Pull-ups, and the accompanying performance gains, have been an area of specialization for me over the past couple of decades. I am the Director of Human Performance for a Special Warfare Squadron. I’ve also spent four years as the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for Team USA Gymnastics, Wrestling, Boxing, and Judo, all sports that require tremendous upper back muscular development and pulling strength.
Working with so many elite performers who utilize pull-ups as a mainstay of their development, I’ve tried a variety of methods. This article will highlight the safest and most effective ones I’ve found. The program will help you improve, whether you are trying to do your very first pull-up or reach an elite performance level.This pull-up program will help you improve, whether you are trying to do your very first pull-up or reach an elite performance level, says @CoachSchwartz8. Click To Tweet
This is a program you can incorporate into your regular training. Although you can use it as a pull-up specialization program, it certainly doesn’t need to be. However, the main goal is to increase strength, so it will work best if used during a strength phase for your other body parts.
Always remember, strength gain is an adaptation that requires recovery. If the body doesn’t have enough fuel, such as during a fat-loss phase, it becomes increasingly difficult to gain strength. It’s not impossible—elite athletes in weight-class sports do it all the time—but it takes a tremendous level of commitment, time, and resources.
Before we get into the program, it’s important to pick the lowest-hanging fruit. Whenever someone has hit a plateau in training, the first thing I look at is their technique.
Obviously, the lats are bigger and have greater strength capabilities than the biceps. However, a lot of people have a hard time recruiting their lats. If you struggle to feel the lats working during a set, here are a few things to try.
- Think of your hands like hooks. Get the bar deep in the hand so you’re gripping with more than just your fingers. Grip the bar hard, but put your mental focus on driving the elbows down as opposed to thinking about pulling your body up.
- Squeeze the shoulder blades (scapula) down and toward the opposite hip. This is especially important at the top of the movement and will help you get your collarbone above the bar. If you have trouble using your back, the first few times you do this will result in an incredible pump or even cramping. This is great feedback that your technique is improving, and any discomfort will subside.
- Following up on the last point, in training, we want to pull as high as possible to finish the rep. Try to get your sternum to the bar. As we fatigue, it’s common to let the chest sink in. This is the opposite of what we want. If the chest sinks in, we are now using all arm and have taken our strongest muscles of the upper back out of it. Additionally, this ability to finish with a big chest will develop the muscles that support the shoulder so we can stay healthy and train harder for longer.
- Once you feel like you’ve mastered the ability to use your back, go ahead and start doing pull-ups in a way that feels more natural. These points are simply skills to be learned and now incorporated into your way of moving.
- *Whenever you learn a new technique, expect it to feel weird or for performance to decrease temporarily. This will all lead to new personal record levels of performance as long as you are disciplined and have a perseverance mindset.
Primary Limiting Factors
To find a solution, we need to assess the problem accurately. Once technique is solid, we start looking at the ability to produce force in large amounts and for a long time. Pull-ups measure strength relative to body weight. So, the stronger we are, the easier it is to lift ourselves each rep. In the same light, the less weight we have—let’s say, hanging on us—the easier each rep.
In the world of elite performers, athletes, and operators, we have conditioning tests. It’s very common to see someone who struggles in pull-ups also struggle in their conditioning test. If you fall into this category, you may get a better return on investment by working on your conditioning and nutrition rather than ONLY doing a pull-up-specific plan. Just being honest.
If body composition is a problem, clean up your nutrition, bolster conditioning, and hammer the program in the next section.
We find the importance of max strength for improving pull-up reps by looking at simple math. If someone weighs 200 pounds and can do a pull-up with significant weight hanging from a dip belt, then each rep at body weight is a smaller percentage of their capability.
- 200-pound athlete using a dip belt with 100 pounds = 300-pound 1RM
200 pounds of body weight is now 66% of max strength
200-pound athlete using dip belt with 20 pounds = 220-pound 1RM
200 pounds of body weight is now 90.9% of max strength
It stands to reason that if we’re pulling a lower percentage of our capability, we’ll be able to do more reps. Additionally, if we’re pulling a lower percentage, we’ll be able to pull it faster. (I’ll explain how that helps next.) Admittedly, these are oversimplified explanations, but they work.
