by Mike Guadango T-Nation
The pull-up is one of the best measures of both overall health and physical strength. I say ‘health’ because we all know fat guys who can bench press houses yet can’t bang out a single, solitary pull-up without resembling an obese chimpanzee having a seizure. I don’t care how big your bench or squat is, that’s not fitness – it’s weakness.
For that reason, all my athletes – and this past year, I’ve trained from prepubescent kids to NFL-level beasts – perform some form of bodyweight pulling movement. If they’re too fat or weak to do pull-ups, they do inverted bodyweight rows; and there are dozens of variations of either option that can be performed.
Considering the value we place on pull-ups and the highly motivated clientele we attract, it’s not uncommon for us to witness some pretty spectacular displays of pull-up domination. Check this video out for example.
Give its importance, I offer a selection of innovative ways to up your pull-ups, ranging from progressions and programs to techniques and exercises.
Before we begin, though, let me say that there isn’t much difference in my opinion between a pull-up and a chin-up. Some claim that chin-ups are easier than pull-ups and vice versa – I personally don’t find that much of a difference. They’re both effective and can make you hate life, if you do enough of them.
To that end, I usually say pull-ups when referring to either variation. As for specifying grip, I differentiate by saying pronated, supinated, or neutral grip.
1. The Pitcher Problem
My first big pull-up challenge was last year when I started working with a professional baseball pitcher. He couldn’t do a single pull-up. So I switched him over to inverted barbell bodyweight rows – and he could only do 3 sets of 10! Needless to say, I had my work cut out for me.
But fast-forward to today, and this same weak-ass soul can do 18 pull-ups. So what did I do?
For one, I made sure that he never failed. He always worked submaximally, which allowed for proper recovery. Typically, I’ll allow very weak athletes to work near failure as they can’t cause much muscle damage. However, given he’s a pitcher, I opted to err on the conservative side.
I used a simple system that works wonders for athletes that can’t perform a pull-up.
Barbell inverted rows →
Ring rows →
Barbell/ring rows with weighted vest/chains →
Single-arm ring rows →
Note: The majority of my athletes perform pull-ups/rows with a supinated grip due to limited internal rotation and to avoid shoulder impingement.
The transition between movements can be as quick as a couple of weeks to a couple of months, although athletes obviously progress faster than most average Joes.
2. The Skinny Bastard Progression
If you’re relatively weak and only have so-so pull-up ability, start with this basic pull-up progression using percentages of total reps.
Max Pull-ups: 10
Week 1 – 4 x 60%
60% x 10 reps = 6 reps, so perform 4 sets of 6 reps.
Week 2 – 5 x 60%
Week 3 – 6 x 60%
Week 4 – 4 x 70%
Week 5 – 5 x 70%
Week 6 – 6 x 70%
Week 7 – 4 x 80%
Week 8 – 5 x 80%
Week 9 – 6 x 80%
Week 10 – Max
This simple submaximal progression will raise your total volume gradually so that you’re not constantly maxing out, which leads to overtraining. It’s like the girl next door with the dorky glasses but insatiable Òappetite.Ó It might not be sexy, but it’s as effective as it gets.
3. The Big Dog Max Out
If you have a strong back or are just a strong dude period, try maxing out with weighted pull-ups. Include your bodyweight in the total weight of the pull-up max.
Here’s an example:
Max pull-up: 175 pounds
Bodyweight: 210 pounds
Total weight: 385 pounds
385-pound pull-ups? Are we talking nonsense?
Here’s a video to inspire you:
4. Prilepin’s Guidelines for Pull-ups
Fans of Westside or Supertraining by Mel Siff will recognize Prilepin’s chart. It gives set percentages of one’s max to be used in training. You can plug in your pull-up poundages to design an entire program based upon Prilepin’s chart.
% of Max Reps Per Set Volume of Reps
Low Medium High
50-55 3 to 6 12 to 18 18 to 24 24 to 30
55-65 3 to 6 12 to 18 18 to 24 24 to 30
60-65 3 to 6 10 to 18 18 to 24 24 to 30
65-70 3 to 5 8 to 15 15 to 20 20 to 24
70-75 3 to 5 7 to 15 15 to 20 20 to 24
75-80 2 to 4 6 to 12 12 to 18 18 to 21
80-85 2 to 4 5 to 10 10 to 15 15 to 18
85-90 2 to 3 3 to 7 8 to 12 12 to 15
90+ 1 to 2 1 to 4 4 to 7 8 to 10
If some of your percentages come out to be less than bodyweight, simply use a lat pull down machine for those numbers.
Bodyweight: 160 pounds
Max added pull-up weight: 100 pounds
Total max pull-up weight: 260 pounds
60% of total weight = 156 pounds
Use 156 pounds for lat pull downs and follow the guidelines in Prilepin’s chart. (Granted, in this type of situation I’d just do the pull-ups instead, but it’s still a cool option.)
Week 1 – 5 x 6 60% (Deload)
Week 2 – 5 x 6 65%
Week 3 – 6 x 4 70%
Week 4 – 6 X 4 75%
Week 5 – 5 x 6 60% (Deload)
Week 6 – 5 x 4 80%
Week 7 – 4 x 4 85%
Week 8 – 3 x 5 90%
Week 9 – 5 x 6 60% (Deload)
Week 10 – 4 x2 92.5%
Week 11 – 5 x1 97.5%
Week 12 – 5 x 6 60% (Deload)
Week 13 – Max
5. Other Bright Ideas
Obviously not everyone wants to go through the pain of following a three-month pull-up program. To that end, I’ve included a few pull-up exercises that you can implement into your current programming as accessory work, or just to keep things fun.
If you follow a basic Westside template you can use these exercises for Max Effort, Max Rep, or even Dynamic Effort method.
As you can see, there are more ways to perform pull-ups than Baskin-Robbins has flavors. Just be sure that whatever method you choose has some kind of progression to it.
Don’t just do something for the sake of doing it or because it’s a cool looking exercise. Choose one and focus on doing more reps or weight each week. Then, after three weeks or so, make like Jay-Z and move on to the next one.
Choose your weapon, adapt, and progress. It’s that simple!