Beginner's Calisthenics: Training towards your first pull-up

As detailed in my earliest posts on this blog, as soon as I first learned about calisthenics in Men's Health magazine, I was desperate to try and find somewhere to see if I could do a pull-up. I had never done one before, and I had no idea if I could; I just had to find out! Luckily for me, I could do a couple without any specific training. I was already strong enough to pull-up my 100Kgs (approx.) frame.

Before I read that article in Men's Health on Terroll Lewis and his Block Workout project in London, I didn't even properly know what a pull-up was, as is common for many, I have since realised.

For anyone who isn't sure, and this is intended to be delivered in the least condescending manner possible, let's clarify what a pull-up is. A pull-up is an exercise where your palms face away from your body as you pull yourself up whilst gripping an overhead bar/set of handles. You can see this clearly in the photo above.

This exercise is often confused with a chin-up. A chin-up has the hands facing towards the body, as you perform the same movement. This hand position can (just about) be seen in the photo below.

From a basic physiological perspective, a pull-up primarily uses the lat muscles and a chin-up calls upon the biceps and pecs - there are many other muscle groups used in both the upward and downward phases of these movements, but it wouldn't be helpful to list them all.

Whenever I talk to people about calisthenics and the exercises I regularly perform, something people always say is: "I couldn't even do one pull-up". My response would be, have you tried? Many haven't, but I don't mean to be dismissive. For many people, performing their first pull-up is nowhere near as easy as I found it two years ago.

So, how can you train your way to performing your first pull-up?

It could be suggested that I am not the best person to tell you about this, as I have not been on this journey, and I am not a qualified trainer/coach in calisthenics (or anything else, bar football). So, I am going to hand over to Tim and Jacko at the School of Calisthenics.

I first heard about these guys through their marketing campaigns on Facebook, and I was hesitant at first. Having downloaded their free eBook, and paid for one myself (which will be reviewed at a later date), it's fair to say my hesitancy was unwarranted.

Please see below for the School of Calisthenics video on 'How To Master Pull Ups For Beginners'.

Exercise 1, Resistance bands: The use of resistance bands is definitely something which I have read in to when I was trying to train my way towards a muscle-up. I didn't end up using them, but definitely lots of people online recommend their usage to build-up the sufficient strength to perform pull-ups, etc.

Exercise 2, Eccentrics: This isolation of the downward phase of a pull-up is also sometimes called a 'negative'. When I was learning how to muscle-up, I would use this exact technique to try and build the sufficient strength for the transition phase of a muscle-up.

Exercise 3, Isometrics: This static hold is something I still use in my workouts today. I should probably have switched it up by now, but I find it quite relaxing. Definitely something you should try if you can get up in to that holding position.

Something that Tim and Jacko didn't cover in that particular video is how to train towards a pull-up if you don't have access to a pull-up bar. Below are three exercises I would suggest, if you have access to somewhere that you can perform them:

A seated row uses the lats (along with loads of other major muscles in the back) to pull a weighted handle bar towards you. These resistance machines are commonly found in most gyms that I've been to.

Again, another commonly found resistance machine at your local gym. It's name explains what it primarily targets.

Sometimes called Inverted Rows, or Australian Push-ups (yeah, I'm confused too), this exercise uses a much lower bar (e.g. a dip bar, or handrail) to recreate the pull-up movement, but with some of your weight transferred to the ground beneath your feet.

Do click on the links for each exercise if you are unsure as to how to perform them.

Like I said at the top, I haven't been on this journey! If there is anyone out there with some better suggestions, please do get in touch and I will update this blog post accordingly. However, if you are able to follow some of these exercises and make that first pull-up as a result, you should get in touch too!

If you want any further free help from the School of Calisthenics, I would urge you to download their free eBook entitled 'Beginner's Guide To Calisthenics'. It is packed with useful information and will add to what you've already learned. If you have any other queries about their content, Tim and Jacko are always keen to chat on Facebook too.

We're all unique and no person can tell you precisely how you can train your way to performing any of these movements in calisthenics. The key point is reading, learning and trying things out for yourself. You won't know until you give it a go!

My technique still isn't the best it can be (as can be seen in the video below, performing wide-grip pull-ups), but I am going to keep working hard to improve this!

Get outside. Build muscle. Have fun.


  1. Hi, where do you train? I train everyday calisthenics and I'm super passionate about this way to train.

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