How to Get Your First Pull-Ups: 3 Exercises for Pulling Strength and Technique

Being able to pull your body up off the ground is one of the fundamental movements of a capable human body.

It translates into a thousand everyday activities — from climbing to grappling sports like BJJ to carrying heavy groceries.

If you can’t do a pull-up yet (or can’t do as many as you’d like), that’s okay. I’d bet the average 30-year-old in America can’t either.

Why have pull-ups become such a rare skill? Two reasons.

First, it wasn’t all that long ago that climbing a tree was a key way to find food, navigate rough terrain, and even escape the occasional predator. These days we think of climbing mostly as a liability risk.Second, most people try to train for pull-ups without building the foundations of the movement. They try to go straight into reduced-weight pull-downs or pull-up negatives (slowly lowering themselves down from a top position). It takes a long time to get results this way. And it leaves you open to injuries, especially in your shoulders.

As a former competitive gymnast and long-time martial artist and coach, let me tell you this: Pulling strength is super important. It’s also very complex, requiring numerous large muscle groups to work in perfect concert. No wonder most people have a hard time building it right!

In this tutorial, I’ll walk you through building a solid pull-up, starting with the foundations.

If you consistently practice the 3 simple exercises I’ll show you below, you’ll quickly and safely build the pulling strength you need for the things you need and want to do.

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Why You Should Stop Neglecting Your Precious Pulling Muscles

Our modern-day lifestyle doesn’t require many pulling movements, so most people are pretty weak in this area.

Even for those who spend a lot of time exercising (with the exception of the people that like to hop on the rowing machine) – pushing-dominant activities abound. There’s usually a dozen bench presses for every pull-up bar at your local gym.

This outright neglect of some of the largest muscles in our body is likely a reason for many physical problems people are experiencing today. Poor posture, nagging shoulder pain, aching backs – a lot of these can be traced to strength imbalances between our pushing and pulling muscles.

Your body can only handle so much before unbalanced forces start to break down vulnerable areas.

Maybe we SHOULD have a hungry bear chase us around every once in awhile if that’ll get us thinking about the importance of a strong back!

The best way to counteract the imbalances in your pulling/pushing muscles is to incorporate some pulling exercises into your training! Below, I’ll show you my three favorite bodyweight pulling exercises to strengthen your back, shoulders, and arms.

I demonstrate these exercises on the gymnastic rings, however, if you don’t have a pair of rings, you can certainly perform these exercises on a bar.

Step 1 – Pulling Prep

This fundamental movement is the key to proper performance in all pulling exercises.

In the pulling prep, we’re engaging our lower traps, rhomboids, and mid traps, through scapular depression and retraction.

This motion is essential for good technique in all pulling. It works not just on the big muscles in the back, but also on the smaller ones around the shoulder blades. These muscles are very important for shoulder health and also for supporting the shoulders during lifting and carrying.

The pulling prep teaches you to start all of your pulls the right way, and once mastered, becomes automatic and ingrained into your pulling.

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Do This Description
3-5 sets of 5-10 reps • Start in a “dead hang” position on the rings or a bar. Your elbows should be straight, with the movement occurring completely at the shoulder girdle, not in your arms.
• Lift your chest up and squeeze your shoulder blades down and back. It’s a relatively small movement, but it’s crucial for getting the most out of your pulling exercises.
• Contract the shoulder girdle strongly, hold for a couple seconds, then release and repeat.

The pulling prep can be done daily, before your regular training. Rest 1-2 minutes between sets.

Step 2 – Reverse Row Sit Back

I developed this exercise as a way to work on the neglected angles of motion in between a row and a pull-up.

It’s a deceptively hard exercise that’ll get your back muscles working in a way you’ve probably never experienced before!

In the reverse row sit back, we engage the lats, biceps, lower and mid traps, rhomboids, rotator cuff, deltoids, pec minor, and abdominals – that’s a lot of muscles! The actions involved in the reverse row sit back are shoulder extension, scapular depression and retraction, shoulder internal and external rotation co-contraction.

This complex movement combines the horizontal and vertical pulling motion, and is a great stepping stone to a full pull-up. Because your feet are on the ground, you can adjust your weight as needed to complete more repetitions before you fatigue.

Do This Description
3-5 sets of 6-8 reps • Start with your arms straight and in line with the rings, with your knees bent, and your back parallel to the ground.
• Pull yourself up as far as you can while keeping your back horizontal, then keep pulling as you sit your butt back and lift up, ending in the chin-up position with feet planted on ground.
• Turn rings inward as you lift your hips, then lower your back until your shoulders are just below your wrists.

The reverse row sit back is best done using a set of rings, and can be done 2-3 times a week, after your regular training. Rest 2-3 minutes between sets.

Step 3 – Negative Pull-Ups

Negatives are the surest way to get your body used to going through the range of motion needed for a full pull-up. Practice these, and you will get really strong in no time.

In the full range of motion for a pull-up (which includes negatives), we engage the same muscles used for the reverse row sit back – the lats, biceps, lower and mid traps, rhomboids, pec minor, rotator cuff, rear deltoids, pec major, and abdominals.

Though it may look different from the reverse row sit back, the actions are the same (which is exactly why the reverse row sit back is a perfect exercise for working up to a full pull-up) – shoulder extension, scapular depression and retraction, shoulder internal and external rotation co-contraction.

This is not just a back exercise, but a full body movement that combines back, shoulder, and arm strength with core strengthening. Even the hips and legs are engaged if you squeeze them tightly throughout the entire exercise.

In this video, I demonstrate many different ways you can use the negative. I suggest picking one variation and sticking with that for a while – don’t try to practice them all at once!

Do This Description
8 sets of 1-3 reps • Jump up to a hold, then slowly lower your body to the ground, making sure to keep your shoulders down.
• Perform a halfway jump, then pull yourself the rest of the way. Slowly lower your body.
• Do a full pull-up, starting with a pulling prep.

Whichever negative practice variation you’re working on, rest about 90 seconds to 2 minutes between sets.

A 4-Week Sample Pull-Up Workout

The three exercises I’ve just shown you work together to create strong pulling muscles that are ready for pull-ups, or any activities you need strength for.

Here’s a sample program that incorporates all three exercises.

Week Exercises
Week 1 3 days/week:
• Pulling Prep
• Reverse Row Sit Back

Follow the recommendations for sets and reps listed for each

Week 2 3 days/week:
• Pulling Prep
• Reverse Row Sit Back
• Jump to Hold, then Lower

Follow the recommendations for sets and reps listed for each

Week 3 3 days/week:
• Pulling Prep
• Reverse Row Sit Back
• Jump to Halfway, then Pull to Top

Follow the recommendations for sets and reps listed for each

Week 4 3 days/week:
• Pulling Prep
• Reverse Row Sit Back
• Jump to Halfway, Pull to Top, Slow Lower to Halfway, then Pull to Top again

Follow the recommendations for sets and reps listed for each

After a month of this program, remove the Reverse Row Sit Back, and just do a few sets of the Pulling Prep as a warm-up, then work on full pull-ups for 3-5 sets of 1-3 reps, and do the last variation of negatives in the video above for the recommended sets and reps.

When working up to your first pull-up, you should attempt a full pull-up once a week. Do no more than 3 attempts, resting 2 minutes between attempts.

Depending on your starting point, four weeks may not be enough (or it may be more than you need). Make adjustments as needed. If you need to stick with one week’s program for two or three weeks before moving on, then do just that.

“What if I don’t have a set of rings?”

If you don’t have rings, don’t worry. While I absolutely LOVE the Reverse Row Sit Back, you can definitely work up to your first pull-up without it.

You can follow the programming recommendations above, just remove the Reverse Row Sit Back from your program, and simply focus on the pulling prep and negatives. While it may take a little longer to get your first pull-up (or improve your current condition), you’ll still be amazed at how much stronger you’ll get by focusing on just these two exercises.

Get Strong for the Activities You Love

These exercises work because they treat pull-ups like the complex movement they are.

Most people think about strength in pretty simple terms: Do the biceps curl, get stronger biceps. Yeah, that’ll make you stronger for biceps curls, but not much else.

Chances are, you want strength you can actually use—in everything from sports and hobbies to yard work and playing with your kids. That’s why we designed our free Bodyweight Circuit. It builds dynamic, practical strength throughout your whole body.

If all you want is stronger biceps, sure, do some more curls.

But if you want strength that makes you a better climber, surfer, martial artist—or just generally more capable—you need training that addresses the complex nature of the strength movements you actually care about.

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