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Do One Pull Up: A Step-by-Step Guide

18 Apr 2012

People either hate or love pull-ups. If you can do one pull up, it’s probably one of your favorite upper body exercises. If you struggle with the pull up, you may avoid it altogether.

Doing a pull up is a must for the Tough Mudder and other challenging obstacle races. You may get away with not being able to do one for some obstacle courses. But for the long run, you’ll want to integrate specific training for these back muscles and work up to doing at least one pull up.

Obstacle race training aside, being able to do a pull up will make you feel like a strong bad ass.

And you know what? To do one pull up doesn’t have to be unattainable — this is completely achievable for all: beginners and seasoned athletes.

Follow the five steps in this pull-up guide, and your upper body will be defying gravity soon.


First Things First: Weight Loss

Obviously, the less you weigh, the easier it will be to do a pull up. If you think weight may be a significant barrier in reaching the one pull-up feat, you can spend some time on this goal as you master step 1.


Step 1: The Modified High Row

You may be familiar with the bent-over row, lat-pull down, single arm row, and other back exercises. The Modified High Row is similar to a few of these with a few tweaks, and it’s a great way to start your pull-up training.

You can do modified high rows right at home with exercise bands and a door attachment. If you’re serious about conquering the pull-up, my recommendation would be to get a band set with a variety of intensities, typically indicated by the color of the band.

You have a lot of options for bands and tubing on Amazon and Perform Better. If you’re unfamiliar with Perform Better, it’s an online shop that specializes in functional training, sports performance, and rehabilitation equipment, most of which are portable and suitable for home use.

My personal favorites are the Black Mountain Band Set and All-Purpose Exercise Bands.

Black Mountain is available on Amazon as are the All-Purpose Bands, but Perform Better carries a wider variety of All-Purpose Bands.

A quick review of each.


Black Mountain Band Set

From convenience, variety, and cost standpoints, this set offers great value and reasonable quality.

These come in two varieties: basic set (up to 30 lbs of resistance) and strong man (offers up to 40 lbs resistance).

Each set has about 5-6 bands, so you’ll have plenty of variety in terms of resistance.


All Purpose Bands

Although costlier, the all purpose bands have been a long-time favorite of mine. They are more expensive: one single band can cost almost as much as the basic set from Black Mountain.

The All Purpose band is actually two bands connected by a door anchor. This is actually convenient because usually only one door anchor comes with band sets, and those door anchors are small enough to lose easily.

All-Purpose Exercise Bands

I have both Black Mountain and All Purpose bands.

The advantage of each? It’s easier to travel with the Black Mountain set since the bands are lighter. But I like durability and built-in door anchor on the All Purpose Band. The All Purpose Bands also come in travel size, but available only in three levels of intensity.

These are not available in a set (that I know of), so you’d have to buy each intensity separately.

There’s a total of three bands with the travel edition (which is preferable if you’re in tight quarters at home) and five bands in the traditional edition.

Regardless of which brand of bands you choose, start with a band you can do 3 sets of 5 – 7 reps.

Again, do these high rows three times a week. Once the resistance of a band gets easy enough that you can complete 3 sets without fatigue, progress to the next level of intensity band.

You can also do this exercise at the gym using the cable machines and adjust the height so that the attachment is overhead.


How To Do the Modified High Row at Home


(Start) Kneel on a soft surface with your left knee and place your right foot on the floor in front of you with your knee bent. Hold onto the handles with both hands, palms facing down. Lean forward. Squeeze your shoulder blades together.

(Move) Bend your elbows to pull the handle in towards the tops of your shoulders. Hold for one second. Return to start. Repeat for a total of 10-12 reps. Switch sides (legs) for each set. Rest 1 minute in between sets.

Variation Note (progression): You can also start this exercise so that you are standing in a staggered stance with your right leg forward as you did for Program A. Switch sides (legs) for each set.

Alternatives: you can also try different hand positions. The one pictured mimics the hand positions of a pull up. Try to use a palms-up, palms-in or even narrow width hand position as an alternative once a week.


Step 2: Hang with Scapular Retractions

Now that you’ve mastered the high row, you may feel ready to hit the pull-up bars!

Before you attempt that first pull-up, though, we’re going to start with basics: the right form and posture to do one pull up right.


Pull Up Bars

First, find a good pull up bar for home use. There are many good ones out there.

If you’ve done P90X, you’ve probably seen the monster-steel heavy-duty doorway bar Tony Horton uses. It’s a great pull-up bar, fits most doorway trims, and supports up to 300 lbs of weight.

Although this is a P90X-featured pull up bar, many other brands sell as similar model. You’ll find a swarm of other brands on Amazon that construct this style of a pull up bar, many of which have slight distinctions in terms of the exact dimensions and doorways they’d fit.

Before buying any pull up bar, I strongly recommend reading the specs to make sure it would fit in your doorway.

