Pull-ups on the bar.

How To Do Pull-ups When You Think You Can’t

Pull-ups, along with push-ups, squats, and the hollow body hold, are one of the Foundation Strength exercises I believe every able-bodied person should be able to do.

Foundation Strength means having control, stability, and strength with your own body’s movements before you think about adding anything else on. Everybody should be able to do push-ups on their toes. Everybody should be able to do pull-ups on a bar. Everybody should be able to squat and get their butt to their heels. And, everybody should be able to fully extend their legs on a hollow body hold.

If you can’t do those things right now - don’t worry. We’ll get there. All we need to do is find out how strong you currently are, and get stronger from that point.

By working up to the fullest expressions of the four Foundation Strength exercises you’ll be building a body that can stay strong as you get older and be much less likely to get injured in whatever kind of fun stuff you choose to do.

The first thing you need to understand is that your body is currently - and will always be - a work in progress. Your body is constantly rebuilding and changing according to what you feed it, and what you ask of it.

If you feed it a good amount of nutrients and good quality foods - you're going to look and feel great. If you feed it junk - you're going to look and feel like crap.

If you ask it to be strong and flexible - it will gradually make you that way. If you ask it to sit on the couch, be inactive, and not need to be strong or flexible - it will gradually make you that way.

What we're going to do is ask it to start making you a little bit stronger than you are right now. Then tomorrow, ask it to make you a little bit stronger again. We keep on doing that to make you a little stronger every day. Until eventually - you're doing things you thought were impossible for you before.

"Start by doing what's necessary; then do what's possible; and suddenly you're doing the impossible." - Francis of Assisi

What's necessary is reading this article - then getting off the couch and trying it. What's possible is for you to work at it a little bit everyday. What's impossible soon won't be.

Get ready to blow some minds.

Vertical Pulls

Also known as the Doorframe Pull. The purpose of this exercise is to start rewiring your brain to understand the movement pattern of pulling - and to start increasing your grip strength. Both of which are very important if you want to make any progress with pulling exercises.

Every exercise you do should be a full body exercise. Everything should be switched on, with a focus on a few key areas. For pulling exercises, that focus is on the upper back, thefront of the upper arm, and the forearm.

Stand inside your doorframe looking at one of the edges. Touch your toes and nose to the frame so you're right up against it. Hold on tight with your fingertips to the edge of the frame (with your hands at about nipple height), and slowly lower yourself backwards as you straighten your arms. Then pull yourself back to the frame.

Note: it's important to keep your body in a nice straight line (i.e. don't arch your back). Squeeze your abs and your butt muscles to keep a nice straight line from your shoulders to your hips to your toes.

In any exercise, there’s what I call a Progression Standard. That’s the point you have to reach to have earned the right to step it up a level. Only progressing once you reach the Progression Standard means you don’t progress too quickly. That’s like starting a karate class and trying to jump straight to green belt. For the Vertical Pull, the Progression Standard is 3 sets of 20 reps. If you don't hit that the first time - don't worry. This is where your journey of progress begins. Tomorrow, try and do just one more rep, and if you can do two more - then do them!

Once you’ve hit that Progression Standard: it's time to level up to the next exercise!

TRX Row

This one’s often called a Ring Row, and that just depends on the equipment you’re using. You’re going to need some kind of sturdy, adjustable strap with a handle on the end. I.e. a TRX or gymnastic rings. If you’re working out at home, you can hang both of these from a doorframe pull-up bar.

A TRX and gymnastic rings set up to the same height.

The TRX Row is one of the best exercise for making your pulling movements stronger just because of how versatile you can make it in terms of difficulty.

Start by adjusting handles to be at your hip height. Stand in front of the straps so your toes are under the handles. Take two heel-to-toe steps back from there.

Just a quick note about the steps before I keep explaining how to do the exercise. The steps act as a way to measure the difficulty. The more step back you take, the easier it becomes. The more you step forward, the harder it becomes. It’s the equivalent of adjusting the pin on the weight stack of a machine in the gym. Now, onwards.

Bring your hands next to your ribs, and slowly lower yourself backward until your arms are straight. You should have a straight line between your shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles. Don’t bend your legs or let your hips sink down. What you're doing is holding the Hollow Body position, just standing up.

From there, pull your elbows back so your chest comes back up to the handles. At the end of the Movement, try to keep the gap small between your hand and your shoulder.

A closed and open arm during a pull.

The Progression Standard for the TRX Row is 3 sets of 20. Once you can do that, stick with the TRX Row but make it a little harder by only taking one step back. Then, once you can do 3 sets of 20 there, make it a little harder again by not taking ANY steps back. And finally once you’ve reached the Progression Standard at that point, you’re ready for the next exercise.

