Your first pull up


Pull ups are hard and getting your first one is a big accomplishment.  It’s easy to get stuck in the rut of using the same amount of bands day in and day out without seeing much improvement.  There are plenty of ways to skin this cat but below you’ll find a few tactics that I’ve found to be particularly effective.

Chin over the bar holds

Just like it sounds, get your chin above the bar and hold it.  Be warned, this position gets tough in a hurry.  It’s not uncommon for folks to start shaking violently after only a few seconds.

When setting a goal on these, 20 consecutive seconds would be a minimum but 60 seconds would show some serious mastery.

You can practice sub maximal sets (e.g. 3-5 sets of 10-20 seconds) or get to a set time in as few sets as possible (e.g. accumulate 90 seconds with your chin above the bar in as few sets as possible).

To make this movement easier, use bands or support yourself with your feet on the floor or on a box.  To make it more difficult, hold for longer periods, add weight, or use only one hand at a time.


These are also called “slow eccentrics” and they’ve been around for a long time.  Bodybulders use this technique to kick start muscle growth but negatives are also effective at building raw strength.

To perform a negative pull up, start at the top of the movement (chin above the bar) and control yourself all the way down until your arms are completely straight.  Sounds simple enough but these are potent.  Negatives can leave you smashed if you’re not careful.

Stick with low volume on these until you know how your body will tolerate them.  Two to three sets of three to five reps should be plenty.  See how your biceps and lats are feeling in the following day or two.

Reverse row sit back

This is a new exercise (for me) that I discovered through GMB’s Rings 1 program.  Taken directly from their article on getting your first pull up,

I developed this exercise as a way to work on the neglected angles of motion in between a row and a pull-up.  It’s a deceptively hard exercise that’ll get your back muscles working in a way you’ve probably never experienced before!

This is best done using a set of rings.

This is far from an exhaustive list.  There are plenty of other exercises that will get you on the path to your first pull up.  The ones mentioned here were chosen because they are not as common as ring rows or banded pull ups and, they tend not to show up in regular gym programming.

Putting it all together

Here’s a sample program including the exercises mentioned above.

Day 1:
Try a pull up, 3-5 minutes
Reverse row sit back, 3 sets of 6-8 reps
Chin over the bar hold, accumulate 60 seconds in as few sets as possible (use assistance as needed)

Day 2:
Try a pull up, 3-5 minutes
Assisted pull up, 3 sets of 8-10 reps (use bands or feet on the floor)

Day 3:
Try a pull up, 3-5 minutes
5 second chin over the bar hold + slow negative, 10-15 reps, rest as needed

After a quick look you’ll probably notice a few things…

First, each day starts with some attempts at getting a pull up.  We want to make sure that you’re not forgetting the reason for all this extra work.  Plus, week by week you’ll probably see small improvements and that should help keep you motivated.

Second, this probably doesn’t look particularly difficult.  Please know that more isn’t always better.  It’s very easy to develop overuse injuries by doing too much focused work too quickly.  You might be surprised how much your shoulders and/or elbows will protest after asking just a little bit more effort from them.  This sample program was intended to be put into practice before or after your usual training for the day.  That being the case, we want to make sure that we don’t do too much too quickly.

Summing it up

Getting your first pull-up really isn’t rocket science.  There are an infinite number of movements, rep schemes, and programs that can lead you over the bar.  Whatever you choose to do, remember that it will take time and diligence.  Attach yourself to the work and not the result to avoid burnout.  Listen to your body and you’ll be ditching the bands before you know it.

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