Whenever a challenge is done for time or max reps, most people burn out by the 45-second mark. Knowing this, we attack it from two angles. As mentioned above, we want to be able to pull ourselves up faster to get more reps in before fatigue becomes a factor.
On the other end of the equation, we want to increase our capacity to delay fatigue as long as possible. If you’re already at a level where you have high work output for 45 seconds, there may not be much potential for improvement here—some, but probably not much. However, if you start to struggle before 45 seconds, the window of opportunity is open. I address this in the next section with eccentric chins, inverted rows, and 60-second farmer’s walks.
For the purposes of this article, I’m using our USAF SPECWAR OFT standard for men and the Marines PFT standard for women to determine where you should start in this program. If you can’t do 11 pull-ups (men) or three pull-ups (women), then your base exercises are eccentric chins, inverted rows, and farmer’s walks (as outlined next). If you are above these standards, your initial phase will begin in the section Max Strength, but it’s good to read over these explanations for reference.
Day 1: Eccentric Chin 3 x :60 (lowering your body)
Farmer’s Walk 3 x :20 as heavy as possible
Allow 72 hours of rest for your back, biceps, and grip. Ex: Day 1 = Mon, Day 2 = Thur
Day 2: Inverted Rows 3 x 1RIR
Farmer’s Walk 3 x :60
Eccentric Chins Technique
Video 1. You are up to 40% stronger when lowering your body than when lifting—we use eccentric chins to take advantage of this.
If you are using the rest-pause technique, let’s cap your total attempts at three each rep, so a total of nine over the session.Whenever someone has hit a plateau in training, the first thing I look at is their technique, says @CoachSchwartz8. Click To Tweet
Farmer’s Walk Technique
Posture is paramount! Keep the head up and the cervical spine in neutral.
Video 2. With basic variations or these advanced farmer’s walks, we’re looking at posture, cueing the athlete to walk as if they have a book on top of their head.
We hit the farmer’s walks each day with a different emphasis. On day one, we target max strength for the grip, and on day two, more strength endurance. In the pull-up, once the grip starts to slip, energy transfer becomes less efficient, and some of your arm/lat forces are leaked out at the hands. We must have a solid base of contact to maximize our efforts.
Inverted Row Technique
Video 3. Hold a pause at the top of each rep to double down on the effectiveness of these inverted rows.
RIR means reps in reserve. We want to take each set one rep from failing. We do this so we have a little energy left for recovery.
Programming and Moving Forward
Use these exercises as your main work on back/pulling days. Continue reading to see the rest of the program, particularly the sections Builder Exercises and after.
Once you can do eccentric chins for 60 seconds for all three sets or a rock-solid set of 25 inverted rows, go ahead and retest your pull-ups. I would encourage you to give your back, arms, and grip at least 72 hours of recovery before testing so that fatigue doesn’t mask any performance gains. When you hit your standards, move on to the next part of the program.
As mentioned above, increasing max strength increases pull-up performance by making your body weight a lower percentage of your max. Additionally, when we layer in the density of that new strength, we can now add reps to our pull-up test.
Start your program by testing your 3RM in pull-ups. Essentially, do three reps, add a little weight to a dip belt, and do three more. Keep going in this manner until you find the heaviest weight you can successfully do three times with excellent technique. For overall athleticism, I generally keep rest periods approximately 90 seconds long. If you are solely focused on improving pull-ups, then you can rest for up to three minutes.
At this point, you will train to improve your max strength pull-ups one day a week. This is known in the program as our Max Effort Day. One week following your test, warm up to 90% of your 3RM and perform five sets of three.
But there’s a kicker. In the section Technical Issues, we talked about the importance of strength and stability in the scapular region. So, to enhance these qualities, we superset with some form of standing military exercise. It can be with a barbell or dumbbell—dealer’s choice, as long as it’s strict. No leg drive, no arching the back, look straight forward, and finish with the bar directly over the head when the arms are fully extended.
