Perfect Your Pull Up: A Step By Step Manual

Perfect Your Pull Up

It’s time to get that first pull-up! Mastering the pull up movement can be a difficult and frustrating process if you don’t know where to start. When I first learned this movement, I remember going through about 10 or so reps with my buddy giving me assistance through my legs. I collapsed off the bar and immediately felt like I was going to throw up. Since then, I have found that there are many ways to scale and progress towards a full pull up. As a physical therapist and a CrossFit coach, I have found the exercises and progressions described below to be very useful in helping individuals achieve their first pull up.


Scap pull up: This is an important step to make sure that you initiate the pull up with muscles that will stabilize the shoulder joint.
Start with a dead-hang on the bar.
Depress your shoulder blades to elevate your body slightly. The elbows will stay extended!
Slowly lower yourself back to the dead-hang.
Cue: think about putting your shoulder blades into your back pocket.
Regression: start with this exercise on a lat pull-down machine so that you can control the amount of weight being pulled.


Ring or TRX Row: This exercise will engage the latissimus dorsi and trapezius, the prime movers in the pull up.
Pick an appropriate starting position: the closer your torso is to the horizontal plane, the more challenging the exercise will be.
Squeeze the shoulder blades together to initiate the movement.
Pull towards the handles until they are just about at your chest.
Reverse the motion slowly.

Strength Building:

Negative pull up: This exercise will help build eccentric strength through the pull up movement.
Start by standing on a surface that allows your chin to pass the pull up bar.
Assume the top of the pull up position and slowly lower yourself down until your elbows reach full extension.
Continue to assess if you can INCREASE the amount of time it takes you to lower yourself down.
Stand back up to start the next rep.
Regression: use a long elastic band for support throughout the lowering portion of the movement.


Assisted Pull Ups:

Banded pull up: This modification is good for individuals having trouble initiating the pulling motion.
Attach band to pull up bar appropriately and place one foot in the bottom of the band.
Complete the pull up while being conscious of cues such as “put your shoulder blades in your back pocket” to start building appropriate motor patterns for the movement.
Note: More resistance on the band will decrease the amount of strength required to complete the motion.


Box assisted pull up: This motion allows you to directly choose how much assistance is needed to complete the rep.
Start by standing on a surface that allows your chin to pass the pull up bar.
Come to full elbow extension while standing on the box; your knees will be bent and you may even find it beneficial to be on your toes (see visual below).
Begin the pull up motion and use your legs to raise you up as much or as little as needed.
Once your chin has crossed the bar you can either control the descent with your legs as well OR take your feet off the box and practice the eccentric movement as described above in the Negative Pull Up.
CUES: Make sure throughout the rep, regardless of how much assistance is coming from the legs, that you are squeezing you are thinking about “shoulder blades to the back pocket” or “getting your elbows to your hips” to keep your upper extremity muscles active.
PROGRESSION: Take one foot completely off the box to further increase the demand on the upper extremity muscles.



From the dead hang, engage the shoulder blades as described in the scap pull up.
Adduct the arms and bend at the elbows to complete the rep with your chin over the bar.
Control the descent until you come to full elbow extension.
CUES: Throughout the rep think about “shoulder blades to the back pocket” or “getting your elbows to your hips” to keep your upper extremity muscles active.


Pull Up Progressions:

Weighted pull up: Once an athlete is comfortable with a pull up, I like to recommend trying a weighted pull up. Just like other movements we train (i.e. squats, lunges), once we have the inherent strength to complete reps with bodyweight, adding weight to the movement will continue to help us develop strength. This may mean just starting by putting a 5 pound weight in your pocket to start! In addition, once you remove the added weight, the body weight pull up should feel even easier and translate into an increase in consecutive reps!

Below are some ideas for weighted pull-ups:

  • Weight vest
  • Weight belt with dumbbell or kettlebell attached
  • Dumbbell or medicine ball between your feet

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