How to Pull Off a Pull-Up

If you trained with me today, even in the 5:30 a.m.boot camp, we probably worked on pull-ups to strengthen your back. If you missed you daily session, here is some info so that you can do pull-ups on your own this evening. Thanks you Stephanie Saunders for this article.


The first time I attempted a pull-up, it was for fitness testing in elementary school. I stepped up to the bar, jumped up to grip it, and then hung there like a right-side-up possum. And I wasn’t the only one. Frankly, I didn’t think anyone had the upper-body strength to hoist their entire body weight up to the bar at the age of 11. What I didn’t know then was that with a little assistance and practice, we all could have completed a pull-up.

 Chin-up vs. pull-up.

The difference between a chin-up and a pull-up is the grip of the hands. Pull-ups are done with palms facing away from you; chin-ups are done with palms toward you, or sometimes facing one another. Either is effective in training the muscles of the upper back, and most people use a variety of grips to target them from different angles. It’s a bit of a myth that chin-ups and pull-ups actually work different muscles. They may, in fact, target different muscle fibers, but if you’re pulling yourself up, you’ve engaged your upper back, lats, and shoulders. So whichever grip feels the most comfortable for you is a great way to begin.

How to do it.

If you’re able to reach the bar while still standing, grip the bar a shoulder length apart, fully extending your arms. Keep your torso as straight as possible and bend your knees back so your feet are behind you and off of the ground. Inhale as you initiate a pulling motion that should continue until your chin clears the bar. You’ll end up leaning back a bit as your torso ascends to the top position. Exhale as you begin your descent, bringing your torso straight under you and extending your arms fully at the bottom position. Go slowly, and control your descent to stimulate your chest and tricep muscles.

A little help here, please?

At this point, you may be saying, “I couldn’t do a pull-up when I was 11 and weighed 78 pounds. How am I supposed to do it now?” The answer: progression. You have to build up to it. Even Nadia Comaneci couldn’t pull herself up to the uneven bars the first time she tried, and she probably never weighed much more than 78 pounds.

Your first order of business should be strengthening your back muscles. Any pulling movement will engage these muscles.  Consider a lateral row, a lat pull-down, an overhead pull, or a straight-arm press-down in your training schedule. Once you have developed a bit of strength, you can move on to the next step.

An assisted pull-up is your next stop on the journey. There are a few ways to do this. One is to find or create a bar that is three to four feet off of the ground. Sit underneath the bar, with your chest parallel to it. Reach up and grab the bar with either grip, keep your arms straight, and make your torso as flat as possible, slightly bending your knees. If you require more resistance, you can eventually straighten your knees so your body is one long plank. Bend your arms, pull your torso up to the bar, touch your chest to the bar, and then return to a straight-arm position. The closer to the ground you position the bar, the more difficult it will be.

Another option is the chair-assisted pull-up. Place the chair underneath the bar, then stand on the chair’s seat with one or both legs and use them to assist yourself in pulling up. Try to put progressively less and less pressure on your legs so the majority of the work is increasingly done by your torso.

You can also get a friend to spot you. Having someone hold your feet and help you lift yourself can make all the difference in the world. If that’s too much help, cross one foot over the other and have the spotter only support one ankle. If it’s not enough, the spotter could support you from your waist and help you rise up to the bar.


Should pull-ups become as simple as brushing your teeth, adding weight to the process can help make them more challenging. You can hold a dumbbell between your feet or wear one of the special weight belts created specifically for pull-ups. You can also wear a weighted vest to create more resistance in most exercises. And for the very daring, the one-armed pull-up can be executed by gripping the bar and lifting yourself with one arm while you hold on to the working wrist with your other hand. You should only attempt these advanced exercises after you’ve developed a sufficient amount of strength.

A final pull-up exercise is the negative pull-up, which should really be called the “descent-only pull-up,” since it’s not particularly depressing or cynical. The idea is to have an assistant, either human or a chair, help you with the upward-pull portion of the exercise, then to control the downward portion on your own. This is great for those building up to being able to do the complete pull-up, and also for those looking to work to muscle failure by doing many different exercises for the same muscle group in a given session. Note that the negative pull-up works more of the stabilizing muscles, as opposed to the primary ones we have been focusing on so far.

Begin the journey

Accomplishing something like a pull-up can be a bit daunting, even for the bravest of us. But with effort and a lot of tenacity, you can take the steps we’ve discussed and master an exercise you’ve been trying to do since the fifth grade. After all, isn’t it time to clear up at least one of the lingering issues from childhood?

I just started exercising…why am I not losing weight?

Exercise is not a “license to eat whatever”. However…”eating right” is a license to “a healthier you”. If you are exercising and not seeing results, you are most likely not eating the way you should. Just in case, lets look at some other reasons for not losing weight.

Question: I just started exercising…why am I gaining weight?

Answer: If your weight going up and you are regularly exercising, don’t panic! It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing anything wrong, nor does it mean you’re going in the wrong direction. There can be some obvious and not-so-obvious reasons you’re gaining weight.

If it is a new program, you may be gaining muscle, which is denser than fat, but it takes up less space…if you gain muscle, your scale weight may go up even as you’re slimming down. Rather than just using a scale to measure your progress, you can get your body fat tested, find a pair of pants that don’t fit and use them as a ruler or take pictures (which are worth a thousand words)

If you’ve measured yourself in different ways and realized you are gaining fat, let’s look at some possibilities.

1. Eating too many calories. It may seem obvious, but eating more calories than you burn causes weight gain. What some people don’t realize is that, after they start exercising, they may start eating more without being aware of it. Most people think they’re eating a healthy, low-calorie diet but, unless you’re keeping a detailed food journal, you just don’t know how many calories you’re really eating. Most people are surprised when they start keeping a journal and adding up the calories–it almost always turns out to be more than they thought. Before you quit exercising, take a week to keep a food journal. Add up your calories to get a sense of exactly what you’re eating…if it’s too much, you can start to make some changes in your diet to reduce your calories. And try to avoid the mindset that says you can eat whatever you want since you’re doing all this great exercise…to lose weight, you still need to monitor your calories.

2. Not eating enough calories. It may seem counterintuitive, but eating too little can actually stall your efforts to lose fat.   If there is a severe restriction in calories, the body may counteract this reduction by slowing down its metabolism.  Be sure you’re eating enough calories to sustain your body if you’ve increased your activity.

3. Not giving your body time to respond. Just because you start exercising doesn’t always mean your body will respond to that immediately.  I some instances the body needs to recalibrate itself. Increased activity and new eating habits (taking in more or less calories) require the body to make adjustments.  Give yourself several weeks or months for your body to respond to what you’re doing.

4. Rule out any medical conditions. While thyroid problems are rare, they can definitely make weight loss difficult. There can also be medications you’re taking that could affect your body’s ability to lose weight. If you feel your food intake is reasonable and you’ve given your body enough time to see results and haven’t seen any (or are seeing unexplainable weight gain) see your doctor to rule any other causes.

5. You’re gaining muscle faster than you’re losing fat. If it seems that you’re getting bigger after you’ve started a weight training routine, it may be because you aren’t losing body fat as fast as you’re building muscle, which is a problem some people experience when they start exercising. Genetics could also be playing a role here…some people put on muscle more easily than others. If that’s the case for you, don’t stop training! Instead, you might simply adjust your program to make sure you’re getting enough cardio exercise to promote weight loss and focus your strength training workouts on muscular endurance by keeping the reps between 12-16.

Whatever the cause of your weight gain, don’t give up on exercise. It’s not only your ticket to weight loss, it’s also important for your health.