I was once told that “some women just can’t do pull-ups”.
Nope. I don’t believe it. And if your goal is to do a pull-up, you shouldn’t either.
For sure, pull-ups are hard, and they take training and dedication, but if it’s a goal of yours and you’re willing to commit to it, I believe you can do one. And once you can do one, you can do multiples.
The reason I believe in you is because after two years of training them, I can finally do pull-ups. All kinds of pull-ups: chin up grip, neutral grip, pull-up grip, and now I’m starting to train a very wide grip. And actually, after some ineffective strategies in my first year of training for pull-ups, the second year (with a new trainer) showed very smooth and steady progress.
Guys! Guys, guys, guys! I just did FOUR consecutive pull-ups! One week ago I was overjoyed that I could do ONE pull-up. Two weeks ago I could do ZERO pull-ups. Two months ago I did my ever first chin-ups! I’m literally vibrating with excitement! . . This has been at least a two year process – in fits and starts – at some point I was told (by my former trainer) that “some women just can’t do pull-ups”. Yes. I. Can. And now I can do FOUR! In a row! . . Fitness achievement unlocked! Can I just watch this on a loop all day? . . #xxfitness #redditxxfitness #powerlifter #girlswhopowerlift #gwpl #girlswholift #fitness #strengthtraining #workout #training #powerliftingwomen #veganathlete #thisisfemalepowerlifting #tifp #powerlifting #pullup #pullups #women #womenwholift #chinup
I did a ton of research online about how to do your first pull-up. I found programs from military women, from my favorite powerlifters, from general strength trainers, basically from all the major strength training online resources. And almost every single one of those articles, videos or programs, has you doing a full bodyweight pull-up after being able to do multiple reps with the smallest resistance band.
Well, that didn’t work for me. I could do sets of 10 with the thinnest band, but I still couldn’t pull myself up without assistance.
This is about when I was told that “some women just can’t do pull-ups”, and I have to admit, I was discouraged, and I let pull-ups take a back-seat for about 8 months while I moved on to other things that were progressing more steadily.
I’m a little disappointed in myself that I just gave up for a while there, but I’m glad I got back on track with my new trainer, Ten.
Though I was training for my first powerlifting competition, and pull-ups are definitely not a requirement, Ten programmed a steady progression of pull-up regressions for me so that I was able to do my first full, unassisted pull-up a little bit after my first meet.
(And a little background, there are three grips for a pull-up: chin-up grip, which uses mostly biceps; neutral grip, which is technically supposed to be the easiest; and proper pull-up grip. I trained all three at various points to develop all of the pulling muscles needed).
Here’s what I did:
Level 1: Band Assisted Pull-ups
I did these all before training with Ten. Starting with thickest band, progressing when I could do sets of 8 – 10 easily. Before I started training with Ten, I could do sets of 8-10 reps with the thinnest band. (And if you can’t do these yet, you can start with inverted rows on a TRX or even a barbell in the squat rack). Every pull-up progression program I have seen expects you to jump from this stage to full pull-ups with no other regressions. Here’s where Ten came through for me!
Still working on #pullups… took a break for a while, but now I’m back at it! These are neutral grip, 3×3, with the smallest band, which pretty much feels like no assistance at all. That third rep is soooo hard (for now)! . . #xxfitness #redditxxfitness #powerlifter #girlswhopowerlift #girlswholift #fitness #strengthtraining #workout #training #powerliftingwomen #veganathlete #thisisfemalepowerlifting #tifp #pullup #chinup
Level 2: Negative Pull-ups
Negative pull-ups are when you jump up to the top position of the pull-up (or use a box to get yourself up there) and hold for a few seconds and then very very slowly lower yourself down (at least 10 seconds to lower your body). We used a neutral grip for all of these. Over my 12-week meet-prep I did:
- Week 1: 4×5
- Week 2: 5×5
- Week 3: 6×5
- Week 4: 4×4 with dip belt and 5lbs of extra weight
- Week 5: deload 3×2 +5lbs
- Week 6: 5×5 +5kg
- Week 7: 6×3 +8kg
- Week 8: 6×3 +8kg
- Week 9: 5×3 +8kg
- Week 10: 3×3 +10kg
- Week 11: 4×3 +10kg
- Week 12: deload + mock meet (no accessory work)
Side note: I usually did a few reps of scap pull ups at the end of these sets as well (to help me with getting into position for the start of the pull), and hollow body holds (to help me with proper tightness and form in the pull).
