How to get stronger (yeah, stronger) at pull ups

Published February 20, 2012

Pull ups are a strength movement - you're moving whatever you weigh (and for me that's alot) through space.  Strict pull ups are difficult - if you can do a dozen, then add some weight to a belt and do 'em. Here is a very good article on how to get better / stronger at pull ups. Pull-ups deserve the same respect as squats. Squats are the cornerstone movement of any strength and conditioning program. If you were put in a position where you are only allowed to perform one exercise you should squat because it strengthens nearly everything. The deadlift or clean and jerk are very close behind but the squat uses more muscles than the deadlift and the clean and jerk is usually limited by technique and not strength. Pull-ups are a compound movement that use a ton of upper body muscles. Check out this list and tell me if your curls hit all these muscles: latissimus dorsi, brachialis, brachioradialis, biceps brachii,  triceps brachii [stabilizer], teres minor, teres major, deltoids, infraspinatus, rhomboids, levator scapulae, trapezius, and pectoralis minor. Now that you get why the pull-up is such an important exercise, you'll understand why your pull-ups need to get better. DISCLAIMER: Throughout this entire post I am talking about the classic pull-up not the kipping pull-up. While kipping pullups have their place in conditioning training it's my opinion that if you can't do 4-12 consecutive strict pull-ups/chin-ups, your time in the gym would be best spent working towards that goal first, and high-rep kipping pull-ups second. Pull-up vs Chin-up The pull-up is characterized by an overhand (pronated) grip, while the chin-up by an underhand (supinated) grip. These exercises are as different as they are similar. New trainees will generally have an easier time with the chin-up than with the pull-up due to the more comfortable wrist position and greater inclusion of the bicep to the pulling motion. Women vs. Men A lot of people stay away from the pull-up because they believe pull-ups are too difficult. Many trainers believe that pretty much anyone in the weightroom (male or female) should be able to perform 12 pull-ups, and I'm not talking kipping either. When it comes to the pullup, pound for pound women are capable of about 85 percent of men's numbers. If you've been training for more than a few months and still can't knock out 12 pullups you've got some serious work to do. Improve Your Pull-up You should be working on your pull-ups at least twice each week. If you are a CrossFitter and your WOD has pull-ups in it, switch your pull-up work to another day.  In my opinion CrossFitters should avoid doing kipping pull-ups even with bands until they can do AT LEAST 4 strict pullups. Tell your ego to take a hike and do strict band-assisted pullups in your met-cons, and if you're concerned about your time being ridiculously slow, scale your reps/rounds appropriately. For someone without the ability to do a strict pullup you'll get more benefit from doing them strict than from kipping the hell out of them. Assistance for Beginners

Jump Stretch Bands The use of bands is prefered to the use of machine assistance and immeasurably better than the assitance of a friend holding you up by the legs. The friend generally ends up doing all the work and you have no real way of measuring improvement.
The Road to Pull-up Domination Incorporate some of these and your quest to rule the pull-up bar at your gym will be shorter than your training partners'! Remember to always only count quality reps when your chin is clearly higher than your hands at the top of the rep and when your arms extend fully at the bottom.
Negatives (Eccentrics) Negatives are especially useful for beginners that can't do even one pull-up because we can all lower more than we can lift. Finish up each of your pull-up workouts with a few sets of negative-only pull-ups. Stand a box or chair, and jump up to the top of the bar with your chin over and try to hold that position as long as possible. Squeeze the bar as tightly as possible, tighten your biceps and back, and don't let go of the bar. Fight it for as long as you can and lower yourself slowly to the bottom position. Once fully extended release the tension on your arms gradually. Done correctly these should leave you feeling exhausted.  10 Sets of 50% Max Say your max number of consecutive pull-ups are 4, start with 10 sets of 2. Increase your numbers until you can do 10 sets of 4. Once you can do 10 sets of 4, your max should be around 8. Test your max and then start it over.  Increase Time Under Tension If your max pull-ups are 5 do your 5 and perform a negative (lower yourself for 30 seconds) on the way down from your 5th rep. 30 Pull-ups For Time See how long it takes you to do 30 pull-ups. Try to lower your time and number of sets each time you repeat it. Weighted Pull-ups Once you can perform 12 pull-ups it's time to add weight. Use a dip belt or weighted vest and stick with 1-5 reps, and keep adding weight on a weekly basis. Play with different set x rep schemes, 8 sets of 3, 5 sets of 5, etc. There is no excuse to avoid doing weighted pull-ups on a regular basis until you're one of those freaks that can easily do 3 reps with 66% of your bodyweight hanging from a belt.
Different Grips and Grip Training Once you get pull-ups, you'll benefit from training your grip in a variety of ways. Pull-ups are incredibly taxing on your finger, hand and forearm strength. Switching your grip, and doing pullups on odd objects will allow you to continue to develop your grip strength.
  • Extremely wide or narrow pull-ups/chin-ups
  • Mixed grip pullups (similar to a mixed grip deadlift)
  • Parallel grip pullups (palms facing each other wide or narrow)
  • Fat Gripz Pull-up, Towel Pull-up, Legless Rope Climbs
A Sampling of Bad Ass Pullups Think only skinny dudes can do pull-ups? Check out Konstantinovs 55 pull-ups (with a little kip) at a bodyweight of 268! Are you a girl that thinks you'll never get pull-ups? Watch 44-year old Crystal West perform 39 pull-ups here! For the dudes that aren't impressed by a chick with pull-ups, check out her freestyling pull-ups! Tips to Remember
  • Your road to pull-up domination requires training your pull-ups at least twice per week
  • Stick with sets of 3-5 reps and aim for about 25 reps total volume
  • When it comes to assistance Bands > Machines > Eager Friends
  • Don't let your ego stunt your strength development - don't worry about kipping pull-ups until you can do at least 4 strict pull-ups
Neglecting training your pull-ups is just as bad as neglecting your squats. Pull-ups make your deadlift, press, and yes even your squat improve. Remember, the parts of your body you can't see in the mirror are actually responsible for more of your strength than the parts you can see, the anterior is the shiny hood, the posterior is the engine. Form without function is a waste.

Leave a Comment: