Why You Should Learn to Do Pull Ups


Screen-shot-2011-10-10-at-10.12.35-AM1.png“I can’t do pull-ups.”


“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!!!”

Why You Should Learn to Do Pull Ups

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 and 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 to also 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 Your Sore)

  • Get a box, stool, or something sturdy to stand on.
  • Grip the chin-up bar with palms facing you.
  • Jump up so that your chin is above the bar.
  • Do NOT let go and 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 five the first day, building to three sets of five 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 and 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 who’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 here.