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Few exercises are as beneficial for the back, chest, and arms as the pull-up. It is an integral part of any workout. However, even a single pull-up requires a significant amount of upper body strength, form, and coordination.

For a beginner, the pull-up can feel insurmountable. However, with some steady effort and practice, nailing the first rep of this milestone exercise is definitely possible.

Push-ups

Though they are far from most people’s favorite exercise, push-ups are one of the best possible exercises for a beginner, since they don't require equipment and there are many modifications.

Remember that while push-ups build the upper body, they are a whole body tension exercise. This means keeping the shoulders, glutes, and abs tight. If a full push-up is too much, start by placing your hands on the wall. The further from the wall you walk out your feet, the more challenging the exercise. Over time, slowly try lower objects, like benches, before ultimately performing a traditional push-up on the floor.

woman doing a pushup at the gym

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Inverted Rows

One of the best exercises for steadily building upper body strength is the row. Inverted rows are particularly perfect for working up to pull-ups.

This exercise is essentially the opposite of the pushup; the person pulls herself up using a horizontal bar or a strap device like a TRX. The bar should be just high enough for the arm to fully extend and the body should remain straight the entire time. The closer the body is to parallel to the floor, the more challenging the exercise.

illustration of a woman doing an inverted row with a TRX strap

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Burpees

For people unfamiliar with the burpee, it is essentially several exercises that flow into each other. Start by standing with your feet slightly past shoulder-width apart. Perform a squat and then place both palms on the floor. Kick the legs back to enter the push-up position. Do a single push-up and then quickly pull both feet under the body. Perform a small hop while staying in the same spot. Repeat as necessary.

This full-body exercise strengthens all of the muscles necessary for a pull-up while building up explosive strength. While it's not for everyone, if your goal is pullups, keep in mind that you don't have to do them at top speed — moving slowly and even spending a second in each position will be beneficial.

step by step of a woman doing a burpee

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Planks

While pull-ups are primarily an upper body exercise, a strong core is necessary to do them correctly. Planks simultaneously build up core and back muscles and can help prevent exercise-related injuries.

Get into a push-up position with both arms fully extended. The elbows should be directly beneath the shoulders, the shoulders, hips, and heels in a straight line, and the core firm. If this is too easy, lower the body and rest on the forearms rather than the palms.

woman holding a forearm plank

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Dead Hangs

For many people, it is not arm strength that limits their ability to do a pull-up, but grip strength. Dead hangs are nothing more than grabbing a pull-up bar and hanging from it with the arms fully extended. This move promotes grip strength, core strength, and shoulder health.

Make sure to squeeze the bar to activate the muscles. Avoid swinging or moving in any way.

muscled man hanging from a pull up bar

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Flexed Arm Hangs

A flexed arm hang is essentially the top portion of a pull-up, when the head is over the bar. Enter this position by using a box, chair, or just by jumping. Hang from the bar with elbows flexed at 90 degrees by the sides of the body and the chin above the bar.

Some people like to use an underhand grip to build some bicep strength. Hold this position for up to 30 seconds or as long as possible. Flexed arm hangs build grip and arm strength while promoting flexibility.

man holding the a flexed arm hang on a bar

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Negative Pull-ups

After building up some muscle and grip power, move on to the negative pull-up. This exercise is just the eccentric part of the pull-up.

Start in a flexed arm hang and then slowly lower the body into a dead hang. Because this works with gravity rather than against it, it is much easier than a traditional pull-up while working many of the same muscles. Do negative pull-ups slowly and with complete control.

woman lowering herself from a pull up on monkey bars

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Lat Pulldowns

Lat pulldowns mimic the pull-up and make it simple to start building up strength in the lats and biceps.

Sit at the machine and anchor the lower body using the thigh pad. Lean back about 20 degrees and brace the core muscles, avoiding arching the spine. Reach up to the bar and pull it down, focusing on drawing the shoulder blades down the back and together. Try to pull the elbows directly down, towards the floor. Continue pulling until the bar is close to the chest.

woman doing a lat pulldown at the gym

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Band-Assisted Pull-ups

The hardest part of a pull-up is the bottom, when the arms must now lift the body from the muscles' weakest point — full extension. Banded pull-ups use a support band that makes this section of the exercise easier.

Loop a strong exercise band around the pullup bar and step into it. Perform a pull-up, relying on the band’s support at the bottom of the exercise. Over time, swap to lighter bands, until you can get rid of them all together!

illustration showing an assisted pull up with an exercise band

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Jumping Pull-Ups

Like banded pull-ups, jumping pull-ups provide a bit of assistance to keep the exercise going. Place a box under a pull-up bar. Place both hands in a pull-up position on the bar and lightly hop from the box. Activate the back and arms to get the chin over the bar.

Make sure to descend slowly, focusing on control. When jumping, use the minimum amount of lower body power.


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This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.