Muscles Worked in Pull-Ups
Primary muscles worked:
Secondary muscles worked:
How to Do a Pull-Up
- Grip the bar with palms facing away from you, slightly wider than shoulder-width.
- Keep your chest up, and look up at the bar.
- Inhale and pull yourself up until your chin is over the bar or the bar touches your upper chest.
- Exhale and lower yourself with control until your arms are fully extended.
Pull-ups train both your lats and arm flexors effectively. By using a grip slightly wider than shoulder-width, you get a good range of motion and high muscle activation in all the working muscles.
You can make the exercise heavier by adding extra weight, i.e., in a weight belt, or make it easier by slinging a rubber band around the bar and under your feet.
A common variation of this exercise is to grip the bar with a supinated (underhand) grip, which makes it possible to put more focus on your arm flexors.
Introduction to the Pull-Up
The pull-up might be the most classic test (and developer!) of upper body strength. It has been used by bodybuilders to build back muscles for decades, and for the beginner, it often represents the first real training goal: being able to do your first pull-up.
In this guide you’ll learn:
- How to build up to your first pull-up
- How to train the pull-up to get even stronger
We’ll begin with a simple demonstration and a general explanation of the pull-up technique.
The pull-up is performed by grasping a pull-up bar with your palms facing away from you, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Then you pull yourself up until your chin is over the bar. Complete the rep by lowering yourself down until your arms are fully extended again.
Click here for a video demonstration.
Major Muscles Worked in Pull-Ups
Which muscles does the pull-up work?
You’ve already seen this once, but let’s recap quickly.
These are the muscles that need to be strong in order to be strong at pull-ups, and it is the muscles that primarily (and secondarily) will grow and get stronger from pull-up training.
Optimizing Your Technique in the Pull-Up
“Simple, but not easy” captures the essence of the pull-up well. With that said, there are still technical details worth a closer look if you want to really understand the pull-up.
Let’s start from the bar and move down from there.
There are three main ways to grip the bar during a pull-up:
- Pronated grip. Palms facing away from you. This is the standard grip for a pull-up, and what most people mean.
- Neutral grip. Palms facing each other. This is the grip you naturally drift towards when you do ring pull-ups.
- Supinated grip. Palms facing towards you. This is also known as a chin-up.
All three grip variations activate the same muscles to a similar extent.1 2 However, some people find that with experience, they can voluntarily choose to involve the arm flexors (that is: your biceps and brachialis) a bit more with a supinated grip.
Many people also find that they are slightly stronger with a supinated grip. Thus, if you’re struggling to get your first pull-up, it could be motivating to try your hand at some chin-ups every once in a while.
Gripping the bar with your hands shoulder width apart or just slightly wider is probably most common. But how does grip width influence your strength and muscle gains from pull-ups?
Muscle activity seems to be about the same in both the lats and arm flexors whether you use a wide or narrow grip in lat pulldowns (which is very similar to pull-ups as far as the prime movers are concerned), measured with electromyography (EMG).3
EMG seldom tells the whole story however, and a more deductive approach is appropriate.
First off – are you stronger with a wide or narrow grip?
While super-wide grips have become increasingly common in pull-up competitions (where you compete in doing as many bodyweight pull-ups as possible), both wide and narrow grip techniques are still used by the top performers. Also, one study found that participants were slightly weaker in the lat pulldown with a wide grip, compared to a medium or narrow grip.4 Taken together, this could mean that even if there is a difference in strength between the two styles, it is not big.
The EMG-study mentioned earlier compared muscle activity with the same load in both wide and narrow grip styles in the lat pulldown. If one grip width was inherently easier than the other, you’d except lower EMG-values for the prime movers (lats and arm flexors) with that width, since they would have to contract less to move the same load. But this was not the case.
Finding the right grip width for strength (whether you are aiming for many reps or a huge extra weight added for a single rep) seems to be more of a matter of personal preference than anything else, and you’d be wise to experiment with it to find what suits your body.
Secondly – is a narrow or wide grip better for building muscle?
If we look at the arm flexors first, lat pulldowns with a grip slightly wider than shoulder width has proven to be just as effective in promoting muscle growth in these as bicep curls.5 6 It’s probably safe to say that a narrow grip will yield similar arm growth as well.
