This pull up workout guide is assembled from all the knowledge I’ve gained through twenty years of working out, including four years in the Marine Corps.
I’ll go over the basics of each type of pull up, home gym equipment, and various workouts designed to increase your ability to do more pull ups.
If you can’t do a pull up yet, I’ve got you covered.
And if you can do 6-8 already, I can get you to 20.
Let’s get started. Here is everything I’ve learned about how to get better at pull ups.
Table of Contents
How to Do Pull Ups
The dead hang pull up is one of the best upper body exercises. The Marine Corps uses it to test upper body strength. It works your back and arms, primarily, but also the muscles of the shoulders and chest.
Grab the bar, hands shoulder width or wider. Palms face away from you.
I prefer to grip with my thumb on the inside of the bar. It feels more solid.
Squeeze your shoulder blades down your back, and pull your elbows toward your mid ribs. Continue lifting until your chin is over the bar, then lower to the bottom position.
For a Marine Corps pull up to count, you must lock out at the bottom, chin must reach above the bar, and you must lock out again before your next repetition.
Many Marines say that the wider your hands are, the less distance between your chin and the bar, so the pull up is easier. If you have narrow shoulders or long arms, this actually makes the pull up more difficult for your body type. If you have shorter arms and wider shoulders, it makes pull ups easier.
When working out, it makes sense to do the more difficult variation. When testing for the PFT, you should do what’s easiest for you in order to max out your repetitions.
Now we are going to get into some different types of pull ups.
The Four Basic Types of Pull Ups
In my opinion, there are four basic pull ups that form the foundation of pull up mastery. Not every fitness program will agree but you will see all of these commonly in nearly every gym, and especially the Marine Corps.
Dead-hang pull up: Wide grip, hands facing away from you.
Chin up: narrow grip, palms face toward you.
Kipping pull ups: in a kip, you swing your legs back and then forward. As you swing forward, you “kip” meaning you use the momentum of your legs to help swing your upper body toward the bar and help get your chin high. As you lower to the bottom position, swing your legs back again.
It may take some time to learn how to kip without inducing a swing in your body, but it’s a good skill especially when doing metabolic conditioning workouts (like Crossfit).
Weighted pull ups: adding extra weight to your pull ups by wearing a weight vest or using a belt to dangle a weight between your legs. I wouldn’t attempt this with kipping pull ups because the weight will swing.
Note: for future Marines, only the dead-hang pull up or chin up will count on the Physical Fitness Test.
How to Do Pull Ups for Beginners
If you have never done a pull up in your life, you’ll need to work on your back and arm strength.
Learning how to do a pull up should be added a regular workout routine. You’ll need either a home gym or access to a local gym. I have recommended some pull up bars for your home gym below.
Home Pull Up Workout for Beginners
If you have a door pull up bar, position it so that your feet still touch the ground while your chin is over the bar. Use the strength of your legs to help assist your pull up. If you have a mounted pull up bar, you can use a chair (or a friend) to assist.
First, start with flexed arm hangs. Hold your chin over the bar as long as you can. Rest for a minute, then do two more sets. Do this workout 2 to 3 times a week. When it starts to feel easier, you can move to assisted pull ups.
Use your legs just enough to get your chin over the bar,, but don’t make it too easy. Difficulty trains the muscles better.
When you’re lowering yourself, try to not use your legs at all, and let your whole weight of your body pull you down as you resist with the arms. This is called a negative repetition.
If you can only do 6 of these, then do 6. Wait 2 minutes, then do another set. Repeat for 3 to 4 sets.
Switch pull up variations every workout. So Monday, do wide grip pull ups. Wednesday, do chin ups with palms facing you.
After six weeks, attempt to do a pull up! If you don’t make it, try to increase the number of reps you are doing each set, and continue working hard.
Consistency is the key to improvement. Keep working what you can, even if it’s only 2 or 3 repetitions. It’s better than zero!
If you do have a workout partner, you can help each other do assisted pull ups.
Partner-Assisted Pull Ups
Grab the pull up bar, with your partner standing behind you. There are two main assist methods.
- Cross your ankles and bend your knees 90 degrees so your feet are behind you. The assisting person can grab your ankles underhand, and you can use your feet against them to help push yourself up to the bar. For best results, don’t help yourself on the way down, and try to let down as slow as possible.
- Your partner can also assist by supporting your ribcage just below the shoulder blades.
Again, for beginners I suggest 3-4 sets of max repetitions (as many assisted pull ups as you can) and to workout 2-3 times per week.