Table Pull-ups

First thing - give yourself a pat on the back for progressing if your arms and back aren't too sore. If they are - don't worry, that's totally normal. It just means you've been working your muscles harder than they're used to. So go you!

Now that your pulling pattern and grip strength have massively improved - it's time to step the game up. This one can take a bit of getting used to (and confidence that your table won't fall over) but once you get the feel for it, you might understand why it's one of my favourite exercises!

Get yourself under your kitchen table or a bar that's approximately hip height. You basically want to be looking just past the edge of the table if you're flat on your back looking straight up.

Now, place your hands on the edge of the table around shoulder width apart. Bend your knees, squeeze your shoulders back and pull yourself up until your chest touches it. Then lower yourself back down. Again, maintain that Hollow Body. Squeeze your abs and your butt muscles to keep a nice straight line from your shoulders to your hips to your knees.

Important note: DO NOT push back with your legs. This is what will make your table fall onto your face. Keep your knees soft. This exercise is about your arms and back pulling you up, not your legs pushing you back.

The Progression Standard for the Table Pull-up is 3 sets of 15 reps. If you're coming to Table Pull-ups from just having worked on Doorframe Pulls - you're not going to be able to do 3 sets of 15 right away. And that's okay. Just work your way up again just like before. And when you're ready - it's time for the next progression.

Australian Pull-up

Once you’ve got the strength and technique nailed for Table Pull-ups, progressing to the Australian Pull-up is easy. Set yourself up under a table or bar just like you did with the Table Pull-up. Now, instead of keeping your knees bent, straighten out your legs.

The reason we do this is because the same physics applies as in advancing your push-ups - levers. The longer the lever, the harder the exercise. (Technically if you’re a real science nerd it’s something called moments not levers but don’t worry about it.) Think about push-ups: doing them on your knees is easier than on your toes. This is exactly the same.

So get that Hollow Body, squeeze your shoulder blades back and down, and pull your chest up to the table or bar. Once you’re there, slowly lower yourself back down and repeat.

You might find it helps to put a weight plate or something else in front of your feet so they don’t slide forward.

The Progression Standard for the Australian Pull-up is Work 3 sets of 15 reps. Once you’re there, it’s time for the next step!

Just Hanging Around

Sorry, just a quick one before we move on to the next step. As you make the transition from horizontal pulls (which means your arms are out in front of you) to vertical pulls (where your arms are up over your head), you’re going to have to really learn to use all the supporting muscles around your shoulder blade to make sure you keep good posture as you progress.

The best way to do that? Hanging around. Surprisingly enough, there are two ways to hang from a bar - the Passive Hang and the Active Hang.

Hanging - either passive or active - will massively improve your grip strength. Which is super important for pull-ups. If you can’t hang off the bar for very long - you’re not going to have much time to pull yourself over it!

In the Passive Hang you literally just hang there. Hold on tight, and let your neck sink down into your shoulder. It’s a great stretch.

For the Active Hang, switch on and squeeze the muscles around your shoulder blade and your lats. Keep your arms straight and pull your head back up out of your shoulders. Watch the video for a better idea of what this means. You might find it helps to move your arms like this just standing up away from the bar at first to get yourself used to the movement.

If you find it too hard to pull yourself up into an Active Hang - don’t worry. Just get a chair or a step or a box so you don’t have to hang your full weight off the bar, and assist yourself a little bit. Use your legs to give yourself a little bit of support - but only as much as you need. We’re doing Active Hangs remember - not step-ups.

As always, if you keep working on it, eventually you’ll be able to do a full Active Hang.

Negative Pull-up

So far, we’ve been been working on horizontal pulls. This is the point where we transition to start working on vertical pulls. Until now we’ve been able to use things around your house for our training, at this point you’re either going to have to invest in a pull-up bar for your doorframe, or get outside to a local park that has a climbing frame or monkey bars. Or, use the bar at your gym if you go to one. You could even use a tree or anything else you can find to hang off of.

Now, choose your grip. Your options are: underhand (palms facing you), neutral (palms facing each other), and overhand (palms facing away from you).

When I first started writing this post I was planning to have underhand, neutral, and overhand pull-ups as progressions from each other in that order. But, as I got to this point, I remembered that it doesn’t work that way for everyone - it just did for me. When I’ve been training clients, it turns out that some people find neutral grip easier than underhand, or overhand easier than neutral - it just depends where you’re starting at.

Obviously, we want to be able to do all 3 eventually. But for now, have a little test of each one, see which feels a little easier, and work on that grip. Once you’ve got that one down, work on the next easiest, and the next.

Alrighty, now that we know the 3 ways we can start to approach vertical pull-ups, let’s look at the next progression: the Negative Pull-up. In the Negative Pull-up we’re taking advantage of the fact that there are two parts to a pull-up: the pulling up part, and the lowering down part. In technical terms, these two phases are known as the concentric (the hard work) and the eccentric (the release) respectively. And the release (in this case lowering yourself back down) is always easier.

