Here’s what you need to know…
Keep the chest up and envision pulling the bar toward your body. Don’t cut the range of motion short or use momentum.
Vary your grips, hand spacing, loads, and velocities to improve your pull-up performance.
For a strength emphasis, do pull-ups using a weighted belt. To increase reps, “grease the groove,” “pay the toll,” or go to failure for one set.
If you can’t do a pull-up yet, start with band assisted pull-ups, do only the negative portion or eccentric phase, or try a variety of lat pulldowns.
The One Thing All Trainers Can Agree On
Experts constantly contradict one another, so the best thing to do is look for similarities between their recommendations.
Case in point: pull-ups. Every coach recommends pull-ups. That’s a sign you should be doing them, too.
But why are pull-ups so awesome? And what are the best ways to improve at them? Here are six perspectives from six different coaches.
Along with being the best lat-builder in existence, pull-ups 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 using excess 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. It’s sort of like the military press and the push-press. They’re two different movements. 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 are done with palms-facing-each other.
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, 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 reps. Some days do more volume; other days push your sets with more intensiveness.
Be sure to switch your grips, hand spacing, loads, and velocities, and your pull-up performance will improve.
Most guys look forward to “Bench Monday,” I look forward to “Pull-up Monday.” And Tuesday. And Wednesday. And, well you get the idea.
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, you name it – 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 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, “pay the toll” is a cool 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 which was how I paid 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 time 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.
Train for Your Pull-Up Goal
Pull-Up Big Back
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 increased strength: Do pull-ups twice a week, with one day being weighted for strength, and the other day without extra weight to groove the pattern and avoid beating yourself up too much.
For increasing max reps: Do a few sets of max reps 4-6 days a week. Frequency is key here, so don’t do more than a couple sets a day, but give those sets all you’ve got.
Going to failure is very helpful in this instance. But it will tank your subsequent sets, which is why I don’t recommend doing a lot of sets.
For a jacked back: The best prescription is just to do a shitload 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.
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 Up Dead Hang
A dead-hang pull-up (not a kipping version) is one of the toughest exercises you can do and it 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.
The best way to get better at them is through repetition. After each exercise, get in a set of as many pull-ups as you can do, then proceed to the next exercise, and repeat as you go through your entire workout. Do this until you can get to 10 reps in a set.
Approaches For Progress
To get stronger with pull-ups, try loading a belt and using the max weight possible to get 3 reps. Perform 5-7 sets on a weekly basis. Do this until you’ve exceeded 1.3 times your bench press weight.
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.
If you’re not able to do a 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 3-5 second lowering; jump to get to the top 5 5
B Kneeling Lat Pulldown plus one set at 15 reps for building endurance 5 5
C Isometric Hold get to within 5 seconds of previous set 3 Max Time
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.
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.
When I see someone with a thick and wide upper back, that gets my attention. It’s something you don’t see often, and it’s usually indicative of someone who’s more than likely yoked all over.
Pull-ups also keep the shoulders healthy. While I don’t have any concrete scientific data to back up this claim, 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.
But there are plenty of guys who can bench more than their own body weight for several reps, yet struggle with one pull-up!
Up Your Reps
So if you want to increase the total number you can do try “greasing the groove.” 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 get quality reps every time without tiring out.
Hell it doesn’t even have to be every hour. The point is, by the end of the day, no matter what criteria you set, 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.
There are 3 keys to dominating pull-ups.
Lower bodyweight. When you drop a few pounds your pull-up scores improve – there’s less baggage to hold you down.
Technique. Know 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.
Maximal pulling strength. There’s a relationship between maximal strength and single-set endurance in the same movement. 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.
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.
A gym isn’t required for this, although obviously a pull-up bar 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 things like push-ups, dips, sit-ups, and almost all bodyweight exercises. So if you can only do 8 reps or less of something, go up 1 rep every other week. If you’re great at something and can do 50 or more reps, go up by 2-3 reps a week.
The pull-up and its variations are awesome for developing the upper and mid-back, lats, biceps, and forearms.
It’s great for the lifter wanting improved aesthetics, and it carries over into lifts such as the deadlift, bent-over row, Olympic lifts, and even the bench press.
The best way to develop pull-up strength depends on where you’re starting.
If you’re beginner, incapable of only doing two or fewer pull-ups, start with slow negatives. Jump up to the top position and lowering yourself slowly. This will ultimately lead to the ability to do full concentric and eccentric reps.
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 capacity.
Finally, consider some assistance work such as trap 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 do more and higher quality pull-ups.
Go For The Pull
Choosing your best pull-up approach boils down to trial and error. Pick a strategy, run with it for a predetermined amount of time, say 4-6 weeks, and don’t change anything. After you’re done, evaluate your progress and try the next routine on the list.
As long as properly performed pull-ups are in your program, you can’t help but make progress.