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How To Do The Most Difficult Pull Up Exercise (Your First)

The most difficult pull up exercise you can do is your first pull up. 

Here, I’ll teach you how you can get your chin up over the bar (safely) using exercises we use to strengthen shoulders in our physiotherapy practice every day.

If you’ve ever walked past the pull up bars at the gym or in the playground and marvelled at how effortless some people can make them look and then tried and tried but no. For some reason when you step up and grab onto the bar it just doesn’t happen for you? 

Well, this is a safe space. 

We’ve all been there. That first pull up is the hardest one to do but once you have both the strength and technique you’ll be a master of the bar. Feeling, strong, powerful, invincible. 

Oh, and maybe even a little bit special when others see you raising your chin up over the bar next time at the gym. But not everyone makes it. Here’s the unfortunate mistakes I’ve seen first hand along the way.

You need to train more than just your biceps.

Pull ups are a multi-muscle movement. 

You need strong hands and forearms for grip. Strong shoulders, core and back muscles. And yes, strong biceps as well. But you don’t need to be rippled with muscles like the big blokes at the back of the gym. 

Here are the main reasons I’ve seen people fail on their quest to do their first pull up exercise.

  • Only working the beach muscles (biceps and chest)
  • Thinking you have to have huge amounts of muscle mass to do a pull up (actually, extreme muscle mass can make a pull up exercises nearly impossible)
  • Quitting early, you must respect the pull up exercise to complete them
  • Not starting due to fear or pain of shoulder injury

All of these reasons can be overcome. 

Here I’ll teach you three vital exercises we use in our physiotherapy practice in Pascoe Vale. Stick with these and you’ll be raising your chin over the pull up bar soon enough.

Step 1: Start with a Scapula Pull Up Exercise

Scapula pull ups are the perfect start on your quest to achieve your first pull up. 

They’re essentially a quarter of a full pull up. These exercises teach scapula (shoulder) control during pulling motions as well as when your arms are raised overhead.

To perform a scapular pull up, first grab the pull up bar with an overhand grip, about shoulder width apart. 

  • Hang your body from the bar, with arms and legs long and elbows slightly bent. 
  • While maintaining a long arm position, pull your shoulder blades down toward your waist and slightly together, squeezing the muscles of your upper back. 
  • Movement should only occur at the shoulder blades. Pause in this position. Keep your arms long and allow your shoulder blades to move up and away from your waist while slowly lowering to the starting position. 

Perform this movement in the 8-12 rep range for 2-3 sets. 

Why Scapula Pull Ups?

When you improve scapula control it increases shoulder stability, which allows you to have more efficient movement. They also strengthen the muscles of your upper and mid back, as well as the latissimus dorsi. 

Additionally, the scapula pullup can assist with the pull up technique and prevent potential injuries. During a pull up, some people tend to pull themselves up using their upper traps rather than engage the appropriate back muscles.This can lead to neck pain or an injury. 

By engaging with muscles that control the scapula first, it allows for a more effective, fluent and stronger motion through the initial phase of the pull up. 

Step 2: Dominate a Dead Hang

dead hang pull up exercise demonstrated by pascoe vale physiotherapist
I promise my feet aren’t on the ground…

The dead hang gets it’s name from you guessed it, hanging loose from the bar. 

But, perhaps it’s also a hat tip to the connection between grip strength, and leading a long life? You see the dead hang builds vital grip strength (for a pull up exercises) but grip strength is also an independent factor for longevity.

Am I saying that a dead hang exercise will lead you to living longer? Not quite; but it might. A good dead hang exercise will make your pull ups much easier to complete. Here’s how. 

To perform the dead hang, start off by using a step or bench to reach an overhead bar with your arms. 

  • Grip the bar with an overhand grip (palms facing away from you). Aim to keep your arms shoulder-width apart. 
  • Move your feet off the step or bench so you’re hanging on to the bar, keeping your arms straight. Don’t bend your arms, just stay relaxed.
  • Hang for 10 seconds if you’re new to the exercise. Work your way up to a whole minute.

Repeat three times.

Why Dead Hangs

The dead hangs works by strengthening the forearm muscles and grip strength, which are essential for grip strength in during a pull up. 

Some studies show that grip strength can be indicative of decreased mobility later on in life, so improving this will get your future self thanking you. The dead hang also strengthens upper back muscles and core. 

Additional benefits of the exercise include spinal decompression, as well as stretching the upper back, shoulders and arms. 

Step 3: Easier Eccentric Pull Up Exercise

Eccentric pull ups are an easier stepping stone on your way to your first full pull up.

With an eccentric pull up you target the descending phase of the pull up which helps build vital strength. You’re essentially teaching your exact muscles the exact moves they need to pull you up over the bar while they’re working their way up to the task.

To perform an eccentric pull up exercise, stand under the pull-up bar and on top of a box or bench. 

  • Grab the bar and grip it overhand, with your hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart. 
  • Next, carefully jump off the box, secure your chin over the bar, brace your core, tuck the tailbone and squeeze your glutes. 
  • Slowly straighten your arms and control your torso to descend down into a dead hang. 
  • You want to aim to lower your body back down over about 5 seconds to ensure full control and muscle contraction. 

Reset by standing back on top of the box or bench and repeat. Perform this exercise with 2-3 sets of 4-6 reps.

And that’s it. 

If you work your way through these 3 simple pull up exercise progressions you’ll be able to step up to the chin up bar with confidence. Give a wry smile to yourself (or your spotting partner at the gym) and then launch into your first, second, third and all the way up to your 20th (or more) pull up.

Stick to it, you’ll love the feeling of mastering the pull up bar.

Oh, and watch out for these 3 pull-up mistakes we see people making all the time!

About the Author

pascoe vale physiotherapist mouhamed

Mouhamed is your physiotherapist who wants you to feel a win. That win might be overcoming your hip pain or it might be that feeling of triumph when you get your first full pull up done.

If you’re looking for a win you can book in with Mouhamed and our physiotherapy team in Pascoe Vale here.