The unassisted pull-up is a holy grail of fitness feats. Many of us have set our sights on this performance goal each January or when starting a new training program, but achieving it often proves to be easier said than done.

If you’ve tried again and again to master this move, it’s possible you’re going about it the wrong way.  “Don’t think that training on the assisted pull-up machine in the gym is going to get you to your goal,” says creator of @pulluprevolution program, Angela Gargano, CPT.  “Although this is a great tool, the way to achieve an unassisted pull-up is by doing drills—especially ones that activate your lats and back.”

Instead, Gargano recommends a series of training drills that activate the exact muscles you need for this movement, while also building strength, stability, and mobility. Perform them 3-4 times a week in addition to your regular training routine. We recommend doing these drills at the beginning of your workout when your muscles are fresh and rested.

Time Needed:

Timing varies and depends on several factors, the biggest of which is consistency. You must do these drills at least 3-4 times a week until you have achieved an unassisted pull-up. 

Your Expert

Pull-Up Expert and Three-Time Ninja Warrior Competitor Angela Gargano, CPT

Training Plan

Here are Gargano’s activation drills for mastering the pull-up:

Hang: Hold the bar with an overhand grip (like you would in a pull-up) and hang, fully extended, until your grip runs out. Do this exercise three times. Tip: Record your hang time and try to beat it each time.

Hanging Shoulder Shrug: Hang from the bar with your lats tucked and shoulders down, then shrug your shoulders up to your ears. Lower back down and repeat. Do three sets of 10 reps; slow and controlled.

Assisted Shrug Pull-Up: Put a band on the bar to assist your pull-up (or do this one on an assisted pull-up machine). Perform the shoulder shrug as before, then lift your chin above the bar all the way, as you would in a pull-up. Do three sets of 10 reps.

Flexed Arm Hang: Jump up (use a box or a band to assist you if you have to) and pull your chin above the bar.  Hold there. Do three sets of 30 seconds each.

Eccentric Pull-Up: Start with your chin above the bar (you can use a box to help you get up to this position), then lower down to a hanging position as slowly as possible. Step down and repeat. Do three sets of five reps.  

Jump-Up Pull-Up: Starting from the ground, jump your hands up to the bar and use the momentum to go right into a pull-up. Do three sets of five reps.

Max-Out Assisted Pull-Up: Throw a resistance band over a pull-up bar and pull one end of the loop through the other end until the band is anchored around the bar. Place one foot in the hanging end of the loop and cross your other foot behind. Raise yourself up into a pull-up. Use a band that will allow you to do at least three pull-ups, but not one that feels so easy you are doing more than 15 reps.

LaRue V. Gillespie
LaRue's journalism career has taken her from being a features reporter with a newspaper group to the editor-in-chief and creative director of a fitness magazine. She's currently a freelance writer with a passion for penning investigative health reports.