Paleo Plan

The Importance of Your First Pull-Up

“I can’t do pull-ups.”

“Yet.”

“No, I really can’t. I’ve tried.”

“Stick with me long enough, & we’ll get there.”

…several months later…

“AHHHHHHHHH! OH MY GOD! Did you see that?! I just did a pull-up!!!”

This one goes out to those of you who have never done a pull-up. You’ve tried before. You reach your hands up to the bar, get a good grip, and pull as hard as you can, and….nothing. Just a bunch of grunting and clenched teeth. Guess what. This is exactly where many of my clients have started, and a few months later, their chins are sailing above the bar.

I have a special affinity for the pull-up & a huge shared feeling of pride for my (especially female) clients who get their first pull-ups in my gym. Somewhere along the line, many women grew to accept the idea that “women don’t do pull-ups.” You may have tried, once or twice, and saw clearly that this must be the case, since there was “no way” you could do one.

The truth is, while pull-ups may indeed be challenging, they are by no means impossible, nor do they require overly developed man-arms. All of my ladies not only are able to do pull-ups, but also to turn heads in a strapless dress.

Believing that it’s even possible sets you up for success. Will it happen tomorrow? No. Is it going to take work? Absolutely. Are you going to need help? Yes. Are you going to be sore? Yup. But it will happen.

How To Work Your Way Up to Your First Unassisted Pull-Up (Warning: this is going to make you sore.)

Get a box, stool, or something sturdy to stand on.
Grip the chin-up bar with palms facing you.
Jump up so your chin is above the bar. Do NOT let go & drop to the ground. Instead,
lower yourself in a controlled manner until your arms are fully extended.
Be sure that you’re going all the way down and fully extending your arms before putting your feet down.

Do just 5 the first day, building to 3 sets of 5 over the next few weeks. You should allow a day of rest in between, or even two, depending on soreness. Don’t push it, but if you’re not sore, go ahead and do the work.

This is commonly called doing “negatives,” because even though you’re trying to pull up, you’re traveling down. The first few may not be that hard, but they will get harder as you go through them. And, once again, these are going to make you pretty darn sore in your biceps, particularly where your tendons attach to your inner elbow area, especially the first few times. But it’s the best way to build strength for really difficult strength movements by just using your own body weight.

Here’s a video of Max showing you how to do negatives and a beginner pull up.

Quick Pull-Up Progression from CrossFit HAX on Vimeo.

The first few times, your negatives will be short, because you’re still building strength to control them. Your goal is to let yourself down in slow-motion, as slowly as possible. Once you can make a negative last 5 seconds or longer (for each rep) you’re ready to change direction and actually pull-up instead of down! Keep in mind, this may be months down the road (or, maybe not!).

Your First Real Pull-Up

You start with hands gripping the bar (facing either direction, palms toward or away from you), arms fully extended so you are in a dead hang. Pull until your chin is above the bar. Kicking, grunting, and screaming is allowed–swing your legs, grit your teeth, do whatever you need to do to get that first one done. We’ll worry about technique for getting multiple pull-ups in another post. What’s important is that you get that first one. It’s the hardest. :)

This is about more than just a pull-up. It’s about what you think is possible. You’re actually changing your mind about something–and not theoretically, but in this physical realm. You are systematically going about changing your beliefs and physical capabilities, a little at time. It’s huge.

I can’t tell you how many women who, once they start getting into better physical condition, also start making major life changes, like ending unsatisfying relationships & getting new jobs. Does that mean a pull-up has magical therapeutic powers? Maybe, if “magic” and “therapy” mean turning the impossible into the possible. A woman who gets stronger physically gets stronger everywhere else too. Once she refuses to accept that something is impossible, her mind suddenly sees all the other things that have possibility, where perhaps she hadn’t before. She won’t put up with a boss that’s shorting her on her pay for some made-up reason. She won’t put up with a less than ideal man who doesn’t realize a strong woman can make him stronger, too. She won’t play the weak card anymore, because she knows she’s strong. It’s awesome. It’s beautiful. Hell, it’s sexy.

