5 Reasons Why You Can’t Do Pull-Ups

If you can’t do a pull-up, you’re not alone. Pull-ups are one of the most difficult exercises to do — and do well. They require great feats of strength from various parts of your body and the form required to do a pull-up properly is complicated and exact.

Pull-ups work a large number of muscles in your back, shoulders, and arms, while also requiring some serious core strength. There are many variations — they get your heart rate up and help boost fat loss — and can be done anywhere there is a bar. If you’re not even able to lift your body a few inches, don’t worry, there are ways to get there. Here’s what may be holding you back.

1. The variation you’re attempting is too hard

man doing pull-ups

You might need to start with something easier. | iStock.com

At first glance, pull-ups may seem like a straight forward exercise, but nothing could be further from the truth. According to Bodybuilding.com, there are five different major pull-up variations, some of which may be easier for you than others. Their version of the standard pull-up starts out with your hands shoulder-width apart and a regular grip. Wide-grip and close-grip pull-ups emphasize your lats, while underhand chin-ups require you to start out with an underhand, reverse grip. If you have killer abs, give the gorilla crunch a try, which requires you to bring your knees to your chest as you lift your body up toward the bar.

2. Your muscles aren’t strong enough

working out with kettlebells

Building strength with kettlebells, dumbbells, and similar equipment is the first step. | iStock.com

If you are just not able to physically lift yourself off the ground, you may just need to start by building up the muscles in your back, chest, and arms. Try your luck at iso-eccentric pull-ups. Grab onto a bar and jump so your chest touches it. Hold here for five seconds and slowly lower yourself down for five seconds. Once you can perform 10 of these correctly, you should be able to do a regular pull-up.

If this pull-up variation is a challenge, start small by working the muscles of your upper body that you’ll need to do a push-up. Greatist offers some amazing variations that include dumbbell holds, plank, and exercises using the kettlebell and barbell.

3. Your positioning is off

man doing pull-ups on a tree at the park

Your positioning matters more than you realize. | iStock.com

While most people hit the weights when they can’t do a pull-up, the problem may lie in your serratus anterior, the muscle that holds your shoulder blade against your rib cage. When your SA isn’t working properly, the 17 muscles that are attached to your scapula won’t function correctly, which can keep you from doing a pull-up. To get your SA aligned, you’ll need to start releasing the muscles that attach to your shoulder. As you sit on the computer or hunch over your dinner, you’re rounding your shoulders and shifting your shoulder blades upward.

Combat the hunch by using a lacrosse or tennis ball to massage your body against the wall. This will release some tension in your pecs and teres muscles. Then, start building some strength by performing variations on the standard push-up as outlined by Men’s Journal.

4. You need to work on your mobility


If you lack mobility in your shoulder area, pull-ups are significantly harder. | iStock.com

Sometimes you need to start with the basics. If you’re having trouble lifting your chin to the bar, it may be because your mobility isn’t where it needs to be. Start by spending time in the pull-up deadhang position with active shoulders. Once you can hang here in a controlled manner, you can start incorporating the pull-up motions. Deadhangs are an effective way to build shoulder stability and grip strength, two things you need before you can perform a pull-up.

5. You’re cheating yourself

Men performing pull-ups

If you kip every time you attempt a pull-up, you’ll never be able to do a regular one. | iStock.com

We get it, being able to do a solid pull-up is the ultimate show of strength. So, it makes sense you would be in a hurry to improve, opting for kipping pull-ups to increase the number you can do — but this is a mistake. Kipping means to swing your body horizontally, using your momentum to help pull yourself up. But according to Breaking Muscle you should be able to do five pull-ups without this method before it’s incorporated. Once you can do that, then you really will have super strength.