by the T-Nation Editors
Strength training can get complicated. Sure, in the beginning it’s simple – at least it should be, because basically anything will work, for a while.
Then, progress slows from gazelle-like to glacial. Adding just five pounds to the barbell or the scale becomes a hard-fought battle.
So you decide to start checking out what the experts in the field recommend. And that’s when **** gets complicated.
They contradict each other. Some contradict themselves. They slap qualifiers into their recommendations (“this is what I do 60% of the time”) or worse, say the dreaded “it depends.”
High reps, low reps, slow tempos, no tempos, isolations, complexes; it seems like the only thing they agree on is that to get stronger, you need to lift weights.
However, rather than get all stressed out or snake-bit by analysis paralysis, the smart thing to do is to simply look for similarities between the recommendations – cause the stuff the experts all agree on is the stuff that should make up 90% of your focus. The other stuff is extraneous, situational, or just not worth worrying about.
Case in point: pull-ups. Every coach who’s ever been published (and a few thousand who haven’t) recommends pull-ups for building a bigger, stronger, healthier upper body. That’s a pretty good indication that you should be doing them, too.
But why are they so awesome? And what are the best ways to improve at them? Here are 6 different rationales and recommendations.
Pull-ups are my favorite upper body pulling movement. Along with being arguably the best lat builder in existence, they also work a lot of other muscles surrounding the scapulae and pelvis.
Furthermore, if you control the amount of anterior pelvic tilt exhibited during the pull-up by bracing the abs, it’s also an incredible low-ab exercise, and the elbow flexors get worked considerably during pull-ups as well.
The lats are often-overlooked spinal stabilizers, and strengthening them can lead to higher squat and deadlift numbers due to increased core-stability. Not to mention any smart powerlifter will tell you the lats are responsible for the initial bench press range of motion off the chest.
The most common errors in pull-up performance are skimping on range of motion and utilizing excessive momentum.
A proper pull-up starts in the dead-hang position, but tension should be controlled at the bottom – don’t just “hang” on the ligaments.
The typical “shoulders back and down” advice is not needed for pull-ups; the scapulae need to upwardly rotate and some scapular elevation allows for better upward rotation.
But you should have dynamic scapular stability in mind, meaning that the scapular muscles are not relaxed at any portion of the movement, and are always under varying degrees of tension, thereby supporting the load on the scapulae.
Keep the chest up, pull through your elbows (think of the hands as just “hooks”), and envision “pulling the bar toward your body.” These tips tend to clean up issues with form. A proper pull-up ends when the bar touches the upper chest – it’s not enough just to get the chin over the bar!
As the movement rises, the scapulae will downwardly rotate and depress slightly.
Keep the core stable – the lumbopelvic hip complex (LPHC) will want to do all sorts of things to make the movement easier. Typically you’ll see lumbar hyperextension and anterior pelvic tilt, perhaps as a counterbalance strategy to shift more of the load forward. Don’t let this happen.
Brace the glutes and abs and keep the core tight. Some movement is okay, but not too much. You’ll also see hip flexion – lifters will swing the knees up for momentum and as a counterbalance. Don’t let this happen either.
And if you want to do Kipping pull-ups, do Kipping pull-ups – just don’t pretend that these are pull-ups; they’re different exercises, sort of like the military press and the push-press. If you’re going to do pull-ups (or military presses), be strict and disciplined.
Pull-ups are typically performed pronated, chin-ups supinated, and neutral grip pull-ups (palms-facing-each other, like a hammer curl). Ring pull-ups involve wrist rotation from slight pronation to slight supination, and these are likely the “joint-friendliest” variation.
Beginning and Improving
Beginners can learn pull-ups by performing band-assisted and eccentric-only pull-ups until they’re able to perform a proper concentric repetition. Advanced lifters can attach weight with a dip belt or perform self-assisted one-arm pull-ups.
Is there a secret to increasing pull-up performance? Yes, and it involves variety and frequency. Some days do them loaded; other days use just bodyweight. Some days do iso-holds at various ranges; other days do full range dynamic repetitions. Some days do more volume; other days push your sets with more intensiveness.
Be sure to mix around the grips, hand spacing, loads, and velocities, and your pull-up performance will improve.
