Can't Do Pullups? Try These 3 Pull Up Progressions

Lee Boyce
Written By: Lee Boyce
May 1st, 2017
Updated: June 13th, 2020
Categories: Articles Training
40.6K Reads
Can't Do Pullups? Try These Progressions
Having trouble conquering your goal of being able to perform pull ups? Have no fear, these three steps will help you build the muscle required to do pull ups.

If you’ve read my stuff before, you’ll know I think that the bench press gets a little too much credit.

For a healthy bodied individual, the pull up should be viewed as a gold standard for upper body strength.

It involves more of the upper body, targets more important muscles, and is generally harder to excel at.

Most people gravitate towards other movements to take the easy route, but that won’t lead to gains you can be proud of.

When you peel back the layers of many mirror-muscle aficionados, it’s often revealed that proper pull ups or chins don’t even enter their routine, and their performance is abysmal.

If you’re in a similar scenario (or you’re a beginner with earnest intentions of learning to do your own pull ups), then you need to start from ground zero.

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The Problem

Most people who aren’t good at pull ups start themselves off on the wrong foot by hitting the assisted pull up machine right off the bat. Though this may help with learning the mechanics of the lift, there’s very little that translates to learning good form bodyweight pull ups using this method.

Related: Everything You’ve Never Been Told About the Pullup

That’s why you’ve likely rarely seen anyone who routinely uses the assisted pull up machine actually get strong enough to do them on his own. Sometimes taking the plunge into the lion’s pit with the least assistance is the only way to see gains – the difference is, approaching things smartly will keep your form on point and keep you safe also.

Step 1: Learn to Use your Back

Most overlook the fact that there’s still a proper way to do pull ups in order to keep your back involved for the majority of each rep. If you’re not starting your pull ups off by initiating the movement with a shoulder depression and retraction, you’ve lost the fight before it’s even begun.

Simply put, to engage the back, you need to lower and set your shoulders under load. If you don’t, your biceps will dominate the lift and you’ll get minimal back development from your efforts. Better to take advantage of such large muscles to assist your preliminary efforts in learning this movement.

Doing straight sets of scapular initiations is the best way to light up your lower traps and get the hang of the first ¼ of your pull up rep. Check the video below to get the instructions.

Once you’ve gotten stronger from the bottom phase, it’s time to get stronger at the very top phase.

Step 2: Use Isometric Holds

The great thing about isometrics is that they encourage a muscle to put out a peak contraction, often in a place in the force curve where that muscle would usually rely on momentum and kinetic energy to pass through that point.

Doing isometric holds at the very top of a pull up (or very near the top position) is a smart way to strengthen what’s usually a weak point for lifters’ pulls.

This is something that can be practiced by setting a bench up at your pull up station and assisting yourself to the top position. Then just stay there for sets of 15-30 seconds (remember the flexed arm hang test in high school gym class?).

If that’s too daunting to do with your current entire body weight, scale things back a notch by making the isometric more functional and changing the modality to lower the load. Doing paused rep lat pulldowns are a fair second option to focus on maintaining good form and technique.

Step 3: Use Eccentric Reps

It’s time for a little science lesson.

Imagine you’ve been told to do a set of bench presses ‘to failure’, using 80% of your max.  You load the equivalent weight on the bar and, with a spotter, you get to it.  10 or 11 reps in, you reach failure. 

How do you know you reached failure?  You may answer, “because I could no longer push the weight off my chest, and my spotter had to help it back up to the rack”. And that’s a fair answer. But only half of it.

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What you just experienced was “positive” or concentric failure.  I can guarantee that if after that 11th rep, your spotter helped the bar back up to the top position and then asked you to hold the weight at the top yourself for another 10 seconds, or have you lower the bar once more to the chest slowly and under control, you’d be able to do that.

That’s because these moves call to action your strongest muscle fibers. Most everyone can lower more than they can lift, and exploiting the fatigue of this capacity can be huge for improving strength in any movement.

Related: Eccentrics - Build Strength With Heavy Negatives

With that said, being able to last a 10 second eccentric pull up can do wonders for improving your proficiency on the concentric side of the rep – even if you can’t yet do one. Once again, using a bench setup, assist yourself to the top of the lift, and with set shoulders, allow yourself to lower very slowly.

Don’t give up until you’ve reached a dead hang (the biggest mistake people make is killing the rep while the arms are still bent). Take a second, and then repeat. Focusing on sets of 6-8 good quality negative reps will mark a real boost in your strength.

Putting it All Together

You’ve just gotten a formula for being able to do a pull up. If you follow these steps you will, but it’s important not to jump the gun.

Doing your own pull up is a huge victory in itself, and rather than practice bad habits once you’ve learned that, it’s better to reinforce good form by playing it smart.

So rather than stretching your good single or double in to a sloppy set of 8 or 10 after a short time, focus on clustering your reps.

Making a goal of 30 perfect pull ups, done in sets of 2 at a time, with 30 seconds between each set is a good way to start building your work capacity in this movement, and your form should stay on point using this approach too.

Posted on: Thu, 03/05/2020 - 13:06

I am in total awe of those guys and girls I see at the gym who seem to make ripping out a set of pull ups look smooth and effortless like they have been doing them since they came out of the womb. As a goal, I desperately want to be able to do my own pull ups. At 49, I almost feel like I am a bit behind the curve and feel like I am going about it the wrong way.

Is there an organized progression or combo routine of the 3 mentioned pull up progressions that I can incorporate into my regular workouts to help me reach my goal? Currently, I am following the full body MFT workouts 3 days per week - That being the case, I would think that I would want to tackle the pull up progression training at the beginning of each workout when I am fresh.

If there is any recommendations you are able to provide that you think will help me in training to do my first legit pull up, I am all ears.

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Posted on: Thu, 03/05/2020 - 13:24

Hi Jason,

We don't really have a good program on the website that does that. I would recommend checking out my friend Meghan Callaway's Pull Up Program:

It's not free, but it's a good program with solid progressions to help you get there over the course of several months.

(This isn't a paid promotion or anything - She's simply one of the best in the industry when it comes to talking about pull ups and helping people being able to do them.)

Hope this helps!

Posted on: Mon, 03/09/2020 - 14:03

Appreciate the response back Josh. I did look at Meghan's site. Unfortunately, I can't justify that much money for pull up training. Plus, there is 160+ pages of documentation that I really don't have the time or interest to read through.

I have decided to try 4 super sets each of Dead Hangs, Flexed-Arm Hangs, and Negatives (3 reps) at the beginning of my workouts and see how that works towards my goal of doing pull ups. I'm not sure if that is not enough or if it is too much too fast for developing the muscle groups and technique.

If there is any other advice or knowledge you can share on the topic of pull up training, I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts.