The 10 Best Exercises to Help You Nail a Pull-Up, According to a Trainer

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Exercises such as rows, chin-ups and dead hangs can help you build enough upper-body strength to be able to do a pull-up.
Image Credit: miodrag ignjatovic/E+/GettyImages

Getting your first pull-up is a huge fitness milestone. I know it was one of the training goals I worked the hardest to achieve, and one I'm still proud of to this day. I've also helped dozens of my personal training clients nail their first pull-up, so I've seen over and over again how exciting and empowering it can be.

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It takes hard work, patience and persistence to achieve your first pull-up. To make the process a little easier, it's important to focus on building the physical traits you need to perform pull-ups:

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  • A strong back:‌ The main muscles responsible for pulling you up to the bar are your lats and other muscles in your upper back, which must be strong in order to do a pull-up.
  • A strong core:‌ Your core muscles help keep your ribs, spine and pelvis aligned during pull-ups. This efficient body position makes it easier to perform pull-ups.
  • A strong grip:‌ You need strong hands and forearms to be able to hold onto a pull-up bar.
  • Strong arms:‌ Pull-ups recruit your biceps less than chin-ups, but strong arms can still help you out.
  • Shoulder mobility:‌ It's tough to perform pull-ups safely if you can't get your arms fully overhead without arching your back.
  • Relative strength:‌ Relative strength is your ability to move your own body-weight. You can be really strong with weights, but if your relative strength is lacking, you'll struggle to do a pull-up.

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However, it's not enough to just train your back, arms and core if you want to be able to do a pull-up. You must also perform exercises that directly carry over to pull-ups.

Getting stronger overall helps, but you'll get better, faster results using a combination of the 10 exercises to help with pull-ups listed below, because these are the exercises that have the most carryover to pull-ups.

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1. Dead Hang

Having a strong grip is essential for being able to do pull-ups. You need strong hands and forearms to hold onto the bar for the duration of your set.

Dead hangs are the perfect exercise to help develop grip strength for pull-ups. They also help stretch tight upper- back muscles and can help improve shoulder mobility. These benefits make the dead hang a triple-threat exercise that should be a staple in your workouts if you want to eventually perform a pull-up.

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When you first experiment with hanging, you may only be able to manage a few seconds at a time. Add dead hangs to the beginning and/or end of every workout until you can easily hang for at least 30 seconds. You could also hang more frequently throughout the day if you have easy access to a bar.

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JW Player placeholder image
Region Upper Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Choose a pull-up bar or stable surface that’s high enough for you to hang from with your legs straight and feet off the ground. You can use a box to help you safely get up to the bar.
  2. Select your hand position and grip the bar tightly.
  3. Allow yourself to drop into a full hang. Your arms should be completely straight overhead. Because this is a passive hang, gravity will pull your body down toward the floor. Allow your shoulders to travel up to your ears and your legs to hang straight beneath you. You will likely feel a lot of stretching throughout your entire upper body.
  4. Hold the passive hang for a predetermined time interval or for as long as you can. When you are finished, place your feet on the floor or box and carefully release your hands from the bar.

2. Scapular Pull-Up

The hardest part of a pull-up is the beginning of the movement when you initiate the upward pull from a dead hang. Many people struggle to get out of this bottom position, which explains why it's common to see folks fail to lower themselves all the way down in between reps.

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Scapular pull-ups help you build the kind of upper-back strength you need to overcome the dead hang and perform full range of motion pull-ups. Progress to scapular pull-ups once you're comfortable with dead hangs.

JW Player placeholder image
Region Upper Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Choose a pull-up bar or stable surface that’s high enough for you to hang from with your legs straight and feet off the ground. You can use a box to help you safely get up to the bar.
  2. Select your hand position and grip the bar tightly.
  3. Allow yourself to drop into a full passive hang. From here, you will transition into an active hang by pulling your shoulder blades back and down, tilting your belt buckle to your chin and squeezing your legs in front of you. Hold this for 1 to 2 seconds.
  4. Relax back into a passive hang by letting gravity pull your body down. Then move back into the active hang. Keep moving between passive and active hangs for the desired number of reps.

