How to Do Pull-ups

Medically Reviewed by Mahammad Juber, MD on July 21, 2022
4 min read

Pull-ups are a great exercise to add to your next full-body or arm strength circuit, but they can be intimidating for those who don’t know how to do them. Don’t be intimidated! Pull-ups consist of a straightforward motion that you can build up to as you increase your strength with regular exercise.

Pull-ups are a classic exercise used to measure upper body strength because they require enough power to “pull” your entire body weight up, working against gravity. To do a pull-up, you need to grab onto your pull-up bar with straight arms, set your shoulders, and engage your back and arms as you lift yourself upward.

For many people, doing a single pull-up is a great challenge. Training to increase the maximum number of reps you can do is a tough but reachable goal. It can be a frustrating process because you won’t be able to see great progress until you’re able to successfully do a pull-up, but your confidence will grow with time and training.

The main muscle groups used when doing pull-ups include the latissimus dorsi and rhomboids, the largest back muscles, and the biceps and posterior deltoids. Your trunk and other stabilizing muscles assist in doing this motion.

To strengthen these muscle groups and get closer to successfully completing one or more pull-ups, you can incorporate the following exercises into your routine. All of these exercises require some sort of pulling motion, which will directly improve your ability to lift your own body weight:

Keep in mind that, although some of these are very similar to traditional pull-ups, they aren’t direct replacements for pull-ups.

  1. Your starting position should put you underneath your pull-up bar, with your arms reaching directly above your head and your palms facing away from you. Jump, reach, or raise yourself off the ground in order to grab the bar securely, with your thumbs wrapped all the way around it. Carefully cross one of your legs over the other to stabilize your bottom half. Engage your core to further stabilize yourself. Make sure your head is vertically aligned with your trunk and positioned evenly between your hands on the bar. Take on a neutral wrist position with your forearms and wrists aligned straight up and down. Pull your shoulders back and down, and try to keep this form through the entire pull-up.
  2. Exhale and slowly pull your body up by bending your elbows and pulling them down to your sides. Try to pull in a way that drives your elbows toward the ground while maintaining alignment with the sides of your trunk. Your body should be aligned vertically with the floor, and you shouldn’t swing your body forward or backward during the upward pull.
  3. Keep pulling yourself up until your chin is level with your hands. Briefly pause before slowly lowering yourself down to your starting position. Let your arms extend fully overhead while you maintain correct form in your shoulders and wrists.
  4. Repeat the movement, if possible.

During your training, to increase your max repetitions, you can try including these pull-up adaptations in your exercise routine:

  • Assisted pull-up. Loop a resistance band around your pull-up bar. Put one or both of your feet or knees onto the bottom of the band, depending on how long and tight it is. Follow the instructions for a traditional pull-up, and let the band assist you as you keep proper form and lift your head above the bar. Focus on creating the correct movement pattern.
  • Chin-up. Stand on a bench or jump box underneath your pull-up bar. Grab the bar with both hands in a palm-up grip. With a form similar to that of a pull-up, lift your chest to the bar. Take a brief pause at the top and lower yourself back to the starting position slowly. Although pull-ups and chin-ups are similar, the difference in grip and movement affects the body slightly differently.
  • Seated pull-up. Your starting position will be seated with your legs straight out in front of you, with a pull-up bar above your head within arm’s reach. Your heels should be placed on a small box or bench. Keeping the form of the traditional pull-up, bend your elbows and pull your body up until your chin is raised above the bar. Push down on your feet if you need extra assistance. Slowly lower your body back to the seated position.

Pull-up benefits include improved stability of muscle groups that help you do activities like swimming, rowing or paddling, climbing ropes or poles, wrestling, pole vaulting, and gymnastics. Otherwise, they’re standard proof of upper body strength and endurance in school testing, activities that call for strong upper bodies and military service.

When starting on your journey toward doing one or more pull-ups, you should be careful to learn proper form and movement so as to avoid injury. Common pull-up mistakes to avoid include:

  • Stretching your neck to get your chin above the bar instead of using your arms to lift your entire body up
  • Using lower-body momentum instead of keeping your bottom half static during the whole movement
  • Doing a partial pull-up instead of a complete one — although you’ll be able to do more repetitions, you won’t make true progress toward a full pull-up
  • Bending your shoulders inward as you pull yourself up instead of maintaining engaged, retracted shoulders

If you're unsure of your ability to correctly do a pull-up, get in touch with a professional for help. If you think you've injured yourself in the process, reach out to your health care provider right away.