Pull-ups have always been my favorite upper body exercise. While most guys look forward to “Bench Mondays,” I look forward to “Pull-up Monday.” And Tuesday. And Wednesday. And, well you get the idea.
You might say I’m obsessed, and you’d be right. I love including pull-ups in a muscle-building program for a few reasons.
There’s no better exercise for building the lats. That’s obviously huge for back development, but the lats also play a crucial role in virtually all the major lifts – deadlifts, squats, presses, etc. – meaning strong lats will help you pack on more muscle all over.
They’re a good barometer for overall body composition. If your pull-up performance starts to tank as you start packing on weight, you’re probably getting fat.
I also love them in a fat loss program because they’re highly metabolic while also serving as a great incentive – as you get leaner, your pull-up performance will improve dramatically.
So how do you improve your pull-up performance? Well, that depends on your starting point and your goals.
For beginners, I like what I call the “pay the toll” method. When I was younger I used to have a pull-up bar in the doorway going into my closet. Every time I opened the door to take something out, I’d do a set (i.e., pay the toll).
If I felt good, I’d crank out as many as possible; if I didn’t, I’d just bust out a few. It never felt too hard, but over the course of the day (and weeks and months), it really added up and my pull-ups got a lot better.
If you don’t have the option of a pull-up bar at home, you can adapt the idea and just bust out a bunch of sets between other exercises while you’re at the gym, but it’s best to spread them out over the course of the day if possible.
Once you’re better at pull-ups, you need to determine your goal. Do you want to get better at weighted pull-ups, do you want to increase how many pull-ups you can do in one set, or do you just want a jacked back?
When I was at my strongest on weighted pull-ups I actually wasn’t that great at cranking out higher rep sets, but when I’ve been at best reps-wise, my weighted pulls suffered a bit. So pick your goal first.
For weighted pull-ups, I’d start with a great template I got from pull-up Jedi Harry Selkow of the Elitefts Q+A staff. Do pull-ups twice a week, with one day being weighted to work on strength, and the other day being just bodyweight to groove the pattern without beating yourself up too much.
For increasing max reps, I’ve found doing a few sets of max reps 4-6 days a week works the best. Frequency is key here, so don’t do more than a couple sets a day, but give those sets all you’ve got.
Some people don’t like the idea of going to failure, but I’ve found going to failure to be very helpful in this instance. However, going to failure will tank your subsequent sets, which is why I don’t recommend doing a lot of sets.
For getting a jacked back, the best prescription is just to do a ****load of pull-ups. This means higher volume and higher frequency. So here you’d want to avoid failure and accumulate more submaximal sets.
One of the best and simplest ways to do this is to crank out easy-ish sets between sets of your other exercises. “Easy-ish” means 40-60% of the total reps you can do in one set.
I wrote pull-ups, but I really don’t care which grip you use. In fact, I think it’s best to rotate – pronated, supinated, neutral, rings, etc. If you have shoulder and/or elbow issues, rings will typically be the most comfortable, followed by neutral.
If you’re extremely strong on weighted pull-ups, you may want to start playing around with harder variations as opposed to just adding more and more weight, as that may start to take a toll on your elbows, wrists, or shoulders.
There are many different variations you could use, so be creative. I have tons of them on my YouTube page f you want some different ideas.
For one hell of a core workout, try doing them with your legs and torso completely straight, as if you’re doing a plank.
Pull-ups are a highly revered exercise amongst gym-goers and strength coaches, which is why I try to incorporate some variation or another with the majority of my clients.
A dead-hang pull-up (not a kipping version) is one of the toughest exercises you can do and requires a lot of strength from the scapular stabilizers, shoulders, and biceps. Many people that spend their days grinding away in the cubicle mines show up woefully unprepared to perform even one, which is why we see pull-ups where the neck disappears into the ears and shoulders.
For those who can do a pull-up, the best way to get better at them is through sheer repetition. After each exercise you do, get in a set of pull-ups for the maximum number of reps you can do, then proceed to the next series of exercises, and repeat as you go through your entire workout. Do this until you can get to 10 reps in a set, and then start incorporating the phase below.
For those looking to get stronger in their pull-ups, try loading a belt and using the max weight possible to get 3 reps, and perform 5-7 sets on a weekly basis. Do this until you’ve exceeded 1.3 times your bench press weight.
