A Guide For Ladies That Lift

Pull-ups are one of the best exercises you can do for your upper body.  They help you build defined shoulders and a chiseled upper back.  And more importantly, they improve your overall strength, performance and athleticism.

But lots of people — women especially — have trouble doing them.

I can’t even count the number of women that have looked at me like I’m crazy when I ask them how many pull-ups they can do during an initial assessment.  Or respond with: “pull-ups, are you kidding?  I’ll never be be able to those.”

Are you one of these women?

I know I used to be.

When I first started strength training, I had already convinced myself that there was no way I’d ever be able to do a pull-up.  So instead of practicing them, I stuck to the lat pulldown and assisted pull-up machines.

It wasn’t until I shifted my training focus specifically to strength gain that I got my first unassisted pull-up, and it was largely by accident.

At that point, I was planning on competing in a weightlifting meet, so I was getting stronger than I had ever been.  My training was more focused.

Looking back, there were probably three changes to my training that really made the difference:

  • I started using exercises like hollow rocks, hollow holds, and RKC planks to help me develop more tension during my primary lifts.
  • I learned how to use torque to create better muscle activation.
  • I started using active negatives, particularly when working overhead presses (a movement that pretty much mimics a pull-up) to help improve the strength and stability in my shoulders.

One day, as I was walking past a pull-up bar, I decided to see if I could actually do a pull-up.  To my surprise, I did two.

From then on, I was hooked.  I started learning more about how to program for better pull-ups, which accessory exercises to include, and how to progress them.

But more importantly, I actually believed that I could do them and I made a conscious decision to actively work on improving them.

If I can do them, you can too.

I hope that the info and the progression in this guide help you…

5 Common Problems That Prevent People From Performing Pull-Ups

1. Not creating enough tension.

In order to do a proper pull-up, you have to create full body tension so that your entire body can move and function as a single unit.  To create this tension, you have to contract your upper back muscles, scapular stabilizers, abs, glutes, and even your legs.

When you create full body tension, you prevent your body from swinging, allowing it to travel in a straight line.  And a straight line of travel creates a shorter, more efficient line of pull.

To sum it up, when you create full body tension, you can do more reps with less work.

2. Not engaging their upper back muscles.

If you’re performing pull-ups with proper technique, the larger muscle groups in your back should be doing most of the work, not your arms.  Lots of people make the mistake of initiating the movement with their arms instead of pulling their shoulder blades down and back to engage their lats.

3. Lack of scapular stability.

Many people — including very strong people — have weak scapular stabilizers.  This limits their ability to do pull-ups because these muscles are crucial for pull-up strength.  To properly progress with your pull-ups, start by including some scapular stability accessory exercises.  (I’ll provide a couple of examples below.)

4. Not believing in themselves.

If you don’t believe that you’ll actually be able to do pull-ups, you probably never will.   Believing in yourself is key.  Don’t let anybody (yourself included) convince you that you aren’t capable, because you are.  All you have to do is believe that you can, make the commitment to work at it, and just chip away at it.

5. Not training pull-ups properly.

Not training full range of motion (ROM).  If you cheat by only training partial ROM, you’ll only improve that partial ROM.  If you don’t fully extend your arms, you’re essentially cheating yourself out of developing a strong pull-up.

Using momentum – AKA kipping.  Kipping is just another way of cheating.  Using momentum makes it easier to perform more reps, but it doesn’t actually strengthen the muscles used during a strict pull-up.  More importantly though, it places the shoulders under significantly more stress.  If you’re a CrossFitter, you’re better off developing the requisite strength, stability and mobility to perform strict pull-ups first because it’ll reduce your risk of injury.  If you’re not training to compete in CrossFit, then do yourself a favour — skip the kipping and just do strict pull-ups instead.

Using the assisted pull-up machine.  If you’d like to do actual pull-ups, stop using the assisted machine.  It doesn’t help with unassisted pull-ups because it follows a different line of pull, doesn’t require you to produce full body tension or support your bodyweight in the hang, and it provides too much assistance.

