As far as calisthenics moves go, pull-ups are in a peculiar spot.

You can be in great health, even work out a decent amount too, but still be incapable of performing even a single one.

Given how good of an exercise a pull-up is, this is a sad state of affairs.

Thing is, there is nothing mystical about it. Whether or not you can do a pull-up, and the number reps you can perform if you can, it all comes down to one factor alone: hard work.

With willpower and the right approach, everyone can reap the benefits of this first-class move.

Why You Should Commit to Pull-ups

As a compound move, pull-ups employ a large number of diverse muscles.

The relative heaviness of the human body all but guarantees that these muscles will be pushed through a whole lot of resistance. This is of course a good thing, and will eventually result in:

  • Strengthening of your back muscles. When it comes to this, few calisthenics moves can compete with, let alone beat the pull-up. Your latissimus dorsi  (also informally known as the lats), trapezius, thoracic erector spinae, and infraspinatus will all benefit immensely from the exercise. Want that wing-like look underneath your armpits? You will want to work your lats.

  • Strengthening of your arms and shoulders. This will start out subtle, but will become more and more noticeable as you persist with the program. Combined with the above-mentioned effect on your back, this will be essential for getting that upside-down triangle upper body look that everyone strives for, but few attain and keep.

  • Improvement in your grip strength. A firm grip is universally useful, given that it helps with both exercising and a bunch of everyday activities. Given that you will be holding more or less your entire bodyweight, the pull-ups’ effect on your grip should not come as a surprise.

  • A more confident you. The knowledge that you are one of the few who regularly do what others can’t is nothing to scoff at. It is almost like a silent badge of honor.

Before You Start—and Why Abs Matter

As everyone will tell you, the only pull-up that you will ever really want to do is the strict pull-up, or the hollow body pull-up as it is also called.

As the latter name would have you know, this is a pull up that you perform in the hollow body position.

It distributes your weight and engages everything you have in order to maximize resistance (and subsequently results).

This will of course be impossible when starting out (or even mid-tier), but striving for a proper, strict pull-up will always be a good thing. Do your exercises when you can, the way you can, while trying to keep your form as proper as possible. You will eventually get better.

In the meantime, you could (and should) add sets of core exercises like the aforementioned hollow body hold. If you wish to take things further still, then we also recommend:

All of these will help bring you closer, step by step, to the best possible way that you can do pull-ups, which will in turn result in the highest possible benefits. Aim for 8-12 reps, 3-5 sets, every second day or so. And as always, don’t forget to warm up.

Before We Start: Can’t do a Pull-up?

Like with every other exercise, the only way to improve your pull-up game is to keep doing them.

If you are unable to complete a single one though, then this of course becomes next to impossible. The following exercises will help you with that:

So an example program of working up to a pull-up would look something like this:


  • Warm-up
  • Hollow Body Holds: 4-6 instances of 20-30 second holds (or until failure)
  • Bar Hangs: 4-6 instances of 20-30 second holds (or until failure)
  • Flexed Arm Hang: 2-3 sets of 20-30 second holds (or until failure)


  • Warm-up
  • Hanging Shoulder Shrugs: 4-6 sets of 6-8 reps
  • Flexed Arm Hang: 2-3 sets of 20-30 second holds (or until failure)
  • Hanging Leg Raises 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps


  • Warm-up
  • Eccentric Pull-ups: 3 sets of 4-6 reps
  • Hollow Body Hold: 4-6 instances of 20-30 second holds (or until failure)
  • Hanging Shoulder Shrugs: 4-6 sets of 6-8 reps

Sunday (or Test Day)

Simply try and do a regular pull-up. Once you can do that, move on to two in a row. Don’t forget the proper form. Once you are able to pull off three strict ones in a set, you may be ready to start moving on.

The Advanced Program: Pull-ups or Bust

Remember all that structure from above? Great, now toss it into the garbage! The advanced program doesn’t need any of that.

What we will do here will come down to two things: your core exercises and the pull-ups themselves.

By this point you will certainly be able to cobble up a core program from either the exercises from above or somewhere else. Regardless, after getting the core out of the way, prepare to go hard on those pull-ups.

Do as many as you can, until failure, while maintaining as proper of a form as possible. Take a longer break (two to four minutes), then go at it again.

This is a great way of progressing in a single exercise, and you’ll quickly start seeing a sharp rise in your maximum number of reps. You can even take liberties with the number of sets, but try not to go over six.

Of course, the overall aggressiveness of this approach will demand that you take at least two days of rest between sessions.

Don’t worry, you’ll have not only earned that peace, but the burn will make you mourn its absence when the time comes for the next session.

But by then you’ll be able to do more reps, and the cycle will continue.

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