Pull-ups are one of the best exercises you can do at home. They’re also notoriously difficult, especially if you’re new to them. This quick guide will take you over everything you need to know to become a proper pull-up legend, or at least help you get started doing pull-ups without pulling out your hair. If you’ve ever tried to get into this compound exercise but ended up wondering why are pull ups so hard, we’ve got your back (and your shoulders!)
According to research, most people can’t do even one simple pull-up.
Why is it hard to do pull ups?
We’ve all been there. The pull-up tower stands proudly in the corner but somehow there’s always other exercises in your home gym that you end up doing. Even though you know how good pull-ups are for you (if you don’t … the last bit of this guide is for you!) The truth is pull-ups are not as easy to get into and stick to as other forms of exercise.
And we’re not even talking about one-arm pull-ups either. Just the regular kind.
If you read any forums such as reddit, you’ll read many posts from seasoned fitness enthusiasts who are still struggling with either increasing their reps, or just doing any kind of pull-up.
Mastering pull-ups is going to take some time and dedication. They’re far more difficult than grabbing a dumbbell or many other forms of home exercise.
Main 2 reasons pull-ups are hard:
- You’re lifting a lot of weight
- You haven’t developed the muscles you need just yet
The weight isn’t adjustable!
It’s not like picking up a lighter dumbbell or adjusting the pin on the weight stack. When it comes to pull-ups, you’re stuck with your body weight, unless you get something to help you (more on that in a bit). If you’re 90kg, that’s a heck of a weight to have to start lifting when you think about it.
Struggling with pull-ups? You’re in good company!
According to research, most people can’t do even one simple pull-up. With the average being between 0 and 2. The Strength Level website lists that novices should be able to attain around 5 – 6 and intermediates should hit around 10 – 11. Although it’s worth noting that there are a lot of variables that come into play here, such as weight, age and physical condition.
You’re lifting a lot of weight!
If you’re wondering ‘Why am I strong but can’t do pull ups?’ think about what’s going on for a second.
Even if you only weight 60kg, that’s still one hell of a lot of weight to be pulling up to the bar. If you’re a 90kg+ male, you’ve got an even bigger fight against gravity. So, don’t feel too badly. It’s perfectly normal to struggle with pull-ups and chin ups until you get used to them.
Pull-ups are tough, but worth grinding out
But the important thing to remember is there’s nothing wrong with you physically if you’re struggling with pull ups. Most people who are good at pull-ups will tell you they’re one of the hardest exercises to master. Stick with it though and don’t let your pull-up bar gather dust. This is by far one of the more rewarding exercises you can do.
There aren’t many exercises you can do in your home gym that are better for upper arm and back development
Pull-ups vs. chin-ups – which one is easier?
While they sometimes get mixed up, there’s actually a difference between these two exercises.
- Pull-ups – A wider grip, with the palms facing away from you. Also known as the over-hand grip.
- Chin-ups – A narrow grip, with the palms facing towards you. This is known as the under-hand grip.
Chin-ups, while far from being easy themselves are often easier for people to do than their wider-grip sibling. They also work a different set of muscles. Most people find they can complete more chin-ups than they can the dreaded pull-up.
It’s pretty amazing that a simple shift in your grip can have a huge impact on the muscles you’re working.
What’s a good way to do pull-ups at home?
It’s true – pull-ups are harder for women than men
When it comes to how hard doing pull-ups can be, your natural body type has a lot to do with it. An article published in the NY Times attempted to answer the question ‘why are pull ups hard for females?’ In the study, researchers found that “no matter how fit they are, women typically fare worse on pull-up tests.
But Vanderburgh notes that some men struggle, too, particularly those who are taller or bigger generally or have long arms.”
They also trained women for a period of 3 months, working on their lats and biceps but found that this did not help them to increase the number of pull-ups they could achieve.
Who naturally finds this exercise easier?
Other things can affect how tricky it is to do a pull up. So who is better disposed to do pull-ups? According to the research, men shorter men (with short arms) and low body fat will have an easier time doing pull-ups. Anyone else has their work cut out. *
* Unless your name is The Rock, who claims that during the filming for Baywatch, was able to do 100 pull-ups. Not bad.
If you’re finding pull-ups hard, try this exercise
There’s one exercise you can practice fairly easily that will make pull-ups a lot more simple. It uses the pull-up bar and is a lot easier than the actual pull-up itself. The exercise is the scapular pull-up.