I don’t think I’m telling you anything that you don’t already know. What I’m challenging you to do is to make it happen. It doesn’t have to be a pull-up: it can be anything, but it has to be physical, and it has to be hard. It cannot be losing weight. You’re already doing Paleo Plan, so that’s a given :). It can be running a 5K in less than 25 minutes. It can be a bodyweight back squat. It can be ten push-ups on your toes. It can be a 5-minute plank hold. It can be giving birth at home (that one should light up the comments). It really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that right now, you think it’s impossible. And in a few months, you’ll have done it.

I look forward to reading your story.

PS. For those of you who are just starting out with your fitness, and may not be a spring chicken, stay tuned in the next post about how to start your fitness journey gently, yet with results!

This post was kindly written by Max Shippee, our resident fitness guru and owner of CrossFit 1440. For more info on this guy, go to our About page.

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21 Comments

  1. What kind of time frame are we looking at here?

  2. I wholeheartedly agree with everything in this post. I found CrossFit and Paleo a little over 6 months ago and it has completely changed my life. While I am nowhere near an unassisted strict pull-up right now, I stay after class twice a week to work on them with the resistance bands. I can say that going from my “squat” consisting of sitting down on a 20″ box and standing back up to a back squat of 110lbs has completely changed my perception of myself. Over the past six months, I’ve finally quit a job I couldn’t stand and found one that I enjoy and gives me the flexibility in my schedule to intern for a position I would love. I’ve started a blog, made a community of friends, joined a rowing club, and a host of other amazing things. I wrote about this very thing in one of my first blog posts: http://paleo-jo.blogspot.com/2011/08/couch-to-crossfit.html

    Thank you for continuing to encourage everyone, especially women, to give this a shot.

    -Jo

  3. This is exactly what I needed to read today, thank you!!! I started crossfit in May and always said “I don’t have upper body strength” so I assumed I could never do a pull up. After months of practicing I’m now onto using the band with the least assistance but I was thinking recently I needed another way to practice getting stronger/better other than using the bands. My goal is to be able to do one unassisted pull up by Thanksgiving, 6 weeks away. Wish me luck and thanks again for posting this!

  4. Joshua C

    I loved this post as it mirrored very much a journey I have been on. In August of last year I decided to enlist help and hire a trainer. I was at about 275 lbs and realized that we needed help. I knew my ADD would kill me if the trainer had me do 30-45 mins of cardio, so we developed a system where we did a whole series of different excercises over an hour that were things like Tabatas, push-ups, jumps, etc. The thing is that in the beginning my progress towards these were laughable. I was doing barely 10 push-ups on my knees without getting exhausted. But the joy of the process, was with that many different activities, it became like a game. I see if could jump a little further on one day, squeeze out one more push-up another day, etc, etc. The only rule was that no matter how tired I was, I promised to show up, even if it meant just going through the motions. Yet, even on these days, I always seemed to get one or two wins every day. It was fun and very rewarding.

    Eventually, I joked to my trainer that I have never in my life been able to do a pull-up and if he got me to the point where I could do do two un-assisted pull-ups over three days, I would pay for the nicest dinner he wanted. Sure enough he had me doing negatives like you mentioned and I kept getting better and better at my “games.” So in July of this year I did my first proper set and he won his bet. I am now doing 20 pull-ups over four reps and should get it down to three reps in about a month.

    I should also probably add, that during this process we played with diet as well and it took over six different diets before I found Paleo. Each were effective for about a month and then plateaued. When I got onto paleo, in addition to increased energy, the fat lose was steady. So now I am at 200lbs, and about 13% body fat. I am still not at the end of my journey yet, but the progress so far had been awesome. I wanted to endores many of the comments you had in this post as it has mirrored my experiences which we reach more as trial and error. Plus, there is nothing more exciting then the time you can do your first pull-up. It is so very, very motivating.

  5. I’ve looked at the title of this post several times and just skipped it because I’m one of those that “have tried and just can’t do it!”…
    Today I read the full post and watched the video demonstration and I’m GOING to do this!
    Thanks for the information, I’ll let you know how it goes!
    A-

  6. Wow! What awesome stories!

    It’s so great to hear all this inspiration from the Paleo Peeps!

    Josh – I love your positive attitude. Those first steps of a new journey are really hard to take, it sounds like you’ve made great progress already, and you’ve got a great trainer. Well done! I’ll be thinking of you the next time I’m swearing myself through a set of Tabata (those push-ups always get me by the end!)

