A few weeks back, I got a text message from a buddy of mine asking an interesting question.
Actually, it was less of a question and more of a favor. He wanted to be able to double the amount of pullups that he was able to do.
So I wrote him a program, then decided that this would make a good blog post, and so here we are.
Alex wants to essentially double his number of pullups. Which, to be honest, is not only possible, but also—assuming you have the right programming—is also fairly simple.
For a few reasons, starting with how bad-ass pullups are. You see, pullups aren’t just a great bodyweight exercise—they’re a great exercise, period. Not only are pullups one of the most effective movements for increasing size and strength in the muscles of the upper back, they’re also a fantastic core exercise and arm exercise.
Moreover, pullups are probably the single best way to measure relative strength, which is a fancy way of referring to how strong you are relative to your body weight.
Put another way, speaking generally, people with better relative strength also have faster run times and higher vertical leaps.
Does this mean that increasing your pullups is going to immediately increase your 40 yard dash or your vertical leap? Probably not. However, assuming you continue to train those, I strongly believe that you’ll see better progress there because your overall relative strength is better.
Pretty cool, huh?
Moving on from athletics, let’s talk aesthetics. If you’re a guy, going more pullups will help you develop a nice V-taper that can fill out a suit jacket quite nicely. If you’re a woman, pullups will help you develop the musculature of a sexy back that looks great in a nice dress.
Finally, as I mention…extreme bragging rights.
All of this of course leads up to the point of this post: how DO you double the total number of pullups you can do?
Yup, that’s it. Just practice.
Okay, okay, there’s a bit more to it than that.
You see, when looking to have a radical increase in the number of reps you can perform on an exercise, you’re really looking at increasing strength endurance and neurological efficiency.
Of course, you can’t simply do as many reps as you can as often as you can—after a day or two, you’d be too fatigued to continue, and your performance would drop off. Instead, you work with a smaller percentage of your total workload (usually about 50-60%).
If you’re looking to increase the maximum weight you can lift this would mean that you would work with a lighter weight, and perform the exercise frequently. If you’re looking to increase the total number of reps (as with pullups), you work with a percentage of your current max reps and do that frequently—frequently enough to exceed your current max.
This increases both proficiency, and, because you will be building to a greater number of reps, strength endurance increases as a by-product.
EXAMPLE: Alex can do 22 pullups. [(M)=22]. So, in his case, he is going to perform 6 sets of 11 [50% of 22 is 11, obvious) pullups, split throughout the day. At the end of the day, he will perform 1 set of 15 pullups. (Technically, 75% of 22 is 16, but that’s a stupid number and 15 is easier to work with.)
Now, CHANCES ARE, the first few times he goes through this, he won’t even be able to get 15 on that final set. However, by the end of week 2, he’ll be able to bang out 15 with no problem. His strength endurance has increased, and he’s been building efficiency.
EXAMPLE: Alex will perform 7 sets of 13 pullups, split throughout the day. At the end of the day, he will perform 1 set of 20 reps. At this point, Alex is probably able to hit 20 reps by the end of the second attempt at this. His endurance will have increased.
Anyway, the results: not bad—Alex increased his Max number of pullups by 30%.
After that week, he will begin at “Week 1” – only this time, (M) represents 29 pullups. Therefore, Alex’s new “Week 1” will look like this:
He’ll perform 6 sets of 15 reps, split throughout the day. At the end of the day, he’ll perform a set of 22 pullups. Chances are, he’ll have a little trouble with this until the end of week 2.
For “Week 3” Alex will now perform 7 sets of 17 pullups, split throughout the day. At the end of the day, he’ll perform 1 set of 26.
He’ll then take 3 days off, and re-test. I’m confident that when he does, he’ll be at 40 or more.
Certainly, it’s not easy—but it IS incredibly effective. If you have the guts, give it a try.
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Oh, you want to know more about pull ups? Well, you’re in luck. Because I, uh, wrote more.
For our example, Alex, this program works great and all. But, that’s because he can already do quite a few pull-ups, so doing half of his max, 11, is still a decent set. But what if you can only do 2 pull-ups? You would be doing in the first two weeks of the program a total of 6 pull-ups per day. That’s effective sure, but not optimal unlike Alex who’s doing 55 pull-ups in the first two weeks of the program. You could probably follow this program and improve, but I don’t think it’ll be the best or fastest way to improve your pull-ups. Since you’re doing so few reps, you can up the volume. But how?
Ideally, you want to do a pull-up set that’s around 8-12 reps. So, you’ll have to lower the weight. But unlike barbell and dumbbell exercises you can’t just cut half your body off. For weeks 1 and 2 of your pull-up program, add 4 sets of 8-12 pull-ups on your back training day. Ideally towards the beginning while your back muscles are fresh. But if you’re also doing deadlifts, you can do pull-ups after those. But, don’t do deadlifts, then heavy rows, then expect do have anything left in your lats for pull-ups, even at a light weight.
But, how do you lower the weight? You have several options.