3. Inverted Row

An inverted row is a body-weight pulling exercise that resembles an upside down push-up. Even though the plane of motion is different from a pull-up (a horizontal pull as opposed to a vertical pull), inverted rows help you build relative strength that translates well to pull-up performance.

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Inverted rows help you build a strong upper back and core. They also teach you how to keep your core engaged so you can maintain a moving plank as you pull your body. You'll need all of these skills to perform pull-ups. Because inverted rows are so much easier than pull-ups, this is a great exercise to try at the beginning of your pull-up journey.

You can perform inverted rows using a TRX, gymnastics rings, Smith machine or barbell placed securely in a power rack. Start with a height that allows you to lower yourself until your arms are straight and pull your chest all the way up to your hands. As you get stronger, gradually lower the bar or decrease your body angle with the floor.

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JW Player placeholder image
Region Upper Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. If you're using a TRX, gymnastics rings or another suspension trainer, adjust the handles to waist height. If you're using a bar, start with the bar at chest height or slightly below.
  2. Grab the handles or bar and walk your feet out so your body forms an acute angle with the floor. Smaller, steeper angles will be more challenging than larger angles where your body is more upright. Dig your heels into the ground and point your toes up to the ceiling.
  3. Keep a plank position as you lower your body away from the handles or bar. There should be a straight line running from your heels through your hips and shoulders. Lower your body until your arms are straight.
  4. Finish the rep by pulling your body back up. If you're using handles, pull until your elbows are even with your sides. If you're using a bar, pull until your sternum touches the bar. Keep your shoulders down and don't shrug.

4. Feet-Elevated Inverted Row

Elevating your feet while performing inverted rows can dramatically increase the difficulty of the exercise. Nevertheless, most people will still find these to be easier than pull-ups. Use feet-elevated inverted rows if you can't yet knock out lots of pull-ups but still want to increase your body-weight pulling intensity.

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Image Credit: Caroline Juster
Region Upper Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Grab a small box around 12 to 14 inches tall. Sit on the floor underneath a TRX, gymnastics rings or bar.
  2. Grab the handles or bar and place your heels on the box. The box should be far enough away from the handles or your back that you can keep your legs straight. Dig your heels into the box and point your toes up to the ceiling.
  3. Drive your hips up off the floor so your body forms a plank position. There should be a straight line running from your heels through your hips and shoulders.
  4. Start by pulling your body up. If you're using handles, pull until your elbows are even with your sides. If you're using a bar, pull until your sternum touches the bar. Keep your shoulders down and don't shrug.
  5. Finish the rep by lowering your body until your arms are straight.

5. Suspension Trainer Chin-Up

One of the best ways to get better at pull-ups is to use a suspension trainer like a TRX or gymnastics rings to imitate the movement. This is a great way to transition from horizontal to vertical pulling.

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Many people jump to doing band-assisted pull-ups. Although this can be a useful movement (more on this below), it's actually not as helpful as using a suspension trainer. That's because suspension trainer chin-ups use the same strength curve as real chin-ups and pull-ups: The movement is hardest at the bottom and easiest at the top. With band-assisted pull-ups, the movement is easiest at the bottom and hardest at the top.

There are three steps in this progression. As you move from step to step, you'll gradually pull more of your body-weight and receive less assistance from your legs.

Suspension Trainer Chin-Up (Level 1)

JW Player placeholder image
Region Upper Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Sit on the floor directly beneath gymnastics rings or a TRX with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. The handles should be high enough that you can just barely reach them when sitting on the floor. Grab the handles with your palms facing away from you.
  2. Initiate the movement by un-shrugging your shoulders and pulling your shoulder blades down into your back pockets.
  3. Pull yourself all the way up until your hands are at armpit height and your elbows are at your sides. Keep your shoulders down and don't shrug. As you pull up, turn your hands so your palms face in at the top. You can use assistance from your legs to help push yourself up as needed.
  4. Finish the rep by lowering yourself all the way down to the floor.