But what about the lats? We don’t have any long-running training studies examining muscle growth in the lats from different widths of pull-ups, but seeing as both strength and muscle activity is roughly equal between wide and narrow pull-ups, there is likely not a ton of difference between the two techniques. A problem might arise if you’d use an excessively wide grip so that the range of motion for the lats is significantly reduced. However, as long as you use a grip width in the more normal range (that is, from slightly wider than shoulder width, all the way in to a narrow grip) you’re probably fine.
Shoulders and Scapulae
When you do pull-ups, let your shoulderblades (scapulae) move in sync with your arms as you’re going through the motion. This means that when you are hanging from the bar with straight arms, your shoulderblades will have rotated outward and will be a little higher up on your back. As you pull yourself up, the shoulderblades will rotate back and move down, until you reach the highest point of the movement.
Sounds complicated? Don’t worry – you likely don’t have to worry too much about this. Just try to get your shoulder blades down as your pulling yourself up, and don’t do anything funny in between.
Some controversy exists regarding this, with voices claiming that your shoulderblades should remain down and back throughout the whole range of motion. If this feels good for you, but the “moving scapulae” as described above doesn’t, then by all means stick to it. But if you’re not having any problems, then you should probably give your scapulae a chance to move freely. After all – you have them for a reason.
Strict or Kipping?
CrossFit took pull-ups in a new direction with their “kipping” style – essentially meaning that you use your legs and torso to create a swinging momentum, to propel your upper body upwards, and thus your chin over the bar. It is likely a natural consequence of CrossFit athletes trying to effectivize their pull-ups to conserve energy during WODs, or just to hit higher numbers, within the rules of their sport.
But how do they stack up against strict pull-ups, training-wise?
As far as the prime movers (the lats and the arm flexors) go, it’s quite simple: when kipping, you are generating force with your lower body to aid your upper body. Thus your lats and arm flexors will have to develop less force to get your chin over the bar. You’ve taken away work from your lats and arms, and given it to your lower body.
Electromyographic investigations show that kipping pull-ups recruit the core and lower body muscles to a higher extent, while the biceps are not as activated as when doing strict ones.7
On a rep-to-rep basis, this likely means that strict pull-ups will be harder on your lats and arm flexors, but at the same time train them more.
Kipping might be a good variation to use sometimes to get more reps in, and it is definately a smart strategy in a CrossFit competition, but as far as training your lats and arm flexors for strength and hypertrophy, the strict pull-up comes out on top.
How to Do Your First Pull-Up
In this section we will break down how to train for your first pull-up. Apart from general strength training guidelines, I will share tips that I found useful when I trained towards this goal.
Being able to do pull-ups can be a wonderful feeling of strength and self-efficacy. When you start training to do your first one, remember this: it can take time. Depending on where you start, you may have to acquire the muscle mass that is needed to pull your own body weight, as well as master the technique.
We women generally have a harder time getting our first pull-up, as we (in general terms) have less upper body strength than men, as well as some extra body fat.8 While this is a disadvantage, it is far from insurmountable. Long and dedicated training yields great pull-up strength in men and women alike. For inspiration, here’s a video of a lady doing 20 strict pull-ups, and here’s another cranking out 19 with good form.
Below follows our best tips on how to train for your first pull-up.
Build Muscle Mass and Strength in the Right Muscles
If you are a beginner, this is the easiest way to introduce pull-up training in your workout routine. Your lats and your arm flexors are the prime movers in a pull-up. Focus on increasing strength and building muscle mass in these by implementing any of these exercises for a few workouts per week:
- Lat Pulldown
- Barbell Row
- Dumbbell Row
- Seated Cable Row
- Bicep Curl
- (or any other variation that targets the same muscles)
To increase your strength, a simple plan is to do three sets of each exercise with a weight that you can do for no more than five repetitions. Continue practicing with that weight until you can do three sets of five repetitions, then add some weight, and aim to do three sets of five repetitions once again. To gain strength, remember to rest sufficiently between sets.
Another suggestion is to combine this setup with a high rep workout – doing three sets of 8–15 repetitions, for example. Alternating between light and heavy weights throughout the week is called daily undulating periodization (DUP), and allows you to alter the strain on your muscles by switching between lighter and heavier weights. DUP has been shown to work just as well as linear periodization to increase strength,9 but I want to highlight the method because I personally appreciated this approach. It forces you to challenge your body in different ways, and the daily variation increased my motivation to push myself even further.
