How to do your first Pull-Up: Part 1

The pull-up is one of the best exercises in existence. It is a full body movement that requires not only upper-body strength but also core control and appropriate mobility. For athletes, or anyone else who wants to maximize sports performance, the Pull-Up should be a staple in your program. Along with the deadlift, it is probably the best single exercise (if there is such a thing) that teaches you to tie the trunk to the arms, and integrate your core and upper extremities.

Unfortunately, most men and women are unable to do pull ups. Even among those who can, most can't do a REAL pull up, but rather a shortened range, poor technique, grunting and screaming (sometimes literally) mediocre form of a pull-up. Don't get me wrong, I applaud you if you can manage to get your chin above the bar, regardless of the technique, because it still puts you ahead of 99% of the population. However, literally everyone should be able to do at least a single, clean technique, chest-to-bar pull up. Yes, CHEST to bar. Not chin to bar.

The good news is that you can get there, no matter where you start from.

Step one is to learn how to hang. Before you start pulling, your need to learn how to control your scapula (shoulder blades) with straight arms. Otherwise, you are wasting your time, and you will have to take multiple steps backwards in the future when you run into plateaus, or worse suffer an injury.

Where you start on refining or building your pull up depends on your shoulder mobility. If you have strong, but immobile shoulders, you need to start with Passive Hanging. If you have mobile, but weak or unstable shoulders you need to start with Active Hanging.

 

Checking your Range of Motion (ROM)

To check your range of motion (ROM), stand in a neutral stance, with your feet facing forward and your knees relaxed. Raise your arms in front of your until they are fully overhead, palms facing each other. If you rib cage raises up excessively or your arch your back, you are probably missing ROM. In this case,

Good ROM

Good ROM

Incomplete ROM

Incomplete ROM

Compensating for incomplete ROM by arching the back and rib cage coming up.

Compensating for incomplete ROM by arching the back and rib cage coming up.

Asymmetrical shoulder ROM. Common with injuries or jobs that require unilateral work,

Asymmetrical shoulder ROM. Common with injuries or jobs that require unilateral work,

 

Immobile/Strong Shoulders: Passive Hang

If you have immobile shoulders, the first step to being able to do a pull-up is restoring your ROM. If you think about it, you can't be expected to pull your body up to the bar if you can't even get your arms overhead.

The goal of the passive hang is to be as relaxed as possible. Only keep enough tension in your grip to keep you from letting go of the bar. Every few seconds it may be necessary to remind yourself to relax and let your body sink into the hang.

After a few weeks of practice your ROM will improve and you will notice improvements in your posture. Throughout this process, you will still benefit from practicing your Active Hang, but your focus should primarily be on the Passive Hang. Once your ROM is restored, go through the same process with the Active Hang. I realize this is a lot of work, but your progress will ultimately be sped up and your risk of shoulder injury/pain will be drastically reduced.

Passive Hang, back.

Passive Hang, back.

Passive Hang, front (so relaxed, I am practically sleeping!)

Passive Hang, front (so relaxed, I am practically sleeping!)

Developing your passive hang

Start with short sets, and gradually build up over time.

For beginners, I recommend starting with sets of 10 seconds, with 10-30 seconds of rest in between sets.

Gradually build until you are able to hang consistently for at least 1 minute.

Weak/Mobile Shoulders: Active Hang

The Active Hang is the foundation of all pulling movements. Before you can pull properly from your shoulder or elbow, your need to be able to move your scapula. In order to understand the Active Hang, your also need to understand the ranges of motion of the Scapula.

The Scapula have 3 primary directions of movement:

  1. Elevation/Depression (up/down)
  2. Retraction/Protraction (out/in)
  3. Rotation (upward rotation and downward rotation)

For the active hang, we are primarily interested in Elevation and Depression. The goal of the active hang is to depress the scapula as much as possible, without changing the angle of your shoulder or elbow. This movement should be the start of every single pull-up.

If you have bypassed the passive hang section of this article, now is a good time to go back to it. Being able to establish an Active Hang from a Passive Hang is an important part of developing your pulling technique.

