How To Do Your First Pull-Up

The pullup is a simple exercise, yet seems impossible to achieve for so many. When I was dealing with chronic shoulder pain (for almost a decade) I dreamed of what it would be like to do a pullup. And it felt incredible to nail my first pullup. Then came the fun of doing more reps and performing weighted pullups.

In this article, we’ll go through how to master your first pullup.

While many programs exist online, this one is different in that we’ll be keeping in mind:

  1. Reducing the risk of injury due to loading joints too quickly
  2. Setting you up to progress to multiple pullups

This program will take roughly 3 months and you’ll need: an assisted pullup machine, lat pulldown (or machine row), and dumbbells.

There will be 2 workouts per week, A and B, each with 2 exercises. The workouts should be performed with 2 days of rest in between each session. So an example schedule could be to perform workout “A” on Monday and workout “B” on Thursday.

Assisted pullupLat pulldown (or machine row)
Bicep curlFlexed arm hang/eccentric pullup

Purpose of Each Exercise and How to Perform:

Here we’ll cover why we perform each exercise and links on how to perform each one correctly:

Assisted pullup: this most closely mimic the movement pattern of the pullup and allows us to safely practice the full motion as you progress towards a full unassisted pullup.

Bicep curl: this accessory exercise builds the necessary pulling strength and tissue capacity to perform pullups.

Lat pull down (or row): this is a compound pull that builds the requisite strength and tissue capacity needed for pullups.

Flexed arm hang: your pulling muscles have more strength and endurance in the top position holding your head above the bar, as compared to pulling up from the bottom dead hang position of the pullup. So before you can actually pull yourself up to the bar, we can use the flexed arm hang to practice handling your full body weight. Note that if you can’t perform the flexed arm hang for at least 10 seconds then just perform the other 3 exercises (assisted pullup, bicep curl, and lat pulldown) until you can perform the flexed arm hang for at least 10 seconds.

Eccentric pullup: similar to the flexed arm hang, your pulling muscles have more strength in the lowering down portion of the pullup than the upward pulling motion. So after you’ve mastered the flexed arm hang for 3 sets of 60 seconds, we’ll progress to eccentric pullups, where you’ll start at the top position of the pullup and slowly lower your body down to the floor over 4 seconds.

How to Progress Each Exercise:

Over the course of 3 months, we’ll progress each exercise in slightly different ways. The assisted pullup and hang/eccentric pullup will be progressed to more closely match the high strength needs of performing your first pullup. On the other hand, the bicep curl and lat pulldown will stay at higher reps with more moderate loads to develop the strength endurance necessary for performing multiple pullups later on.

WeekAssisted PullupBicep CurlsLat PulldownHang/Eccentric Pullup
1-43×10, decrease assistance while leaving 2 RIR2×10, add weight while leaving 2 RIR3×10, add weight while leaving 2 RIRHang: 3×10 sec, leaving at least 5 seconds in reserve
5-83×8, decrease assistance while leaving 2 RIR2×10, add weight while leaving 2 RIR3×10, add weight while leaving 2 RIRHang: Work up to 3×60 seconds, leaving at least 5 seconds in reserve
9-123×5, decrease assistance while leaving 2 RIR2×10, add weight while leaving 2 RIR3×10, add weight while leaving 2 RIR3×5, eccentric pullup (4 second lower), leave 1 RIR

With the 3 month plan outlined, here are a few key definitions and notes:

-Sets and reps: For each exercise, the sets and reps are written as “sets x reps”, so “3×10” means 3 sets of 10.

-RIR: This means “reps in reserve”. When performing exercises to improve strength we don’t want to work until full muscle failure regularly. Instead we will work to a point where we still have 1-2 reps left in reserve at the end of each set. For example, if you perform 10 unassisted pullups with 40 lbs of assistance, but you probably could have done 12 reps that means that you still have 2 reps in reserve (2 RIR). Of course, this is a rough estimate and sometimes you might over or undershoot and that is ok. You’ll get better with time at estimating how many reps you have left at the end of each set. On a similar note, we’ll use 5 seconds as our reserve for the flexed arm hang. So if you perform the flexed arm hang for 15 seconds, but you could have held on for 20 seconds, that is a good intensity level for you.

-How to progress exercises: As your strength improves, we’ll have to progress each exercise. For the bicep curl and lat pulldown, we will gradually add weight, while still keeping 2 RIR. I would recommend doing the smallest weight increases possible each time. For the assisted pullup, we will gradually decrease the amount of assistance for the movement. Lastly, for the flexed arm hang, aim to increase by 5-10 seconds for each set.

Note that we want to progress while still staying within the RIR recommendations for each exercise. For example, imagine that you perform a 10 lb bicep curl for 10 reps with 2 RIR. Then at the next session, you perform a 12.5 lb bicep curl for 10 reps with 0 RIR (going all the way to muscle failure). You haven’t really gotten stronger, you’ve just forced yourself to use a heavier weight. Being stronger would mean performing a 12.5 lb bicep curl for 10 reps with 2 RIR.

For all of the exercises, you’ll likely be able to progress every week for the first 4-6 weeks. After that point, you may have to progress every other week.

-How to include these exercises in a workout: Perform these exercise at the beginning of a workout. If you perform these after other exercises, you will be fatigued and performance will be less than optimal.

-Rest between sets: Rest for 2-3 minutes between each SET of an exercise. While it can be tempting to rush through, you’ll be able to get more reps and use increasingly heavier loads if you rest sufficiently between each set.

Wrapping Up

By the end of the 12 weeks, if you can perform 3×5 assisted pullups with the minimum resistance (usually 10 lbs) and can perform 3×5 eccentric pullups, you should be ready to perform a full pullup.

Of course, how close you get to a pullup in 3 months depends on many factors such as body size (pullups tend to be easier for lighter, shorter people), how much training you have done before, your recovery (fatigue from other physical activity, sleep quality, stress levels, etc.), and your nutrition status (ensuring you’re consuming sufficient calories and protein).

The pullup will take time to master, but with this program you’ll be able to safely progress to your first pullup and be setup to do many more after that.

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