Pull-ups Part One: How to Get Your First Pull-up

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A Marine performs a pull-up in the sixth challenge of the High Intensity Tactical Training Championship at Butler Stadium aboard Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia.
U.S. Marine Capt. Astrid Rivas performs a pull-up in the sixth challenge of the High Intensity Tactical Training Championship at Butler Stadium aboard Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, Sept. 11, 2019. (Lance Cpl. George Nudo/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

This article is part one of a three-part series on 20 Pull-​​ups for Women:

1. How to get your first pull-​​up (this article)

2. Getting the USMC women's maximum pull-​​up (eight reps)

3. Getting the USMC male maximum (20 reps)

I received one of the best email responses in more than a decade of writing articles on tactical fitness and fitness testing this week. It was such a good introduction to Maj. Misty Posey (USMC) that I wanted to share the story of this Marine going from zero pull-​​ups to 20 pull-​​ups.

Posey writes: “I read your article where you spoke about young girls not being educated physically like they should and about how this is a societal issue. I couldn't agree more. I stumbled across the same information in my research for my pull-​​up paper (Duped by The Frailty Myth). So, I definitely agree it is a socialization and educational issue.”

After I wrote a basic news/opinion piece on the USMC delaying the pull-​​up portion of the PFT for women, I realized I needed to focus more on education and teaching methods to improve on pull-​​ups, not just argue that women can do pull-​​ups if they just do them. With the assistance of Posey, we have created a three-part series on how to get up 20 pull-ups.

Focus on the specific movement: Specificity

We agreed to keep it simple, because the plan has to work for Marines anywhere and anytime. All you need is a pull-​​up bar for the first phase of your pull-​​up journey.

We have a three-​​part plan that will focus on the specific movement of the pull-​​up exercise first. There is no need to touch a dumbbell or isolation exercise at this point. Later in our progressions, we will add in weights, TRX options and others when we turn the pull-​​up exercise from a strength exercise to an endurance exercise, adding multiple repetitions to your first few pull-​​ups.

"The reason I succeeded in learning the first elusive pull-​​up was because after months of struggling, I received a bit of pull-​​up training advice that worked: Get off the assisted pull-​​up machine and onto a pull-​​up bar!" Posey said.

Here is Posey's personal pull-​​up development story:

When I first joined the Marine Corps, I used to stand on the backs of male Marines to get "lifted" into the start position for the flexed arm ​​hang (FAH). I did not want to waste precious energy before the clock started for the FAH; lifting my own body weight was not a requirement, nor did I think I was capable of doing so.

A lot has changed since then. I no longer stand on the backs of my buddies, because I can now perform 20 dead-​​hang pull-​​ups (and I am not alone), yet, I do not have a "significant" physical advantage over other female Marines with respect to pull-​​up capability. I did not play sports in high school or college. I was never a gymnast. I only began lifting weights after I could do 20 pull-​​ups. I am very close to the maximum weight for my height, and my body fat is average. In other words: If I can do it, any female Marine can do it.

Back to the societal problem: Many women do not think they can learn to do one pull-​​up, let alone 20. This is because the 40-​​year old requirement for female Marines to perform the flexed arm hang created a false perception of their physical potential. The belief that women could not perform pull-​​ups, in turn, discouraged them from trying. Women not trying to learn pull-​​ups subsequently made the behavior true, which reinforced the initial erroneous assumption that weakness was their natural and irreversible condition.

What makes the women who can do pull-​​ups different from those who cannot? Most Marines don't ask this question and dismiss these women as hard-​​charging "anomalies." These women are not anomalies, however. They are simply closer to their athletic potential than other female Marines. Although a woman performing pull-ups --let alone many repetitions -- is unusual, this does not mean that a woman who is able to perform pull-​​ups is "uniquely" gifted.

Frequent practice is paramount, and specificity is essential. It is crucial to practice pull-​​ups to learn how to perform pull-​​ups -- thus the confusion. How can a person practice pull-​​ups when they cannot perform the exercise? The answer is to perform pull-​​up progressions on a pull-up bar, using the following exercises:

The Progression of Exercises to Get to Pull-​​up #1: (see video description)

In order of Easiest to Hardest Options: Try to do a pull-​​up -- when you fail, resort to the next level of the progression that challenges you the most. Start in this order: 

Pull-up -- Try to get one/do a negative while on the bar. Follow pull-up non-​​rep with:

Dead hangs -- Hang with shoulders flexed for as long as you can.

Negatives -- Lower yourself off the bar, slowly counting for 4-5 seconds

(also demonstrated -- L sit negatives and weighted negatives)

Pausing negatives -- Stop your downward movement for 4-5 seconds halfway down

Jumping pull-​​ups -- Drop off the bar and try to get back to the up position by jumping/pulling yourself.

Partial range-of-motion pull-​​ups -- Try half pull-ups. Halfway down/back up. All the way down/halfway up.

Partner/equipment assist -- Have a spotter push you when needed and lower yourself without a spotter, helping the downward motion. If using a chair or bench, step up to the up position, bend your knees and control your descent for 4--5 seconds.

Dead hangs: The dead hang is a simple exercise that involves hanging from a bar and is a great way to develop grip strength, which is fundamental to pull-​​ups.

How to do it: Grip an overhead bar (or rings) and hang with feet suspended from the floor with arms straight at the elbows. Keep the shoulder blades flexed down and back and chest 'up' to fully engage the back muscles and to keep your arms from feeling like they are being pulled from their sockets. Sustain the dead hang for as long as possible without losing form. Rest and repeat. A good starting ​​point is to aim for a minimum of 10-​​second holds and build up to a minute.

