The Real Reason You Can’t Do Pull-Ups (and How to Get Your First One)

You hit the gym multiple times a week and lift weights regularly — and yet when it comes to pull-ups, you’re still struggling. It’s no secret that pull-ups and chin-ups are seriously difficult to master. And even the fittest folks can only lift their own body weight so many times before their hands, upper body, and core give out completely.

So, what’s the secret to this elusive exercise? It turns out it’s not just raw strength that’s the issue. Your alignment also has to be on point to achieve pull-ups. Here are all the secrets you need to know in order to help you with this exercise.

How pull-ups work

A woman doing pull-ups at a gym

A woman doing pull-ups at a gym | Kostolom/iStock/Getty Images

Your biceps, triceps, lats, and core are all working hard to help you lift your body in pull-up position — but having muscle in these areas isn’t enough to get you all the way up. Men’s Journal explains it’s the muscle that holds your shoulder to your ribcage, known as the serratus anterior, that’s really the key. Your serratus anterior needs to be in perfect positioning in order for the other muscles in your back to work together and pull you up.

As physical therapist David Reavy writes for the publication, “As a physical therapist, I am always amazed to see how much strength is trapped in the body because bones are out of position. …  You may be strong, but you are always stronger in balance and in alignment.” Basically, when everything’s in perfect alignment, you’ll have a much easier time achieving this seemingly impossible movement.

The reason you’re struggling

There are a number of reasons as to why doing one or multiple pull-ups is a huge struggle for you. If you feel as if you’re certainly strong enough to achieve the exercise but it still feels like a momentous task, make sure your shoulder blades are in the right position from the start, says Reavy. “With the scapula out of position, you are asking your teres major and minor (which are tiny muscles) and only a portion of your lat to lift your entire body,” he writes.

So, what can you do? Practice exercises that will help release and strengthen those stubborn shoulder muscles. Doing push-ups in downward dog position is great for the shoulder blades. Additionally, scapular push-ups done from a high plank position are also beneficial. For these, get into push-up mode with abs and glutes engaged like you’re ready to bend your elbows, but instead, keep your arms straight and shrug your shoulders to engage the scapula.

T Nation reminds us that pull-ups are primarily an upper back exercise, so don’t neglect to strengthen all through your upper body to assist you as well. But as noted, try scapula exercises for that extra step in the right direction.

How to achieve your first pull-up

young woman doing barbell rows

Young woman doing barbell rows | iStock.com/blanaru

Pull with shoulders first

Even if you can achieve a number of pull-ups in a row, that doesn’t mean you’re doing them with proper form. So, if you’re new to the movement, start things off on the right foot by depressing the shoulders first, T Nation says. By starting the lift from the shoulders instead of the elbows, you’re initiating the movement in the right place and building strength the correct way even if you’re struggling to get your chin to the bar. Eventually, you’ll build the strength through the shoulders and lats to rise all the way up.

Build grip strength

If it’s your grip that’s betraying you, you’re not alone. COR recommends building up your grip strength while on and off the pull-up bar so you don’t feel like you’re slipping as you’re trying to lift your body weight.

Work with dumbbells or barbells for lifting or pulling exercises at the gym. Not only will you strengthen your back and arms, but your grip will get better from having to hold on to the weight. And when you’re hanging on a pull-up bar, practice squeezing the bar itself to build strength.

Lose excess body weight

Ever wonder why very thin folks with little muscle mass can manage to pull their own body weight despite their lack of training? Pull-ups require strength, but they also require a good strength-to-weight ratio. Therefore, the less excess body fat you have, the easier time you’ll have lifting yourself.

Losing body fat won’t happen overnight, but incorporating healthy foods and cardio into your routine can help you maintain a good weight optimal for pulling exercises.

Practice negative pull-ups

Negative pull-ups are the perfect exercise for those who can’t quite get their first unassisted pull-up. To do this exercise, jump above the bar (or use a chair to stand on for help) and hold yourself at the top of the pull-up movement. Then, lower down as slowly as you can until your arms are completely straight. This will help you build up the necessary muscles so you can eventually pull yourself back up from that straight-arm position.

Set up a schedule for back exercises

Consistency is key when it comes to nailing any exercise. Make yourself a schedule for your back and shoulder exercises and stick to it. Negative pull-ups, bent rows, and body weight rows are all great exercises that can help get you to where you want to be.

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