Your main goal should be to strengthen your lats and arm flexors as they are primarily responsible for pulling you up, but the strongest lats and arms in the world won’t be of any help unless you can keep your grip on the bar. If your grip is a problem, you could add in some extra training for grip strength, which could be as easy as simply hanging from a pull-up bar. That comes with the additional benefit of making you more used to and comfortable in that position and will strengthen some of the passive tissues that are loaded by a pull-up.
Learn How to Activate the Right Muscles
This is partly undertaken through regular strength training, like described above, as you will learn how it feels to use the correct muscles as you train them. Still, I would like to point out one of my favorite exercises to activate the back: scapular retractions.
Scapular retractions are a breakdown of the first part of a pull-up: you hang from a bar, and pull your shoulder blades down and together, activating the muscles in your back and drawing your shoulders away from your ears. You should not involve your arms when practicing scapular retractions, merely use your shoulder blades to create a slight movement.
Scapular retractions are a great warmup as well – I usually do them before I do pull-ups.
Practice Negative Pull-Ups
Negative pull-ups is a great exercise when training for your first pull-up. At the moment, you might lack the strength required to pull yourself up – the concentric phase of a pull-up. However, you are probably strong enough to lower yourself down from the top position – the eccentric phase of the exercise.
A negative pull-up is performed like this:
- Place a box or bench below a pull-up bar, and step up.
- Hold on to the bar and jump up so that you are in the top position of a pull-up, with you chin over the bar.
- Hold that position until you feel that you are in control.
- Lower yourself down as slow as you can.
This exercise may be quite heavy in the beginning, but you will progress quickly. Eccentric exercise fatigues the muscles, and delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) can be expected after the first time you perform them. Because of this, do not exaggerate the training volume. 5 sets of 3 repetitions one or two times a week is a suitable benchmark, but you will probably want to start out with even less volume than this, and just do 2–3 sets the first time you try them.
Negative pull-ups are great because they force you to work with your own bodyweight, even though you cannot pull yourself up yet. They will build the strength you need to do a pull-up, and you will get mentally used to holding your own bodyweight, hanging from a bar.
Do Resistance Band-Assisted Pull-Ups
An additional exercise to practice the pull-up movement is band-assisted pull-ups. Most gyms have resistance bands for this purpose, and if not, you can buy one yourself for quite cheap.
Here is how you do them:
- Throw the band over the bar, and pull one end through the other.
- Step up on a bench or box beside the bar, and place your foot in the loop. This way, the band helps you pull yourself up, carrying some of your weight.
- Hang from the bar and do a pull-up with assistance from the band.
Similar to negative pull-ups, this exercise can be done without a gym partner. Another perk is that you can adjust the load by choosing between resistance bands with different thickness. This facilitates progression, as you can advance by utilizing a band with less resistance as you develop.
The first time you do banded pull-ups, it can be tricky to set yourself up, but after a few workouts you will be ready in no time. Sometimes, I end my sets of banded pull-ups with a negative repetition, to exhaust the muscle.
An alternative is to put up your feet on a box when you hang from the bar, so that you do not have to pull your entire bodyweight. This can also be done with your feet on the ground, if you hang yourself to a barbell in a rack. Place the barbell so that your butt is about 10 centimeters/4 inches from the ground, right below the barbell. Your legs should be bent, and the entire foot placed on the floor. Pull yourself up until your chin passes the bar. Try to use your legs as little as possible!
Do Partner-Assisted Pull-Ups
My best advice on how to do your first pull-up, is to do pull-ups assisted by a gym partner.
- Hang from a bar with extended arms, with your hands shoulder width apart.
- Cross your feet behind your back, and place your feet in your gym partner’s hands, OR ask your gym partner to give you a push on the back as you pull yourself up.
- Pull yourself up, with assistance from your friend.
Assisted pull-ups are exhausting in the beginning, and depending on how strong your gym buddy is, you may have to practice the other steps for a while before a friend can assist you.
