How to do a pull-up – a step-by-step guide 

Pull-ups might look difficult, but they are achievable. Our resident personal trainer shows you how.

A pull-up is one of those exercises that looks difficult and, truthfully, it’s tricky to master, but it can be done. Even advanced exercisers find full pull-ups difficult, yet if you watch little children in the playground, they seem to be able to master the monkey bars with ease.  

That’s partly because they don’t weigh as much as an adult, and hauling your own bodyweight up off the ground is difficult enough, let alone bringing your chin up above a bar. But it’s also because little ones don’t have as much fear. I know my son jumps first and thinks later, while I have a more cautious approach!  

However, pull-ups – or one of the many variations we will look at – are a great strength training exercise to master, with many benefits. Not to mention that your friends and family will all be suitably impressed that you can master something so difficult. I’ve coached many clients to achieve the perfect pull-up based on their strength and abilities, and now I’m going to walk you through it.  

man doing a pull-up - back viewCredit: Shutterstock / Andrii Nekrasov

Exercise: pull-up. 

Works: latissimus dorsi (lats), biceps, triceps, chest muscles, shoulder muscles, stomach muscles.  

Equipment needed: pull-up bar, resistance bands (optional). 

The benefits of pull-ups

A pull-up is known as a “compound move”, meaning it works multiple muscle groups at once. Other examples are squats and push-ups. Personally, if I’m going to be exercising, I want it to be worthwhile and I don’t want to spend hours doing it, so pull-ups are an ideal way to build upper body strength and gain the benefits of strength training 

In the exercise world, we have four basic movement patterns around which exercises are formed: squat (all variations of), hinge (deadlift, kettlebell swing), push and pull. For the upper body, push and pull movements can be achieved using weights – a bicep curl is an example of a pull movement, and a chest press an example of a push.  

However, there aren’t many upper body exercises that can build muscle using only bodyweight. Push-ups are a very good way to build chest strength using bodyweight as resistance, and you can learn how to do a push-up with my step-by-step guide. To build back muscles, you need to do pull-ups.  

Pull-ups, or one of the many variations listed below, will strengthen the lats – the large muscles in the back. A lot of posture issues can stem from lack of upper body strength, particularly in the back and chest, so it’s important we work these muscles to keep them functioning for us.  

Pull-ups also work the shoulders, the muscles in the arms (particularly the triceps) and the core (stomach muscles and the smaller muscles in the lower back). They are what I’d call good value exercise!  

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What makes a perfect pull-up?

You might think that a perfect pull-up means hanging from a bar and pulling your bodyweight up until the chin is over the bar. But that’s not going to be the perfect pull-up for many people. As previously mentioned, the flexibility and versatility of children means they find pull-ups relatively easy – but as we age, they get harder.  

What’s perfect for one person won’t be the same for another. Some people may always need to use a resistance band to support them in a pull-up. Others may always need to do them from a standing position.  

It might also be that pulling yourself up, in whatever capacity, simply isn’t suitable for a variety of reasons. In this instance, the lats can still be strengthened by using a lat pull-down machine in the gym, doing superman exercises on the floor, or using a low bar. I’ll explain these, and more, below. 

How to do a pull-up

  1. Your pull-up bar needs to be secure and at a height where you need to jump up (or stand on a step) to grab hold of it.  
  2. Stand below the bar, feet shoulder-width apart.  
  3. Jump up or step off your platform, grabbing the bar in an overhand grip, hands shoulder-width apart. Make sure your thumbs are hooked over the bar rather than wrapped around it. Your feet should be able to hang freely underneath.  
  4. Fully extend your arms – this position is known as a “dead hang”. 
  5. Exhale as you pull yourself up, until your chin comes over the top of the bar.  
  6. Inhale as you slowly lower yourself under control.  
  7. Complete the desired number of repetitions.  

Tip: You can bend your knees and cross the ankles to help with stability, if needed. 

Common pull-up mistakes to avoid

Going too fast

The movement needs to be slow and controlled. If you go too fast, you could injure yourself.  

Kipping

This is when you use momentum in your lower body to do the pull-up – swinging the legs back and forth, for example. Try to keep the body as still as possible, so the arms and back do all the work.  

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Grip too wide

This will shorten your range of motion, so you won’t get as much out of the movement.

Flared elbows

Keep the elbows close to the body to avoid any shoulder injuries. 

