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20 Reasons Why You Can’t do Pull Ups

Your goal: to do pull ups. You will settle for one for now, but you still can’t quite get your head above the bar. The familiar shake sets in, your legs begin to flail, and you white-knuckle the bar with all the energy in your body, but then you drop. What’s happening? If you are a beginner on the pull-up bar, don’t think you have to bust out perfect pull ups. Your body isn’t ready; you need to progress into the pull-up. Check out the reasons why you can’t do pull ups.

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20 Reasons Why You Can’t do Pull Ups

1. You aren’t doing back exercises

Your back is critical for a successful pull ups. The muscles in the back play a large role in helping you stabilize your body, pull you up, and get your chin above the bar. The muscles involved in pull ups are:

  • Latissimus Dorsi
  • Pectoralis Major
  • Coracobrachialis
  • Teres Major and Minor
  • Infraspinatus
  • Triceps (long head)

To build strength for pull ups, check out these exercises to improve the muscles involved in pull ups:

2. You hang


How often do you walk over to the bar and just hang? Recently, I ran into an article that advised beginners to hang from the bar to build shoulder strength. This is good in theory to build shoulder stability and grip strength, but when done incorrectly and with poor form, it can do more harm than good. In most cases, a beginner will allow the head to sink down into the shoulders. This puts you at-risk for shoulder injuries on and off the bar. One of the most common injuries is a rotator cuff injury.

The fix: to prevent your body from hanging, change your position:

  • Make sure hands are shoulder-width apart on the bar. Do not bring your hands in closer than that.
  • Squeeze the shoulder blades back, which will put more distance between each hand on the bar.
  • When you pull yourself up, leave your shoulders back the entire time.
  • Always keep tension in your shoulder blades.
  • Don’t round your back.

3. You are too straight

Yes, you need to maintain body integrity, but that doesn’t mean you should be straight as a board on the bar. Bend your legs for a more comfortable and controlled pull up. As you progress through your pull up training, you may find that you prefer to have your legs straight for a more challenging workout. But for now, bend your knees slightly and cross your feet at your ankles.

4.You don’t have support

Try the assisted pull up to help you out at first. There are many ways to support yourself when you are learning how to do a pull up:

  • TRX support: TRX is not designed to support a full pull up, but it can provide you with support. To do a TRX-supported pull-up: stabilize the TRX from a sturdy support. Kneel on the ground  or sit on the floor and place the handles in each hand. Squeeze your shoulders together and pull yourself straight up.
  • Band support: stabilize the band on the bar and put the band around your knees. Complete the pull up. After you reach the bar, slowly lower yourself down.
  • Help from a friend: Have a friend hold your hips and assist you while you complete the pull up.
  • When you perform an assisted pull up, you aren’t getting a boost to the bar. You are getting support while you learn to reach the bar. Assisted pull-ups help you learn the range of motion, and they provide you with stability. As you improve your strength and pull up skills, the assistance will provide you less support as you do it on your own.

5. You aren’t progressing 

This is huge! You have to progress to a successful pull up. Just like with any other exercise routine, you need to develop your skills and strength. You won’t conquer the pull up in one week or even three weeks. You may have to spend up to 6 weeks on a single level of a pull up progression routine before you move on to the next level. It’s okay. Don’t injure yourself or get frustrated because you tried perfect the pull up too soon. Even elite athletes have trouble.

6.You have weak core muscles

Pull ups are a great way to work your back, your arms, and your core muscles. If your core muscles are weak, you won’t have core stability and strength necessary to pull off a successful, non-painful pull up. To strengthen your core, try these workouts:

7. Your mind gives up before your body does

Don’t give-up before you make it up. You need the mental strength as well as the physical strength to get up to the bar. Mental training is not just a phenomenon or psychology babble; it works. Just like you have to build your physical strength, you have to build your mental strength. To push your body beyond its physical limits with mental strength training, consider a few tips:

  • Be self-aware of your feelings, your emotions, and your body. Your body can do much more than you think it can, so don’t let your mind give-up first.
  • Challenge yourself to do a little more every day.
  • Encourage yourself to achieve your goals, instead of telling yourself you cannot do it.
  • Practice breathing exercises.
  • Reward yourself for your strong physical wins, and then push yourself a little harder next time.
  • Be consistent.

8. Your chin isn’t getting above the bar

When you are trying to do a pull up, don’t stop short of the bar, push your body and your mind to get all the way up. To do a complete pull up, your chin must go above the bar, not below it. If you constantly stop just shy of bringing your chin up, you train your body and your mind to stop early. Failure to bring your chin all the way to the top of the bar inhibits your range of motion and trains your muscles to cheat.

9. You are swinging on the bar

You are not trying to pull a gymnastics move, so stop swinging on the bar to help you get up. If you use too much momentum to try and reach the bar, you will have already expended the energy you need to do the pull up by swinging on the bar. Don’t wiggle and shake on the bar to make it up, maintain form, stay straight, and use your body to pull you up. Again: one good pull up is better than 10 bad ones.

10. Your hands are too far apart

Where are your hands when you try your pull ups? Are your shoulders by your ears, or are your arms stretched out across the bar like you are doing the ‘YMCA’? Either way is wrong. Your hands should be just a little more than shoulder-width apart. This helps stabilize the shoulders, improve your range of motion, active the proper muscles, and eliminate unnecessary strain on the arms, elbows, and shoulders.