What I like with this exercise is that your friend can assist you just as much as is needed for you to pull yourself up – but no more than that. This way, you can train specifically at the skill you want to acquire, and your friend can freely regulate the assistance as you get stronger, and eventually can do one on your own! A drawback with resistance bands is that it may be problematic to find a band with adequate resistance – and even if you do, you are going to outgrow it eventually. Moreover, resistance bands facilitate the bottom of the movement the most, but not as much in the top, which could be your sticking point, and where you need the support. These issues are circumvented by receiving help from a friend instead of a band. Another bonus is that your gym buddy can motivate you to workout harder!
Another way to make your pull-ups easier could be to lose weight.10 This is not a must, but if you decrease your bodyweight simultaneously as becoming stronger, you can reach your goal of doing a pull-up faster. The aim should be to lose as much fat mass and as little muscle mass as possible.
However, don’t focus on this if you already are a light person – instead focus on building muscle mass and getting stronger.
How to Become Even Stronger
So you can do one or more pull-ups – congratulations! Now how do you move on from here?
To keep progressing, you want to:
- Build muscle mass. Bigger muscles produce more force, and the bigger the muscles you use for pull-ups get, the easier they will become.
- Train your nervous system. By practicing the movement you will become more skilled at it, and the muscles you already have will be able to work more efficiently.
In order to achieve this, the best advice is to keep practicing pull-ups. How you pursue your pull-up training, however, can be done in different ways. Let us examine some tools that may be useful on your journey.
Build More Muscle Mass
This addresses the first goal – to grow the muscles involved when doing pull-ups. A larger muscle can produce more force, which allows you to pull more weight or do more reps.
Adopt the mentality of a bodybuilder, and aim for muscle contact. Most importantly, seek to increase the load progressively, to keep stimulating muscle growth.
Generally speaking, it is more effective to perform compound movements over isolation exercises when you’re aspiring to become stronger. Lat pulldown has been seen to increase the strength and muscle size of the biceps as much as bicep curls does, but you get training for your back simultaneously. However, if you already practice lots of pull-ups, you might profit more from doing additional isolation exercises instead of extra compound work. Depending on how dedicated you are, the additional percent gained from isolation exercises may be worth it.
To train your biceps and back, I recommend the same exercises as when learning to do your first pull-up, but you can include more of them, or add additional sets:
Add Extra Weight
One way to be able to do more reps is to increase your 1RM. If you boost your maximum strength, it will be relatively easier to do more reps with your body weight. In addition, raising your 1RM with extra weight can serve as a stimulating goal in itself.
You can add weight in several ways: hang weight plates from a belt, wear a weight vest, carry a dumbbell between your legs, or hang a kettlebell on your foot. Regardless of what equipment you use, I guarantee you that weighted pull-ups will boost your confidence, not in the least because they look really cool. And regular pull-ups are going to be a piece of cake after you have implemented weighted ones!
If you don’t have access to weights, you can increase the intensity by doing explosive pull-ups. Aim to pull yourself up as high over the bar as possible.
Do Different Pull-Up Variations
The principle of specificity states that to become proficient at something, you have to train specifically at what you want to improve. Therefore, pull-ups should be the foundation of your workout routine.
To be able to increase the workload without injuries, you can incorporate different variations of pull-ups. Here is a list of various pull-up styles to alternate between:
- Pull-up with a supinated grip
- Pull-up with a neutral grip
- Pull-up with a wide grip
- Pull-up with a close grip
- One arm pull-up
- Towel pull-up
- Rope climb
Indeed, you can combine these exercises with the ones introduced in the section about how to do your first pull-up, and play around with resistance bands and eccentric exercise, or ask for assistance from a friend to help you do the last rep.
Do Lots of Pull-Ups
The principle of specificity cannot be stressed enough. Increasing the volume of pull-ups that you do will enhance your neuromuscular efficiency – because every time you pull yourself up, your neuromuscular system streamlines the interaction between the muscles and the nerves, optimizing it to become more effective.
You can incorporate pull-ups as a warm-up at the beginning of every workout. Or you can buy a pull-up bar, so that you can practice them at home. Simply spend more time doing pull-ups.
Train Your Grip Strength
Eventually, your grip strength can become the sticking point that keeps you from doing one more rep. Strong grip muscles can prove useful for other purposes than doing pull-ups – since many exercises require you to hold a heavy weight.
