Pam Moore

I'm an award-winning freelance health and fitness journalist and content marketing writer with over ten years of healthcare experience. A re

Oct 5, 2021
Published on: Washington Post
2 min read
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You might think of pull-ups as an upper-body exercise you’d never have the strength to tackle, but your first one might be closer than you think. While you need full-body strength, tenacity and patience to master the move, according to Angela Gargano — a certified personal trainer, four-time “American Ninja Warrior” contestant and founder of Strong Feels Good — it’s worth it. “Being able to lift yourself above a bar is invigorating,” she says.

Pull-ups, which require you to hang on to a bar using an overhand grip, and, drawing your elbows in toward your rib cage, raise your chin over the bar, are simple — but not easy.

A challenging exercise that incorporates multiple muscle groups, pull-ups offer a lot of bang for your buck. Stanton Ward, an exercise physiologist and a personal training manager at Equinox gym in Dallas, says the latissimus dorsi (back) muscle does most of the work, and you are also engaging your shoulder stabilizers, biceps, forearms, core, glutes and quadriceps.

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The move helps develop the core stability that enables you to lift heavy loads safely. Ward notes that they have “tremendous carry-over to other exercises,” like dead lifts in the gym or heaving a Costco-size bag of dog food into your shopping cart.

Pull-ups also improve grip strength, says Meghan Wieser, an Ellicott City, Md., physical therapist and strength coach. Good grip strength doesn’t just help you open jars and carry grocery bags — it’s also an important biomarker associated with good health and longevity.

In addition, the exercise flexes muscles we tend to ignore. “So much of life is in front of us,” such as typing and driving, and if those activities aren’t balanced by ones that engage the back of your body, Wieser says, it can become a problem. By engaging the posterior chain — the muscles along back of the body, including your rotator cuff, erector spinae, lats, glutes and hamstrings — pull-ups help create tissue resilience, making us “better movers” and preventing injuries, Wieser adds.

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And those are just the physical benefits. “Once you get it, you feel like a badass,” Wieser says. That confidence doesn’t just serve you in the gym. Gargano says that when “impossible things become possible,” your entire outlook on life can change.

Pull-ups aren’t for everyone, but your gender identity shouldn’t stand in your way. Just keep in mind that the move generally comes easier to men than to women because men’s back muscles develop more quickly with less relative effort, Gargano says. Avoid them if you’re recovering from a rotator cuff injury, have limited shoulder mobility, or experience pain with the movement, Wieser suggests, and wait until you get a green light from your doctor or physical therapist.

Your gym should have a pull-up bar. If it’s too high, stand on something stable, such as a plyometric box or a step aerobics bench, to reach it.

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No gym membership? No problem. The just-right tree branch or the monkey bars at your local playground can stand in as a pull-up bar. Or, if you have one nearby, head to an “outdoor gym,” where you should find a bar designed just for pull-ups.

If you’re installing a pull-up bar at home, it should be high enough to allow your arms to extend fully, Gargano says. She suggests finding one that hooks securely to the top of a door frame. If you’re too tall to use a door frame and you have the space, a free-standing pull-up bar (available for under $200) or a wall-mounted one (available for under $100) are “secure and safe” alternatives, she says.

You won’t even need a bar at first. Gargano’s clients start with foundational moves requiring limited or no equipment. They might be boring, but she says nailing the fundamentals is a game-changer.

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Y’s. These simple drills promote shoulder mobility and stability. To do a Y, lie on the floor facedown with your arms outstretched so your body is in the shape of the letter Y. With your thumbs facing the ceiling, lift your arms up and down, squeezing your shoulder blades together. Gargano suggests aiming for three to five sets of 10 to 20 reps, two to three times a week.

Hollow holds. Ward agrees that “unsexy” moves are a vital part of mastering the pull-up. To increase your ability to maintain full-body tension during the movement, he suggests adding hollow holds to your routine: Lie on your back and lift your straightened legs about six inches off the ground. Then, raise your arms overhead, keeping them about six inches off the ground. Hold this position, focusing on driving your lower back into the floor. “Think about doing a plank but laying on your back,” he says. Do five 10-to-20-second holds, and repeat for three sets, two or three times a week.

Dumbbell or kettle bell carries. These will help improve grip strength. Start with two or three 30- to 60-second carries, two times a week, Ward says.

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Pulling exercises. Wieser suggests these at least three times a week. You can do dumbbell rows or TRX suspension cable rows, or just hang on the bar with an overhand grip. You can also perform inverted rows if you have access to a squat rack and a barbell; increase the difficulty by lowering the bar or elevating your feet. Shoot for three to five sets of 10 to 12 reps, at least twice a week.

How long it takes to get your first pull-up depends on a variety of factors, including your fitness level and how often you train. In the meantime, you can progress by doing pull-up variations.

Negative exercises. Wieser recommends negative, or eccentric, training, which involves using assistance (such as jumping or standing on an elevated surface) to help get your chin above the bar, then slowly lowering your body. But proceed with caution. “The soreness that comes with that is insane,” she says. She advises doing no more than 20 in one workout.

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Banded pull-ups. By securing one end of a heavy-duty loop band to the bar and stepping into the other end with one or both feet, you get a boost at the bottom of the move. If you do these, Gargano says, make sure your band tension is light enough that “you’re actually able to feel your muscles activate.” Otherwise, the band does too much of the work for you.

Chin-ups. These work many of the same muscles but are a bit easier, Ward says. By using an underhand grip (palms facing you) rather than overhand, you get slightly more biceps engagement while still working your lats.

Do start from an active position and not a dead hang, Wieser says. Then, with your hands gripping the bar in an overhand position and your elbows extended, retract your shoulder blades by engaging them and aiming them down toward your back pockets. It can also be helpful to imagine trying to bring the bar toward you.

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Do make sure your core, glutes and quads are engaged and your feet are together before your body moves an inch above the floor. Squeezing your glutes helps with lat engagement, Gargano says. Then, maintain full-body tension as you bring your elbows toward your rib cage to get your chin over the bar.

Don’t make the mistake of looking up at the bar and tucking your feet behind you. Both movements cause your back to arch. This precludes core engagement, an important but often overlooked component of the move.

Don’t favor one side of the body, says Gargano. “One side’s normally a little stronger than the other.” She suggests having someone film you from behind so you can see any asymmetry for yourself.

No matter where you are in your pull-up journey, consistent practice is the only way to move forward. How often you should train depends on your goals; she recommends at least three to four sessions per week and varying your exercises.

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Like most goals worth achieving, getting your first pull-up requires dedication and patience. “You’re going to have good days. You’re going to have bad days,” Gargano says.
“Nothing happens overnight.”

Pam Moore is a freelance writer based in Boulder, Colo., as well as a certified personal trainer and endurance athlete. She hosts the “Real Fit” podcast, featuring conversations with female athletes on body image, confidence and other topics.