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Are you Struggling to Perform Your First Pull-Up?

Achieving your first pull-up is a challenging upper body exercise that can be intimidating, but with the right training and mindset, you can achieve your goal! The number one area people struggle with when it comes to performing their first pull-up is having sufficient strength to complete the task. If that’s you and, like many of us, aren’t sure what strength exercises you should be performing in order to get your first pull-up, then read on!

As a side note, we are referring to how to get your first strict pull-up. When we use the term “strict,” we are defining it as a pull up in which no other part of the body, other than the arms, is in motion. In CrossFit, you might see people performing a dynamic version of the pull up like the “Kipping” or “Butterfly” pull up. It is important to be able to perform strict pull ups prior to progressing to more advanced movements like Kipping or Butterfly pull ups.

In truth, there are a lot of strengthening exercises you can do to progress towards getting your first pull-up. Some movements, however, are much more effective than others. For pull-ups, most folks lack strength somewhere in either the bottom of the movement, the top of the movement, or somewhere in the middle. It’s important to identify exactly where you lack strength and train that specific area so you can make progress.

A Targeted Strength Approach to Getting Your First Pull-Up

The most efficient way to figure out where in the pull-up you lack strength is to test a few things.

First, can you hold yourself at the top of a pull-up with your chin above the bar for 10 seconds? If not, you lack strength in the top portion of the pull-up.

Next, can you slowly lower from the top of the pull-up (chin above bar) to the bottom (arms fully straightened) while controlling the movement? This means that you can stop the movement at any point on the way down and there’s no spot where it feels like you’re sliding. If this is not the case, then you lack strength in the mid-portion of the pull-up.

Lastly, can you perform 10 scap pull-ups? A scap pull-up, for those not familiar, is starting from a dead hang – this means there’s no tension in your arms – and engaging your shoulders to pull yourself closer to the bar. However, in this movement you don’t bend your elbows at all. It’s a bit tricky to describe, so we’re including a video below. If you cannot do this, you lack strength in the bottom portion of the pull-up.

Tackling Your Strength Deficits for Your First Pull-Up

Once you know where you lack strength, the next step is to work on it!

For those who couldn’t hold themselves with their chin over the bar for at least 10 seconds, that’s what you work on! You’ll put a box below you. This box should be high enough that your feet can comfortably reach it, but not so high that you feel squished. From there, you’ll do the chin over bar hold and off weight your body as much as you need to, but as little as possible in order to perform the hold. To note, there’s no box in the video as it’s not necessary for this individual.

This next video is for those of you that, when doing the slow lower from the bar, started to feel yourself slipping part way down while performing the slow lower. You will want to target that specific portion of the pull-up you slipped through. The video below shows the athlete doing it without a box, but if you need a box to focus on that specific portion of the movement, use one. Remember to offweight yourself as much as you need to hold the position but as little as possible so you can develop strength.

For those who couldn’t complete 10 scap pull-ups, you’ll want to work on them! In this case, it will be necessary to put a box underneath your feet to offweight yourself. The same situation applies here as it did in the two previous exercises. Use the box as much as needed but as little as necessary.

Our Top Two Exercises To Develop Your First Pull-Up

Beyond targeting your specific strength deficits, it’s important to continue to train the full pull-up motion. To do this, there are two main exercises we suggest –

  1. Toe-assisted pull-ups
  2. Eccentric pull-ups

Consistency is Key

Now that you have the exercises to help you get to your first pull-up, how do you combine them?

We suggest taking your specific strength deficit and combining that with the last two exercises we mentioned. For example, if you struggle at the mid-portion of a pull-up, your routine would look like this –

  • 10-20” Mid-range isometric hold
  • 3-6 Toe-assisted pull-ups
  • 3-6 Eccentric pull-ups

Putting Your First Pull-Up Plan Together

Now that you have the exercises and they are in a structured order, you’re asking how often do you do them? Furthermore, and perhaps the most pressing question, how long does it take to get results?!

These are good questions and the best answer is that it varies. There’s a lot we look at when designing a pull-up program for someone. How many days per week do they train? Do they have easy access to a pull-up bar? What is their baseline fitness level?

That being said, we can give general guidelines. To get quick strength training results, you’ll want to complete your pull up strength routine three times per week. More than that won’t give your muscles enough time to recover and less than that you won’t gain strength as quickly.

The duration of time it will take to get your first pull-up will depend on how much strength you had to start with. If you are close, then it’s reasonable to expect to hit your goal within 4-6 weeks of consistent work. On the other hand, if you’re a bit further away from getting your first pull-up, a couple months may be necessary. At the end of the day, your commitment and motivation towards achieving the goal is most important in determining your success.

Pulling It Together

Achieving your first pull-up is a difficult thing to do and takes consistency over a period of time, but we know you can do it. If the process seems difficult, don’t give up! Keep working hard and you’ll be able to perform this challenging exercise with confidence and control. We can’t wait to hear when you achieve that first pull up. In fact, send us an email or DM with a video or picture and we’ll post it to our social media!

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