- Pull-ups are an effective bodyweight exercise to build muscle and strength but can be intimidating.
- To learn how to do pull-ups, practice the right form and muscle engagement with scaled exercises.
- To work up to more pull-ups, try larger sets with a mix of exercise variations.
Pull-ups are a foundational strength training exercise that can help you build muscle, with nothing more than bodyweight and a sturdy bar. While they require upper body strength, core stability, and coordination, even beginners can work up to doing full pull-ups, according to fitness experts.
Whether you’re trying to get your first one or want to rep out 100, using variations of the exercise to develop perfect form can help you make steady progress.
Engage the right muscle groups
If you’re struggling with pull-ups, improper form may be a culprit, according to Hampton Liu, founder of Hybrid Calisthenics.
“A lot of people start with something that’s too difficult and form bad habits,” Liu told Insider. While Liu doesn’t have formal training in exercise science, his TikTok videos have gone viral for offering accessible versions of bodyweight exercises.
Common mistakes with pull-ups include overusing certain muscles, such as the biceps, pectorals, or traps, and straining to force your chin over the bar.
For much more efficient pull-ups, you need to focus on engaging the latissimus dorsi (lats), the large, V-shaped muscles of the back, according to Ben Foster, head coach and founder of the People’s Athletic Club.
To properly tap into your lats, think about pulling your shoulders away from ears as you hang from the bar, and imagine “breaking” the
by pulling your hands down and toward you, Foster said.
Both cues help retract your scapula, bringing your shoulder blades down and back to build the right muscles and perform pull-ups effectively.
Try variations like eccentrics or feet-assisted pull-ups instead of using bands
Resistance bands are a popular tool to assist with pull-ups, but Foster said it can limit your progress.
“Bands help at the hardest part of the movement, but don’t allow you to develop strength there, which is why some people who can do a lot of banded pull-ups can have trouble transitioning to not using them,” Foster said.
A better strategy is to use several variations of scaled exercise, he said. Eccentrics, or negatives, involve starting at the top of the movement and slowly lowering down, helping you build the muscles to control your bodyweight.
You can also use a bench or chair under the bar to provide some assistance through the movement, Foster said, or use gymnastics rings so you can practice pulling your bodyweight with feet on the floor. The further away your feet are from under the bar, the harder both variations will be.
Liu also recommends wall push-ups, if you don’t have access to horizontal rings. Using a section of wall you can grab with both hands, such as a sturdy column or door frame, stand with your toes against wall, grab onto it with palms facing each other, and lean away from the wall. Then, pull your torso towards the wall and slowly lower back to a leaning position.
Set a goal and try for a little progress each week
Once you’ve got found a variation that’s doable but challenging, continue working up to larger sets of the exercise, or more difficult variations.
If you can manage a pull-up or two but want to do more, you can also combine variations mid-set, according to Foster. For example, if you want a set of 10 pull-ups, you can do two and finish the set with eccentrics or another variation, over time gradually decreasing the number of scaled exercises you need to complete the set.
“The goal is for people to continue doing a little bit more, and setting the stage to make progress week over week,” he said.