Give Me The Fish (GMTF): Over a decade of training Marines, those wanting to be Marines, and myself working towards a world record pull up at 235lbs, I have mastered the art of how to train to do a pull up. The secret is actually really simple, negative pull-ups at increased volume while warding off shoulder injuries. But, like most things, that is easier said than done.
*I want to put this out there first. There are a litany of free pull up training plans out there. Some are good, some are bad, and some will damage you. This article is to help you develop your own and help sort through the BS. The one I have is also an option, but mine is not free, why? Because I’m a professional who does this for a living and actually knows what I’m doing. If you have injuries, medical issues, a complicated life to train around, or whatnot. I recommend you pay more for someone (maybe even me) to help you get to your goals. You get what you pay for.
Table of Contents
The Secret Of How To Train To Do A Pull Up
To be honest, the secret of how to train to do a pull up is simple, it’s all about volume and specificity. But, there is a catch to that. What’s the catch?
The issue is that the shoulder is incredibly complicated, there are a lot of muscles, ligaments, and bones all packed into an area roughly the size of your fist. And they are all acting on each other in opposing and synergistic ways to create not only a stable position but to allow an incredible degree of motion.
To make matters worse, we tend to sit in compromised positions all day looking like the Hunch Back of Notre Dame, letting our shoulders atrophy in non-beneficial ways, and we also tend not to use our muscles overhead very often.
If you can’t do a pull up, you probably climb ladders less efficiently by keeping your arms lower down, you don’t climb trees with your kids because you’re scared about your ability to lift up, and you haven’t done that Spartan Race because you’re not sure you can do half of the obstacles. Or, maybe you don’t even consider these things because you have long since washed away the idea that these are “fun” things to do.
Don’t worry if you’re the latter, it’s the majority of us.
Regardless of why, since we don’t do these things, we lose the ability to. Unlike what your health Studies Teacher told you. If you don’t use it, you do lose it.
Now that we have decided to train this skill, we have to work to get past what are probably decades of lack of use, misuse, and abuse.
So, taking these things and then slamming them into a near-maximal effort in an attempt to do a pull up over and over again is something we should probably ease into.
This is a problem with most pull-up training plans, they assume you are already athletic and just need a final push.
The pull up is a natural human function, but our bodies are so adaptable, it adapts away from this function without use.
And, when we try to get this function back, most of us need more than just a little push to overcome years of neglect.
Good news is our bodies can build it back.
If you don’t have injuries and are in reasonably good shape, go ahead and launch into a googled training plan, start easy, and build. But, what if you do have an injury? What are you building if you can’t do a pull up in the first place? How do you find out if it’s a good plan?
These questions are best answered as all fitness questions are answered.
- If you have any injury, Correct it.
- If you can’t correct it, work around it.
- Always train as specific as you can.
- If you can’t train the specific actions, train the associated muscles.
Most of you read those things and thought, “Duh, but how do I do that?”
With the exception of working around it (since we are trying to do a specific movement), we will get to all of those below.
Correct the Injury
I’m not going to address all of your injury concerns here, because I’m not a doctor, I’m not a physical therapist, I don’t know what your injury is out of the 100’s it could be, and unless you’re my client I don’t have the time to work through it with you (If you are, why haven’t you asked me yet????).
But, there is a good chance that after your injury has healed, assuming it did so correctly, there is not much holding you back besides proprioceptors (like safety sensors in your muscle) and tissue adhesions.
A lot of you are probably thinking “That’s Me! Mine didn’t heal correctly!” But you are probably wrong.
Few people actually have permanent injuries.
If the number of people that complain about shoulder injuries had permanent damage, we would have died out as a species a long time ago. So, for you, find out if that’s the case first. Then go ahead and whine (hint: your family doctor might be wrong, find a sports-related doctor before you start crying).
Now, once you got over the whining, and find out that it’s not a major injury. There are a few things you can do.
The first is to free up tissue adherence. If it’s really bad, look into mobilizing your joint through distraction and moving through end ranges.
Examples of this:
If it doesn’t need the big guns, you can usually work through adherence issues with bar dislocates, which can also be done with a t-shirt and active bar hangs. If you don’t know what these are, head to the FAQ.
I typically have these two things built into a warm-up. This way you can work through some of your issues as you train to do a pull up for the first time. Over time, as you get stronger, you will be building in a greater range of motion simultaneously. Usually, you will end up accomplishing a greater range of motion just as you are able to do a pull up.
What Not To Do When Training To Do Your First Pull Up
Now that we are through injuries, let’s get into the good stuff.
You will see a lot of plans on how to train to do a pull up mention dumbbells, using lat pulldown machines, using bands, buddy assisted pullups, and jumping pull ups. STOP.
It’s not to say that these things don’t work. The issue is that the majority of exercises out there are grossly inefficient, teach bad habits, and can even be dangerous.
Let’s break this down.
There is nothing inherently wrong with these, except for the fact that they are grossly inefficient at accomplishing what we want to accomplish. Not only is this not training the correct movement, but you are also training your arms to operate independently.
News Flash, until you are really good, you will not be doing a pull up one-armed any time soon.
