How to Get Stronger at Pull-ups

Master these techniques and become really good at pull-ups.

The almighty pull-up: an exercise that requires full-body control and challenges even elite athletes. It’s one of the best upper body exercises out there, utilizing many major muscles like biceps, lats, scapula, forearms, and core all in one movement. It's certainly something to see someone throw heavy weights around in the gym. But to watch someone bust out 20 consecutive pull-ups like it's no big deal is a major feat of its own. 

Many of us skip pull-ups because they are so difficult to do.  But their difficulty is an indication of how beneficial they are.  If you're one of many people who feel that the journey to a pull-up is daunting, we’re here to show you that it doesn’t have to be! In fact, if you follow the correct steps toward gaining strength where you need it, and train your muscles with proper technique, mastering pull-ups will be more than attainable. 

Here, we’ll walk you through a step-by-step guide to get you stronger at pull-ups using incremental training techniques. This guide will include how to perform assisted pull-ups with resistance bands, which will eventually lead you to flawless, unassisted pull-ups.  

Ready? Let's hit it! 

Be Safe

Before diving into the pull-up training exercises, let's cover a few basic safety measures first. As always, the most important aspect of exercising is maintaining a healthy and capable body. We train for function in our day-to-day lives, and injury is not conducive to functionality. Make sure you're taking the following things into consideration before you get started.

  • Using Proper Equipment: 
Let’s talk pull up bars: This is the most obvious component in pull up training, and we need to make sure we have a setup suitable for our needs. Not all pull-up bars are created equal.
You may be familiar with tension-rod style pull up bars that you can twist to insert in a doorway. We don’t recommend using those. Why? Because if you don't secure the bar with screws, then it has the potential of falling from the frame, making it dangerous. 
Instead, make sure the bar you’re using screws into the walls on either side of it or the ceiling above, or is part of a freestanding rack like you’ll see at the gym. Make sure it’s truly solid and will not falter during use.
  • Start Slow

Believe it or not, getting better at pull-ups doesn’t need to (and, frankly shouldn’t) require jumping right into assisted pull-ups. While resistance bands make great tools for assisted pull-ups, there are a number of steps that are extremely important to focus on before we even get there.

It’s critical to both your safety and muscular development to master each of these beginner exercises before incorporating resistance bands into your training. Once your muscles know how to properly engage without thinking, you can move on to assisted pull-ups.

 

Focus on Pull Up Progression

We can’t reiterate it enough: in pull up training exercises, FORM IS KEY. As such, we’ll share 6 steps that should be followed chronologically. Focus on engaging the back and core muscles in each of these increasingly difficult exercises to help get to the last step—assisted pull-ups. 

Relying on arm strength is one of the most common mistakes in pull-ups. To mitigate that, focus on building a mind-muscle connection before all else. Only after back and core engagement becomes second nature should you think about increasing the difficulty to build muscle.

Related: Want to master even more moves? Check out our 90-Day Full Body Muscle Building Program.

Step 1: Active Hang

ACTIVE HANG – shoulders back and down

The first step is GRIP STRENGTH. If your goal is to perform 10 consecutive pull-ups, for example, you’ll need to guarantee your hands can hold the weight of your body for the duration of 10 full pull-ups. Start with this active hang exercise to work on your grip, plus the activation of your back and core muscles. 

Note: an active hang is very different from a passive hang. Make sure you’re engaging the proper muscles to lift yourself up and out of your shoulders. Here’s how to do it:

  • Grip the bar wider than shoulder-width distance, fingers facing forward
  • Lift your feet off the floor so the entirety of your body weight is hanging
  • Engage your scapula and lats, and pull your shoulder blades back and down
  • Your ears should lift up and out from your shoulders
  • Hang for 20 seconds x 3 sets

Step 2: Passive to Active Hang

ACTIVE TO PASSIVE

We’re going to subtly up the ante in this second step. In this exercise, we’ll be adding onto the active hang by lowering down into a passive hang, then repeating. The process of performing this motion in reps works the scapula and lats.