To gain grip strength, you can train your grip indirectly by:
- Training without lifting straps
- Using a fatbar or a bar attachment such as FatGripz as you workout
You can also incorporate direct grip training into your workout scheme:
- Wrist curls
- Holding weight plates between your fingers for time
- Farmer’s walk
- Sledge hammer levering
- Static hang from bar (can be done with one hand only, or with added weight)
Sooner or later your body will have adapted to your current training, and if you want to improve, you will have to train more.
This could be in the form of more training days per week, or increased training volume on your current number of training days. See our pull-up programs for suggestions on how to do this.
As a rough guideline, below are some recommendations regarding what could be an appropriate training volume for increased pull-up strength and performance at different training levels. The set numbers refer to total number of sets that train the pull-up musculature, so 3 sets of pull-ups, 3 sets of lat pulldown and 3 sets of bicep curls would count as 9 sets.
- Beginner: 6–12 sets per week
- Intermediate: 13–20 sets per week
- Advanced: 21–30 sets per week
What training volume is right for you will depend on your circumstances, and you will have to experiment to find the level where you make progress without overshooting yourself and getting injured.
A key to tolerating higher training volumes is cutting most of your sets short of failure. Sets taken to failure are more stressful on the muscles, and require more days of rest before you have recovered, compared to distributing the same number of reps over more sets.11.
Training to failure in some of your sets is probably useful, but as your total training volume increases, more and more of your sets should probably be stopped a few (or many) reps short of failure. One meta-analysis even found greater increases in strength when performing non-failure training compared to training to failure12.
The optimal ratio of sets taken to failure vs not taken to failure will depend on how much you train:
- If you train with low volume and few (1–2) workouts per week, a higher proportion of your sets, maybe all, could be taken to failure.
- If you train with high volume and many (3+) workouts per week, a lower proportion of your sets should be taken to failure.
Useful Equipment You Might Want to Get
Like I mentioned earlier, you can invest in your own resistance band if there is not one available at your gym. They do not take up space, and can be used for other purposes as well.
I strongly recommend using chalk when practicing pull-ups – you do not have to worry about sweaty hands, and can avoid grip strength being an obstacle in your pull-up progression. Chalk is almost always allowed when competing.
You might want to invest in a weight belt to use for weighted pull-ups if your gym does not have one to borrow.
Having your own pull-up bar removes a threshold that could stop you from doing pull-ups. Even if you can not make it to the gym, you can do a couple of sets of pull-ups at home. Most pull-up bars are of the type that you put in a door frame. Maybe you could make up a rule to do a pull-up every time you pass the bar! In any case, every time you pass the bar, it reminds you of your goal.
If you want a specific goal to aim for with your pull-up training, or if you find yourself being a talent at pulling yourself up, you could consider participating in pull-up competitions. Pull-up contests are commonly arranged all over the world, so if you are tempted to test your pull-up skills against others or just get out of your comfort zone, search online for a competition nearby.
Signing up for a competition is one of the best ways to encourage yourself to train seriously. Having a definite date when you have to perform will urge you to devote sustained effort. If you plan on competing, ensure that you are familiar with the rules of that event so that you can practice the competition style of a pull-up, and won’t get any reps discarded for not complying with the rules.
To optimize the amount of pull-ups you can do, you should strive for two things:
- Increase your 1RM by training for strength.
- Build endurance by doing lots of reps with your bodyweight.
Max strength (1RM) training should get more focus when you are further from a competition. As you get closer to the competition, you should train more specifically at what you want to be good at, i.e. doing pull-ups with your bodyweight.
Training Programs for the Pull-Up
It is time to convert all this information into something useful: training programs!
Below, we outline a few different sample programs for the pull-up:
- Training for your first pull-up: 2x/week
- Beginner program: 2x/week
- Intermediate program: 2x/week
- Advanced program: 3x/week
- High frequency ladder program
Note that the number of pull-ups you can do doesn’t necessarily reflect what training program suits you. What counts is rather how much training you have been doing, as that will affect 1) how much training you can tolerate, and 2) what type of training you need the most, in terms of specificity.