What’s the problem with that? There’s two.
You can lift way more than just double one armed when you use two arms.
Training individual arms does not translate well to double-armed compound movements.
You can program in barbell rows. I currently have them built into my pull up training plan where I am trying to do a pull up with 235lbs strapped to me, but, it’s only supplemental to my current training and it is infinitely better than a single-arm dumbbell row because I can pull more weight and hence have more stimulus.
On top of those reasons, it’s also a more similar movement.
That being said, when teaching people how to do a pull up in the past and for my own pull up plan, I have never included them until recently and I’m still experimenting. That includes when I worked my way up to my all-time high of 48 consecutive strict pull ups.
Needless to say, they are not needed. If you have the equipment, it may help, but if not, who cares.
Lat Pull Downs
These seem to be very similar to pull ups, so why would they not be included?
Because they are grossly inefficient.
These can have a time and place and if you have the equipment they could be supplemental, but they are not needed. Aside from needing the equipment, Lat Pulldowns force you into a non-organic biomechanical motion. Similar, but not the same.
Bodies naturally transition their center of mass as they pull up forcing different muscles to work at different stages of the lift, Lat Pulldowns do not allow this. They are strict, directly overhead, and they train bad motor patterns.
So, are they the worst? No. Are they detrimental? Eh, maybe/maybe not. Are they optimal? Nope, not by a long shot.
Bands and Buddy Assisted Pull Ups
Recently, the Marine Corps and Crossfit have started to love these. While I put them in the category of mildly useful. The real problem with assisted pull ups is over-reliance. The issues come down to inconsistent overload by band placement, your buddy holding you different each time, and the fact, that you would need a whole decresing series of bands to create an appropriate progressive building period to do a pull up.
Without a lot of bands, progressive overload is near impossible due to it being hard to have your buddy take less and less weight over time, and you can’t do this at all with only one or two bands.
Then there is the fact that your weight hangs differently when you have something to push your legs off of, breaking some of the rules of specificity, similar to Lat Pulldowns.
Over time, you will find success with these, but your training will be varied in more ways than desired, possibly taking longer to achieve your pull up. Also, you have to buy the bands.
Jumping Pull Ups
In the scheme of things, these are the most similar to actual pull ups. They are also easier to judge progressive overload because you control them (just keep them hard). The problem with jumping pull ups is the heightened risk of injury.
You’re taking somebody with shoulders, Lats, and back muscles that are not strong enough to support themselves (or you would be able to do a pull up) then throwing them into a dynamic motion with an impact that is most comparable to short distance bungee jumping with shoulder tendons instead of a cord.
I have seen more people than I can count hurt shoulders doing this or something similar and those are athletes that can do a pull up. For a beginner? I think not.
How Do I Train To Do A Pull Up?
The key is simple, negative pull ups and push-ups. Lots of them
Negative pull ups are awesome, not only can the majority of the population do them, but they are easy on your joints, can be controlled, and they mimic the exact movement, just in reverse.
Pushups actually help with the middle to the upper part of the motion. Don’t believe me, do this test.
- First find a table or countertop that is halfway up your torso, about the height of your nipples.
- Now, take one hand and put it over your chest on the muscle portion closest to your shoulder.
- Next, take the hand not covering your chest, put it straight in front of you and push down with your hand on it. When you do this, you will feel your chest engaged.
The same muscles involved in a push up are essential during a pull up. To understand this, think about what happens when you do a pull up. As you lift up, your legs and torso will naturally angle in. This is when your chest muscles get involved, to help lift you the final distance.
Bench Press is a good replacement for pushups, possibly even a better one due to overload. But, then you need more equipment, your call.
Now, to train how to do a pull up, train 3-5 days a week, and then slowly increase your repetitions for both negative pull ups and pushups throughout your training cycle. And, that’s it.
This is easier said than done. These are demoralizing because after day after day of failure. But, you have to stick with them. If you do, you will reap the rewards.
These are not just getting to the top of the bar and dropping. Negative Pull ups are you struggling with every ounce of your being to stop yourself from the inevitable slide towards earth.
These are HARD.
But, if you fight through the monotony, you embrace the pain, see the light and the end of failure, and put in the effort, one day, you will go to do a pull up and you will just get it.
Word Of Caution
Injuries are extremely likely for those trying to complete their first pull up. It’s usually not major, and part of this is knowing the difference between being hurt and injured, but it is something to watch out for. Make sure you have lots of recovery days built into a well-designed training plan.
Finally, getting a pull up is also largely contingent on your body weight. You can absolutely do a pull up even while overweight, as shown by people doing weighted pullups. But having extra body mass makes you have to work significantly harder to lift the extra weight.
For those that are under 20% body fat, 8 weeks is normally good enough to reach your goals. While it is healthy for women to be over this, that does not override physics and this applies to them as well.
If you are over 20% body fat, you should expect a longer training period. And, I would highly recommend that if you are serious about your goals, you should consider dropping weight.
If you want to take some of the guesswork out along with tips and tricks, consider purchasing my training plan. And, if you still struggle, I’m always here to help coach you along the way.
Until Next time,