A few weeks back, I got a text message from a friend asking an interesting question.
Actually, it was less of a question and more of a favor. He wanted to be able to double the number of pull-ups he could do.
So I wrote him a program, then decided it would make a good blog post, so here we are.
Alex wants to essentially double his number of pull-ups. Which, to be honest, is not only possible, but also—assuming you have the right programming—is also fairly simple.
Firstly, pull-ups aren’t just a great bodyweight exercise—they’re a great exercise, period. Not only are pull-ups one of the most effective movements for strengthening and growing the upper back, but they’re also a fantastic core exercise and arm exercise.
Additionally, in a world where people tend to overtrain the pecs and shoulders, back exercises like pull-ups help keep our upper body balanced.
Pull-ups are also 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.
Speaking generally, people with better relative strength also have faster run times and higher vertical leaps.
Does this mean that increasing your pull-ups is going to immediately increase your 40-yard dash or your vertical leap? Probably not. However, assuming you continue to train those, you’ll see better progress there because your overall relative strength is better.
Moving on from athletics, let’s talk aesthetics. If you’re a guy, doing more pull-ups will help you develop a nice V-taper that can fill out a suit jacket nicely. For women, pull-ups help develop the musculature of a sexy back that looks great in a nice dress.
Finally, as I mention…bragging rights. Being able to do 20+ pull-ups automatically makes you not insubstantially cooler, or, at least, it’s cooler than bench pressing a lot.
All of this of course leads up to the point of this post:
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, 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 pull-ups), 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.
EXAMPLE: Alex can do 22 pull-ups. [(M)=22]. So, in his case, he is going to perform 6 sets of 11 [50% of 22 is 11, obvious) pull-ups split throughout the day. At the end of the day, he will perform 1 set of 15 pull-ups. (Technically, 75% of 22 is 16, but 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 pull-ups, 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.
After his three days off, Alex retested and got 29 pull-ups for his new max.
Anyway, the results: not bad—Alex increased his Max number of pull-ups by 30%.
After that week, he will begin at “Week 1” – only this time, (M) represents 29 pull-ups. 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 pull-ups. 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 pull-ups, 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.
In the first two weeks of the program, you’d only do a total of 7 pull-ups per day. That’s effective sure, but not optimal, unlike Alex who’s doing 81 pull-ups per day 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 need up the volume to a reasonable range. 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.
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. However, they’re not that common in gyms. But if you have one, use this.
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.
Both 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.
You’ve probably seen those giant rubber bands you can wrap around the pull-up bar and then put your foot or knee 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 downside.
When you use the giant resistance bands, for any exercise, the strength curve changes.
The strength curve of an exercise is how difficult it is at certain points in the range of motion. With bands, unlike barbells and dumbbells, the resistance is stronger when the band is fully stretched out.
(Changing the strength curve is also the logic behind chains.)
For pull-ups specifically, the band is at its maximal tension when you’re hanging at the bottom. Because the band tension is so strong at the bottom, 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, like if you’re specifically working the lats in that stretched-out position. But for most people, the hardest portion of the pull-up is the top, NOT the bottom.
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. I tend to prefer this over band pull-ups. This also requires no extra equipment, so if you have a pull-up bar and some kind of stool at home, you can do several sets spaced throughout the day, just like in the program above.
For clarification, Pull-ups are broadly considered the exercise where you pull yourself up to a bar, and generally refer to an overhand grip. Chin-ups are a variation where you do a pull-up with an underhand grip.
Just like changing your stance on a squat or other exercises, varying the grip shifts which muscles work. 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 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.
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. If you’re at an advanced level, a little bit of variation can spur new hypertrophy and strength gains.
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. It also makes pull-ups a great ab exercise.
Whatever you do, don’t do kipping pull-ups. This is 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.