Overusing Band Assisted Pull-Ups.  Band assisted pull-ups are better than machine-assisted pull-ups because they require full body tension and they follow the same line of pull as an unassisted pull-up.  But they don’t require you to support your full bodyweight in the hang and they provide too much assistance at the bottom of the movement which will affect your ability to initiate the pull unassisted.  They can be useful when used in conjunction with unassisted straight-arm hangs and scapular pull-ups though.

Not utilizing proper progressions.  Many people make the mistake of trying to progress too fast, skipping the essential steps the will actually help them improve their pull-up technique and strength.  Depending on your starting point, you might need to focus on pull-up regressions, horizontal pulling, scapular stabilization, core strength, and mobility before introducing strict pull-ups.

Not training pull-ups frequently enough.  If you want to be able to do pull-ups, you have to practice them often.  Training pull-ups once or twice a week simply isn’t enough.  At the very least, include a pull-up variation or pull-up accessory exercise at least three times per week.

How To Do A Proper Pull-Up

Once you’re ready to introduce full, strict pull-ups into your program, it’s important to have sound technique.  Let’s break down the key performance points one-by-one…


Step 1: Grip

Grasp the pull-up bar by wrapping your fingers over the bar so that your wrists are slightly flexed.  Then wrap your thumb over your index finger.

This grip will allow you to create more torque and greater shoulder stability.

Step 2: Create Torque and Tension

Screw your shoulders into the back of their sockets (so that your armpits face forward).

Before you initiate the pull, take a deep breath in and create tension in your torso by bracing your abs, squeezing your glutes, and tucking your rib cage toward your pelvis.

Step 3: The Pull

Without disengaging your abs or glutes, initiate the pull by pulling your shoulder blades down and back to engage the muscles in your upper back.

Keep your elbows at a about a 45-degree angle to your torso, don’t let them flare out.  Pull yourself up by leading with your chest and pulling your elbows down toward the floor.

Pull your chest to the bar by following a straight line of pull.  Your chin should remain tucked.  (If you can’t raise your chin over the bar with your head in a neutral position, don’t try to push your chin forward to finish the movement.)

Exhale slowly as your chest approaches the bar.

Step 4: The Descent

Lower your body until your arms are fully extended using a controlled descent, don’t fall or drop back into the start position.  Keep your shoulders packed, back flat, abs tight, glute squeezed and head neutral throughout the lowering phase as well.

Inhale slowly as you lower your body.

Progressions To Improve Your Pull-Up Strength

Now that you understand the common pull-up faults and how to perform a pull-up with proper technique, let’s go over a few pull-up regressions and accessory exercises that’ll help you progress to a perfect pull-up.

For all of the exercises that follow, keep the following key points in mind:

  • Create torque by packing your shoulders into the backs of their sockets.
  • Create full body tension by bracing your abs, contracting your glutes, and tucking your rib cage toward your pelvis.
  • Breathe deeply.  Expand your ribs as you inhale and use a slow, controlled exhale.

Practice, Practice, Practice

If you can’t do a strict pull-up yet, the regressions and accessory exercises above will help you get there.  If you can get one or two, use the exercises above to improve your pull-up technique, strength and endurance.

Regardless of where you’re at, consistency is key.

If you want to be able rip out sets of pull-ups, you have to practice them often.

A method that I use myself and with my clients is Pavel Tsatsouline’s “greasing the groove”.

Once you can do one unassisted pull-up, grease the groove by doing a single pull-up a few times a day.  This will help you build the strength and endurance necessary to get multiple reps.

If you can do multiple reps, grease the groove by dividing your max reps by 2 and then doing sets of that number a few times a day.

Over time, greasing the groove will make you a pull-up badass!

Final Tips

  • Practice often.  Consistency is the key to success.
  • If you use the greasing the groove method, don't train to failure.  Perform your sets when you're fresh and focus on proper technique.
  • Technique is key — stop if you feel yourself settling in to poor form or bad movement patterns.
  • Make strength the focus of your training — lift heavy.
  • Believe in yourself.  Stop doubting your abilities, you can totally do this!
Get Crazy Strong

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