6 Tips to improving your Pull-ups or getting that first one!

This week I will be writing about 6 tips that you can use to help improve the no. and quality of Pull-ups or Chin-ups that you can do or indeed to help enable you to get that very first one!

Definition of Pull-ups

When I refer to Pull-ups or Chin-ups I am referring to the grip that we use for the different exercises. For Pull-ups we utilise a pronated  or overhand grip, think palms facing away from you. For Chin-ups we use a supinated or underhand grip, think palms facing towards you. There is also a neutral grip Pull-up which is where the palms face each other.

My suggestion for people who are starting out is to start out with either Chin-ups or the Neutral Grip Pull-up. Both of these movements utilise the biceps more than the traditional Overhand Pull-up therefore making them a little easier to start with.

To save confusion for the purpose of this piece I am simply going to refer to Pull-ups, however the same principles are applied for the Pull-up, Chin-up or Neutral grip Pull-up.

Quality Control

The Correct Movement – pulling from an active shoulder position, shoulders down and back thereby engaging the muscles in the back before we initiate the pulling movement.

When we do pull, we focus on pulling the elbows down and back as far as they can go breathing out as we pull up and inhaling on the way back down. The reason I suggest that we focus on pulling the elbows down and back is so we don’t put all of our focus into trying to get our chin over the bar. This often results in people craning their neck upwards to get their chin only mms above the bar. What we really want is for the whole head and neck to stay in a neutral position and to be well above the bar at the top!

During the whole movement our shoulders must remain down, do not allow your shoulders to end up around your ears. If you do allow your shoulders to creep up we not only end up engaging the wrong muscles and thereby not strengthening the muscles that we should be but you also increase the risk of injury.

Pull-up, Calisthenics

The Tips!


Rows are actually done with our feet on the ground throughout the whole movement. Even if you can already do Pull-ups, rows have a no. of benefits that should still have you doing them on a regular basis.

Rows enable us to work the muscles in the middle of the back (Rhomboids, Lower Trapezius) that tend to be underdeveloped in people who only do Pull-ups. These muscles help keep the shoulders back which reduces the risk of injury and enables us to work on getting full retraction i.e getting our elbows back behind the body and pinching the shoulder blades together. That full retraction is required when we start to look beyond Pull-ups to Muscle-ups and in particular Ring Muscle-ups. Rows are also a good warm-up and/or a finishing exercise if you wish to get a bit more into your workout but are unable to do more full bodyweight pulling.


This has been in my experience the most useful tool in getting people who haven’t been able to do any pull-ups at all to being able to do their first Pull-ups. You will need a bar that you can jump up to the top of and slowly lower yourself down from. Even if you can’t pull yourself up at all eventually you will find that you will be able to start pulling yourself up from a bent arm position.

Once that happens we can then pull from whatever bent arm position that you can without relying on that momentum from the jump. As we get stronger we eventually lengthen the angle of the bent arms until we get to the full range.

Increasing Time under Tension

On the very last rep of each set when you know that you won’t be able to get another rep in add in 5 seconds with your head above the bar, 5 seconds directly underneath it then 5 seconds on the way down. The¬†increase in the time under tension will eventually correlate to being able to do more repetitions.

Changing set nos. and rep ranges

Whilst having short rest periods between sets may feel good and helps increase your muscluar endurance it can hinder strength development. Try increasing the rest period in-between your sets so that you are capable of doing more reps and sets.

This is particularly relevant when you are doing maximal reps in each set. Trying to mercilessly bang out more reps when you are fatigued without adequate rest periods means you are more likely to fail to hit the nos. you want. Give yourself at least 90 seconds up to 3 minutes in-between the sets to allow yourself to get out more in each set.

Set a time challenge

If you find that you are struggling or you have hit a plateau where you can’t seem to get past doing 3 or 4 Pull-ups in 3 or 4 sets, then it’s probably time to mix it up a little. Set a time challenge where you attempt to do 1 Pull-up every minute for 20 minutes.

As it’s not a maximal effort and you give yourself time to recover in-between each rep you may find that you get out a 20 full Pull-ups rather than the 12-15 that you were getting previously. Even if you don’t get the full 20 out the first time around stick with it for a while and build it up. We don’t have to stick to 1 a minute here either it could be 2 every minute if you are looking to increase the nos. beyond 20.

Mix it up!

Eventually our bodies adapt to the stimuli that we provide it with and you will find that the rapid gains that we initially make will start to bottom out. This can be highly discouraging. A way to avoid this is to challenge our bodies in different ways.

To do this we can mix up the hand position that we use when training, so do Pull-ups, Chin-ups and Neutral grips. Need a further variation try a mixed grip Pull-up utilising a overhand and underhand grip at the same time. Add some weight to your body by hanging a weight off a dip belt, try a Chin-up with your legs in a L-sit position. All of these things will stimulate the muscles in your body in slightly different ways and as they say variety is the spice of life!

Happy Pulling



Calisthenic’s Coach

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