 negatives. You will want to cry.
After 3 months, try to pull yourself up. It might, or might not work. If not, go back to negatives. Remember this is probably the hardest exercise for a woman to do. The vast, vast majority cannot do it. You are basically running a marathon.

There are all sorts of assistive exercises, I like a one arm cable pull down, seated. But don't worrry about them, but do them if they were part of your plan anyway.

Chins and pulls are also very dependant on how much you weigh. Losing weight will help you get there faster.

As far as how your arms look, I don't think that stuff ever goes away without surgery. I mean, I guess you could build giant Hulk arms to fill them in. I wish I had giant Hulk arms, and if you start doing lots of chins and pulls you will wish for giant Hulk arms too.
posted by littlewater at 8:06 AM on February 4, 2015 [10 favorites]

One more thing: gloves will help unless you have already calloused your hands.
posted by littlewater at 8:12 AM on February 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you do get a home bar (which I think is a great idea, although you might have to tuck your legs which I think is kind of annoying)... careful about the over the frame ones depending on the construction of your house. I got lots of good advice in this old question.

Also, I was able to do pullups after taking up rock climbing. But that's mostly because I get bored doing reps of anything; I got the pullup bar just to keep in shape when I (unrelatedly) broke my foot.
posted by nat at 8:19 AM on February 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm also working on this goal. I'm starting with being able to do one proper reverse-grip pull up ("RGPU"). I bought an Iron Gym, and it's awesome. I start by trying to do one RGPU, which never works, but I like to check my progress (and there is progress!). Then, do as many slow, controlled negative RGPUs as I can (about 5 right now, after sporadic work for the last 6 mos), and then hang from the bar in pulled-up position for as long as I can.

This is a slow way to do it, but it fits into my lifestyle nicely and doesn't require me to get into gym clothes or anything, so I find I'm sticking with it moreso than other gym routines I've tried. I have pretty much no arm strength, so it's taken me a while to get to the point of even being able to hold myself up and control the lowering action. Now that it's building up, it's easier to focus on using my back muscles more (which reduces the load on the arm muscles). Once I can reliably do 5 proper RGPUs, I'm going to switch to working on doing the standard grip pull up, using the same system/progression.

Edit: maybe I've been doing chin ups? I don't know. I don't do the wide grip one, so whichever one is the non-wide grip, is the one I do.
posted by melissasaurus at 8:34 AM on February 4, 2015

I'm male and err... well rather heavier than you, and I've actually had some success using the pull up machine to get to the point where I can more or less do a chin up now after a year. I think the reason people don't recommend a pull-up machine is that it's really, really easy to cheat without even noticing. You need to keep your lower body perfectly still and somewhat tensed and make sure the only thing moving is your arms. Otherwise you're going to flex your legs a little and give yourself an extra little push at the hardest part that doesn't help you get stronger where you really need to. Also it has to be a good machine without a lot of friction, otherwise at lower assist weights it will just kind of drag lazily upwards and make things awkward. I had this problem at one of the places I went to.

I tried to do 3 sets of 5 and then when I was good at that assisted weight I moved down (up?) another 5 lbs.

I don't know if this is an optimal way to do things, but it's at least worked for me.
posted by Zalzidrax at 9:55 AM on February 4, 2015

phunniemee: "Just so you know, you can buy an over door pull up bar for about 25 bucks. They work great. We had one all growing up.

It would give you a place to practice away from other eyeballs if that would help.

There is sale today on Amazon for $24.
posted by 724A at 10:05 AM on February 4, 2015

The two main muscle groups that pull-ups use are your biceps and lats. Really, when people are talking about pull-ups, they are talking about two different exercises chin-ups and pull-ups.

Chin-ups use a supine grip (palms are facing your face) and put more emphasis on biceps.

Pull-ups use a pronated grip (palms facing away from you) and put more emphasis on the lats.

Figure out which is more difficult for you to identify which muscle group needs the most work.