Working on #weighted #eccentric #chinups as slow as possible. These are 8kg – hello #bicep pump! 💪💪 Eventually I will get you, full bodyweight #pullup! … … #xxfitness #redditxxfitness #powerlifter #girlswhopowerlift #girlswholift #fitness #strengthtraining #workout #training #powerliftingwomen #veganathlete
Level 3: Half Pull-ups
After my meet, I was determined to move forward with my pull-ups since I could now lower myself with control with 10kg additional weight! So, we did a little testing and realized that I could pull myself up on my own as long as I didn’t fully extend my arms, basically doing a half pull-up, again using a neutral grip.
😲! Look what I did today! It’s not quite from a full dead hang, but dang! I pulled myself up all by myself for the first time ever! This is my second set. First set I did two, but I jumped the gun and @tenteerachot didn’t catch the whole thing on film… . . Woohooo! Now I just need to keep working on the initial stages of the pull (the hardest part for me) and I’ll have it! So excited! I’ve been working on this for AGES! . . Thank you @tenteerachot for sticking with it and always coming up with variations to help me get stronger, without giving up! . . xxfitness #redditxxfitness #powerlifter #girlswhopowerlift #girlswholift #fitness #strengthtraining #workout #training #powerliftingwomen #veganathlete #thisisfemalepowerlifting #tifp #powerlifting #pullup #pullups #firstpullup
Here’s how we progressed those:
On Tuesdays I did half pull-ups:
- Week 1: 3×2
- Week 2: 3×3
- Week 3: 3×4
- Week 4: deload 3×2
On Saturdays I did chin-ups with the thinnest band:
- Week 1: 3×3
- Week 2: 3×4
- Week 3: 3×5
- Week 4: deload 3×3
For the next 4 weeks, we did 3×3 half-pull ups on Tuesday consistently, dropping a tiny bit lower between each rep, so that I was getting closer and closer to a full bodyweight pull-up. On Saturdays I did 3×5 with the thinnest band. At the end of that cycle, I felt really strong, so I tried a chin-up for the first time and I was able to do two – completely out of the blue – so I ended up doing 3 more sets of 3.
I did it! I did it! I did it! 💪 My first chin-up goal is complete (and surpassed)! I did 5 sets of 2 bodyweight dead hang #chinups! I was supposed to do 3×3 with the thinnest band, but the first set was so easy, I decided to try just bodyweight the next time & I got TWO! I threw in an extra few sets just to see how many I could do. . . I filmed set 2 and set 4 (for verification – for myself – that I actually did it 😂). It took me ages to finally get these, but I knew I could do it! And now that I know I can, I have even more motivation to keep going! Next up: #pullup grip! . . #xxfitness #redditxxfitness #powerlifter #girlswhopowerlift #girlswholift #fitness #strengthtraining #workout #training #powerliftingwomen #veganathlete #thisisfemalepowerlifting #tifp #powerlifting #pullups #bodyweight
Level 4: Chin-ups
On Tuesdays I did:
- Week 1: 3×3 full body weight chin-ups
- Week 2: 4×3
- Week 3: 5×3, going back to neutral grip for 1 full neutral grip pull up + 2 half pull ups (neutral grip)
- Week 4: deload, 3×3, full neutral grip
On Saturdays I did strict chin-ups only:
- Week 1: 3×2
- Week 2: 4×4
- Week 3: 6×4
- Week 4: deload, 3×3
Wow! #chinup progression is FAST! Three weeks ago I could do 0 chin ups. Two weeks ago I could do 2, last week 3, and now this week FOUR! I did 4 sets of 4 today (this is set 4) using the Smith machine since there was no real chin up bar in this hotel gym (more #travelgymproblems & #gymhacks)… . . This was extra hard because I normally have my legs straight but the bar was so low that I had to bend my legs behind me, hence the excessive swaying. I’ll be back in my normal gym next week and going for five reps! 💪 . . #xxfitness #redditxxfitness #powerlifter #girlswhopowerlift #girlswholift #fitness #strengthtraining #workout #training #powerliftingwomen #veganathlete #thisisfemalepowerlifting #tifp #powerlifting #pullups #pullup #chinups #progress #travelgym #gymhack
Level 5: Partner-Resisted
After getting really comfortable with full bodyweight chin-ups and seeing those progress steadily, I still couldn’t do a full bodyweight with the proper pull-up grip, so we needed to keep pushing. For this cycle, we did partner-resisted neutral grip pull ups with a very very slow, three pause eccentric. This means that I would pull up, pause at the top, hold as long as possible, slowly drop a little bit to 1/3 of the way down, hold, again drop 1/3 farther and hold, and then finally drop to just before a full dead hang and hold. All the way down, Ten would pull my legs down and I would have to resist. It’s brutal.
