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How to do a pull up: A step-by-step guide

A fitness trainer shows you how to get strong enough to do a pull up.

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Pull ups are advanced and challenging, but you can train to get strong enough to do one.

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If you've ever seen someone do a pull up at the gym (or on Instagram) and thought, "I could never do that," you're not alone. Pull ups are one of the most challenging workout moves for anyone to attempt since they require advanced strength and training. That said, you can definitely work your way up to being able to do a pull up slowly over time. 

How long it takes is, of course, dependent on your current fitness level and strength, but anyone who is willing to put in the time and consistency can get there. 

Read more: The best at-home fitness equipment in 2020

Heather Marr, a certified trainer and founder of Liftologie, says pull ups are a highly efficient and convenient exercise to master and add to your fitness repertoire. "Pull ups are a functional exercise that target the muscles in the back and improve grip strength, core stability and posture," she says. "They are a compound exercise, which makes them a very efficient use of training time. Since only an overhead bar is required, they are a convenient exercise that can be performed just about anywhere." 

Interested in taking on the challenge? Here Marr explains how to work your way up to doing pull ups with correct form. With pull ups, your patience and consistency will pay off over time -- so stick with it and keep reading to find out more.

How to do a pull up

If you suspect you're strong enough to do a pull up, the only way to know for sure is to try one. Make sure you have a trainer or friend with you to spot you and assess your form. "One sure-fire way to know if you're ready to do a full pull-up is to put your strength to the test. Try performing a repetition and see if you're able," Marr says. 

Once you try doing a pull up, read Marr's instructions on how to do one with perfect form. This is not a move you want to do incorrectly, given that form mistakes often lead to aches, pains and injury.

Marr's instructions on how to do a pull up with perfect form:

1. Start with your hands on the bar approximately shoulder-width apart with your palms facing forward. 

2. With arms extended above you, stick your chest out and curve your back slightly. That is your starting position. 

3. Pull yourself up towards the bar using your back until the bar is at chest level while breathing out. 

4. Slowly lower yourself to the starting position while breathing in. That is one rep.

Pull up tips for beginners

If you're new to exercise or pull ups, then you want to take baby steps in order to master this advanced move. Here's how to start.

Decrease resistance with a pull up machine

"If you're unable to perform pull ups using your full body weight, simply begin by decreasing the resistance," Marr says. "If you have a gym membership, you will most likely have access to an assisted pull-up machine. Here, you're able to offset some of your bodyweight to perform your repetitions. As you get stronger, you'll perform the repetitions with more and more of your own weight." 

Decrease resistance at home with bands

If you're working out at home, you can install a pull-up bar on a door. Once you do that, you can use exercise bands to help offset the weight.

"If you don't have access to an assisted pull-up machine, you can purchase exercise bands," Marr says. "The band is attached to the bar overhead to offset some of your weight. You will place your knee or foot in the bottom of the band and perform your repetitions. Bands may be purchased in varying strengths to provide the assistance you need."

Grab a friend to help you

"If you have a training partner, you can put them to work. Your partner will hold your feet or legs and help to lift you. This will offset some of your body weight while you perform your repetitions. As you get stronger, the assistance required by your training partner will of course decrease.

Another option is the negative pull up with an isometric hold. Here, you'll jump up to the bar using some momentum to help pull yourself up. Hold the position, and then lower down to the starting position as slowly as possible.

Strengthen key areas of the body that help with pull ups

Pull ups do require a lot of upper body strength, but don't forget that your back also needs to be strong enough to help support your weight. "Focusing on strengthening the muscles in the back is important," Marr says. "If you aren't ready to do a full pull up, be sure to incorporate exercises like bent over rows and inverted rows into your programs. As you get stronger performing the moves, be sure to increase the resistance."

Exercises to help you get strong enough to do a pull up

Inverted row

This exercise is performed using a smith machine or in a rack with a barbell. 

1. Begin by setting the bar at approximately waist level. Position yourself under the bar, facing up. 

2. Grasp the bar with hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart, using an overhand grip. 

3. With your legs extended and body in a straight line, pull yourself up towards the bar using your back while breathing out. Here the bar will be at, or nearly at, your chest level. 

4. Pause, then slowly lower back down while breathing in. That is one rep. 

If this move is too difficult to complete your repetitions, you can place your feet closer to you with your legs bent, or you can raise the bar higher than waist level. If this move is too easy, you can elevate your feet with the legs extended.

Bent-over barbell row

This exercise is performed using a barbell, preset weight bar or dumbbells.

1. Begin standing with your feet approximately shoulder-width apart. 

2. Bend at your knees, leaning forward from the waist with your back straight. 

3. Grasp the bar with your hands just slightly wider than shoulder-width apart using an overhand grip, arms hanging extended. 

4. Begin rowing the bar towards your sternum with elbows tucked while breathing out. 

5. Pause, then slowly lower the weight back down while breathing in. That is one rep.

If the move is too difficult to complete your repetitions, decrease the load. If it's too easy, increase the load.

Lat pull downs

This exercise will be performed using the cable pull-down machine.

1. Adjust the pad to your legs for a snug but comfortable fit to minimize movement. 

2. Grasp the bar with your hands wide, using an overhand grip. 

3. Using your bodyweight, drag the weight down safely and position your legs under the pad, seated. 

4. With your arms fully extended, lean back slightly, keeping your head in line with your body. Pull the bar towards your chest using your back while breathing out. Keep your elbows down and core tight throughout the movement.

5. Pause, then slowly return the weight until your arms are extended above you while breathing in. That is one rep.

Again, if the move is too difficult to complete your repetitions, decrease the load. If it's too easy, increase the load.

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.