One Good Rep: How to Perform the Perfect Pull-up

Pull-ups were a skill that always seemed impossible to me. I honestly felt I would never be able to achieve this “coveted” movement. Like many women, I once believed pull-ups were something only men could do.

But we at StrongFirst are breaking this myth down and proving to women all over the world that not only can they do pull-ups, but they can get really strong at them. This fact is evident to anyone who has been following the StrongFirst website and our events—this has been the year of the Iron Maiden. We have had more women claim the title this year than in any previous—and we are only six months in.

Kristina Forest
Kristina Forest performing a successful weighted tactical pull-up.

But before we can achieve a heavy weighted rep like that required for the Iron Maiden or Beast Tamer, we need to be able to do one good rep—and that’s what I’m going to teach you today. If you have one perfect pull-up, then you have the ability to train a high volume of quality pull-ups, but more on that toward the end of this article.

You’ve probably seen many types of pull-ups at your gym or via the social webs, but at StrongFirst, we teach the tactical pull-up. We believe this pull-up is not only the safest for your joints, but also has the best carryover to other strength skills.

How to Perform the Perfect Pull-up

Note: The pull-up is performed slowly in this video so you can see a demonstration of proper technique in detail, but you should train your pull-ups at regular speed.

Instructions:

  • Your bar should be at a height where you can hang from it without your feet touching the floor.
  • Without looking at the bar, grip the bar at about shoulder width with a thumbless overhand grip.
  • Contract your lats and pull your shoulders into your sockets.
  • Pause momentarily in a hollow hang position.
  • Squeeze your legs and feet together.
  • Point your belly button toward your face so you are in a posterior pelvic tilt position.
  • Squeeze your glutes tight.
  • Inhale as you initiate the pull toward the bar.
  • Keep your gaze forward for the duration of the rep.
  • As the bar is passing your eye, exhale sharply and drive your elbows down and back to reach chest to bar height.
  • Pause at the top momentarily.
  • Slowly lower in an active-negative back down to the hollow hang position.

Common Mistakes in the Pull-up

Some of the most common mistakes I see with pull-ups involve eye position, hand position, and loss of tension. Each of these issues will make it more difficult to master the StrongFirst technique. Watch the video for a detailed explanation of these mistakes and how to correct them:

Training the Pull-up

To progress in the pull-up, you must spend time on the bar, and for the majority of us that means lots of time on the bar. And we must practice quality over quantity—always.

As discussed in the previous articles in this series (how to do the perfect push-up and how to do the perfect pistol), the grease the groove (GTG) approach is one of the best ways to train higher volume and make massive strides in your strength gains. We do not believe in training to failure, but rather treating our training as a practice—a practice of frequent high-quality singles.

The GTG approach allows you to get in a higher volume of quality reps without the fatigue factor by doing “sets” of one good rep throughout your day. Be sure to allow at least fifteen minutes of rest between each rep, and for best results, do your GTG work a minimum of three days per week.

Once you can maintain form and you gain the strength to get a chest-to-bar tactical thumbless-grip pull-up, then do not feel the need to maintain the purity of bodyweight-only singles. You can advance to quality weighted singles, and by working weighted single reps in a grease-the-groove practice, you will automatically increase the number of pull-ups you can do at just bodyweight. But do not jump too heavy too quickly or you will lose the technique you worked so hard to master.

Pull-ups Are for Everyone

For far too long there has been a huge gap in the record board numbers between the Beast Tamers and Iron Maidens, but the women of StrongFirst are making great strides and beginning to close this gap. Ladies and gentlemen, we are determined to break down the pull-up myth once and for all.

And for you gentlemen out there who may not have a pull-up yet, we are rooting for you, too. If for some reason you think you “can’t do a pull-up,” consider there is another possibility if you set your mind to it.

Pull-ups—quality tactical pull-ups—are for anyone! You must set your mind on your goal, put blinders on, and stay steadfast in your grease-the-groove training and you might just surprise yourself.

Lay a foundation for impeccable technique by attending an SFB Course or SFB Certification.

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Karen Smith
Master StrongFirst Instructor
Karen Smith is a Master StrongFirst Instructor, and the fourth woman to claim the Iron Maiden title. She has been personal training students of all fitness levels from beginners to elite US military forces since 2000. Karen specializes in kettlebell and bodyweight strength training. She is a certified SFG, SFB, FMS, and Battling Ropes instructor.

Karen currently resides in Dallas where she is available for private and group sessions. She is also available worldwide for distance coaching and program design. She travels regularly instructing workshops and StrongFirst Courses and Certifications.

She can be reached at karensmithmsfg@gmail.com or at her blog, Coach Karen Smith.
Karen Smith on Email

19 thoughts on “One Good Rep: How to Perform the Perfect Pull-up

  • Other than barbell rows, deadlifts and barbell curls, what should I do to build up to the tactical pull-up? I cannot bring my chest to the bar.

  • I agree with previous post. Really good series, great work!

    I would also love to see an article about the SLDL, I think it´s lacking info (good info..) about that movement.

    Kind regards

  • If I had an article like this to refer people to 20 years ago I would have had a lot more me time in the gym. At least 20% of my time in gyms over the last 20 years has been spent helping men & a rare few determined women achieve that first good rep.

    Excellent article and vids Karen, & congratulations on your attainment of the Iron Maiden status.

    Well done on both counts !

  • I’m currently doing the Strongfirst “The Fighter Pull-up Program” at 3RM. Can this GTG One Good Rep be used in conjunction with the Fighter program or would that be too much? If not, which program do you feel would be better at gaining strength more efficiently/faster?

  • Why should I inhale on the way up?
    I thought exhaling while pulling and inhaling while coming down would be the way to more core activation
    Why change that?

    • Alex-
      Thanks for asking. To clarify, the inhale that I am speaking of is a quick sniff of air in through the nose to brace right as you initiate the start of the pullup. Then I use a powerful exhale closer to the top as I drive the elbows down and back to reach higher above the bar. This is my personal preference, however there is nothing saying you can not exhale on the way up.

      I just feel I have more power to complete the pullup if I use the power breath to match the elbow drive. Think of it in the same way you would match the power breath to the hip snap of the swing or snatch. We could take a sniff of air in at the hike and then power breath at the hip snap.

      Hope this helps.

  • Great article with excellent demonstrations. Very timely, I’m working hard on my pull-ups presently, thanks very much for the corrections.

      • Karen, thank you. I posted two vids in my “near term goal” training log yesterday. One is a weighted attempted with 68 lbs, the other, about 35 minutes later, a max reps at BW attempt. Your observations would be more than welcome. I’m training for my birthday in August. One perfect rep at 68 lbs, a short rest, then 20 perfect BW reps. I hope. You’ve redefined perfect!! But I love it!

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