    Ashley – Here’s to celebrating Turkey Day with pull-ups & sweet potatoes! You can do it! Let us know when it happens!

    Jo – You’re awesome, powerful, & gorgeous! Congrats on your journey and your bravery to share it with others! I can hear your Paleo cave-woman roar & it makes me tremble! (not sure if that’s from fear or excitement ;)

    Trackmypullups – It completely depends. There are a lot of factors involved. Age, weight, past athletic endeavors, & recovery all play a part, just to name a few. I would say, with regular, consistent training, and everything else being relatively dialed in, 4 – 6 months is a good window. It can be done!

    Love the stories! Please tell more! Success is contagious!

  7. Yeah Andrea!

    I’m sure it’s the Oscar worthy video that made ALL the difference ;)

    I can’t wait to hear how it goes! Feel free to check in if you need more pointers!

    PS. Get ready to be sore!

  8. womensstrengthcoach

    Trackmypullups – how long will it take – I’ve seen women at Crossfit take 2 years. Some nail it within 6 months. Depends on your weight and previous strength training ability. Sometimes it easier to lose 10k then pull it up over a bar. Plus most women learn to do a kipping pull-up before a strict pull-up as well.

    Max – Love the eccentrics. Should be more of it – plus more articles on isometric holds and other variants of building true strength for these women would be great. I know with weightlifting – we use eccentric hooks / weight releases etc for our squats. You want powerful legs – a fabulous way is eccentric loading – and I loved how you have put the warning of “soreness” up front! I think eccentric training is very under-rated.

    One of the variants I use with pullups – is one eccentric tension of 6-8 seconds, followed by 4 full assisted movements. Let’s face it there are a 100 variants by mixing various muscle contractions. No one pattern works, but a mixture of eccentric, isometic, static-dynamic etc will get you there quicker then doing the banal 3 sets of 6 pullups.

    One thing that I think is important to note as well – is that do you find a correlation between pullups and deadlifts. Once your deadlifts get stronger – your pullups get easier and vice versa. Just two beautiful patterns making for a strong posterior.

    Enjoyed the post!

  9. Women’s Strength – so awesome to have your input! We just did some isometric stuff as a cash out last night at our gym! There is so much out there! It seems like my learning curve is always getting steeper!

    I’ve got a girl right now that I think I’ll try your 1 down/4 assisted up technique with, do you use that for a certain time frame, then test, or just for one session to vary it up?

    And the deadlift, yeah, something that once again makes women powerful without making them “huge.” ;) I can see how the grip strength alone would facilitate a better pull in general, and the fact that it affects the whole movement is great too. I guess that’s why they used to call it the “health lift,” eh?

    As far as the time frame goes, I suppose a bit of my optimism may have come through, since, as you said, there are so many factors.

    Looking forward to seeing you again in the comments soon!

  10. womensstrengthcoach

    @Max – I think a vertical / horizontal pull is just so much more difficult for women (maybe its our boobs??). But I’m with you – it is well within reach of every woman out there! It is not impossible! Excuse the 1,000 word comment – but here are some variants that might help you – or other women out there! They certainly help the ladies I train (and of course myself!)

    I cycle my girls with the vertical pull 8 ways (I have 8 week semesters). Then I retest. I had Chantelle do her first BW chin-up yesterday. She started with me in March, on the purple band – so it took her 6m (she trains only twice a week for 40mins – and we honour the v pull movement just once a week) There is nothing better when they hop down from the bar with a smile on their face, and say “holy shit! I just did it”. It is magic! High-fives all around. Her deadlift went from 12.5k to 77.5k (tested that earlier on in the week). She weighs 67k.

    I get the girls to do chin-ups as opposed to pull-ups as I want to engage more bicep (as bicep curls are banned from my studio) and pec (an under-rated pulling muscle) + I think supinated hands makes for a better abduction movement (but that’s just me though).

    Here are my variants / cycles:
    I always do a benchmark test on 1RM (using a combo of bands I find the least resistant band). I then add about an another inch of resistance which equates to operating in the 80% zone of their 1RM. This is critical. Obviously !

