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Getting Your First: A Lady's Pull Up Progression Plan

4 min read

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One of the hardest goals to hit for beginner to intermediate fitgirls (and some advanced trainees too!). There’s a lot of reasons for this, for one thing we tend to carry much more muscle mass, and weight in general, in our lower bodies. Personally I also happen to have tiny hands, and it made gripping the bar almost impossible for me early on.

Pull ups are also just a little intimidating! Don’t let that stop you. If you can’t even hang from the bar, much less do a single pull up, we got you. Could you hip thrust 300lbs+ on your first try? Probably not. To get to your first pullup, you’re going to need a plan and the ability to make small progressive improvements.

What Is A Pullup?

A pull up is simply you grabbing a bar with an overhand or pronated grip (palms facing away from you). You start with your arms fully extended, and pull your body up until your chest hits the bar. There are a ton of variations possible, from your grip to what some people might describe as “cheating” (kipping pull ups anyone?)

We’re going to be talking specifically about the strict, dead hang pullup. 

Why Should You Make It A Goal?

Not that it’s too likely to happen, but the functional strength guru’s will also say, “what’s more important than the ability to pull yourself up over the side of a cliff or over a wall?”

That’s not exactly my lifestyle, but you never know!

Besides being an ultimate “flex” (yes, that was intentional), the ability to perform a pull up will only improve the rest of your lifts. The back strength you’ll build up directly transfers over to your bench press and overhead lifts. Your core is heavily involved in stabilizing you for a strict pull up as well. You’ll find your deadlifts and cleans improving dramatically as well.

2020 saw the shutdown of most gyms as well. The pull up requires very little equipment. It actually doesn’t even require to have a pull up bar (although they’re pretty cheap!). So if you can knock out a few sets you can probably do pull ups anywhere. Find a ledge or a tree branch and get to work. You can’t really say the same for a bench press or deadlift.

Pullup Progressions

Most of us girls aren’t going to be able to jump right into strict, or even cheating pull ups. So how do we train them? Well, we’re going to need to do some pull up progressions.

Lat Pulldowns 

These are in fact just the machine version of a pullup. Try your best to match your grip to your preferred pull up width, and keep your torso upright to mimic the pull up as much as possible. You may need to reduce the weight slightly to do so. 

Ring Rows

This is one of my favorites. You can adjust the angle to match the difficulty to any level of trainee.

I would shoot for 3 sets of 10 reps. If the 10 reps are too easy, you can lower the rings (or elevate your feet) to increase the difficulty.

If you don’t have access to rings, a barbell in a power rack works well. You can do the same level adjustments to maintain the right level of difficulty.

If neither option is available to you, any kind of horizontal row, like dumbbells can be substituted, though with probably less direct carry over to your pull up.


The dead hang is pretty straightforward. You simply grab the bar with your hands at your pull up width, squeeze the bar as hard as you can and hold on for dear life! This may be a harder exercise for beginners but it’s a great way to measure progress. If on day one you can only hold yourself up for 5 seconds, and on day 30 you can hold on for 25 seconds, that’s a huge improvement! This is a great way to build up your grip strength on your way to your first pull up.


The negative pull up is a money maker. Instead of performing the concentric half (in this case, the upwards pull )of the pullup, you’re just working the eccentric (the downward motion). Science shows that you’re able to lift much more weight on an eccentric than a concentric movement, so if you can’t do a full pull up, it makes sense that you’ll fare better on just a negative.

Be warned, eccentrics have the potential to create more muscle damage (the good kind!) then concentrics so you’ll probably be pretty sore the next day.

Use a high box to get into a position where your chin is over the bar. Grip the bar with both hands and as slowly as you can, allow your body to descend. You can do these for time, or multiple reps.

Band (Or Friend) Assisted Pull Ups

These badboys can be used for rows and lat pull downs at home too, just sayin' 

If you have access to resistance bands, these are a great choice. You can get bands in multiple levels of resistance so that if your heaviest band starts getting too easy, you can increase the resistance by using a lighter band.

I personally love these as they most closely mimic the actual pull up movement.

Another option is to have a strong friend physically grab and lift you during your reps. Some gyms have pull up assistance machines that are pretty fun too.

Sample Pullup Program

I don’t personally recommend changing your entire workout program for this. The back musculature responds well to high frequency training (multiple sessions per week), and I’ve found adding in a few sets of pull up specific training at the beginning or end (sometimes both!) of your workout will work wonders.

2-3 sets of 2-3 of what feel like your most productive pull up trainers will work wonders.

Keep it simple. Consistency and frequency will beat out you going too hard on these once or twice a month.

Make getting your first pullup your 2021 goal and watch what happens to the rest of your lifts. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much carryover the humble pull up has to your overall performance. 

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