What separates a beginners training from an advanced? Primarily two things:
- Volume: To continue bringing about new adaptations from the training (i.e. getting stronger and building bigger muscles), you need to increase the stimulus. This will obviously be done in one part by increasing the weights you’re training with, but the other part is by increasing the total number of sets and reps you do. Throughout the course of your training career, your training volume will need to increase.
- Specificity: The earlier in your training career you are, the more general you can afford to be. The more advanced you are, the more specific your training will have to be. For the aspiring pull-up master, this means that a larger percentage of your total training will be spent doing pull-ups the further along your training career you are.
One important note on how to follow these programs:
The training program below are based on the premise of progressive overload, which simply means that you should challenge your muscles more over time.
In practice, it means that you will write down what weight you lifted and for how many reps, and then try to beat that the next time you train. Any step forward is progress, even if it means just doing one single additional rep on the same weight as last time.
In the beginning it will be easy to progress, but as you get more trained progress will come slower.
Again, make sure you keep a training log, so that you can remember what you lifted and can improve upon it the next time.
Now – let’s get to the programs.
Training for Your First Pull-Up: 2x/week
In this stage, training is all about 1) building strength and muscle mass in your lats and arm flexors, and 2) practicing the pull-up movement.
- Warm-up: 1–3 sets x 10 reps Scapular Retractions
- Negative Pull-ups/Assisted Pull-ups: 3 sets x 3 reps
- Lat Pulldown: 3 sets x 8–12 reps
- Biceps Curls: 3 sets x 8–12 reps
- Warm-up: 1–3 sets x 10 reps Scapular Retractions
- Band-Assisted Pull-ups: 3 sets x 4–12 reps
- Lat Pulldown: 3 sets x 8–12 reps
- Rows: 3 sets x 8–12 reps
Try to increase weights and/or reps every workout.
These two workouts can serve as a weekly pull-up program in the beginning – just alternate between the two, and rest 3–4 days between the workouts.
As you become stronger and feel that your body is ready for more training, you could increase the training load by either:
- increasing the frequency from two to three workouts per week. Just alternate between these two workouts.
- increase the training volume per workout, by first increasing the number of sets to four sets per exercise, and then five sets per exercise.
Keep hammering this program until you can get your first pull-up. Some additional tips to try if you feel like you are plateuing is to change things up:
- Switch to chin-ups for a while. That is, using a supinated (palms facing you) grip. Many people find that they are stronger this way, and maybe with your newfound strength from several weeks of training you can pull this off now?
- Try a new assisted pull-up variation. For example: instead of using band-assisted pull-ups, switch to negative pull-ups. Or partner-assisted. Or vice versa. The point is, by switching to a new pull-up variation that you haven’t tried as much, you could “unlock” the last keys to figuring out the movement, or building that last strength that you’re lacking.
We wish you the best of luck in training towards your first pull-up!
Beginner Pull-Up Program: 2x/week
This is a program for you who can do a couple of pull-ups, but are still very early in your pull-up training career.
Beginner Workout A
Beginner Workout B
Try to increase weights and/or reps every workout.
Intermediate Pull-Up Program: 2x/week
As an intermediate trainee you have a couple months of pull-up training under your belt, and you are ready for a little higher training volume than the beginner.
If you are able to, now is a good time to start introducing some weighted pull-ups in one of your workouts. Hang a weight in a belt (probably the most comfortable), hang a kettlebell on your foot, or squeeze a dumbbell between your legs.
Intermediate Workout A
Intermediate Workout B
Try to increase weights and/or reps every workout. This is especially important on the 5 sets of max rep pull-ups in workout A. Try to increase the total number of pull-ups you can do in those five sets combined!
Advanced Pull-Up Program: 3x/week
The advanced trainee is well accustomed to pull-up training, and has reached the point where high training volume is needed to progress. Higher training volumes require more temperance, as you cannot train hard all the time or you are running a high risk of overtraining.
Advanced Workout A
Advanced Workout B
- Pull-up Variation: 5 sets, not to failure, leave some reps in the tank. Choose one pull-up variation.
- Toes to Bar: 5 set x Max reps
- Reverse Dumbbell Flyes: 5 sets x 8–12 reps
Advanced Workout C
High Frequency Russian Pull-Up Program
Last but not least, I’d like to share with you a fun but demanding pull-up program.