This is what we ended up with based on my performance each Tuesday:
- Week 1: 3×1 strict pull up + 3×3 eccentric triple pause
- Week 2: 1×2 strict 2×3 partner resisted eccentric
- Week 3: 1×3 pull ups 1×4 neutral
- Week 4: deload
Saturdays I continued the strict chin-ups:
- Week 1: 5×2
- Week 2: 4×3
- Week 3: 5×3
- Week 4: deload 3×3
At some point in here, I was finally able to do one, official, dead hang, pull-up grip, proper pull-up.
Level 6: Reps + Half Reps
Once I was able to do one pull-up, I slowly started to add additional reps, following the same progression as above, half rep, to a lower half rep, to partner resisted eccentric, to getting a second full pull-up. Now I’m at four consecutive pull-ups on my own!
Level 7: All the Variations
I think training different variations on different days really helped me strengthen all parts of my upper body, and kept my options open for getting my first pull in whatever position felt the most comfortable. For me it was chin-up grip, but for you it might be different. Now that I have the three main grips, we’re starting to train other variations, focusing on a very wide grip, for super slow eccentrics.
There were some things about the way Ten programmed pull-ups for me that were very different than all the other programs I found online – and for me they were very effective, which is why I’m sharing them here. Here are the key elements I think you could easily replicate and customize for yourself:
Know Your Weakness
The hardest part of the pull for me is the very start of the pull. After all that work with the thinnest band, I could easily pull myself up from a 90 degree angle, but starting below that was like trying to move lead. Initiating the pull was a total non-starter. So, whenever we would do eccentrics, we would really focus on forcing me to hold as long as possible at the very end of the lowering phase. The partner resisted ones were also really effective for this. If you can see where your weakness is (if it’s as obvious as mine was), work on strengthening this portion of the pull by doing it more often or with more weight to overload your muscles.
Grease the Groove
The idea behind this one is to practice the movement as frequently as possible so you get your body used to going through the motions. I am 100% confident I would have gotten my pull-ups sooner if I had a pull-up bar in my house (but I live in a rental and we don’t have a good set up for one, unfortunately). There were some stretches of time where I would go to the park every day and do a pull-up or two (from whatever starting point I could do one) and I could tell I was getting better quickly, but I never had enough consistency to push myself forward as fast as I would have liked.
Mix it Up 3 Ways
Hands & Variation
Use all the pull-up variations as you practice. You might find one stronger than the other, and they all work your upper body slightly differently. Almost as soon as I could do chin-ups, I could do neutral grip, and then right after that pull-ups (each within a few days of each other). I have no idea if this is normal or not, but I think training all the grips definitely helped me with my upper body strength over all.
Timing & Tempo
In addition to changing up the grip position, also work on different types of pulls, holds and lowering speed. Those slow eccentric (also called negatives) really helped me build strength, as did the triple pause lowering. Even if all you do is add a second to each hold or each target time for lowering, you’re progressing the movement.
Rep and Set Ranges
Notice how all of the progressions Ten programmed for me include a variety of rep and set ranges? The idea here is to always make sure you’re progressing – either in the number of reps in a set, or the number of sets you can do. Especially with pull up variations, it’s hard to keep adding reps to a single set, so adding additional sets with the same reps (or sometimes less) is a good way to keep progressing. At the end of the session, as long as you’ve done more actual pull-ups, you’re moving forward (of course this depends on how much you’re resting between sets).
Don’t Be Afraid to Add Weight
I thought Ten was crazy when he had me put on a weight belt and start doing eccentrics with additional weight. If I can’t pull myself up, why should I add weight to the lowering portion? Wow, was I surprised when I finally took that weight belt off, just pulling up my body felt so light!
Range of Motion
Don’t forget to train the full range of motion for your pull-up: all the way from a dead hang to chest to the bar. I find myself still “cheating” a little bit when I get tired by initiating the pull back up from just before a dead hang, but that’s not full range of motion (and cheesy as it is, the only person I’m cheating is myself).
The Hard Truth: Strength to Bodyweight Ratio
An unavoidable fact with bodyweight exercises is that they will become easier if you have less weight to move. As much awesome training as we did, I know pull-ups are moving much more quickly for me now that I’m down a few kilos, so keep this in mind as you train. This is not to say that you will not be able to perform pull-ups no matter what weight you’re at, but if you have a significant amount of weight to lose, you will most likely find it easier to pull yourself up as the weight comes off.
Don’t give up! You CAN do a pull-up, and don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise! If you’re still working on your first one, what are you struggling with? How can I help? If you’re already a pull-up master, what got you there? What tips and advice would you give other women who are training for their first pull-up?