A lot of gyms are now equipped with fancy pull-up machines where you stand on an adjustable weight. This is ideal. In this case, find a weight where you can do about 10 pull-ups. The assisted pull-up machine pretty much is like doing a pull-up but with less weight, so it’s the ideal option. However, they’re not that common in gyms
The next closest option to mimicking a pull-up with less weight is the lat pulldown machine. It will work the same muscles but in an open chain fashion. Open chain exercises are what you’re moving roams free, unfixed. In a closed chain exercise, it’s fixed to a surface. The classic example here is the bench press (how to increase your bench press) versus a push-up. So for pull-ups, the hands are fixed to the bar, in a lat pulldown, they roam free.
Bother have their advantages, which I won’t get into here, but the point is that for improving your pull-ups, the lat pulldown won’t be as effective as actually doing pull-ups because the variance of the open-chain aspects lends to a less exact transfer to pull-ups.
That said, it’s basically the same movement, so the lat pulldown machine is fine. But between that and the assisted pull-up, do the later.
You’ve probably seen those giant rubber bands you can wrap about the pull-up bar and then put your foot in. It basically acts as a slingshot boost to help you spring up to the top. They’re also a viable option, but they have a big difference, one that lends to it not transferring as well to pull-ups.
When you use the giant resistance bands, or any resistance bands for any exercise, the strength curve is going to change. In some instances and exercises, this is good. For pull-ups, generally speaking, it won’t help transfer to regular bodyweight pull-ups.
The strength curve of an exercise is how difficult it is at certain points in a movement. Typically, the ends of the range of motion for an exercise are the hardest. When you use a band, the band is at its maximal tension when you’re at the bottom (dead hang) of the pull-up. Because the band tension is so strong there, the bottom of a pull-up is easier. As you go up, the band tension loosens, so you have to pull-up more and more of your bodyweight.
For some situations, this can be great, but in my experience, I see trainees who never fully pull themselves up to the top of the movement.
Additionally, the resistance band lends itself to cheating, because you can use the momentum of the bounce to just fling you up and down. Finally, they’re wildly ineffective for people who don’t weigh much because they’re too strong, so if you do get a giant resistance band, make sure it’s the appropriate resistance.
You can see videos all of this in this article.
The last option is to put a bench underneath the pull-up bar and put your foot on the bench. Almost like a split squat, as you stand up squat up with your leg. I tend to prefer this over band pull-ups
If you can’t do any pull-ups then obviously you won’t be able to follow our base program. Instead, take the variation outlined just above, and do them twice a week in your training for 4 sets of 8-12 reps. If you’re doing an upper body/lower body routine, then always do one of these pull-up variations on your upper body training days.
One the first pull-up day of the week, try and see if you can do a full rep. If not, stick with the program of training the movement twice a week. Eventually (and probably sooner than you expect) you’ll get one.
Once you can do your first pull-up, you can try to do 6 spaced out evenly through the day in addition to the two training days.
For clarification, Pull-ups are broadly considered the exercise where you pull yourself up to a bar. Chinups are a variation where you do a pull-up with an underhand grip.
Just like changing your stance on a squat or other exercises, this will shift which muscles and muscle groups are working. For chin-ups, because you’re supinated, your biceps will work more, taking some of the load off of the lats. In the traditional overhand grip, the biceps are muted because the arms are pronated.
For people starting out, I recommend chin-ups for a few reasons. One, they’re easier. So you can get to your first pull-up quicker. Secondly, supinating your arms make your shoulder blades naturally pull themselves back, and I find it’s just a generally safer position for your shoulders. However, chin-ups can also cause some wrist discomfort unless you’re using something like rings that can swivel with your wrists.
What’s better than both of these is when you hold it in the middle. It’s a compromise of biceps and lats (and you’ll get some brachioradialis in there like a hammer curl), but it’s the most shoulder-friendly position. In fact, I have all beginners exclusively do neutral-grip chin ups. It’s just the safest, and there’s no reason other than the arbitrary “how many pull-ups can you do” that makes it any worse than the standard grip. However, it’s less common for gyms to have pull-up bars with neutral grip handles. Fortunately, I do see it becoming more common.
Regardless of whether you hold it overhand, underhand, or neutral, you can add even more variation by adjusting how far apart your hands are. A shoulder-width grip is the standard, but you can play around with a wide grip and a narrow grip.
Like any exercise, to do it with proper form you want to maintain a neutral posture. I see bodybuilders do pull-ups with their backs way too arched and their feet well behind their body. To prevent this, start your set with a deep breath that engages your abs, then as you do the pull-ups keep your glutes tight and your feet slightly in front of you. This will protect your low back.
At first this will be tricky, but after a few weeks you’ll get used to it and it will be the new normal.
You know what I’m talking about. The way Crossfit people do pull-ups where they swing up and down. If your goal is to get stronger, grow your back, or not get hurt, then definitely DON’T do kipping pull-ups.
Wow, okay. That was a much deeper dive on all things pull-ups than I expected. Pull-ups are one of the most important strength training exercises regardless of your training goal. If you have any further questions, drop them below, and maybe I’ll add another appendix about it.