The idea is that you’ll hang from the bar and then do just the initial part of the pull-up, paying very careful attention to your form (so you’ll build up the right muscles). The movement has to be in the shoulder, and not in the bicep. It’s way easier to see it in action so…
Check this video for the full guide
3 Easy tips anyone can use to make pull-ups less difficult
- Hang around! One tip I got that really helped me get into pull-ups, without half-killing myself or straining myself was to simply hop up on the bar and just hang there, with arms completely straight. Think of a gibbon monkey. How does this work? You’ll improve all the muscles you need to pull up as well as the all-important grip strength. *
- Get a pull-up bar on your door – I love this tip. Get one of those pull-up bars and never pass through that door without doing at least one pull-up.
- Practice form standing on the ground – Practice the form for the scapular pull-up and the pull up itself without even touching the bar. Build up your strength and form and then nail them in your workout.
* There’s a good video from Dr Ben on the benefits of hanging and how it can prevent all kinds of shoulder injuries.
Expensive solutions – assisted pull-up machines
If you’re like most home gym’ers, you’ll have invested (wisely!) in power tower to do dips and pull-ups. One advantage people going ot commercial gyms have is they can jump onto one of the assisted pull-up machines. If you’ve not seen these, they have a platform you kneel on and a counter weight that you can adjust. You can set it so that even the slightest pull on the bar can pull you up.
Unlike other gym equipment, you add more weight to make the exercise easier. It’s a brilliant way to scale into pull-ups, but also super-expensive. These machines typically start at £1000 and are not good value for a home gym. They also take up a lot of space so they’re not exactly practical unless you’ve got loads of space.
If you’re finding it difficult to increase your pull-up reps
Another common difficulty people have with the pull-up bar is where they hit a plateux. They might be able to do a certain amount of reps but then struggle to get past this.
Here’s a few things to try:
- Get more rest – If you’re sore and your muscles aren’t fully rested this can make doing chin-ups a nightmare. Check you’re getting enough sleep and do some rest.
- Try doing them first – if pull-ups are part of your workout, and you’re struggling to increase the number you can do, make sure you prioritise them and get them done first.
- Get a program for your pull-ups – Do a google on the Recon Ron program if you want to take this exercise seriously. It’s a military program that’s designed to get you up to a whopping 20 pull-ups. There’s some fantastic advice on structuring your workouts to built up to this level, wherever you are now and it’s ideal for anyone finding this exercise difficult.
Being fit or strong in other exercises doesn’t guarantee you can do pull-ups
Another weird thing with pull-ups is it doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do pull ups. There’s a good lateral pull down machine at gyms that does help with it but things like bench press won’t help you get better at pull-ups.
Pull-up Bands: A cheap way to make pull-ups easier
How rubber bands can help you master this exercise
A more simple (and thankfully cheaper) way to get into pull-ups on your home bar is a little invention called pull-up assist bands. These are huge rubber bands that will do some of the lifting, in a similar way to the counter-weight machines at the gym. These heavy-duty bands normally come in a pack with a variety of band strengths. Stronger bands making for an easier lift.
How do pull-up assist straps work?
You’ll attach them to your pull-up bar and they will then take up some of your weight and give you a lift upwards so there’s less for your back and arms to do. If you’ve been looking for a good way to start pull-ups, they’re one of the best ways to get going.
What are some good resistance bands to help with pull-ups?
There’s a lot of different brands out here but if you want a seriously good set, the X-Band pull-up bands are extra durable and come in a handy kit that should suit all users. (Available on Amazon UK).
They come in different sizes, with bigger bands making your pull-ups significantly easier. As you get better, you can reduce and eventually remove the trainer bands.
Is it worth the struggle? Are Pull-ups really good for me?
If you’re reading all this and wondering if pull-ups are worth the hard work to get into them, here’s some good reasons to stick in and persevere with this exercise.
- Main exercise for upper body strength – Weighted or un-weighted, pull-ups are one thing that just about every personal trainer will rave about. They build upper body strength and muscle like very few other exercises.
- Increase upper arm and back muscles – By practicing pull-ups and working them into your routine you’ll build up both strength and size of these muscles.
- Correct your posture – One thing that’s not often talked about is
- Develop that ‘V’ shaped back – Even if you’re not looking to enter any body building competitions any time soon, a more V shaped back will make a big difference to how your body looks. Pull-ups are one of the main ways to get that shape.
- Pull-ups are an awesome tool to develop your upper body strength
- There are lots of benefits and reasons to increase your reps
- Don’t worry if they are hard – everyone struggles with them!
- Practice the scapular pull-up to improve your pull-ups
- Get some pull-up bands if you’re having a hard time and try some supported pull-ups.
Good luck in your home gym and let us know in the comments how you get on!
Pull-up resources and further reading
- Full study on are pull-ups harder for men or women
- Why women can’t do pull-ups (NY Times)
- Strength Level – compare how many pull-ups novice to elite athletes can perform
- There’s a good Reddit thread on the number of pull-ups average fit people can do
- There’s a fantastic video on the differences between pull-ups and chin-ups here