Australian Pull Ups
These are good for learning how to do pull ups. If you have access to a squat rack, you’ll want to rack the barbell at stomach height and then get down underneath the bar.
Grab the bar, walk your feet forward so your body is at an angle. While holding your torso straight, pull your chest to the bar. It’s very similar to a barbell bent over row, but in reverse.
It’s Australian because you’re down under the bar, get it?
Let’s take a look at some basic pull up bar equipment, and then we will move on to pull up workouts.
Pull Up Bar Equipment
If you have access to a gym, there is usually a pull up bar or two. Most large gyms have cable crossovers with two stations on either side. There is usually a pull up bar on the cross bar.
Many gyms have a stand-alone pull up bar and dip station. These are great for dead hang pull ups and weighted pull ups but usually have two handles instead of one long bar. It makes kipping pull ups near impossible.
But you have to work with what you’ve got!
In the Marine Corps, there are pull up bars outside nearly every building. The barracks, the chow hall, the company office, even the dentist. It’s easy to rep out a few sets every time you see a pull up bar. You improve rapidly.
If you don’t have access to a gym, or want to set up a home gym, there are a lot of options out there.
I’ve tried out a lot of different home pull up bars and even constructed one of my own. These are my favorites.
The Best Wall Mounted Pull Up Bar
There are a lot of wall-mounted pull up bars on the market, but as I discovered, not all are made the same. Some of them aren’t very heavy duty, and have a weight limit of 250 lbs.
This makes it almost impossible to do kipping pull ups and weighted pull ups because it puts too much stress on the bar.
The Titan Fitness Wall Mounted Pull Up Bar is my personal favorite. It supports up to 500 lbs and mounts to the studs in your garage or home gym using lag bolts.
It was one of the first things I put in our new house. You can find it on Amazon for less than $80.
I’ve even had my wife hanging on it with me and it’s supported both of us no problem.
The pull up bar doesn’t take up a lot of space, and it can be mounted almost anywhere. You’ll need a drill and a stud finder to mount it properly.
I also have a pair of gymnast workout rings hung from the pull up bar. It makes for easy accessory work, like ring dips, ring push ups, assisted pull ups, and rows. I bought Nayoya Gymnastic Rings many years ago and they show almost no signs of wear. It’s another item easily found on Amazon and for less than $30, well worth the purchase.
You can do complete bodyweight workouts using only the pull up bar and these rings.
The Best Apartment Door Frame Pull Up Bar
Door frame pull up bars are an inexpensive option for your apartment or anywhere you don’t want to permanently mount gym equipment. Sometimes they will damage the door jamb or wood trim, so you have to be careful about which model you buy.
The Ikonfitness Pull Up Bar fits in a doorway more securely than other models. You can also find it on Amazon.
It costs a little more than other door frame pull up bars, but it hangs from the door jamb in a more natural position.
As with all door frame pull up bars, you’ll see that some of the reviews mention damage of their doorways. If you tape an old t-shirt around the support bars and place an old yoga mat above the door frame on the opposite side, it will protect your door frame.
The All-Out Squat Power Rack and Pull Up Bar
If you’re serious about your home gym, this is the squat rack and pull up bar combo I recommend. The CAP Barbell 6′ Full Cage Power Rack. It’s a dedicated workout platform that supports up to 500 lbs.
It features safety catch bars, a pull up bar, and barbell hooks. You can do your squats, deadlifts, military press, and bench press all in one spot.
For $220, it’s on the more expensive end but if you buy your weights used from garage sales or a resale sports store, you’ll be able to deck out your home gym for less than $500.
A year’s membership at a basic gym will run you at least $360, so that’s a good deal if you’re building a gym for the long term.
Keep in mind you’ll need a dedicated space for this equipment as it doesn’t easily move or breakdown.
It’s a good idea to put some puzzle mats down if you’re in a garage, to help protect the concrete from accidental drops. It also helps your knees if you’re doing lunges.
I use ProSource Foam Interlocking Tiles. They cover about 24 square feet, which is enough for a pull up bar with some room for a bench and weights as well.
Now that we’ve got the equipment sorted out, let’s get into different types of workouts.
A Marine’s Pull Up Workouts
The best way to do more pull ups is simple. Do more pull ups.
One of the things I did while in the Marine Corps is add pull ups to my warm up. I would run for 10 minutes at an easy pace, then do 3 sets of 5 pull ups, 10 push ups, and 15 bodyweight squats.
Then continue on with my workout.
