Pull-ups are one of those rare things that are awesome and horrific at the same time. They’re awesome for a ton of reasons: they engage almost all muscles in your upper body and are a great way to build natural strength; they represent a very functional human movement; you look badass doing them; they impress the hell out of girls (that one might be debatable… If you’re a girl, though, they definitely impress guys.)

Unfortunately, however, they also happen to suck. They require a significant amount of strength, and many beginning athletes feel that performing an unassisted pull-up is hopelessly out of their reach. If you fall into this category, we have good news for you: you can learn how to do a pull-up. It’s a very natural human movement, and one that is certainly worth the struggle of learning. Regardless of your current level of fitness, the following assistance program will help get you on the track toward your first badass, jaw-dropping, unassisted pull-up.

Assistance movements
The following movements will help you build the necessary strength for your first pull-up. Depending on your level of fitness, you may find yourself unable to perform some of the following assistance exercises. Don’t lose hope! Simply follow the recommended reps, sets, and progressions, and give yourself time to become comfortable with the movements.

BODYWEIGHT ROWS
Bodyweight rows serve as an excellent precursor to the pull-up. They work the hell out of your lats and rear delts and demand a level of core stability similar to that of a pull-up. Even if you can already perform pull-ups unassisted, bodyweight rows will be well worth your time.

Set up: Bring a pair of rings (or a barbell) slightly lower than chest height. To perform the standard variation, position your feet a step or two in front of rings. Grab them and lean back until your arms are fully extended, keeping your abs and glutes tight. Unless you’re an ankle mobility champion, your toes will probably come off the ground. To make the exercise more difficult, move your feet forward.

Performing the movement: Maintaining a tight core and keeping your elbows tucked at your sides, pull yourself up until the rings make contact with your chest. Lower yourself back down to the starting position keeping your abs and butt tight.

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BANDED PULL-UPS
Banded pull-ups are another great movement for building up the strength to perform unassisted pull-ups. If you’ve ever taken the Cross Training class at SBB, you’ve probably seen these before. Ain’t no shame in using a band… for now.

Performing the movement: loop a band around a pull-up bar and place a box next to it to help you get in and out. With your foot secured in your band, grab the bar, and simply allow the band to assist you as you perform pull-ups. Ensure that you lower yourself until your arms are fully extended (and that your foot doesn’t get stuck in the band when you try to get off the bar).

ELEVATED BODYWEIGHT ROWS
So, normal bodyweight rows aren’t good enough for you, huh? Here’s a tougher variation. Do the same movement, but with your feet elevated on a box. Ensure that your hips don’t sag and that you maintain a tight core as you perform the movement.

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BANDED PULL-UPS
Banded pull-ups are another great movement for building up the strength to perform unassisted pull-ups. If you’ve ever taken the Cross Training class at SBB, you’ve probably seen these before. Ain’t no shame in using a band… for now.

Performing the movement: loop a band around a pull-up bar and place a box next to it to help you get in and out. With your foot secured in your band, grab the bar, and simply allow the band to assist you as you perform pull-ups. Ensure that you lower yourself until your arms are fully extended (and that your foot doesn’t get stuck in the band when you try to get off the bar).

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NEGATIVE PULL-UPS
Negative pull-ups force athletes to complete the negative phase of the pull-up (lowering one’s bodyweight) and thereby become familiar with the feeling of being on the bar unassisted. (If you can already string a few pull-ups together, try adding a few negatives to the end of your sets. Awesome way to improve pull-up strength.)

Set up: Place a box next to your bar and ensure that it is high enough to get you to the top of a pull-up (if not, you can just jump up.)
Performing the movement: Step (or jump) off the box, and slowely lower yourself to the ground. Ensure that your descent is slow and controlled. Let go of the bar, get back on your box, and repeat the movement.

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We know: everyone wants to be just like Pedro. Because he’s such a good guy, we’re going to pretend that he’s not craning his neck at the top of his pull-up…. (Don’t do that! We know it’s tempting, but the idea of “getting your chin over the bar” is a completely arbitrary standard. It doesn’t matter at all whether or not your chin goes over, as long as you get your chest near – or even better, touching – the bar.)

JUMPING PULL-UPS
Jumping pull-ups likewise serve as a nice stepping stone to unassisted pull-ups, as they are force athletes to complete a significant portion of the pull-up range of motion on their own.

Set up: Ensure your bar is low enough so that you can reach it with your feet on the ground. (If the bar is a little too high, just use a small box. We think of everything, huh?)

Performing the movement: Holding firmly onto the bar, jump off the ground, and immediately engage your upper body to pull yourself over the bar. Depending on how hard you push off from the ground, your jump will cover some of the range of motion, but be sure to finish the movement and slowly lower yourself back to the ground. Don’t just drop!

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“So, how should I incorporate all these movements?”

Regular, consistent training is vital to build up the necessary strength to perform a pull-up. We recommend doing some kind of assistance work at least three times a week in addition to your other workouts. Select one exercise from the listed assistance movements, and perform five sets of the movement before or after class. It doesn’t matter when you do it, just get it in.

Example assistance workout:

Day 1: 5×5 Bodyweight rows (complete with feet on 20″ box if able)
Day 2: 5×5 Banded Pull-ups (pick a band where rep 5 is the last you can do)
Day 3: 5×5 Negative Pull-ups
*2min rest between sets

Some final, pull-up-related words of wisdom

>> No matter how tempting it may be, resist the urge to try kipping pull-ups before you’ve mastered strict, unassisted pull-ups. Trying to use momentum to compensate for a lack of strength is a good recipe for injury.

>> Avoid craning your neck to get your chin above the bar. Not only does it look ridiculous, but doing so also compromises your spinal position and significantly increasing chance of injury.

>> Depending on your level of fitness, it could take months, or even more than a year to get your first unassisted pull-up. It’s important to note that one’s body fat percentage plays a significant role here; all your body fat will conspire with gravity and pull you to the ground like a kettlebell strapped around your waist, making pull-ups incredibly difficult. Do those hill sprints!… Or burpees!… Or boxing classes!… You get the idea.

>> Don’t let this happen: If it does, definitely don’t post it to youtube.