    1. 1 negative (6-8 second tension) + 4 assisted (3-4 mins rest) / 2 sets

    2. 2-2-2-2 (2 chin-ups / swap hands whilst fully extended then 2 pullups (repeat) / 2 sets

    3. 3-1-1-1-1 (2 sets) this is completely horrible for them. But they can manage it.
    They do 3 reps. And then for the singles I add a 1k each time. They hold it either via the foot (1k dumb-bell, 2k dumb-bell, 3k dumb-bell, 4k dumb-bell) – or I add weight to a vest they can put on. I think I explained that OK. If the weight looks easy – well then up the weight! This is a great Press/Squat variant as well! – just keeping piling that weight on the bar for their singles. The only pause they get – is how quick you can change weight or add weight. the 7 reps = 1 set.

    4. On the minute every minute chin-ups. Being a CrossFitter – I’m hoping that this variant needs no explanation. As you know, Rounds 1-5 they are mucking around, laughing and talking about what they are having for dinner. Rounds 7-10 they are quiet and struggling – but I come in and help them complete all 55 reps (10 mins). They are no longer laughing :)

    5. 1.5×3 chinups. Completely horrible again. Looks so easy on paper. This is the isometric work.
    They go down half way (.5) hold that tension for 2-4 seconds. Come up. Then 1 full rep. repeat this 3 times for 1 set. (2 sets) – I love this variant with back-squats as well. It’s a killer!

    6. Body-weight chin-ups (zero resistance for everyone). OK. They are going to hate this. But you can not go past the static-dynamic method as another “fun” way of strengthening muscles.
    Hang from bar – pull yourself up and up and up and up until no more (hold this for 2-3 seconds) drop down and then do 4 quick ones (trying to get back to that same height). I’d like to think we do 3 sets of this one.

    For those girls doing weighted chin-ups – tie a 24k kettlebell to them via a resistance band with a good give. KB sits on floor. Same effect – that kettlebell isn’t going anywhere – and they are pulling against something immovable. That’s the word I was looking for (immovable!) To me this is by far the hardest variant – as I want to so badly pull that 24k off the floor (or even just give it a nudge). Gives great feedback on exactly how weak one is :)

    7. Last but not least the banal 6-6-6 – but I reduce the resistance by ½” or I add 3-7k to them. 3 sets of 6

    Then we roll around to week 8 and assess their new 1RM!

    In all honesty, I just make it up – I mean its based on science / biomechanics of course etc (but having said that, I find these are the best variants for progress – and I have tried a lot over the years) + a lot of optimal to heavy deads! – You could literally come up with a 100 variants to make it fun and challenging!

    This definitely is not pie in the sky stuff – this stuff works!

  11. Wow WSC…could you be more specific? ;)

    That looks like a great program that hits everywhere over the 8 weeks. We’ve used our bands for squatting from time to time (should be more), but using them for the pull-ups sounds like a good dose of awesome, especially when working on muscle-ups, getting stronger towards the top of the pull, I suspect, will help build momentum in the muscle-up…good call.

    We tend to be a little more linear in our approach. We have the Rage Assist Bands. There are 3 on one C-clamp that attaches to the bar. Three of them are basically the same as a green band. What I like about that set up is that people really want to get to less bands, and it really does seem like its 3, 2, then 1, then they’re up!

    That 1.5 set looks particularly tortuous. Gotta do a few of those!

    I find that what key for a lot of my ladies is enough rest. They often come in gung ho to get it after seeing other ladies in the gym doing them. Almost always, after a few weeks of progress, they’ll plateau. Since we usually do 30 pull-ups or so in our warm-up, I have them only do half the warm-up pull-ups, and sometimes none if there are none in the actual workout. It also a great time to teach them about overtraining/not getting enough rest. Their always pleasantly surprised when they experience a bit more rest make them stronger.

    Here’s how we tend to go. Once again, this is kind of linear, and the timing is set more by the pace & progress of the individual.

    1- jumping pull-ups – these are usually done only for a week or two maximum, just so they can wake up those muscles a bit without killing themselves, of course trying to keep that jump to a minimum

    2A- banded pull-ups – getting them to use the bands effectively. Sometimes, towards the end of a workout a trainer will stand behind them, and with a hand on either side of the waist, help them through the last few reps. The idea here more than anything is that no backwards progress is made. Once you’re at 2 bands, you can’t use three anymore, once you’ve got 1 no more 2.

