I trained for two months to do three strict pull-ups, and it was totally worth it

The training was intense and my muscles hurt, but the sense of achievement was overwhelming

Kerrie Hughes performing a pull up on a bar at home
(Image credit: Kerrie Hughes)

I've been trying to achieve a pull-up for a while. It started when I began participating in CrossFit, which incorporates movements from loads of different disciplines, including Olympic lifting and gymnastics. 

I watched in awe as other gym members made them look easy, knowing they were nothing but. Inspired and wanting to progress, I committed to the goal of being able to perform three pull-ups within eight weeks.

I set aside two weekly training sessions to learn how to do pull-ups and focus on hitting that target and enlisted the help of a coach to draw up a specific pull-up program that'd focus on developing upper body strength. 

The two-month challenge was tricky—I had sore muscles, and training with dumbbells took a toll on my hands—but by the end of the eight weeks, I hit my three-pull-up goal. Here's what happened. 

It was a slow start

I naively thought I would be strong enough to knock out a pull-up after just a few sessions. But, as an early attempt showed, I was trying to run before I could walk and a world away from the strength required to perform the movement safely.

But with my eyes set on the goal, this stumble made me even more determined. This could easily have had the opposite effect, but learning how to increase mental strength helps build resilience, an essential quality during intense, challenging training. 

It taught me discipline

Something else I realized early on is that there are no shortcuts to building the strength required for a pull-up. I had to keep up the momentum with training to hit my goal, which wasn't always easy. 

Some days you just want to exercise for happiness rather than to hit a specific goal. Plus, my trainer's plan included many repetitive activities, which could have been more exciting. 

But I kept focus because I'd chosen a SMART fitness goal; it was specific (pull-ups), measurable (three repetitions), attainable (my trainer didn't warn me off), relevant (needed for CrossFit sessions), and time-bound (eight weeks).

The DOMS were real

Having not focused on most of these muscles before, I suffered a lot from DOMS (delayed-onset muscle soreness) during this process, particularly in my shoulders, which made getting dressed the next day interesting.

This post-workout pain is due to tiny tears in your muscle fibers caused by your training. As your body repairs these with protein, it grows and strengthens the muscles. 

It's a sadistic pat on the back; you wouldn't wish them on anyone, but you can't help feeling a little bit proud that you've trained hard enough to cause this discomfort. 

It didn't take long to build stronger arms

Kerrie Hughes performing dumbbell rows outside

(Image credit: Kerrie Hughes)

DOMS wasn't my body's only way of telling me the work was paying off. After about four weeks into the program, I started to see visible muscle around my upper arms and shoulders, which I found really motivating. 

Seeing myself looking physically strong gave me a huge morale boost despite still being unable to pull-up by that point. But the work I was doing with dumbbells was clearly doing its job.

Consistency helps here, too. It's why you can get impressive results even from shorter routines, like this 15-minute dumbbell arm workout. It also pays to use several compound exercises in your training to work multiple areas simultaneously.

Hand grips are a must

Another quick physical change was to the skin on my hands. I went from having smooth, soft palms to rough, rugged hands covered with callouses, which was a bit of a downside.

Pull-ups require a firm grip, which meant I was either hanging from the rig or carrying very heavy dumbbells. And it took its toll on my hands, to the point where my palms were close to ripping and being unbearably painful.

Although you'd imagine the strength workouts were the most challenging part of this eight-week experiment, the grip training was actually the most difficult as it had a significant impact on my daily life. 

As the weeks went on, I tried several coping techniques, but the most effective way was to wear quality hand grips. These are like workout gloves but don't cover your fingers, so they just protect your palm. 

My overall fitness improved

Of course, I really wanted to hit the three strict pull-ups goal I'd set, but I was also impressed at how much my overall fitness improved as I trained across the two months. 

My workout program was comprehensive, focusing on several muscle groups all over my body, so I had to learn to use cardio equipment, like some of the best rowing machines and the Ski Erg. 

And it was clear how each of these activities impacted others; the muscles I needed for pull-ups were the same as I used on the machines, and all of this work significantly improved my split times and endurance. 

I hit my three strict pull-ups target at the end of the eight weeks, and the sense of achievement was incredible. Although strength was vital, the mental challenge was more demanding than the physical one, which made nailing my goal even more satisfying. 

Kerrie Hughes

Kerrie Hughes is a freelance editor and writer, mum of three 'spirited' kids and avid Crossfit fan. In the rare times she's not in intense negotiations with a small human, you'll find her doing her best impression of six-times Crossfit Games winner Tia-Clair Toomey in her local box.