Suspension Trainer Chin-Up (Level 2)

JW Player placeholder image
Region Upper Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Sit on the floor directly beneath gymnastics rings or a TRX with your legs straight out in front of you and your heels on the floor. The handles should be high enough that you can just barely reach them when sitting on the floor. Grab the handles with your palms facing away from you.
  2. Initiate the movement by un-shrugging your shoulders and pulling your shoulder blades down into your back pockets.
  3. Pull yourself all the way up until your hands are at armpit height and your elbows are at your sides. Keep your shoulders down and don't shrug. As you pull up, turn your hands so your palms face in at the top. Drive your heels into the ground to receive assistance from your legs as needed.
  4. Finish the rep by lowering yourself all the way down to the floor.

Suspension Trainer Chin-Up (Level 3)

JW Player placeholder image
Region Upper Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Sit on the floor directly beneath gymnastics rings or a TRX. Place your heels on top of a box positioned in front of your body. The handles should be high enough that you can just barely reach them when sitting on the floor. Grab the handles with your palms facing away from you.
  2. Initiate the movement by un-shrugging your shoulders and pulling your shoulder blades down into your back pockets.
  3. Pull yourself all the way up until your hands are at armpit height and your elbows are at your sides. Keep your shoulders down and do not shrug. As you pull up, turn your hands so your palms face in at the top.
  4. Finish the rep by lowering yourself all the way down to the floor.

6. Eccentric Pull-Up

Eccentric refers to the portion of an exercise where the main muscles involved are lengthening or relaxing. By contrast, the concentric portion of a movement is when the target muscles are actively contracting or shortening.

The eccentric portion of a movement will always be stronger than the concentric portion. We can use this to our advantage when working on exercises that we're not yet strong enough to perform.

The eccentric portion of a pull-up starts at the top and continues as you lower yourself all the way down into a dead hang. Once you've built some strength with dead hangs, inverted rows and TRX chin-ups, you can add eccentric pull-ups to your training. Note that these can make you pretty sore the first time you try them, so it's best to start with fewer reps and build over time.

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You can perform eccentric pull-ups using a pull-up grip with your palms facing away from you and with a neutral grip (palms facing in) or a supinated grip (palms facing you). You can mix up your hand position depending on your strength levels, training goals and how your joints feel.

Region Upper Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Position a box underneath a pull-up bar and stand on top of it. Make sure the box places you fairly close to the top of the bar.
  2. Place your hands on the bar, then carefully jump from the box into the top position of your pull-up. Your chin should be over the bar.
  3. Lower yourself all the way from this top position to a full dead hang. For best results, go as slowly as possible and don't rush the bottom portion of the movement.

7. Flexed-Arm Hang

The flexed-arm hang is a challenging hanging exercise that helps build the kind of strength you'll need for those last few inches at the top of a pull-up. Traditionally, the flexed-arm hang is performed in the chin-up position with your palms facing you.

JW Player placeholder image
Region Upper Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Position a box underneath a pull-up bar and stand on top of it. Make sure the box places you fairly close to the top of the bar.
  2. Place your hands on the bar with your palms facing you, then carefully jump from the box into the top position of your pull-up. Your chin should be over the bar and your shoulders should be down away from your ears. Squeeze your legs together and hold them slightly in front of your body.
  3. Hold this top position for time. Try not to let your body sink towards the floor.
  4. When time is up, lower yourself all the way down in a controlled manner.

8. Band-Assisted Pull-Up

The band-assisted pull-up is a useful tool on your quest to perform full pull-ups. You receive assistance from a band that helps you overcome gravity. The band helps you up to the bar if you aren't yet strong enough to get there on your own.

