Pull-up Coach and American Ninja Warrior Angela Gargano shares her tips
So you want to learn how to do your first pull-up, huh? Well, you’ve come to the right place.
While there’s no denying that pull-ups are a challenging exercise, with the right steps, they’re absolutely achievable. To get you started, we asked pull-up coach and 5x Ninja Warrior Angela Gargano what she’d recommend. Ready to crush those pull-ups? Let’s get started.
Before you even step up to that pull-up bar, Gargano notes the importance of learning “what the pull-up actually looks like.” From where to place your hands to how far above the bar you should go, visualizing a proper pull-up is the first step in achieving your own.
This step doesn’t just apply to pull-ups, though. From squats to deadlifts to a simple bicep curl, watching someone else demonstrate how to perform an exercise is an important step many of us skip. In order to master any exercise, make sure you’re nailing that form from the start.
After visualizing the proper pull-up form, Gargano says the next step is to “test [your] overhead range of motion because your arms are over your head when you’re doing a pull-up. If you can’t have your arms up here,” Gargano demonstrates, raising her arms above her head, “and function, that’s the definition of mobility.”
The pull-up coach continues, explaining that for many of us, the challenge in getting that first pull-up comes more from mobility and less from strength. You may already have the strength to knock out a pull-up or two, but getting your arms into the proper position is the limiting factor. If that’s the case for you, try integrating more upper-body mobility work into your routine. You may be surprised at just how much of a difference this makes.
While pull-ups do require upper body strength and mobility, Gargano emphasizes that they’re really “a full-body move. You need to have a strong core; you need to have a strong back, and you need to have strong glutes.”
In addition to training your entire body, Gargano also recommends performing drills that help teach you how to “fire up” the muscles that are involved in pull-ups, like your lats. One of the drills she has her clients practice is what she calls the “shrug lat pulldown.”
“A lot of people when they do lat pulldowns, they think of pulling the machine down. But what I do is have them [my clients] use the band, make them shrug first, and actually tap their lat to fire it up. Then, bend the elbow down.” This drill, she explains, helps in building that mind-muscle connection.
“A lot of what people don’t realize is that it’s actually your central nervous system that hasn’t created the pathway to your lat to fire up yet. So once you get that to fire up, once you get your brain to realize that muscle needs to move, then you are actually able to get one step closer to the pull-up a lot faster. But again, you’re working all areas of your body on this journey in order to make this happen,” she explains.
Even with all the right tricks and tools, mastering a pull-up isn’t going to be an overnight accomplishment – but Gargano emphasizes that it’s doable at every age and stage. The missing piece might just be the right trainer or coach.
“When I was doing Ninja Warrior, women started coming up to me, and the first thing they kept saying was ‘Angela, I just want to be able to do a pull-up.’ And I’m like, why can’t you do a pull-up? They would say ‘Because I’m 50 years old and that’s never going to happen for me.’ And I was like, nope, that’s a limiting belief.”
Gargano explains that most people who are just starting out feel discouraged “because when you go online right now, all you really see with pull-ups are the same five drills. For example, an eccentric pull-up. If you actually have the common person go try those drills, they’ll drop right down, and feel discouraged.”
She continues, explaining that sometimes all you need is the right program, and someone to help make your training a little more fun. “A lot of the women [that I’m training] are 50 and above. I’ve had all ages, but it’s really excitiang to see them, especially in their 50s, say to themselves ‘Hey, I’m going to take a chance on myself, and I’m going to try this thing,’ and it translates into everything they do. They start to become more confident.”
If you’ve been working on getting that first pull-up but are feeling stuck, check out Gargano’s Pull-Up Revolution. It’s a program specifically designed to help you get your first pull-up and has programs for everyone from complete beginners to intermediate lifters. She also has a free pull-up workshop coming up in October that's the perfect place to start (or continue) your pull-up journey.