This website should give you a good list of exercises you can do based on the muscles that you want to work on and what equipment you have access too. Pull-ups (and most body-weight exercises for that matter) are kind of hard because your body-weight fluctuates making it hard to create a linear progression in weight. Maybe last week you could do 3 sets of 5 and today you can get to 6 on the last set. Was it because you're stronger or because you haven't had enough to drink today and not enough to eat over the last week.

As for the bonus points. Free weights and big compound lifts. Starting strength is a great place to start but does put a lot of emphasis on legs so you might want to drop squats from one of the workouts (depending on how many times a week you're going to workout) though they will do good things for your butt. The most important things are using free-weights, doing 3-5 sets of 5 reps each with enough weight that you can just finish the last rep (and could only squeeze out one or two more if your life depended on it), and then regularly adding weight. I (a male in my mid-30's) have found a TON of success this way over the last two years. You can totally buy a set of free-weights off of craigslist if you have room in your garage or basement or something if you have space).

Get a trainer that can show you the proper form (especially important for dead-lifts and squats) and make sure you can keep track of what weight you're supposed to be lifting.

The assisted pull-up machine is totally fine but generally stay away from all the other weight machines. After injuring myself on one, my physical therapist told me that the machines cause more injuries than free-weights because of reasons (I can explain it if you're interested).

I know that a lot of women shy away from lifting big like that as it's typically seen as a male only form of exercise and/or they are worried about building big manly muscles (like all the big manly men who do it) and looking less feminine. But being female makes that VERY hard to do unless it's your full-time job and/or you use steroids. This article is more representative of what a women who lifts big will end up looking like.
posted by VTX at 10:18 AM on February 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Get one of the pullup assist bands (link below). Start by using a lot of tension and slowly lowering the band over time.
posted by frednorton at 10:25 AM on February 4, 2015

This might be a less direct route to learning the specific skill, but it would help you at the "within the year" rate, and might have more broad benefits in the more general muscle group categories you mentioned--have you tried rope climbing? Assuming your gym has a climbing rope available (sorry, I don't know much about gyms that aren't in schools, but presumably? Or there might be a short one at the aforementioned playground). If you have an aerial arts/circus center around you could check on classes or one-day workshops for beginners, they'd advertise it as rope or corde lisse, and at the minimum you'd learn the basic climb and possibly a few variations. I was able to get a couple pull-ups over the course of about half a year (after years of being fairly strong naturally but never having been able to do a chin-up, pull-up, no gym or weight lifting) of doing a class in rope and trapeze about once a week and some weeks going in for another day on which I would mostly focus on doing as much slow climbing as I could. Rope climbing is great for the shoulder strength pull-ups need because you're able to adjust how much support you're giving yourself through the legs according to your needs. Doing it slowly, you're working on pulling your entire body with a single arm at a time (so they stay balanced but each arm keeps getting a break) or letting your body down with a single arm at a time. It's easy to challenge yourself further by using your feet and legs less and less to support yourself, but if you're doing it properly (hence recommending a class first, for sure) it's also easy to catch yourself and rest if you're half-way up and feel tired.

Supplement that with one of the basic pull-up bars mentioned, a monkey bar, whatever type of thing you can hang from and just practice hanging for a while. Look up gymnastic tuck and pike positions--you can start by hanging in tuck and consciously flexing and relaxing your shoulder muscles, and just try to work up how long you can hang. If it's an adjustable bar, you can lower it so it's about at your shoulder height standing, and then you can easily do negatives like mentioned above--those reps seem pretty reasonable. Bars and ropes don't work the same muscles, but they certainly use the same shoulder, side, and core groups so I found them to be complementary. This is literally all I did, for months--I basically realized I could do a pull-up by accident, when I was about to do more negatives. Like everyone says, it's slow. I recommend aerial arts to everyone now because in my experience that community is very focused on you working towards your own goals at your own pace, and is also often female-dominated despite being basically bodyweight-exercise strength (rather than cardio) discipline; if you do have access to a climbing rope I'd recommend taking at least a one-day workshop at an aerial arts place (even if you have to go out of town to get to it) just because they can probably be trusted to adjust the lesson to individual and female needs.

