How to Do a Pull Up (Esp. for Women)

Me doing a pull up

Struggling with doing a single pull up? I was in the same boat for a very long time, but I’ve finally figured out a process that worked for me. Hopefully it can help someone else too.

I think this post applies to anyone who is struggling with doing a pull up, but that is most commonly women, so there will be some specific bits of advice relating to that. On average, women start off with a weaker upper body, and our weight is balanced a bit differently. Women definitely can do pull ups though, it’s just a matter of time and effort.

A quick note: some people get pull ups and chin ups confused. The difference is in the grip. For chin ups, hands are facing towards you, and in pull ups away from you. From what I’ve seen chin ups are easier for most people. To generalize, if you can do a pull up, you can probably do a chin up, whereas it doesn’t work vice versa. So you might as well emphasise pull up training more, and check in with your chin ups occasionally.

General advice

Most of my training was done using resistance bands, and I would happily recommend them. I use these bands. There’s a lot of similar options on Amazon and elsewhere. I went with these because instead of a random brand logo, they actually display some useful information, namely the weight assistance of the band.

To use them, loop a band over a pull up bar and hook it over the top. If you can, put both feet in the band. If you only use one, make sure to switch them out so you don’t end up with an imbalance. Use a stool if you’re shorter, and ideally have a friend help you at first. You could put your knees in, but then it’s harder to ensure that your core is properly engaged. When doing a pull-up, you should be practically in a dish/hollow hold position.

If the band with most resistance is still not enough for you, you can combine several bands. This is not abnormal for women who are just beginning their journey, so don’t worry too much about it – you’ll get better. However, it’ll help if you have a partner, since getting yourself in will be harder.

In addition to training with the band, it’s useful to do at least some practice without, so you can get used to the feeling. I usually start with some scapula pull ups to warm up. In these, you only move your shoulders, but keep your arms straight.

If your grip is weak, the simplest way to train it is by simply hanging on the bar. Make sure to keep your shoulders and core engaged though, don’t just flop. Practice also a static hold at the top of a pull-up and at the mid-point (elbows at 90 degree angle).

By default your hands should be roughly shoulder-width apart, perhaps a tiny bit wider. You can train pull ups with a different grip for variety: wide grip, narrow grip, or mixed grip (one palm facing towards you and the other away from you), or train chin ups too.

Other exercises that are meant to help are:

  • negatives (jump up to a pull-up position, then lower down as slowly as possible)
  • bent over rows
  • inclined pull ups

I had tried all of above before, but I didn’t actually use them during the months in which I actually gained my pull up. So I’m more mentioning them here for posterity; perhaps they’ll work for you better than they did for me.

Training at least twice, but ideally 3 or 4 times a week, will be necessary. The number of reps and sets is not set in stone and I varied it quite a bit. As a starting point, you can try 5 sets of 5 pull ups and go from there. If you’re not struggling on the last couple of reps in your set, your band is too easy.

If you want to read a female marine sergeant’s perspective on how to do a pull up, read this paper. The gist is: practice real pull-ups as often as possible. She doesn’t advocate bands as much, but I think they are very helpful for progression and tracking until you get to the thinnest band.

A quick note on flexibility. If your shoulders are currently relatively flexible and you like it that way, make sure to incorporate shoudler and back stretches into your training regularly. As muscles get stronger, they get tighter and less flexible, if you don’t actively counteract that.

My Journey

I had wanted to do a pull-up for years. I did some training for it, but it was far from consistent. For example, I was doing aerial or pole classes about once a week for a few months. Occasionally I would go to a distant park where I could test doing some pull-ups on a bar, since there weren’t any conveniently close to me, and unfortunately we can’t install a bar at home. While I gained a bit of upper body strength, I didn’t get anywhere near doing an actual pull-up.

Towards the end of 2018 I started ramping up my training. In 2019 it actually became frequent & consistent in the form of Calisthenics classes at Blok, which I attended initially twice and then three times a week. I started seeing real progress. In June, I managed to do my first proper pull-up.

It took me an average of about two months to progress through a band. The above link has 4 options. I’ll name them by colours, but be aware that those vary by manufacturer. In order of assistance, from most to least: black, green, blue, red.

Briefly in the very beginning, November 2018, I used the one with heaviest resistance (black). However, I started off already close to the next stage, so I quickly moved on to green. I used exclusively green in December, January and start of February (taking a break for Christmas didn’t exactly accelerate my progress).

On 12 February I first used the next stage band, blue, to do a couple of pull-ups. Since I could only manage about two in a set, I continued training with a mix of green and blue. Each week I did more on blue and less on green.

On 2 April I first used the last band, red, to do a couple of pull ups. At this point I could still only do about 5 on blue on my best set. Similarly to before, I continued training with a mix of red and blue.

At this point, I anticipated that I would be able to do a pull up at the end of May. It turns out I wasn’t too far off: on 7th of June I managed to do my first pull up. (I could do 4-5 on red at the time.) In the beginning it was only one pull up a day a day, then one a set, and then more. Getting to two still felt like it took a long time (over a month), but compared to the 6 or so it took to get to a single one, it wasn’t really.

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