    2B- Depending on how hands are, or when a workout has a LOT of pull-ups, I find the good old ring row to be a good substitute. It still activates the pulling motion, and if need be they can even intro themselves to the kip in a horizontal way by using their hips (always discouraged until absolutely necessary) on a side note, I love it when every so often, ring rows are prescribed in the workout. All the people who haven’t done them in a while are always surprised about how hard they are!

    3- Kipping. We usually try to get our people feeling comfy with the kip before they necessarily “ready” to do the actual pull-up. That opening & closing of the shoulder can be taxing is not eased into. We find this is best worked on as a cashout, or post-workout, when everything is good and warm :) (we teach kipping from the hang, as well as from the ground on your back, depending on how they’re responding to coaching)

    4- negatives (see post above) :)

    5- just like in the video, for the first one, we let them do whatever needs to be done. Then we refine the kip & usually once that first one is finished, the next few really aren’t far behind.

    6- strict pull-ups — these are done every 3 months or so, if not incidentally in the programming, just to check and see where everyone is.

    Gotta go pick-up my oldest from Kindergarten…wish I had more time to share!

    Thanks again soooo much for sharing your awesomeness with not only me, but the PaleoPlan! It’s so wonderful to have you offer what’s been working for you…there’s plenty in there I’ll be taking, after all, don’t they say to “steal from the best”?

    Shoot me a message from my website, so I can check out yours!!

  12. @WSC –

    PS. Contrary to the theory you pose in your first sentence, after pondering long and hard about it, I cannot think of a situation where boobs have been a problem.

    ;)

  13. womensstrengthcoach

    30 pullups in your warm-up! My girls would have a fit! You guys (CrossFitters) are mad. Love that idea of kipping from horizontal using the ring-rows. Consider that idea stolen. usually done from the floor, but I can see how more fluid your movement could be. Going out to the studio now to fine-tune that! Will do with your web-site.

    HA! to the boobs.

  14. It took me 9 months to do it, but I will never forget the day I walked up to the pull up bar and actually pulled myself over. I was like a kid in a candy shop. Overjoyed and amazed that something I was sure would never happen did. After that accomplishment I went on to climb the rope and who knows what is next. I now believe I can and will succeed.

  15. I loved this post and all the comments! I had 3 babies at home;) and all within 4 years, then I joined a local gym and had so much success with Paleo diet and exercise that now I am studying to be a personal trainer myself. Keep up the great work! It is so true that exercise empowers women, thanks for sharing!!

    • Hey Lindsay! My lovely wife had 3 babies at home as well! It was amazing! Good on you for wanting to make an even bigger part of your life! I can’t wait to hear your story unfold!

  16. how many negatives(and how long to do them) before it means I’ll be able to do 3 pullup…

  17. Hey Hamze!

    Progress with the pull-up has many vairiations and there are a lot of factors, but generally my ladies are getting their first one anywhere from 6 months to a year after they start, with the most in the 7-9 month range. Tis isn’t generally something that they get in a month or two.

    Sme of the factors that play into it are things like previous upper body strength, weight loss (as you lose weight you get lighter for the pull-up!), other workouts affecting that musculature, and rest & recovery.

    The key, I think, is knowing when to push a little bit, and when to ease off, this is where a coach comes in handy :)

  18. Months? I need to do this tomorrow! I have a PE test! I can’t believe a ten year old cant do this, it seems so simple.

  19. Rodrigo

    Hey!

    Last Summer I did this for about a month (worked hard). But then I still couldnt do a pull up. Then I thought that it could be a neuromuscular problem. So I grabbed the bar, arms stretched, and with my right foot lightly supported on a chair (behind me). Did 2 sets of 10 reps, only supported with my foot when needed. Half an hour after I could do 2 continuous pullups.

    I had the strength, but my brain wasn’t able to do the movement. Quite interesting!

  20. Good read and good timing too, I just did my first ever unassisted pull up ever today!!!
    I started crossfit 7 months ago and it happened today!

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