Think about someone who can’t do push-ups, or even do one right now. They start with their arms straight, lower themselves down to the floor nice and controlled, then their face turns red and they start to look like they’re trying to do the worm as they attempt to push themselves back up.

It just so happens that you don’t always have to try and do both parts, you can train them one at a time. And if you train to get stronger in the eccentric phase (the release), you also get stronger in the concentric phase (the pull) as a result!

We’re going to take advantage of that in this exercise. If you’re not able to pull yourself up from a straight-arm position hanging off the bar - this one’s for you.

Start by positioning your hands around shoulder width apart on the bar above you (again, find what’s comfortable - clients often find going a little wider on overhand or a little narrower on underhand is better). Next, either jump up or step up with the help of a chair or something nearby so that your chest is touching the bar. Do your best to squeeze your shoulder blades back and down as always and hold your chest on the bar for a second. Then, start to lower yourself down as controlled as you can until your arms are straight.

You might find that when you get to a certain point your arms just can’t keep the control and you almost fall the rest of the way. That’s totally fine. Most people get this. It just means that that point is the limit of your eccentric strength. Keep working at it and over time that point will get lower and lower until, eventually, you can control the whole movement.

As in the Australian Pull-up, work on keeping that Hollow Body position.

Work your way up to being able to do 3 sets of 15 full, controlled reps to full extension in the arms (straight arms).

Assisted Pull-up

Okey doke here we go. You know how to control yourself and use all the muscles required for this movement from the Negative Pull-up - you’ve got the eccentric strength DOWN (pun intended). It’s time to start going the other way. It’s time for concentric strength. It’s time for the Assisted Pull-up.

The Assisted Pull-up looks exactly like the Full Pull-up. The only difference is that you’ve got a little bit of support. Get yourself a friend, some resistance bands, or one of those machines you put your knees on if you’re in the gym.

Start by hanging from the bar with your arms totally straight. Tighten your body into the Hollow Body Position. Squeeze your shoulder blades back and down like you’re doing an Active Hang. Pull down on the bar as hard as you can keeping everything tight until your chest touches the bar.

If you’re using a friend - have them support you by pushing up on your back or your feet when you start to struggle. it’s important that they only give you as much help as you need. We don’t want you breezing through and this turning into a shoulder press or bicep curl exercise for them.

If you’re using resistance bands, place your feet inside the band (you might want to step into it off a chair). Use a band that you feel gives you support but doesn’t do all the work. If it feels like it’s not helping at all - use a heavier band. If you feel like it’s doing all the work - use a lighter band. Then as you get stronger, progress to using a lighter band with a bit less support so it becomes more work for you again.

If you’re using a machine - do the same as the bands. Find a weight that supports you but doesn’t do all the work. Then reduce the amount of support as you get stronger.

This is a funny one in terms of Progression Standard because you can gradually reduce the assistance until there’s none at all. But think of it this way. If you can do 10 reps with the current level of assistance - that’s probably a good time to reduce it. You won’t be able to do as many reps with this new level of assistance, so then you just keep working hard until you can do 10 reps again and repeat.

And eventually...

Full Pull-up

Here we go, the one we’ve all been waiting for. Whether you’re starting with an underhand grip, a neutral grip, or an overhand grip, your first rep is going to feel amazing!

Just like we did in the Assisted Pull-up, start by hanging from the bar with your arms totally straight. Tighten your body into the Hollow Body Position. Squeeze your shoulder blades back and down. Pull down on the bar as hard as you can keeping everything tight until your chest touches the bar. Even if you juuust manage to get your chin over - you’ve done it! Now slowly lower yourself back down.

Many people find that thinking about pulling the bar to your chest rather than your chest to the bar seems to make it feel easier. See what works for you.

What’s Next?

First is the most important part - congratulate yourself! Give yourself a pat on the back, jump in the air and woo, tell everyone on your Instagram Story with a smiling selfie.

In fact, you should do this every time you graduate from one version to the next - or even every time you manage one more rep than last time. It’s so so important to celebrate the little wins we achieve as we progress because they’re the ones that get us to that big end goal!

So where do we go from here? Just because you’re finally able to do Full Pull-ups doesn’t mean we’re at the end of the story. It’s time to keep pushing and go further! If you want to of course. That could mean increasing the number of pull-ups you can do, or progressing even further into One-Arm Rows, One-Arm Pull-ups, Muscle Ups, Front and Back Levers and so much more. If you want it to be, this is just the beginning.

For those more advanced movements I’ll write up single posts for each one to go into a bit more detail with them.

Plus, remember that Push-ups are just one of the four Foundation Strength Exercises. Check out these guides on Push-ups, Squats, and the Hollow Body Hold to start working on the rest.

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