The pull-up is pretty freaking rad.
Not only is it a great exercise all-around, but it’s also like a rite of passage on your strength training journey. It’s like you’re wee Mario who just found a magic mushroom and gets leveled up to Super Mario…stronger.
Ticking off that first pull-up is a goal for many women. But it’s more than just that…
…being able to move your own bodyweight is your basic human right.
And if you’re a woman, you can do a pull-up. Any trash mag, stupid ex-boyfriend, or internet trolls was dead wrong when they said females can’t.
The Best…and the Worst
Getting your first pull-up is intoxicating. It’s the best feeling ever. It supercharges your confidence and opens your eyes to your potential.
“If I can do a pull-up, what else can I do?!”
Here’s one of my first successful attempts way back in October 2010. Note the cyclist lycra. I was just a couple months into my strength training journey.
Also note I’ve gained 10kg (over 20 pounds) since then, and I can still do pull-ups. Hell, I can do even more now because I’m stronger.
I don’t want to harp on bodyweight, but recently someone told me they should just try to lose weight to make getting a pull-up easier. I find that to be a depressing proposition. Remember, strong first.
Unfortunately, being unable to get your first pull-up even though you’ve been trying is quite possibly the worst feeling ever. If you’ve been strength training for a couple years and still don’t have a strict pull-up, it’s time to get to the bottom of it.
So in this blog series, I’m going to coach you through how to do a pull-up, including videos, sample accessory movements, and more.
It’s really hard for me to assess exactly why you’ve been struggling with pull-ups especially without seeing you move…
…so there’s going to be some diligence and personal responsibility required on your part to do what’s right for your body.
In other words, if you’re injured or the movements I discuss here give you pain or feel icky in your body, it’s up to you to look out for yourself.
Okay Steph, Teach Me How to Do a Pull-Up Right Now
Hold on there, tiger. I know you’re eager, but we’re going to break this way down.
It might surprise you that Part 1 of this series isn’t going to focus on pull-ups at all. Not even a little.
I look out into the fitness landscape – whether it’s at the gym or online – and I see a massive disconnect between the way we live and the things we expect our bodies to do.
Many of the clients I coach struggle to go below parallel in a squat, for example.
The first conclusion everyone points to is a lack of mobility or flexibility, and while that’s true for some, there’s a bigger, more fundamental problem:
Nobody goes below parallel on a regular basis because of how our modern environments are built.
Just take a quick look around your home or office right now. Chairs, couches, cars…shit, even the toilet only requires us to squat to parallel but never below.
People literally don’t know how to use their hamstrings and glutes to stand up out of a below-parallel squat.
Here’s my loving husband Z demonstrating a very typical body position in today’s modern world:
Sitting at a table hunched over a computer. People work, drive, play video games, text and spend a significant portion of the day like this.
(I’ll give him credit here…he’s sitting more on his sit bones. That way, he’s not squashing his poor hamstrings quite so much.)
Extrapolate this lack-of-use out to everything we come into contact with: moving sidewalks, escalators, and everything on wheels.
As my very wise friend Jamie Scott summarized so well, modern humans are opting out of movement like never before. And it’s reaching crisis-level proportions.
Our collective kinesthetic awareness is fading in a world that enables us to sit back, relax, and never move. Cue Wall-E.
Is it no surprise then that even the most well-meaning, motivated people go into the gym and don’t quite know how to move their meatsuits?
Or that their tissues are so bunged up they can’t get into basic body shapes other than the sitting-while-hunched-shape?
Worse still is that the trainers, coaches, and “experts” many people entrust – and pay good money to – are often oblivious to these fundamental challenges. It’s just rah-rah cheering or a lousy prescription for more foam-rolling.
My fellow coaches, you have an obligation to do better for your clients. To get to the root. To realize they need vitamins more than they need ice cream. And to know that putting a loaded bar on someone’s back before it’s time is not doing right by them.
My dear reader, you aren’t to blame for way this modern world is working against your biology and your humanness. It’s not your fault.
But it’s going to take a conscious effort on your part to opt-out and take a stand for your own health, to ask questions, to move with intention, and to have patience with the process.
Seriously though, it’s important to unpack why so many people struggle with basic, fundamental human movements. Now, I want to give you some practical stuff to walk away with.
It Starts with Body Position
If you’re going to set out this year to do your first pull-up, let’s break it down to the basement level: body position.
See, you can do a pull-up – any movement really – with terrible form. It’s likely to be woefully inefficient, could cause overuse or injury, and is probably ugly as shit to look at.
Or, you can resolve to do a pull-up and practice all the accessory drills to get there with focus, intention, and efficient form. Plus, it’ll be easier.
Here’s a way to picture it: Let’s say you have to carry a 25-pound bag of dog food across a parking lot from the store to your car. Will it be easier to hold the bag outstretched, away from your body or hugged in close to your body? You already know the answer…close!
If your body is flopping around, loose, and in broken positions while you’re doing a pull-up, it’s going to feel heavier. It’s less mechanically efficient.
Practice solid shapes.
Your aim in a strict pull-up will be to keep your body tight. That means squeezing your butt, pinning your legs together, pointing your toes, getting your shoulder blades seated down and back, keeping your neck neutral, and bracing your abs. Got all that?
Even finding this position takes conscious effort. You may be feeling muscles you didn’t know you even had.
Think about Olympic gymnasts. Their bodies are rigid, long, and taut. They point their toes. They maintain tension in their bodies.
Start with a hollow body position on the floor.
(I’m not going to delve into all the nuance here. Just know that everything is tight and squeezed. There’s tension in my body. It’s not floppy or soft. I’ll cover how often to do movements like this in Part 3.)
From there, work on hollow rocks.
Now your body is in motion. Can you hold that shape? It’s challenging, but this hollow body position directly translates to you hanging from a bar and moving efficiently through a pull-up.
Then, progress to hanging on the bar.
You’ve got to squeeze!
Maintaining tension is a core principle of all movements from air squats to pull-ups to 300-pound deadlifts.
Here’s another example where you can practice tension: push-ups.
Christmas, if I had a buck for every shoddy push-up I’ve ever seen on Facebook, I’d be retired. As well-intentioned as the 22-day push-up challenge was, it exposed a lot of collective weakness.
Often, people just don’t know what they don’t know. But when these push-ups are happening under the “watchful” eye of a coach, I cringe.
Start with a simple plank position.
Can you keep everything squeezed with a neutral spine? No stripper butt, sagging chests, or elbows winging out at 90-degrees, please.
Once you master this, try a push-up, keeping everything the same.
If you can’t do a standard push-up, increase the angle of your body by propping yourself up on a sturdy bench or box. Start on the wall if you need to. Lower the bench or box as you get stronger.
Notice how my elbows are pinned in close to my body? That’s going to be extremely important for getting an efficient pull-up.
Lots of people want to poo-poo bodyweight movements like they’re substandard, but trust: Bodyweight exercises can be very challenging when done correctly.
The foundations of getting your first pull-up are rooted in body position. Unfortunately, our modern environments put us at odds with our biology – unless we consciously opt out – making it harder to get into functional positions.
You can start laying the foundations of a pull-up by practicing holding shapes like hollow rocks and planks, feeling like it’s like to maintain tension.
Sound movement patterns are a must if they’re going to translate to efficient, safe movements like pull-ups.
Stay tuned for Part 2 where I’ll really pick apart the pull-up mechanics you need to master.