The additional work of the standing military provides support for the pull-ups and specifically the shoulder joint by strengthening the mid and low traps. Healthy shoulders pull harder! The superset may challenge your work capacity and limit your output at first. Over time, your work capacity will increase and help you crank out more pull-ups.
Below is a straightforward but effective protocol. Typically, we incorporate percentages and vary the exercises more frequently to fit our overall program. For a direct impact on pull-ups, this progression works very well.
Max Effort Day
A1. Pull-ups at 90% of 3RM x 5 x 3. Rest 60 seconds.
A2. Standing military 5 x 5 heavy* Rest 60 seconds.
- *Heavy means you can do all five and maybe a sixth with strict form.
We will keep this setup until all five sets of three with 90% of 3RM become easy for two weeks in a row. Easy means you could definitely do a fourth rep in all five sets. Please don’t do the extra rep, however. We want to leave some gas in the tank for recovery. We preach Train, Recover, Adapt! It is recovery from training that leads to the adaptation of strength gain.Leave some gas in the tank for recovery. We preach Train, Recover, Adapt! It is recovery from training that leads to the adaptation of strength gain, says @CoachSchwartz8. Click To Tweet
We use the same weight the following week and perform pull-ups 5 x 5. It is very normal not to be able to complete five sets getting all five reps at first. No worries. Get what you can with great technique in each of the five sets. Don’t chase the overall 25 reps. If the first week you get 19, that’s still an increase of more than 20% from the 5×3 work, so you’re on your way!
Once the 5 x 5 becomes easy for two weeks, progress to 5 x 6. Once those become easy, retest your 3RM and start over at 90% of 3RM x 5 x 3. At this point, I suggest changing the grip from a traditional overhand to neutral or supinated for the next cycle.
Pull-Up Builder Exercises
Rows, rows, and more rows! I really don’t care what variation you use, just hit the points made about the scapula in Technical Issues. After your max effort superset, hit 1–2 row variations for 3–5 sets of 6–10 each and take all sets 1–2 RIR.
We also use band face pulls or mini band pull-aparts for 3–4 sets of 25–30 reps. You may do one of these before your pull-up and military superset to really prime the upper back and the other as your last exercise of the day. There’s some freedom of choice here; just get ’em in.
We also use the snatch grip RDL to strengthen the grip and mid and low traps. If you have a setup where you can pull against bands, even better. Sometimes we have this in the program as the exercise before the max effort superset. Other times we have this as the primary exercise on our second pulling day, known as Rep Effort Day.
We perform rep effort 72 hours after the Max Effort Day. Where we place the snatch grip RDL really depends on the overall goal of that training cycle, but both setups work very well. So again, we have some freedom in the program design.
Rep Effort Day
A staple of the Rep Effort Day is heavy farmer’s walks or KB bottom-up waiter’s carries. We’re trying to develop an iron grip to get the most out of our pulling force from the upper back and arms.
The benefit of the farmer’s walk is the loading provided to the upper back and core. The benefit of the waiter’s carry is that the fingers and wrist must dynamically respond to the subtle changes of balancing the kettlebell upside down while walking. This forces us to crush the handle rather than just hang on, which provides a nice stimulus for grip strength. Additionally, the shoulder and core must also dynamically stabilize, which provides several benefits outside the scope of an article about pull-ups, but they’re very important nonetheless.I like to use “Training Challenges” with our athletes/operators, and a bodyweight farmer’s walk for time is a favorite, says @CoachSchwartz8. Click To Tweet
I like to use “Training Challenges” with our athletes/operators, and a bodyweight farmer’s walk for time is a favorite. A 200-pound athlete will hold a 100-pound dumbbell in each hand and go for a walk as described in the section Starting Point. In my experience, completing one minute is a sign that the athlete is fairly strong. However, everyone on our current Top 5 board is over two minutes, with strict posture.