Negatives: One of the best pull-​​up progression exercises is the negative. It is a highly effective technique to train your central nervous system to learn the mechanics of a pull-​​up movement while simultaneously building strength for pull-​​ups.

How to do it: Get yourself to the up position, using a chair, step or partner lift and fight gravity on the way down as long as you can. Try to count to 5-10 on the descent. Once you cannot control your descent, you are finished with the negative exercise for that set. When you are in the "bottom" position with arms fully extended (dead hang), dismount the bar and repeat. The idea of a negative is to make your muscles work harder by deliberately resisting gravity on the way down.

Pausing negatives: One variation of the negative is to pause during the descent. Pausing for a few seconds while your chin is below the bar is especially helpful in developing strength since the top position of the pull-​​up is relatively easy to hold.

How to do it: Begin the descent portion of a negative but stop and hold a flexed ​​arm position for as long as you can, then finish with a controlled negative movement. Stop at 25%, 50% or 75% of the pull-​​up descent -- wherever you are weakest. Practice pausing at all three positions when you get stronger.

Jumping pull-​​ups: Jumping pull-​​ups are effective because they strengthen the nerve impulses of the exact muscles of the movement necessary for full body-​​weight pull-​​ups by using explosive pushing, jumping and pulling strength. Jumping pull-​​ups provide momentum with the pulling-up portion of the exercise by allowing you to use your legs to defeat gravity and help propel your body to the top position.

How to do it: Start by standing under a bar and be able to reach it by jumping from the ground. The taller the bar, the harder the jumping pull-​​up will be; the lower the bar, the easier the jumping pull-​​up will be. If the bar is too tall, you may "shorten" it by using a plyo-​​box or by finding a lower bar. But in either case, you should have a sturdy platform from which to "jump off" in the execution of a jumping pull-​​up.

Once you determine the height is correct, jump upward and grab the bar with your desired grip. Go right into a pull-​​up without pausing, using your momentum to help you get your chin above the bar. This is one rep. Now, lower yourself down slowly, dismount the bar and repeat. Controlling the descent (resisting gravity) more than normal during the lowering portion of a jumping pull-​​up is known as a "jumping negative."

Partial range-of-motion pull-​​ups: A partial ROM pull-​​up is when you either do not go all the way down, do not go all the way up or both (anywhere from a quarter to three-quarter ROM). Even though you do not get credit on the PFT for partial ROM pull-​​ups, if you are still too weak or too heavy to perform full ROM unassisted pull-​​ups, partial ROM pull-​​ups will help get you over the hump.

How to do it: Start by grabbing the bar with your desired grip (palms facing or away from you). Come to a dead hang, pull yourself halfway up (or as far as you can go), lower yourself and repeat. To do a partial ROM pull-​​up from the top position, get your chin above the bar and lower yourself halfway down (or as low as you can), then pull yourself back up until your chin is above the bar and repeat.

Partner-​​assisted pull-​​ups: A partner helps you with the up portion of the pull-​​up by "spotting" you on the way up. By spotting you, your partner allows you to practice the full ROM by reducing some of your body weight. The concept is similar to using assistance bands or pull-​​up assist machines. The difference is that partner-​​assisted pull-​​ups more closely resemble the mechanics of a full ROM pull-​​up (if done properly).

How to do it: Begin by pulling yourself up as far as you can go. Your partner should wait to spot you until you have no more upward momentum. This will help you get the most out of your workout. Partners should provide assistance by pressing on your mid- or upper back with their hands rather than "holding your feet." Most trainers discourage holding the feet for the same reason they dislike the pull-​​up assist machines. Holding a person's feet provides "too much" assistance, which causes you to lose form and allows you to use your legs to assist you too much. Plus, you could face-plant if your grip tires and your partner is holding your feet.

Add in the pull-​​up progressions below as a supplemental plan to your daily workout routine:

Do pull-​​up progression exercises 4--5 times per week, spread throughout the day, using the following methods before/​after and during workouts.

Days 1 and 3

(Throughout the day)

Day 2 and 4

(During workouts)

Day 5 optional

Partial ROM pull-​​ups: 1-3 reps, if possible. Skip if unable to do and resort to the next exercise on the progression list: Partner/equipment assisted pull-​​ups (i.e., chair): As many as you can.

Pausing Negatives: 1--3 reps​. Do this every time you walk past a pull-​​up bar, multiple times during the day.

Workout of the day should have other muscle groups like legs, pushing exercises, core and cardio in addition to this pull-​​up progression program.

Jumping pull-​​ups/jumping negatives: As many as you can.

Negatives: 1-3 reps.

Dead hangs: as long as you can hold. Perform above as the pulling exercise during your normal weight room or PT workout.

Follow with cardio of your choice.

USMC PFT: 2-minute max crunches.

Pull-​​ups: Try pull-​​up -- if you fail, resort to:

Partial ROM pull-​​ups: max

Partner/equipment assisted pull-​​ups: 1-2 reps

3-mile timed run

Throughout the rest of the day

*Pausing negatives: 1-2 reps -- for as long as you can.

Do this every time you walk past a pull-​​up bar, multiple times during the day.

  • Do this pull-​​up progression program 4-5 days a week until you get your first pull-​​up. Rest two days per week of your choice.

  • Losing body fat (if you have body fat to lose) also will assist in your pull-​​up abilities. Consider diet, full-​​body exercise and cardio (anaerobic is especially helpful) to aid further in the attainment of your first pull-​​up.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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