For instance, if you weigh 200 pounds and can bench press 225 pounds, 1.3 times your body weight would be roughly 292 pounds, meaning getting a weight belt with about 90 pounds around your waist for 3 reps.
For those who aren’t yet able to get to a full pull-up, heavy lat pulldowns in a kneeling position, eccentric pull-ups (focusing on a 3-5 second lowering), and isometric holds are a great way to develop the strength and motor patterns necessary to get to a full pull-up. A beginner’s workout would look something like this:
Exercise Sets Reps
A Eccentric Pull-Up 5 5*
B Kneeling Lat Pulldown 5 5**
C Isometric Hold 3 Max Time***
* 3-5 second lowering; jump to get to the top
** plus one set at 15 reps for building endurance
*** get to within 5 seconds of previous set
Once you can make it to 80% body weight for a pulldown and can easily control your eccentric chins, start trying to complete full reps.
Asking me all the reasons why I feel pull-ups are awesome is on par with asking me why Brooklyn Decker is kind of attractive.
For starters, while the bench press gets all the glory, you’d be hard pressed to find an exercise that gives you more bang for your training buck (especially in the upper body) than the pull-up.
There are plenty of dudes out there who have pecs and abs, and quite frankly it doesn’t really impress me. I mean, all you have to do is open up any Abercrombie and Fitch catalog (don’t worry, I won’t judge you) or walk down any beach and you’ll see numerous guys walking around who looks sorta cut up.
When I see someone with a thick and wide upper back, though, that gets my attention. It’s something you don’t see quite often, and it’s usually indicative of someone who’s more than likely yoked up all over.
Secondly, as a gym owner, and as someone who’s often supervising dozens of athletes at once, I tend to appreciate movements that don’t require a lot of equipment. With pull-ups, all I need is a body and a bar. Simple.
Next, and maybe even more important, pull-ups do a bang-up job at keeping the shoulders healthy. There are plenty of guys out there who can crush ten reps equivalent to their bodyweight on the bench press (usually a lot more), yet often struggle performing one pull-up! This is lame.
While I don’t have any concrete scientific data to back up this claim (other than the fact that I actually train people for a living), I’ve found that when one’s bench press 1RM is fairly close to their pull-up 1RM, I rarely see any shoulder injuries. Or at least they’re a lot less prevalent.
So with that out of the way, let’s say you’re reading this article and know you’re not that great at pull-ups and want to increase the total number you can do.
You’re lucky if you could bang out five reps, maybe ten if someone threatened to club a baby seal.
One of the best strategies I’ve used with my athletes and clients is something called “Greasing the Groove,” which many other prominent coaches like Dan John have used.
Here’s the deal:
Find out what your max total number is now. Lets say it’s four. One rep of a pull-up is pretty damn close to a max effort lift for you, and is going to be really taxing on the body.
Instead of trying to “muscle” out 3-4 reps at a time – and failing miserably – try to shoot for 1-2 reps every hour or so. Do a rep or two, and continue on with your life. That way you know you’re assured quality rep(s) each and every time, and you’re not going to tire yourself out.
Hell it doesn’t even have to be every hour. Tell yourself you’re going to crush a few pull-ups every time you hear that Gangham Style song on the radio. By the end of the day, you’ll have easily done like 587 reps!
The point is, by the end of the day, no matter what criteria you set (“x” number per hour, “x” number every time your girlfriend tells you to take the trash out), by the end of the day you’ll have gotten in a fair number of reps you otherwise wouldn’t have.
Note: For those who can do anywhere from 5-15 reps – whatever that number may be, cut it in half, and perform that many reps every hour or two.
Do this for 2-3 weeks, and retest. I guarantee you’ll smoke your original number.
Pull-ups are awesome, and there are 3 keys to dominating them.
Number one is a lower bodyweight. When you drop a few pounds your pull-up scores improve – there’s less baggage to hold you down.
The second key is technique, or knowing how to get just a bit of leg/hip drive to propel the body upward without the pull-up looking like a penguin suffering a grand mal.
The third key is maximal pulling strength. There’s a big relationship between maximal strength and single-set endurance in the same movement (i.e., a 400-pound bencher will beat a 300-pound bencher in the 225 pounds for reps contest every time). If you can increase your 1RM on pull-ups, the reps go up, assuming you follow the other two keys at the same time.
