Lyz I’m fed up of trying to do pull-ups. I never seem to get anywhere…

Lyz I’m fed up of trying to do pull-ups. I never seem to get anywhere…

Katie: “Do I have to do the [assisted band] pull-ups Lyz, I hate them. After two years of training I still don’t feel like I’ve made any progress… And Sarah feels the same.”

So, here’s the thing. It’s really hard to do a pull-up. Without any bands to help you. Period.

The truth of it is that for most of us females, me included, our body shape isn’t all that conducive to doing pull-ups. Which is not to say it’s not possible. It most certainly is!

We tend to carry weight around our hips/thighs and have weaker upper bodies. It took me three months of solid training to be able to do two pull-ups. And I considered that a lifetime achievement – I’ve never beaten it.

As I explained to Katie, the chances of me being able to bang a few reps out right now would be minimal. I haven’t been putting in the practice.

As far as I see it there are two components to the pull-up. Technique and strength.

  1. First, your brain must learn what muscles to recruit to do the pull-up.
  2. Second, you need to build the strength to move your own bodyweight. Repeatedly.

This doesn’t happen overnight.

It takes months of work. And that doesn’t mean months of trying to do pull-ups.

That means building up gradually, learning technique and moving some weights.

Technique – teaching your brain

It’s all very well doing set after set of pull-ups with bands to help you. That’s one way to do it. However, the bands stop you from getting right down to the bottom of the movement – where your arms are fully extended – so your brain doesn’t learn what muscles it needs to control in that position.

What we need is a way to learn all the parts of the pull-up movement, and then put it all together.

Strength – recruiting more of your muscle

When you first start training you don’t recruit (use) the whole of your muscles’ potential. Your body is efficient at conserving energy. It only uses what it absolutely must.

You need to progressively overload your body (increase the weights) over time for it to recruit more of your muscle’s potential. This is why people new to weight training seem to make quick gains – they’re simply using more of the muscle they already have.

How to improve your pull-up

The hardest part of the pull-up movement is the bottom up phase.

Try hanging from a pull-up bar. Arms straight, legs dangling. Then try and pull yourself up.

Most people can’t initiate any movement at all.

Eccentric pull-ups

The thing I found that made the most difference to my progress was doing eccentric pull-ups.

Eccentric [contraction] means the active muscle is lengthening under load – it doesn’t do the shortening phase (concentric). In the case of an eccentric pull-up – you do the lowering part where your biceps are lengthening as you load them with your bodyweight.

  • Get yourself into the top of the pull-up position
  • As slowly as you can start lowering yourself down (likely around 15 seconds to start with – build to 60s)
  • Finish in the bottom of the pull-up position – arms fully extended, legs dangling
  • The aim is a smooth and controlled movement all the way down
  • If you struggle to control the bottom part of the lowering, use a light band to give some support whilst you build up your muscle control and strength
  • Repeat three times with two minutes rest in between each attempt.

Give this a try next time you’re in the gym. Let me know how you get on!


P.S. If you (or someone you know) have long-term pain and are struggling to exercise, so piling on the pounds and generally feeling ‘bleurgh’ …I can help.

If you’d like a free-of-charge consultation to chat about how we can get you back to feeling like you, call me on 0779 381 3605 or email

*I’ve changed my client’s name to protect their identity – the story is based on a real conversation.

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