The pull-up is one of the most beneficial, empowering, and badass exercises you can do. This versatile exercise can be performed anywhere, anytime. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the population cannot perform even a single pull-up. I don’t hesitate to say that in most instances, your inability to master the pull-up is not because you are physically incapable, but your lack of success is because you are not training for the exercise (or are being coached) the right way. I am here to help.
Here are 10 reasons why you might be struggling to perform pull-ups:
Reason #1 - You Are Treating The Pull-Up Purely As An Upper Body Movement
When many people set the awesome goal of being able to do one pull-up, or many, they make the mistake of just training their upper body. Let me be clear, when the pull-up is being executed to perfection, it is actually a full body exercise, and your entire body must be strong, stable, and working as a synchronized unit. While it goes without saying that you must perform upper body ''pulling'' exercises, if you are serious about being able to perform pull-ups, you must also include exercises that address scapular and shoulder stability (I like to use the term controlled mobility), lumbo-pelvic stability, and even exercises that strengthen your lower body.
Reason #2 - You Are Overusing Your Arms
If you are performing pull-ups with the proper technique, the larger muscle groups in your back should be doing the majority of the work, not the muscles in your arms. Many people make the mistake initiating the movement with their arms, instead of drawing their shoulder blades together and down (towards the opposite hip), and using the larger and more dominant muscles in their back. This very common error will limit your ability to thrive at pull-ups. While your arms will absolutely be involved, they should only be assisting the larger muscles in the back, not performing the bulk of the work.
To demonstrate my point, here is a video where I am performing pull-ups using just two fingers. Doing this essentially removes most of my arms from the equation.
Reason #3 - You Are Lacking In Full Body Tension
Many people struggle to perform pull-ups because they either cannot develop, or at least fail to maintain, full body tension. Put it this way, do you think it would be easier to pull a stiff and stable object, or an equally weighted limp and floppy rag doll? I hope you chose the first option. In order to develop this requisite level of tension, your entire body needs to function as a unit. The larger muscles in your back, your scapular stabilizer muscles, your anterior core musculature, your glutes, and even your legs need to work together to create this vital level of tension.
Reason #4 - Your Path To The Bar Is Too Long
This ties into point #3. With the pull-up, the shorter the distance your body has to travel to the bar, the more efficiently and effectively you will be able to perform the exercise. It's no different from an exercise like the deadlift where you want the barbell to travel in as short a line/distance as possible from the floor to the lockout position. Many people struggle to perform pull-ups because they lack the requisite levels of controlled mobility, and full body stability/tension that is needed to perform this fantastic exercise. As a result, instead of remaining directly underneath the bar, their body swings back and forth like a pendulum. Now rather than travelling to the bar in a shorter and more efficient line, their body is forced to travel to the bar in a longer and totally inefficient arc. This common breakdown in form will result in fewer reps being performed, or not being able to perform any reps at all.
Reason #5 - You Are Not Owning The Eccentric Component Of The Exercise
When some people perform pull-ups, they get lazy and think that eccentric means rest, and they allow their body to simply drop from the top position. However, in the majority of cases, people do not have a sufficient amount of eccentric strength (often due to weak scapula stabilizer muscles and/or lack of lumbo-pelvic stability), and they simply cannot control their body from the top to bottom position of the exercise. The inability to own the eccentric component of the pull-up can be stressful to the muscles, joints, and connective tissue. In terms of actually being able to perform pull-ups, this major flaw in form removes much of the full body tension and controlled mobility that is required to perform the next rep when you hit the bottom position.
I should state, if you are able to maintain control, lowering yourself down more quickly will reduce the overall amount of time that your muscles are under tension, and you will likely be able to perform more reps. However, the key is that you maintain control at all times, and you must master your form before you increase your speed.
