You may have difficulty doing pull ups if you are too heavy, have weak arm or back muscles, or if you're using the wrong bar. Building up each muscle individually before attempting a pull up may take a long time and may not even help. Instead, master pulling variations to work on all your muscles at once! Try door knob towel pull ins, horizontal pull ups, and grip exercises.
So you can crank out a few push ups, but can’t do a single pull up, huh?
Well, pull ups are quite challenging compared to most bodyweight exercises. In fact, some people convince themselves they can’t do pull ups even without trying – talk of intimidation. But, with the right progressions anyone can do them – including women.
Your workouts will actually become easier once you can do pull ups. You see, pull ups target multiple muscle groups at once. Therefore, you won’t need to do as many exercises as before, and you’ll build upper body strength faster.
Which muscles are used when doing pull ups?
The main muscles activated when doing pull ups are the latissimus dorsi, trapezius, biceps and the forearms. Well, these are just fancy terms for back and arm muscles.
Why are pull ups so hard?
There are several reasons why most people can’t do pull ups. Here are some of the most common ones.
You’re Too Heavy
If you’re too heavy pull ups may not be realistic for you. You should be able to do a push up before you start working on pull ups.
And it’s the same case with pull ups as it is with push ups – the lighter you’re the easier it’ll be to perform this exercise. So, lose fat if you need to and stay active throughout.
Back Muscles Are Weak
You need strong back muscles to perform pull ups properly. Many people have weak back muscles, and the fact that there are very few bodyweight exercises that strengthen the back doesn’t help either.
It’s also worth noting that long hours of sitting weaken the back muscles.
Pull ups engage the biceps and the forearms. So, if these muscles are weak – it will be hard to perform a proper pull up.
Lack of grip strength can also stop you from doing pull ups.
Using The Wrong Bar
The circumference of the bar determines the difficulty of pull ups. Thick bars make pull ups more challenging since they require more grip strength and strong back muscles.
It’s preferable for beginners to start with slim pull up bars. Note that thick bars activate the forearms and back muscles more.
You Believe You Can’t Do Them
Many people convince themselves that pull ups are only for gym rats and fitness junkies. Such beliefs make it hard to perform pull ups, even for folks who are physically capable of doing it. Well, if you had such a belief – this article will convince you otherwise.
How To Do Your First Pull-Up
Okay, there are many progression exercises for pull ups. But, the method I’m about to share is the simplest and most effective way to perform your first pull up.
Some of the advice on the web will tell you to first strengthen all the muscles used when doing pull ups. But, this approach takes a lot of time and doesn’t guarantee you’ll be able to perform pull ups after completing the progression.
Focus on increasing your pulling strength if you want to perform your first pull-up soon. But Brian, how will I do that if I can’t do a pull up? I am glad you asked – just start with simple pull movements and keep advancing.
Doing different pulling variations will strengthen the muscles used in pull ups faster than training those muscles separately.
Here’s how you go from 0 to 10 pull ups, real quick.
Door Knob Towel Pull Ins
Most beginners should be able to do this. And there is no excuse not to do it since all you need is a towel and a door.
This exercise will strengthen the lats, upper back, arms and your grip.
How to perform
- Wrap a towel on both sides of the doorknob then grab both ends of the towel with each arm.
- Keep the door still by placing your feet on both sides. Then tighten your grip on the towel and lean back until the arms are fully outstretched, then slowly pull in until the chest almost touches the door. Repeat until failure.
(The audio is messed up but the demonstration is okay)
Your goal should be to do as many reps as possible because there isn’t much resistance in this exercise.
After you can do 15-20 reps of towel pull ins, advance to the next exercise. (Skip this exercise if it’s too easy for you!)
Horizontal Pull Ups
The horizontal pull ups or inverted rows activate the lats, upper back, forearms and the biceps. This is the exercise you need to focus on most to build pulling strength.
Horizontal pull ups can be done using a bar, a broomstick, a table and gymnastic rings. The height of the bar will determine the difficulty of the exercise. A high bar (chest height) makes the exercise easy while a low bar (hip height) makes it challenging. Adjust the height of the bar depending your strength level.
How to perform
- Squat and grab the bar with a grip wider than shoulder width.
- Hold a tight grip and then straighten the body such that your chest is directly below the bar.
- Keep the core tight then pull yourself up until the chest touches the bar, then slowly lower yourself until the arms are straight to complete the rep.
A broomstick will also work if you don’t have a bar. Place two chairs a few inches apart and then place a broomstick on both chairs. Now use the broomstick as the bar to do pull ups.
A table is also a good alternative. Grab the edge of the table with an underhand grip then straighten your legs to get in the horizontal pull up position. Remember to keep the core tight throughout the movement.
You don’t need any of the above options if you have gymnastic rings. With rings you can easily adjust the height to match your level of fitness.
And if you only have access to a low bar – perform the exercise with the knees bent to make it easier.
Keep doing horizontal pull ups until you can do 10 reps per set. That will build the strength you need to do your first pull up or first 3 pull ups.
To quickly increase the number of horizontal pull ups you can do per set – set a target of the number of pull ups you will do per day. For instance, you can set a target of 30 horizontal pull ups per day. And make sure you hit your target no matter how many sets it takes.
Strengthen Your Grip
Vertical pull ups require more grip strength than horizontal pull ups. So it’s important to strengthen your grip as you do horizontal pull ups.
Hanging on a pull up bar will increase your grip strength – you can find more grip exercises in my article about grip strength training.
Hang on a bar at least 3 times a day. Grab a pull up bar and hang as long as you can. You can build greater grip strength by doing active hangs. Basically, these are hangs which involve movement like swinging or shoulder shrugs.
Assisted Pull Ups
Even though most folks will be able to perform their first pull up at this point – assisted pull ups can improve pulling strength.
Just ask your workout partner or a trainer to give you a light push as you pull yourself up. Then slowly lower the body without any support.
Note that wide grip pull ups are more challenging than chin ups. So start with chin ups.
Because of the difficulty of pull ups, most people don’t perform them properly. So here’s how you should perform your first pull up, or rather chin up.
How to perform
- Grab the bar with an underhand grip (palms facing you). Hold a grip narrower than shoulder width.
- Look forward and pull yourself up until the chin is above the bar.
- Slowly lower yourself until the arms almost straighten and repeat.
- That’s how you do your first pull up!
Here’s a progression routine which simplifies the long explanation above.
Pull ups progression routine
- Door knob pull ins – until you can do 15-20 reps
- Horizontal pull ups – Until you can do 10 reps
- Hanging – 1 Minute passive/ active hanging
Your first pull-up!
How To Do More Pull Ups
I can bet you won’t be satisfied with just one pull up, will you?
I didn’t think so either. So use the tip below to do more pull ups than you ever thought possible.
Pull Up Challenges
The best way to improve on pull ups is to do more pull ups. Start a challenge on the number of pull ups you’ll do per day or per week.
For instance, you do a challenge of 20 pull ups per day, 4 times a week. The challenge should focus on reps and not sets. Just make sure you reach 20 reps a day, and work on doing the least sets possible.
Weighted pull ups can also help increase your reps, but they’re not as effective as challenges. Stay away from weighted pull ups until you’ve built strength – they can cause injuries for beginners.
The exercises you consider hard will become easy one day, if you train consistently. So, don’t be intimidated by pull ups. Just keep practicing and you’ll get there.
Pull ups are the best exercise for increasing upper body strength. The sooner you’re able to do them the better.
Is there anything stopping you from doing pull ups?