After the farmer’s walks or waiter’s carries, we perform some variation of overhead pulling that differs from the variation used on Max Effort Day. These may include underhand or neutral grip pull-ups, lat pulls with slightly different hand spacing than pull-ups, machines, or cables. Typical workloads are 3–4 sets x 8–15 reps with 1–2 RIR. Then we repeat the same row volumes from Max Effort Day, just using a different row variation. As long as progress is going well with the pull-up work, we finish with some high reps on rear delts, 2-3 x 25–30. If progress is struggling, we eliminate this extra isolation of a smaller muscle group at the end.
Biceps Isolation: Friend or Foe?
I see this as an IF-THEN question. If you’ve been doing a lot of direct biceps work, and you’re not happy with your pull-ups, then you would probably benefit from giving your biceps more recovery to get stronger. A 4–8-week cycle of prioritizing your upper back with no direct biceps or rear delt work may be just the stimulus you need to add reps on the pull-up bar.
If you haven’t been doing a lot of direct biceps work and you’re not happy with your pull-ups, then you may benefit by adding some reverse curls, hammer curls, or KB hammer curls with the bell out. Pick 1–2 exercises and perform 2–3 sets of 5–10 reps.I can’t stress this enough: I find it rare that someone (especially men) has undertrained biceps. For that reason, I recommend always ending biceps sets with 2 reps in reserve, says @CoachSchwartz8. Click To Tweet
I can’t stress this enough: I find it rare that someone (especially men) has undertrained biceps. Just my experience, but for that reason, I recommend always ending biceps sets with two RIR. Whenever in doubt, we choose to keep the direct biceps volume low, which worked nicely for us.
It is not uncommon for athletes pursuing more pull-ups to experience some shoulder pain, especially in the front delt area. This is often caused by biceps tendonitis. We recommend a few different approaches to this problem:
- Seek out a sports doctor. People tend to push through pain until something is intolerable and then seek help. Doing this only delays our progress.
- Perform band shoulder mobilities. Pre-workout, we do them dynamically, hitting a stretch for three seconds and moving on to another with the option of returning to the most-needed stretches as often as we feel like. The pre-session lasts 60–90 seconds per arm, with the option for more if the mobility is really poor. Post-workout, we stretch statically for 30–60 seconds in each position. Ensure you hit all the major muscles and pay particular attention to the pecs and biceps.
- Be sure to change your grip between overhand, underhand, and neutral throughout different exercises during the week.
- Change your grip width during the week as well. Even moving one hand width will change the stressor. The pain may be a sign that you’re doing the same thing the same way too often.
For those of you who skipped ahead to see the meat and potatoes, here you go. Just know that we’ve gone over a lot of context critical to our mid-stream decision-making during training.
*Heavy means you can do all five and maybe a sixth with strict form.
*You may notice that each training session begins with a heavy lift right after the A-series. Regardless of the training cycle goals, I like to start with a power, speed, or strength stimulus. These methods also include plyometrics, Olympic lifts, MB throws, acceleration, or agility.
Safe and Effective Methods
I’ve used many methods to increase pull-ups. These are the ones I find safe and effective and deliver the quickest results. You may notice that a few common strategies are missing.I’ve used many methods to increase pull-ups. These are the ones I find safe and effective and deliver the quickest results, says @CoachSchwartz8. Click To Tweet
I’ve tried band- or machine-assisted. They’re okay, but I find their results come slower than the methods I’ve outlined.
Some people like kipping to cheat and get a few more reps. Kipping is a gymnastics skill that takes a lot of dedicated work under the direction of a qualified gymnastics coach. This is generally taught when athletes are 6–8 years old, and it uses many progressions.
For the purposes of increasing pull-ups, I do not teach the kip. The risk of shoulder injury far outweighs the benefits of a few extra reps. I find our methods are safer and more effective. As a matter of fact, I don’t teach kipping for muscle-ups either, but that’s a story for another time.
Please feel free to contact me with any questions or leave comments.
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