This said, if your gym that you can currently access is the only thing that you have the economic and geographic ability to use, definitely go with the advice of the people above who know the machines etc. I also feel uncomfortable using traditional gym machines, which is why I gravitated towards apparatuses where I feel like what I see is what I get.
posted by C. K. Dexter Haven at 12:48 PM on February 4, 2015

Nerd Fitness has their Academy program, which includes workout programs and videos to show you how to do various exercises, but they also have some great free resources, including How to do a pull up.
posted by mogget at 2:13 PM on February 4, 2015

For pull-ups (or chin-ups...aim for these first because they're easier), NEGATIVES. Once you can do about a 20 second controlled negative, you should be able to do a chin-up (that's how I got my 1st chin-up, which I subsequently lost).

But what happens if you can't even get a negative that lasts for 3-5 seconds (my current state)?

1) Learn how to actually move your lats/where they are/how they feel when they're being used.
This actually took me about 8 months to figure out (!!) but your mileage may vary. Use the cable pulldown machine. Start off light and use a very very controlled motion. You should think about taking 1-2 seconds to do the pull part then 4-5 seconds on the up. Make sure your elbow positioning is like that found on that site.

Don't depend on this machine 100% though. Just use it until you figure out how the hell those muscles work.

2) Scapular pull-ups.
These help with the above mentioned where the hell are my lats question. Don't to them as quickly as the guy in the video though. Aim for a 3 second hold at the top and do 5-8 a set (or until your grip dies).

3) Just hang on the bar.
You probably also have terrible grip strength. Try to build up to a minute.

4) Ring rows (or some other kind of horizontal row. If your gym has the TRX suspension cable things they work too.)
I liked ring rows/suspension cable rows because it lets you gradually increase how much you pull. As you get more horizontal, it gets harder.

5)Here's another great page with ideas.

As for toning? Lift heavy (though find someone to teach you how first)!

Bench press, floor press, strict overhead press, push press, jerk. Those will all get you sorted. Doing push-ups also won't hurt either.
posted by astapasta24 at 9:21 PM on February 4, 2015

The pullup is one of the most difficult exercises for women, because we hold much of our weights and our largest muscles below the waist.

Maybe scientifically speaking, its harder for women to do pullups than men. But thats using the aggregate and all that...

I'm a former US Marine, and when I started to go in, I could do NONE. 6 months later, I was able to do 11. I had a girlfriend at the time who would run and train with me. She did 13, and she started out as a 0 as well.

Quit listening to everyone with their highly scientific and efficient manners for how to do a pullup. What you need to do is keep pushing yourself on a pull up bar MULTIPLE TIMES A DAY. Like 10-15. Even if you can't do a pullup, get closer to doing one. Then don't do any the next day, and the next day do them like crazy again.

Also, the USMC doesn't require pullups from females (flexed-arm hang), but I think thats bullshit. The best pullups I have ever seen have been by women. I just looked up this crazy clip I saw on youtube a few weeks ago, but couldn't find it. Instead I saw this other crazy clip.

Don't give up, and you'll have your first pullup in about 1-2 weeks max. MAXIMUM.
posted by hal_c_on at 1:08 AM on February 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

Perhaps this is an unhelpful answer, but at least it's something new:

You might consider joining a rock climbing gym! I have a hard time dragging myself to a normal gym, but climbing is interesting every time you go. It starts pretty easy, and as you get stronger, there's a built-in progression, and there's always something new for you to challenge yourself.

It'll eventually work everything you need to do a pull-up, whether on a bar or on two really weird little crimpy holds right above each other.

Downsides: it requires a dedicated gym, and usually isn't cheap. If you really want to progress, going two times a week is necessary.
Upsides: A friend is required! This also prevents the "I'm feeling lazy today; I won't go" problem.
posted by Gilead at 11:56 AM on February 7, 2015

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