Reason #6 - You Are Not Re-Setting Your Body Between Reps
When many people perform pull-ups, and this is assuming they are able to perform more than one consecutive rep, they get sloppy and try to rush through the set. Rather than making sure that their full body is stable, has the requisite level of tension, and is in complete control, before they perform the next rep, they just focus on the pulling movement, and try to complete it as quickly as possibly. When people hit the bottom position and go to initiate the next rep, this is often when you often see the lower back hyperextend, ribcage flare, shoulders rise to the ears, and the body swing back and forth like a pendulum. To solve this problem, and this is especially important when you are first starting out, I like to pause when I am in the bottom position, and will do a complete ''reset.'' I will flex my legs, squeeze my glutes, re-brace my core, tuck my rib cage towards my hips, take a deep breath of air into my belly (360 degrees of air around my spine), and will make sure that my scapulae are in the proper position.
Once you have acquired more experience, strength, and technical proficiency, you can ''reset'' during the eccentric component, or you can even perform multiple reps without having to do this ''reset.'' Ideally, the less time you spend in the bottom position the better as this will decrease the overall amount of time your muscles are under tension. But your main priority should be on making sure that your form is spot on.
Reason #7a - You Are Relying Band Assistance
While using band assistance has its place in well designed, and well rounded pull-up program, relying on band assistance alone will not get the job done as the band provides the assistance at the wrong time. While I do employ this method when I am building up overall volume, working on the actual ''pulling'' mechanics/scapular movements of the exercise, or working on creating and maintaining full body tension, there are many other pull-up regressions that are absolutely paramount if you hope to thrive at unassisted pull-ups.
Reason #7b- You Are Over-Relying On Machine Assistance
I am not a fan of machine assisted pull-ups. If you have no interest in being able to perform regular pull-ups and are just going for overall volume, fair enough. Or perhaps you might be working on your pulling mechanics and scapular movements. But when it comes to training for actual pull-ups, there are countless other pull-up regressions, and other exercises, that are significantly more effective. With machine assisted pull-ups, you essentially don't need to maintain any lumbo-pelvic stability, or full body tension. In other words, you can totally cheat. However, when you are performing regular pull-ups, maintaining lumbo-pelvic stability and full body tension can absolutely make or break your performance, and ability to perform the exercise.
Reason #8 - You Are Skipping Key Steps
Many people make the mistake of trying to go from A-Z, and do not follow the essential steps that will actually help them improve their pull-up technique, full body strength, controlled mobility, and stability/tension, so they are better prepared to perform regular pull-ups. Depending on where your starting point is, performing the appropriate pull-up regressions, horizontal pulling exercises, scapula/shoulder controlled mobility exercises, lumbo-pelvic stability exercises, and even lower body exercises, and only progressing when you are ready, will better prepare you to conquer the pull-up. You need to learn how to walk before you run, and the same applies to pull-ups. Many people skip steps and wonder why they aren't making progress, get frustrated, and quit. Don't make this mistake. Be patient, and the results will pay off.
Reason #9 - You Are Undertraining
This reason is pretty straightforward. Unless you train the pull-up on a consistent and frequent basis, you will not make the necessary improvements in technique, strength, controlled mobility, and stability/tension to build up your number of reps, or to be able to perform pull-ups in the first place. Practice consistency. And I'm not just talking about regular unassisted pull-ups. If you are not yet able to perform regular pull-ups, work on the regressions and other areas I discussed above, and do so consistently. Once a week just won't cut it. Even when you are able to do regular pull-ups, practice them consistently. If you have access to a home pull-up bar, even perform a few reps each time you walk by. Every rep counts.
Reason #10 - You Don't Believe In Yourself
Last, and most certainly not least, if you don't believe that you will be able to perform pull-ups, you probably won't. Self belief is huge. Don't let anybody convince you that you aren't capable, because you are. Follow the proper steps, just chip away at it, and the sky is truly the limit.
In case you don't believe me, here is my client Evelyn performing some triple pause chin-ups, which is an extremely advanced variation. Evelyn is in her late 50's.