It is a ladder-based, high frequency program that can be suited to everyone able to do three pull-ups, up to 20+. It was written by Pavel Tsatsouline, and published in his article The Fighter Pull-up.13
Here is how the program looks if you can currently do 5 strict pull-ups:
- Day 1: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 reps
- Day 2: 5, 4, 3, 2, 2
- Day 3: 5, 4, 3, 3, 2
- Day 4: 5, 4, 4, 3, 2
- Day 5: 5, 5, 4, 3, 2
- Day 6: Rest
You start out by doing as many reps as you can in the first set, then you rest for 2–3 minutes before the next set, where you do one rep less.
Repeat this until you have done five sets. The next day you repeat this, but in the last set you will now do two reps instead of one. Keep progressing like this every day, until you have accomplished 5, 5, 4, 3, 2 reps.
After you have accomplished this, it is time to raise the ladder. After a day of rest, you will start with:
- Day 7: 6, 5, 4, 3, 2
- Day 8: 6, 5, 4, 3, 3
- Day 9: 6, 5, 4, 4, 3
- Day 10: 6, 5, 5, 4, 3
- Day 11: 6, 6, 5, 4, 3
- Day 12: Rest
Another ladder completed, and you’ve earned another day of rest. Like this, you can go on. Just keep adding a rep “from behind”, until you can do two sets on your previous max number, and then start a new ladder one rung higher.
This will work up until you can do a series of about 10, 10, 9, 8, 7 reps.
After that, it is time to space the sets out a bit. When you can do a high number of sets, it will no longer work to just drop one rep between sets – the difference is much smaller between 15 and 14 reps, than it is between 5 and 4 reps. You might not even wan’t to max out in the first set when you are starting out, but keep some reps in the tank.
Let’s say your max is 15 strict pull-ups. Then you could start at 12 reps your first week, like this:
- Day 1: 12, 10, 8, 6, 4
- Day 2: 12, 10, 8, 6, 6
- Day 3: 12, 10, 8, 8, 6
- Day 4: 12, 10, 10, 8, 6
- Day 5: 12, 12, 10, 8, 6
- Day 6: Rest
Rest for one or two days, and then repeat again on a higher level, starting with 13, 11, 9, 7, 5 reps.
The stronger you get and the more pull-ups you can do, the farther your first set should be from your maximum and the larger the drops between each set should be.
When you can do 20 pull-ups, it could look like this:
- Day 1: 17, 14, 11, 8, 5
- Day 2: 17, 14, 11, 8, 8
- Day 3: 17, 14, 11, 11, 8
- Day 4: 17, 14, 14, 11, 8
- Day 5: 17, 17, 14, 11, 8
- Day 6: Rest
If you start feeling worn-out and drained, you might need to add in a few extra rest days here or there.
If your current max number of pull-ups is three reps, then you could use it like this (this could also be used for weighted pull-ups):
- Day 1: 3, 2, 1 reps
- Day 2: 3, 2, 1, 1
- Day 3: 3, 2, 2, 1
- Day 4: 3, 3, 2, 1
- Day 5: 4, 3, 2, 1
- Day 6: Rest
- Day 7: 4, 3, 2, 1, 1
- Day 8: 4, 3, 2, 2, 1
- Day 9: 4, 3, 3, 2, 1
- Day 10: 4, 4, 3, 2, 1
- Day 11: Rest
- Day 12: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1
And then follow the ladder for five reps.
This is a program with high frequency and high volume, which means that the risk of overtraining is somewhat high. If feel you like training five days in a row is too much, you can add in more rest days so that it suits you. You might even take a rest day between every workout, so that you train every other day.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about pull-ups. Can’t find the answer to your question? Leave a comment, and we’ll try to answer!
Can Everyone Learn to Do Pull-Ups?
Apart from lacking both arms, we say yes – everyone can learn how to do a pull-up.
Or rather train themselves to do a pull-up.
The path will vary wildly – some will be able to do it their first day in the gym, while others might be in for a journey that lasts several years.
To be blunt, there are only two main factors at play that determine your pull-up capability:
- Upper body pulling strength. You will need to increase your upper body pulling musculature as well as strength. This will be done through strength training as outlined in the sample programs above.