11. You have an injury

Do you feel pain when you try to do pull ups? If so, you might have a new or existing injury of which you are unaware. You should feel discomfort when you try new workouts, but you should never feel pain. If you have not been doing pull ups properly, you have likely suffered an injury and need to seek medical advice before continuing.

12.You can’t support your body weight

Your body weight can affect your ability to do a pull up. Lose excess body fat to improve your ability to do a pull up if you cannot support your own body weight. If you are overweight, you might be dealing with a number of issues, such as core strength, range of motion and body mechanics, that affect your ability to do a pull up. Is it impossible to do a pull up if you are overweight? No, but the healthier your body weight, the less you have to pull up on the bar.

13. You don’t have grip-strength

You know the feeling of white-knuckling the bar while you try to pull yourself up. You could have the arm strength and core strength to get you up, but you need the grip strength as well to help you hang on. To improve your grip strength, try these exercises:

  • Don’t rely on straps and grip aids to improve your grip; work on strength. Wean yourself off the assistive devices as you build up strength.
  • When you are doing a pull up, squeeze the bar often to help you build strength.
  • Wrap a cloth, towel or t-shirt around the bar; this requires you to hold on tighter. You can wrap the cloth or towel around the bar to increase the width of the bar so you can work on different levels of grip strength.
  • Do resistance training with bands.
  • Do arm, shoulder and back workouts that require you to pull or lift so you can work on your grip strength.

14. You deflate

I keep referring back to this: maintain the proper form. If your body becomes limp and deflated on the bar, it becomes harder to heave up to the bar. When you deflate and lose form, you also prevent your arms, shoulders, backs, and elbows to do their job properly. Deflating can train your body to do pull ups improperly each time, which means your bad form will become a habit that is hard to break.

15. You are intimidated

Stop looking around at everyone else who is doing one pull up after another. You are not there yet, and you won’t be there for quite some time.  Do not try to bust out 10 pull ups because you think someone is watching or because you want to look like the person next to you. Everyone had to start out with one when they first started. If you feel intimidated at the gym and like everyone is watching, don’t be. At the gym, you are usually surrounded by people you want to help you and encourage you, not make fun of you. But if you are doing 10 pull ups like a fish out of water, you are definitely going to get a few stares. Start with one solid good pull up, and progress from there.

16. You aren’t a climber

You don’t have to be a climber to do a good pull up, but climbing helps. When you aren’t doing pull ups, do activities that are similar to pull ups.

  • Climb a rope or a net
  • Learn to rock-climb
  • Visit a local indoor climbing gym

17. You are looking to the sky for help

You know you are supposed to envision your goal, but looking up to the bar isn’t that way to do it. When you look up to the bar when doing pull ups, you throw your body out of alignment, you push your shoulders and elbows forward, and you put unnecessary strain on your neck. Not only will bending your neck back prevent you from doing a pull up, but doing so can lead to injury. When doing a pull-up, look straight ahead. Envision reaching the bar without actually looking up at the bar.

18. Your bar is all wrong

You may not be on the right bar. If you don’t do pull ups at the gym, where are you doing them and how high is the bar? Many people try pull ups on the bars at the bar or the track, but sometimes these bars are simply too high for you. If you don’t do pull ups at the gym, consider purchasing one for your home. Be careful when buying pull ups bars for home. Read reviews, research the products, and ask around before buying a bar or device. Trust what users say! You don’t want to end up on your face in the hallway because you chose the cheapest option.

19. You are actually doing a chin-upchin ups vs. pull ups

Are you even doing a pull up? In which direction you place your hands determines whether you are doing a pull up or a chin-up. If your hands are facing you, you are doing a chin-up. A pull up requires your hands to face away from you.

20. You’re Not practicing enough

Finally, the biggest reason why you can’t do a pull up is: you aren’t practicing enough. Let’s be honest: you can’t go to the gym once or twice a week and expect to bang out 5 pull ups. Pull ups are the type of exercise you can do whenever you feel inspired at the gym. Pull ups require practice, various training methods, patience, and skill. If you want to do a pull up, practice is a must.

20 Reasons Why You Can’t do Pull Ups Summary

The pull up is one of the most desired exercises in any fitness routine, yet successful ones are few. What I wrote for Swimming World Magazine still applies:

“With all these progressions, you may not know where to begin! When starting, I suggest finding the exercise where you can perform eight repetitions with proper form (this is a key element and may require help from a professional or friend). Once you can perform this number of repetitions, begin a program of varying the repetitions and the exercises which are one level easier and one level harder. For example, if you can perform 8-feet elevated inverted rows, I suggest performing the following three times per week, in combination of a general strength dryland for swimmers routine:

Day 1
Exercise Reps Sets
1. Feet Elevated Inverted Row 4 6
2. Pull-up Scapular Retraction 3 15
3. Single Arm Inverted Row 5 4

Clearly, factors other than strength influence the pull-up. But, a program like the one above for four to six weeks, then progressing to the next exercises can make performing a pull-up achievable in no time.”

Improve your odds by changing up your pull up routine. You will bring your chin to the bar in no time!

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