[FAFQ] How Do I Get My First Pull-Up? Easy Strategies for Strength Gain

Welcome to Frequently Asked Fitness Questions [FAFQ], a series where I answer common questions asked by women embarking on their fitness journeys!

This week: the dreaded pull-up. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably spent a lot of time frustrated that you just can’t seem to get this seemingly simple move. It looks so easy, right?

Well you’re not alone. I spent years grappling with this too, unsure of the best strategy to get from point A to point B. But guess what? With enough time, effort, and dedication, I got there––and you can too!

To save you some time and struggle in your journey, I’ve compiled a list of recommendations on things that worked well for me and things that didn’t (and you should probably stay away from).

Try These Strategies (Pick Your Favorite)

  • Watch this excellent intro guide by Meg Squats, which gives some useful practical tips for progressing toward pull-ups.
  • If you go to a gym and it has an assisted pull-up machine, try doing 3 sets of 6-8 pull-ups each time you’re there, and decrease the assistance by a little bit each week until you can lift your own weight. In my experience, if you do this for a couple of months, then try to do a normal pull-up, you’ll realize it’s suddenly way easier than the last time you tried!
  • Hang a bar in a frequently used doorway of your house and set yourself a requirement that you have to do x amount of any pull-up related exercise (pick one from the video above) every time you pass under it. I typically did 30-second hangs or a set of 3 negative pull-ups, but this is totally up to your preference. (Note that this step is optional, but the more frequently you practice your moves––which is really easy when the bar is right there and not at a gym––the faster you’ll get there). You can find a helpful list of the best home pull-up bars here.
  • If you’re feeling burned out with standard pull-up progression techniques,  one way to keep progressing is to do a fun fitness activity that is heavy on back and shoulder strength. This will help you build muscle without even realizing you’re doing it, and you might have a lot more fun than if you just hang on a pull-up bar! Some of my favorites in this area are rock climbing (particularly bouldering, as it focuses more on big strength moves than other forms of climbing) and martial arts (with kickboxing––not the cardio kind, but the real martial art) being my sport of choice here. If you do these for long enough, you’ll go try a pull-up again one day and realize it’s suddenly super easy! However, a word of warning for rock climbing: be very careful, as it is easy to injure yourself if you don’t use proper technique. Learn how to safely fall first, slowly work your way up in climb difficulty, and watch a few simple technique videos before getting too far into it. The YouTube channel Movement for Climbers is a great place to start!
Me at the bouldering gym, building some back muscles!

Don’t Do This

In addition to things you should be doing, you should be careful to avoid some behaviors, as they may hinder your progress:

  • Don’t put your pull-up training at the end of every workout. You’ll be exhausted and feel defeated! Do it earlier rather than later so you have maximum strength (or as a separate activity with the bar in your house).
  • Don’t sag and just let yourself droop from the bar! Pull-ups are all about tension, and one of the reasons you’re struggling might be because you haven’t mastered this yet. While you’re doing your pull-up training, regularly review videos about proper form to make sure you’re following it.
  • Don’t give up! You may end up getting stuck at a “plateau”, where you feel like no matter how hard you try, you’re not getting anywhere! This happens to everyone and you’re not alone. You can get through it and make progress again, but you can’t give up in the process. If you feel like you’ve gotten stuck and aren’t progressing anymore, the best thing I can recommend is to try a different technique from what you’ve been doing. If you’ve been doing assisted pull-ups, on a machine, switch to an active sport like rock climbing for a little bit. If you like the standard pull-up progressions but are slowing down, try to jump to the next step up. Your body sometimes needs a jumpstart of something new to be able to get you over the hump!

Have you or your friends tried any of these tips? What worked best for you? Share your thoughts in the comments so we can help everyone get their first pull-up!

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