- Weight. The heavier you are, the harder it will be to do one pull-up. You will have to decide for yourself whether it would be healthy and wise for you to lose some weight, or if you should just focus on getting stronger.
Which of the two points above you will need to work on will also vary between individuals. Maybe you are already very strong in your upper body, but you need to drop some weight before you can pull yourself up? Or maybe you are a small and light person, but have never trained before and need to increase your upper body strength?
Decide for yourself how you want to approach the problem, and get to work. (A hint: training is way more fun than dieting.)
I Can’t Even Do One! How Do I Start?
Start by checking out the section on how to do your first pull-up. There you will find many tips on how to get started.
After that, you could start following the training program for your first pull-up.
We wrote it to suit the general trainee, but it is possible that you would be better off it you adjusted it a bit to suit your specific needs and preferences. Nevertheless, you could use it as a starting point for devising your own pull-up program.
A very important key in getting your first pull-up is to gain the specific strength and technique (eg. pulling in the right direction!), and for this we highly recommend one of the pull-up variations where you are actually hanging in a pull-up bar, whether it’s by doing negative pull-ups, or assisted by band or a partner.
That is going to be the most important type of exercise in your journey towards a pull-up, even if other complementary training also will be of use.
How Does Lat Pulldown Transer to Pull-Ups?
It transfers well!
There is a strong correlation between strength in lat pulldown and pull-ups.14 This means that lat pulldowns can be an effective way to train your strength for pull-ups, which is especially useful information for you who cannot do pull-ups with your own bodyweight yet: you can use the lat pulldown to build your strength up!
One word of caution though, is that the technique and muscle activation of pull-ups still might feel pretty different to you, which is the reason behind why we think you should include both lat pulldowns and different variations of assisted pull-ups in your training program for your first pull-up.
My Grip Is Too Weak for Pull-Ups, How Do I Strengthen it?
With chalk and specific grip training!
First off: chalk is pretty much a must-have for pull-up training. Even with a strong grip, you will still be limited by your sweaty grip unless you use chalk to dry your hands out. Get some (either liquid, or preferrably, solid) and use it.
The most specific grip training for pull-ups, and the one we primarily recommend is to simply hang from a pull-up bar.
It has the big benefit that it will strengthen other muscles and joints that you use in the pull-up, and will help make you comfortable in the hanging position. You need to learn how to hang from the bar, before you can pull yourself up on it.
Start by adding in, for example, three sets of hanging in the end of your workouts. Hang for as long as possible, and write down how long you managed in the first set every workout and try to improve that over time.
For those of you who already have a decently strong grip but want to improve it further, you can do the same thing but hang in one arm instead.
This exercise takes virtually no time to set up, and is therefore easy to squeeze in at the end of your workouts.
That’s it! You’ve reached the end of our pull-up guide.
If you’d like to read more articles of this kind on anything related to strength training, be sure to sign up for our free newsletter below, to be notified of new posts!
If you’d like to train according to one of our pull-up training programs, you can find them in our app StrengthLog (available on both iOS and Android).
- Electromyographic analysis of muscle activation during pull-up variations. Dickie JA, Faulkner JA, Barnes MJ, Lark SD. J Electromyogr Kinesiol. 2017 Feb;32:30-36. doi: 10.1016/j.jelekin.2016.11.004. Epub 2016 Nov 28.
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- Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2013 Mar;38(3):341-4. Effect of adding single-joint exercises to a multi-joint exercise resistance-training program on strength and hypertrophy in untrained subjects.
- Sports Biomech. 2018 May 16:1-14. doi: 10.1080/14763141.2018.1452971. Alterations in kinematics and muscle activation patterns with the addition of a kipping action during a pull-up activity.
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- Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Linear and Undulating Periodized Resistance Training Programs on Muscular Strength. Harries, Simon K.; Lubans, David R.; Callister, Robin. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: April 2015 – Volume 29 – Issue 4 – p 1113–1125. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000712
- J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2016 Jul-Aug;56(7-8):825-33. Epub 2015 Jul 15.
Determinant factors of pull-up performance in trained athletes.
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- Tsatsouline, Pavel. The Fighter Pull-up
- J Strength Cond Res. 2009 May;23(3):1022-8. Relationship of lat-pull repetitions and pull-ups to maximal lat-pull and pull-up strength in men and women