Every Pull-Up should come from an active hang position, with few exceptions.

Active Hang, back.

Active Hang, back.

Active Hang, front.

Active Hang, front.

Developing your Active Hang

You will benefit from developing your Active Hang for both repetitions and time. During the initial stages of your practice, hold the Active Hang for sets of 10 seconds. Once you can consistently hold an active hand for 30 seconds, gradually build up to 30 repetitions of transitioning between Active Hanging and Passive Hanging.

For our purposes, the end goal of Active Hanging for repetitions is 5 sets of 60 reps and/or 5 sets pf 60 seconds (you don't need to be able to do both in the same training session). Once you can achieve these standards, you will be ready to start pulling.

Use the following progression to reach 60 seconds or 60 repetitions, training 2-3 times per week. You do not need to start at week one, but only start on a week that you know, 100%, that you can do (in other words: TEST IT!):

  • Week 1: 12s x 3
  • Week 2: 12s x 4
  • Week 3 : 24s x 3
  • Week 4: 24s x 4
  • Week 6: 24s x 5
  • Week 7: 36s x 4
  • Week 8: 36s x 5
  • Week 9: 48s x 4
  • Week 10: 48s x 5
  • Week 11: 60s x 4
  • Week 12: 60s x 5

Note: you can use this rep scheme progression on MANY different exercises.

If you aren't able to support your full bodyweight, use a chair/bench/box. Place your feet on a box and use your lower body to take some of the load. Do your best to load your arms instead of your legs.

For beginners, even a set of 10-seconds will be challenging. For moderately/very fit individuals, the hardest part is often relaxing fully into the hang, trying not to keep tension in your shoulders.

Start with 10 seconds for 3 sets and build up over time. The 7-Minute Hang Challenge by Ido Portal is a great routine, where you build up to 7-minutes throughout the day, even if you are accumulating the time 10 seconds at a time. Practice every day, and after even a single week you will notice a DRAMATIC increase in your endurance and strength.

A word on hand position... There are generally 3 types of hand positions, which are the supinated grip, pronated grip, and the parallel grip. You should be comfortable handing from each grip in both an active and passive position.

  • Pronated Grip: palm away position for pull ups, brachiation, and deadlifts. Puts a greater emphasis on the lats. (Picture 1)
  • Supinated Grip: palm towards position for Chin-Ups. This position puts a greater emphasis on the biceps. (Picture 2)
  • Parallel (Neutral) Grip: Palms face each other. Used less than the other two grips. (not pictured)
Pronated Grip (thumbs in)

Pronated Grip (thumbs in)

Supinated Grip (thumbs out)

Supinated Grip (thumbs out)

Note: you have thumbs, so use them! I prefer a full grip over a false grip for hanging/pull-ups.

 

The Pull-Up

Once you have mastered hanging (which can take anywhere from 1-6 months) you will be much more comfortable on the bar. You may even be able to complete a full Pull-Up, despite not working on the Bent-Arm Strength portion of the Pull-Up. However, if you want to MASTER the pull-up, it is going to take some more practice. In Part 2 we will cover how to develop your bent-arm strength: Pull-Ups Part 2

 

In Summary: Pull-ups are awesome...

...but most people can't do them or don't do them correctly. The good news is that you can learn to pull chest to bar efficiently and effectively.

If your goal is to get your first pull-up, start with hanging. You will see huge improvements in shoulder and back health, with increasing your upper body control and strength.

For Strong, but Immobile shoulders: start with Passive Hanging, and progress to Active Hanging.

For Mobile, but Weak Shoulders: start with Active Hanging (add some passive hangs on your alternate days).

Once you have mastered hanging you are ready to start pulling. Stay tuned for Part 2: Mastering the Pull-Up by signing up for the newsletter.

 

-Mark Murdoch

B.Kin, Canadian Society of Exercise Physiology CPT

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Author: Mark Murdoch, Kinesiologist, Chiropractic Student. Have questions? Email me. I want to help! mark@leofitness.ca