Alternative pull-ups for beginners

Depending on your ability and upper body strength, any of the following adaptations or different exercises may be suitable for you instead of full pullups.  

Superman

  1. Lie face down on the floor (you could use a mat if you’d rather – I like the one listed below). 
  2. Fold your arms so your forehead rests on your hands.  
  3. Squeezing the glutes (bum muscles), lift the torso and legs in unison.  
  4. Lower back down slowly and repeat for your chosen number of repetitions (reps).  

Tip: You can make this harder by fully extending the arms, or easier by just lifting the torso.  

Lat pull-down machine

  1. Place the pin in a weight that will feel heavy to pull, but that is manageable. 
  2. Hold the bar in an overhand grip, arms wide, and pull the bar down with you as you sit.  
  3. Make sure arms are fully extended and then pull the bar down towards you, until it rests just under your chin/at the top of your collarbone.  
  4. Slowly extend the arms back to the starting position and repeat for the desired number of reps.  

Tip: You can use an underhand, narrower grip for more triceps activation, if you want. 

Dead hang

  1. Jump up or step off your platform and grab the pull-up bar in an overhand grip. Hands should be shoulder-width apart, thumbs hooked over the bar and not wrapped around it.
  2. Feet should be able to hang free – bend your knees and cross your ankles if needed (it also gives stability).
  3. With arms fully extended, hang for as long as possible – even if it’s just a few seconds.  

Tip: Gradually aim to build the time you can hang for – start with three rounds of three to five seconds and increase from there.  

Low bar pull-ups

  1. Use a solid bar that you can reach with outstretched arms when sitting on the floor.  
  2. Grip the bar in an overhand grip, thumbs hooked rather than wrapped around.  
  3. Place feet flat on the floor, knees bent, then use your arms to pull yourself up towards the bar, keeping feet on the floor.  
  4. Lower yourself slowly until arms are fully extended again then repeat for the desired number of reps.  

Tip: You can make this harder by extending the legs fully and balancing on the heels.  

Use resistance bands

  1. Hook a long resistance band over the pull-up bar then pull it back through on itself so it’s secure. 
  2. Jump up or step off your platform, grabbing the bar and putting either your foot or knee into the band (doesn’t matter which leg).  
  3. Follow the instructions for the pull-up above.  

Tip: You can also use a resistance band to practise the dead hang.   

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Leg raises

  1. Jump up or step off your platform to grab the pull-up bar in an overhand grip.  
  2. Your arms should be fully extended, thumbs hooked over the bar, and feet hanging freely – the dead hang position.  
  3. Think about pulling your shoulder blades towards your bum and tightening your core.  
  4. With your legs together, lift them to waist height then carefully lower back to the starting position.  
  5. Repeat for the desired number of reps.  

Tip: You can also use a resistance band to help and just raise one leg at a time.  

Pull-ups from standing

  1. Position your pull-up bar so you can grip it securely with both feet still on the ground (arms fully extended). 
  2. With an overhand grip, thumbs hooked over the bar, bend the knees slightly and use the feet to push you upwards.  
  3. Pause at the top then slowly lower yourself back to the starting position. 
  4. Repeat for the desired number of reps. 

Tip: Another option is to start at the top of the movement by stepping off a high step and lowering yourself down.  

Modifications

All the movements listed above can be made slightly easier by changing your grip. An underhand grip is used for chin-ups, which makes it easier to pull your bodyweight. It’s not a massive change – all the movement patterns stay the same – but it can make all the difference.  

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Becky Fuller

Written by Becky Fuller she/her

Published:

Becky Fuller is a fully qualified Personal Trainer, specialising in strength and conditioning for over 50s. Becky is passionate about Kettlebell training, and runs a regular kettlebell club in the local community. Prior to this, she worked as a Fitness manager in a local gym. Becky’s focus is helping people to become stronger both in body and mind, and to move well without pain.

Becky also has many years’ experience working as a freelance journalist, writing for a wide variety of publications such as Screen Rant, Geek Feed, and Daily Actor. She also regularly reviews theatre productions for UKTW.

Away from work, Becky unsurprisingly enjoys exercise, with a focus on lifting weights, kettlebells, and Olympic rings. She loves watching theatre, swimming, and reading a good book. She has three teenage children and enjoys spending time with them, preferably on a Cornish beach.

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