How to Master the Pull-Up

A few weeks before vacation, Eden and I sought out to earn our Julodies (which is apparently a term cool kids these days use for “July bodies”). Even though we didn’t show up to Florida with rock solid abs, we did work up a sweat with personal trainer Simon Hyun.

Simon has been involved in the fitness world for over 17 years. For over six years, he has been training clients from pro athletes to absolute beginners, including training over 25 women to do their first pull-up to chin-up.

With Simon we talked technique, did #allthesquats (and #allthedeadlifts for that matter), and learned that mini bands alone can create a killer workout – but the highlight of the day was when Eden discovered that she was way stronger than she thought, courtesy of the pull-up.

There’s always been something empowering about the pull-up; something that makes my adrenaline rush and scream, “well, this is pretty badass!”

“Pull-ups are especially empowering for women,” Simon explains, “When women accomplish a pull-up, they realize how powerful they are. It’s important to remember that pound for pound, women are just as strong as men.”

Even though we couldn’t rep out several pull-ups that day, we did get a lot of good pointers from Simon to get us there eventually. So, how do you get better at pull-ups? Here’s what Simon says.

  1. Repetition is key. First and foremost, it takes practice (practice, and more practice).
  2. Work on exercises that will help you improve and get stronger in the areas you need to succeed. What does that mean? That means more ab work, more bicep work and back work at the gym. Exercises like dumbbell rows, arm curls, and lat pull-downs are your friends.
  3. Work on your muscle-to-fat ratio; it might be that you need to build a little more muscle to be able to handle your bodyweight.


So, how do you practice pull-ups? Here’s a tip: lose the band. A lot of gyms will teach you to do pull-ups with a resistance band to help assist you, but it might be hurting your progress.

Why? Think about it: what’s the hardest part of the pull-up? Answer: starting from the bottom. And what part does a resistance band help you out on most? Answer: your weakest point! Bands don’t adequately challenge us at the bottom and don’t assist us (when we need it most) at the top. If you want to see real progress, you’ve got to struggle through the hardest part (without assistance) – and that might mean losing the band and seeing how tough you really can be.

It’s nice to have a crutch (er, band), but as Simon reminded us, “Sometimes people feel like when they are struggling they aren’t accomplishing much, but this isn’t true. When we fail, we usually have the most to gain.”

There is strength in the struggle – a lesson most of us have learned again and again – and the same is true with pull-ups. There’s another lesson that we know to be true at ASweatLife, and it’s that everything is better with friends.

So if we shouldn’t use bands, what should we use? Answer: friends. Enter: partner-assisted pull-ups.


There are two ways to do partner-assisted pull-ups. The first is best used when your partner is close to getting a pull-up, but isn’t quite there. Start by standing behind your partner, and then lightly push the palm(s) of your hand on their upper back when he or she needs it. The second is to give your partner something to push their legs off (such as your thighs or hands, depending on height), so he or she can determine how much assistance is needed.

Want to work on your pull-up or chin-up game? You can find Simon in Lincoln Park at 2440 N Lincoln Ave. (Pssst, he has a special introductory offer and complimentary class for ASweatLife readers that you can check out right here!)

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About Cass Gunderson

Cass hails from the southwest suburbs as a proud White Sox fan and a graduate of University of Illinois. By day, Cass is a full-time student at the University of Chicago's Booth Graduate Business School. Before deciding to throw away all her money to go back to school, Cass worked for a private equity firm that buys technology companies. Raised as the youngest in a family of older brothers, Cass grew up a tomboy and remains active in sports. To her mother’s satisfaction, Cass learned how to embrace her feminine side in college and has developed an interest for fitness activities that require spandex as opposed to knee-length basketball shorts. In her spare time, she runs a lot because it is cheaper than paying for real therapy. Cass has completed four marathons and one ultramarathon (she claims she'll never do this to herself again, but that's TBD). She can still be found on the basketball courts in Lincoln Park wearing knee-length basketball shorts.