Here are two programs for you to try:
The first program is set up assuming you’re going to a gym. Once you can do 8 or more pull-ups with good form you should add weight to make it tougher.
The joy of this is that once the program instructs you to take the extra weight off, even it’s just 10-20 extra pounds, your bodyweight feels very light. Train pull-ups for strength twice a week:
Training Day 1
Exercise Sets Reps
A Pull-Up (Weighted) 4 5
Increase the weight each set, plus 1 backdown set of 8-12 reps. For example, bodyweight (BW) x 5, BW+20 x 5, BW+35 x 5, BW+50 x 5, BW+10 x 10.
B Dumbbell Row 4 12, 10, 8, 6
Training Day 2
(ideally 2-4 days after Day 1)
Exercise Sets Reps
A Pull-Up 5 5
Straight weight, using half of the top weight on Day 1; for example, BW+25 x 5 reps, for 5 sets.
B Negative Pull-Up* 3 3
For example, BW+75 x 3 reps, performed for 3 sets.
* There are three ways to perform negative pull-ups: You can just add extra weight (more than your top set of 5) and then climb up and lower yourself slowly; you can do manual resistance negatives, where you put a belt on and have a partner drag you down slowly; and finally, you can attach bands to yourself and to the floor and then lower yourself as the bands pull you down. Each negative is about a 4-6 count, and try to maintain control throughout the ROM.
This program is super simple and a gym isn’t required, although obviously a pull-up bar – or at least an exposed rafter in your shed so you can bang out reps like a greased-up Stallone in Rocky 4 – is.
First, perform a test to see how many bodyweight pull-ups you can do. Four to five times a week, perform half of that number, but no more. Each week add 1 rep to each set. Retest after a month or so to see where you are.
You can continue this method for as long as it’s working. You don’t have to increase your daily reps even if your retest puts your max significantly higher.
For example, let’s say your maximum pull-ups is 16:
Week 1: 4-5 times a week, perform 1 set of 8 pull-ups
Week 2: 4-5 times a week, perform 1 set of 9 pull-ups
Week 3: 4-5 times a week, perform 1 set of 10 pull-ups
Week 4: 4-5 times a week, perform 1 set of 11 pull-ups
Retest and repeat, starting at 12 reps.
It’s worth noting that this method works great for almost all bodyweight exercises like push-ups, dips, sit-ups, etc. So if you really suck at something (can only do 8 reps or less), go up 1 rep every other week. If you’re great at something (50+ reps), go up 2-3 reps a week.
The pull-up (and its variations) are awesome for developing the upper and mid-back, lats, biceps, and forearms, which is great for the trainee looking to improve aesthetics, as well as offering sizeable carry-over to lifts such as the deadlift, bent-over row, the Olympic lifts, and even the bench press.
It’s also stood the test of time being a staple in many fitness tests, from elementary school all the way up to the military. In a sentence, it’s hard to think of another upper-body pull that’s as effective as the pull-up.
The best way to develop pull-up strength really depends on where you’re starting.
If you’re beginner (capable of only doing two or less pull-ups) I would start with slow negatives – jumping up to the top position and lowering yourself slowly – as this will ultimately lead to the ability to do full concentric and eccentric reps. I’ve done this with many female clients with great success.
If you’re someone who’s decent at pull ups-and looking to add reps, don’t underestimate low rep, weighted pull-ups to increase pull-up strength, and ultimately capacity.
Finally, consider some assistance work such as trap-3 raises, external rotations, and other posterior chain, mid-back, and lower trap exercises. You don’t have to go heavy on these, but learning to tap into those muscle groups and getting them activated during your pull-ups will help you not only do more pull-ups, but also better quality pull-ups.
Go For The Pull!
Obviously the previous recommendations vary considerably, so choosing the right approach basically boils down to good old trial and error.
Pick one program, run with it for a predetermined amount of time – say 4-6 weeks – and don’t change anything. After you’re done, evaluate your strength/development and try the next routine on the list.
The bottom line is, as long as properly performed pull-ups appear in your program, you can’t help but grow!
That’s it, 6 different coaches, 6 different approaches. If, after reading all this info you can’t up your pull-up totals, you just don’t want it bad enough.