One of the biggest benefits of band-assisted pull-ups is psychological because they help you become more comfortable on the pull-up bar. Grabbing onto the bar and pulling yourself up can be very intimidating! The boost you get from the band helps you gain the confidence that pull-ups are possible for you.

When you're doing these for the first time, you'll probably have an easier time using a chin-up grip with your palms facing in or towards you. Transition to a pull-up grip with palms facing away from you once you build more strength and get comfortable with the band.

As mentioned above, it's important to keep in mind that band-assisted pull-ups aren't as helpful in building strength for the bottom of your pull-up. Therefore, for best results, perform them in tandem with suspension trainer chin-ups and scapular pull-ups.

JW Player placeholder image
Region Upper Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Tie a resistance band of moderate thickness around the bar by placing the band on top of the bar and looping one end through the other. Make sure the band is secure and doesn't have any tears that could cause it to break while you're using it.
  2. Place a box next to the bar and stand on it. Pull the band down and loop it under the bottom of one foot.
  3. Grab onto the bar, then carefully step off the box and into a dead hang. Your legs should be straight and your arms should be fully extended above your head.
  4. Initiate the movement by un-shrugging your shoulders and pulling your shoulder blades down into your back pockets.
  5. Pull yourself all the way up until your chin is over the bar. Keep your shoulders down and don't shrug.
  6. Finish the rep by lowering yourself all the way down into a full dead hang.
  7. When you're done with your set, step back onto the box with the non-banded leg. Then carefully let go of the bar and remove the band from your other foot.

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9. Lat Pulldown

Not everyone has access to a suspension trainer, and some folks in larger bodies may struggle with suspension trainer chin-ups or eccentric pull-ups. You can use lat pulldowns in place of or along with any of the other exercises in this article to build a stronger upper back to aid in pull-ups.

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You can perform lat pulldowns with a variety of handle attachments, all of which will help you build a stronger upper back. If your ultimate goal is to be able to perform pull-ups, you should prioritize using a straight bar attachment with your palms facing away from you.

JW Player placeholder image
Region Upper Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Adjust the seat and leg pads so you can sit comfortably on the machine. Grab the handle from a standing position and then sit down. At the start of the movement, your arms should be as straight as possible overhead.
  2. Initiate the movement by un-shrugging your shoulders and pulling your shoulder blades down into your back pockets.
  3. Pull the bar down toward your chest. Ideally, you will be able to touch the bar to your collarbone or chest. Some taller folks may not be able to do this. If not, focus on pulling your elbows down toward your sides. Focus on squeezing your armpits to engage your lats in the bottom.
  4. Finish the rep by raising your arms back up above your head.

10. Chin-Up

The difference between pull-ups and chin-ups is your hand position, which in turn affects which muscles you're using.

Pull-ups are performed with a pronated grip, where your palms face away from you. Chin-ups can be performed with your palms facing in towards each other (neutral grip) or facing you (supinated grip.)

All three options rely heavily on upper-back strength. However, chin-ups recruit your biceps much more than pull-ups. This means chin-ups are a little easier to perform because you have more help from more muscles.

Nearly everyone will be able to perform chin-ups before they can perform pull-ups. And because the two exercises are so similar, you can use chin-ups to help you in the final stretch of your journey to get your first pull-up.

Chin-ups — especially neutral-grip chin-ups — can also be a more joint friendly option for folks who sometimes experience shoulder or elbow pain.

JW Player placeholder image
Region Upper Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Grab onto the handles of a bar with your palms either facing you or facing in towards each other. Use a small box as necessary to reach the bar.
  2. Lower yourself into a full dead hang. Your legs should be straight and held slightly out in front of your body. Your arms should be fully extended with your body lowered as far as you can.
  3. Initiate the movement by un-shrugging your shoulders and pulling your shoulder blades down into your back pockets.
  4. Pull yourself all the way up until your chin is over the bar. Keep your shoulders down and do not shrug. Maintain a plank position and don't allow your back to arch or your legs to swing back behind your body.
  5. Finish the rep by lowering yourself all the way back into a dead hang.

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