  • Grip the bar wider than shoulder-width distance, fingers faced forward
  • Lift your feet off the floor so the entirety of your body weight is hanging
  • Engage your scapula and lats, and pull your shoulder blades back and down
  • Lower yourself back into a passive hang, temporarily disengaging your scapula and lats
  • Repeat this motion 10 times  x 2 sets

 Step 3: Lat Pull-Down

LAT PULL-DOWN w/PULL UP BAR – bands stretched so elbows at sides

Now we’re entering the domain of pull up resistance bands exercises. Lat pull-downs using a resistance band reinforce how to properly engage the muscles needed to eventually crush pull-ups on a bar. In this step, specifically focus on using your lats instead of your hands and arms. Exercise-wise, this exercise is basically a pull up using a band instead of a bar. 

  • Place a medium resistance band around a pull-up bar, pulling one end of the loop through until tightly wrapped
  • Kneel on the ground underneath the resistance band, facing parallel to the bar
  • Rest your elbow in the loop of the band and grab the band with your hand above to stabilize
  • Pull your elbow all the way down towards your side using your lat muscles
  • Shoulder blades stay down and back throughout the movement; move slowly with control
  • Raise your elbow slowly towards the starting position
  • Repeat this motion 20 times x 2 sets

Step 4: Isometric Hold at the Top

PULL UP ISO HOLD – Chin to bar

Energy conservation is a huge component of being successful at pull-ups. By keeping your core tight and maintaining control throughout an entire movement, you can limit swinging and become much more efficient. In this exercise, we’ll be focusing on control by holding still at the top.

  • Start from the active hanging position
  • Pull yourself up so that your chin is above the bar ensuring your scapula and lats are engaged
  • Hold at the top for 10 seconds
  • Slowly lower yourself down to an active hanging position
  • Repeat this 3 times

Step 5: Eccentric Contraction

Pulling up with knees hanging above a chair

In this step, we’ll be performing assisted pull-ups using a chair or a box. The main focus is to lower yourself down slowly from your topmost position until your knees rest on the support. 

  • Stand on a stable chair/box to get above the bar
  • Get yourself into the isometric hold position from step 4 and bend your legs behind you
  • Lower yourself down to the count of 3 (an unrushed count!) until your knees rest on the chair
  • Pull yourself back up and repeat this until failure
  • If you can perform this 10 times x 3 sets, you’re ready to move onto the next step

Step 6: Assisted Pull-Ups with a Resistance Band

Assisted Pull up with Band

After completing steps 1-5, you will probably feel fatigued. Here’s your chance to put it all together in a controlled assisted pull up. We’re going to be using a resistance band to make sure our form doesn’t go out the door due to that fatigue. These are our favorite resistance bands to use for assisted pull-ups. 

Here’s how to do assisted pull-ups:

  • Wrap a resistance band around the bar (start with an X-heavy band)
  • Grip the bar wider than shoulder-width distance, fingers facing forward
  • Step on the bottom go the loop and rest your other foot behind it
  • Using your lats, scapula, and traps, lift yourself up until your chin is above the pull-up bar
  • Keep your core engaged; Try to limit swinging 
  • Lower down slowly to an active hang
  • Repeat 10 times x 3 sets

It’s important to utilize the right amount of assistance you need to complete 10 neat pull-ups. It shouldn’t feel easy, and it shouldn’t feel impossible. Because we’re focusing on correct pull-up form, we want 10 repetitions to be the perfect balance between exertion and ease.

For additional context, you’ll find a chart quantifying the assistance in each level of resistance band below. We recommend starting out with assisted pull-ups using an X-Heavy resistance band. Once you can easily complete those 10 assisted pull-ups, consider lessening the assistance.

Resistance Band

Assistance

X-Small

10 lbs

Small

20 lbs

Medium

30 lbs

Heavy

50 lbs

X-Heavy

70 lbs

In conclusion, pull-ups are an amazing exercise to improve upper body strength and total-body functionality. Whether you’ve already conquered the almighty pull-up or still working towards assisted pull-ups, you’ll notice that other exercises may seem easier to do with the additional strength gained from pull up training. 

By focusing on each of these components, you’ll develop more strength and gain the necessary mind-muscle connection to perform pull-ups effectively.

  1. Stabilize your core to increase efficiency and functionality
  2. Practice active hangs—never go passive, you’ll waste energy
  3. Don’t pull with your arms, pull with your elbows and back
  4. Increase your strength by controlling your negatives
  5. Bring it all together with assisted band pull-ups

With these techniques, you’ll be well on your way to great pull up form. We recommend engaging in this routine 2-3 times a week to develop technique and muscle without over-exertion. With hard work and dedication, you’ll see noticeable results within a month. 

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