At the end of the workout, I’d add a couple max sets of pull ups again.
Back Day Pull Up Workout
If I was working my back in the gym, pull ups would be the foundation. After warming up, I would start with a max set of pull ups. The workout might look like this:
- Weighted pull ups. The first set is max repetitions with no weight. Then, every set after that, add weight until you can only do 3 or 4 pull ups. Do 3 sets of 4 reps.
- Cable row. Start with a low weight that you can do for about 15 to 20 reps. Then add weight each set until you can only do 4 repetitions. Three sets of 4.
- Bent over row. Do these with dumbbells or a barbell, again aiming for those 3 sets of 4 repetitions.
- Lat pull-downs, wide grip. Start with a weight you can do for 15-20 reps, then keep adding weight until you hit 3 sets of 4.
- Pull ups. Here’s where the growth happens. End your workout with 3 sets of 10 pull ups. You could also do kipping pull ups if you’re fatigued. The goal is to hit a number of repetitions here, so if it takes 5 sets to hit your 30, do it. If you have to kip or do assisted pull ups, do it. The muscles grow during these last really hard reps, not the easy ones!
Pull Ups, Push Ups, Bodyweight Squats
This is one of my all time favorite workouts. It’s basically a push up pull up workout, with some squats added in for fun. Do 20 rounds for time of:
- 5 pull ups
- 10 push ups
- 15 body weight squats.
That’s right, it’s 100 pull ups, 200 push ups, 300 bodyweight squats.
This is the workout that got me from 14 pull ups to doing 20.
If you’re feeling really tough, add a one mile run at the beginning and end of the workout.
A friend of mine breaks it into 10 pull ups, 20 push ups, and 30 squats. The goal is to hit your numbers under 20 minutes.
Pyramid Pull Ups
In this workout, you’ll start with one pull up. Every set, you’ll add another repetition. Keep going until you can’t do anymore, then work your way back down.
If you can do 6pull ups, your pyramid set will look like this:
If you can do 10, your pyramid set will look like this:
You’ll want to rest 60-90 seconds in between sets. I like to superset these with weighted lunges or squats.
That way, you’re not just standing around the gym waiting for your legs to freshen up for the next set, you’re getting better at doing pull ups.
Suns Out Guns Out: Pull Ups and Dips
This routine can be added into the end of any workout. Say you’ve just finished a metabolic workout, like running combined with strengthening exercises:
- 800 meter run (½ mile)
- 15 front squat @95 lbs
- 15 push press @ 95 lbs
When your workout is finished, add:
- 10 pull ups, 10 dips. Rest 60 seconds.
- Do 4 sets.
For added difficulty, do these on the gymnast rings I listed above.
Advanced Types of Pull Ups
In this section, I’ll go over some advanced pull up techniques. You’ll need to be able to do at least 10 pull ups before attempting some of these!
Typewriter Pull Ups
Typewriters are an advanced pull up. In a wide grip, palms facing away from you, pull your chin to your left hand, slide your chin to the right hand keeping it above the bar, and then lower back to center.
Repeat but in reverse this time, pulling your chin to your right hand, sliding it to the left, and then back down.
Archer Pull Ups
Archers are similar to the typewriter. Pull up so your chin is in line with one hand, and lock out the other arm straight. Your arms will make the shape of an archer drawing their bow. Then lower to the bottom and repeat to the other side.
Chest to Bar Pull Ups
Exactly what it sounds like. Instead of pulling your chin over the bar, continue going until your upper chest touches the bar. You can start with kipping and then work your way toward dead hang chest to bar pull ups.
Plyometric Pull Ups
These are any type of pull up where your hands leave the bar. For example, doing a pull up with enough force to leave the bar, clap at the top, and then catch yourself on the bar.
I can’t do these but I’ve seen them done on YouTube!
Pike Pull Ups
This is a great workout for your abs and core while also doing some pull ups. It’s very simple.
Draw your legs up to a 90° angle, and hold them there throughout the entire motion of the pull up. It’s much more difficult to hold them on the way down!
I like a variation that adds some movement.
Draw legs up to 90 degrees, do a pull up, come back down while holding legs to 90 degrees, and then lower the legs. Repeat until failure.
The muscle up is a basic strength exercise for gymnasts. It’s also incredibly difficult! You can do them on the rings or on a pull up bar.
Do a kipping pull up, drawing your chest to the bar. As you pull higher, kick your legs forward and lean your chest over the bar.
Then complete the exercise by pushing yourself up, like on a counter. This exercise combines a pull up and a dip.