I prefer the Iron Gym Pull Up Bar. It also holds up to 300 lbs, and it’s designed to fit doorways between 24” to 32” wide with doorway trim up to 3 ½ inches wide.

I use the Iron Gym bar because it actually fits the door frames in my place better than the one they use on P90X. There are a couple basic distinctions between the two bars:

1. The Iron Gym bar has fewer handle grips/options (about three versus at least half a dozen on the steel one). For now, I wouldn’t worry about the variety of grips. Either one allows for the use of the pull-up grip/position (arms slightly wider than shoulder-width, palms facing down).

2. The Iron Gym is slightly more compact than the steel one. Not by much, but enough if you’re in tight quarters.

Iron Gym Pull Up Bar

Heavy-Duty Doorway Chin-Up/Pull-Up Bar

Back to scapular retractions.


How to Hang with Scapular Retractions

(Start) Hold onto a pull-up bar and hang. Notice how close your ears are to shoulders.

(Move) Squeeze your shoulder blades together so that your ears are elevated above your shoulders. Repeat. Work up to a total of 10 reps. Try to start with 5. Rest 1 minute in between sets.

Variation Note: If continuous squeezes/retractions are tough, just hang and fight to squeeze your shoulder blades together. Challenge yourself to do one extra squeeze each workout until you reach 10.


Step 3: The Assisted Pull Up

Once you’ve mastered the high row and scapular retractions, it’s time to try the assisted pull up.

There are a couple of different pull up assist techniques you can try at home: 1) a chair and 2) the Lifeline Pull Up Revolution.


Assisted Pull Up with Chair

These are pretty straightforward. Make sure you have a sturdy chair.

With the assisted pull up using a chair, be sure you’re not just going through the motions and placing all of your weight on the chair the entire time. This won’t accomplish anything!

You’ll want to support as much weight as you can with the chair literally acting as an assist.

(Start) Place one foot on the seat of the chair and hold onto the pull up bar.

(Move) Pull yourself up until your chin clears the bar and hold for one second. Try to lift your foot off the chair or at least get onto your toes or balls of your feet. Return to start. Repeat for 3 sets of 5-7 reps. Rest about 1 minute in between sets.

Variation Note: To make more challenging, place the chair farther away from you.


Assisted Pull Up with Lifeline Revolution

The Lifeline Pull Up Revolution is another way you can try assisted pull-ups.

Honestly, I prefer using a chair until you can do at least one pull up, but the Lifeline Revolution Pro can be a good alternative for some.

Lifeline Pull Up Revolution

The Lifeline Pull Up Revolution provides up to 100 lbs of weight assistance. You can adjust the amount of assistance by removing a band, but the manufacturers warn against using a single band.

To use the Lifeline Revolution Pro, you would need to hook one foot in through the look and extend your leg. So as a pre-requisite, you need to be sure your legs are strong enough to keep straight while withstanding 100 lbs of resistance!

For this reason, I often recommend using a chair over the Lifeline Revolution for beginners that don’t have much experience with resistance training and/or the leg strength to keep one leg extended.

(Start) Hold onto the pull up bars and place one foot in the loop and straighten out your leg. (Move) Pull yourself up until your chin clears the bar and hold for one second. Return to start. Repeat for 3 sets of 5-7 reps. Rest 1 minute in between sets.

Variation Note: To make more challenging, remove one band (but never use one single band).

Step 4: Do One Pull-Up

Once you can do 3 sets of 5-7 reps of assisted pull-ups with the chair or a two bands on the Lifeline Revolution, it’s time! Now you will try to do one pull up.


(Start) Hold onto the pull-up bars and squeeze your shoulder blades together as you would for a scapular retraction.

(Move) Try as hard as you can to pull yourself up. Since this will be your first pull-up, it’s okay if you need to kip or use a little bit of momentum to do this.

Over time, you’ll want to make your single pull-up clean and kip-free before doing multiple pull-ups.

But for the first one, kick, scream, grunt, complain, yell if you have to, but get it done! Try to do as many as you can each time. Rest at least one minute in between efforts.

Variation Notes – Pull Up Hand Positions:
Harder – palms facing down,
Easier – palms facing you or in towards each other.
Feel free to play around with the variations in efforts to do your first pull up.


Step 5: Revisit Assist with Lifeline Pull-Up Revolution

If you are doing a workout where you’re maxing out on pull ups and you want to keep doing them without having to stop because you can’t support your bodyweight just yet for a full rep, you may want to consider using the Lifeline Pull-Up Revolution.

Just start first with maxing out using your own bodyweight alone — even if that means just one or two pull ups.

Putting it Altogether

Just like most challenging tasks, you need to practice in order to improve. Try to do one of the above exercises, depending on which step you are on, three times a week.

Be sure to work one day of rest in between back-strengthening/pull up training bouts.

Be patient, follow the steps, and you’ll do your first pull up soon!

Once you’ve tried these steps, let me know if this guide was helpful. If you’ve already done a pull up, let me know how you got there!

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