10 tips to help you finally conquer this classic test of power and endurance.
By Michael Berg Photographs by Per Bernal
After nearly two decades covering the sport of bodybuilding, I’ve seen some pretty extraordinary things in the gym. I’ve watched guys do arse-to-grass squats with hundreds of pounds and press out powerlifting competition-worthy bench presses and IFBB pros strip weight trees bare for all kinds of crazy lifts.
Yet to this day, the most impressive feat I’ve seen was some relatively scrawny dude – he couldn’t have been more than 77-78 kilos, if that – step up to the pull-up bar, leap up to grab hold and then proceed to deliberately churn out rep after rep after rep.
After 10 perfect pull-ups, I was already awed. By 15, I started to wonder what branch of the military he had served in. When he hit 20 without a hiccup in form, I thought he might be a robot sent from the future to crush our spirits, making surrender to our machine overlords all the more orderly. And by 30, when he finally dropped from the bar, still breathing normally as if he’d just taken the dog for a walk, I was wondering if I could ever manage to come anywhere near such a set of pull-ups myself. (So far, the answer is a resounding no.)
That said, there is hope for us mere mortals if you’re willing to dedicate the next month to the challenge. Here are 10 ways to pump up your pull-up totals.
1. PERFECT YOUR FORM
Truth be told, there are worse gym gaffes than cheating on a pull-up. It’s not like a bench press or a barbell curl, where momentum and body contortions can turn the exercise into wasted effort at best and a serious injury at worst.
Still, for optimal results, you want to know how to do it right. Think of it like an athlete practising his sport: the repetition is meant to instill good habits so that they occur automatically on demand.
US Army Special Forces soldier Dustin Kirchofner, a certified strength and conditioning coach, describes the perfect motion:
“Start your pull-up from a dead hang, which is arms fully extended, core tight and engaged, and your shoulders shifted back,” he says. “Your knees can be bent with ankles crossed. To initiate the move, pull your elbows down to your sides and relax your neck so you don’t strain it trying to get your chin over the bar. Keep pulling your body towards the bar until your chin can clear it without straining. From there, in a controlled manner, lower yourself back down to a full dead-hang position, with elbows straight.”
As for inviting momentum, swinging during a pull-up is called “kipping.” While popularised by CrossFit, it’s a variation that should only be used once you’ve mastered proper standard, non-momentum-driven form. “I avoid kipping, because my goal is to fully engage all the muscle groups involved while performing the exercise,” Kirchofner admits.
If your goal is to do more pull-ups, you need to focus on that goal above all others for a while to make substantial progress. In other words, don’t spread your body’s recovery resources too thin.
That means making sure your back training day comes first in your split, after a rest day, and it also requires dialing back your other body parts to maintenance mode. You don’t want to be chasing a new squat personal best, wider shoulders or a fresh new centimetre of growth on your arms at the same time: take on too many major goals at once and they’ll all suffer. Give your pull-up goal at least a month as the only major improvement you’re concentrating on, implementing any number of the strategies presented in this article.
“Since pull-ups just involve your own body weight and not additional resistance, I’m not too concerned about overtraining or injury when it comes to practising them,” Kirchofner says. “I like to do this exercise at least two to three times per week, and I think most people could handle a similar schedule.”
3. LIFT YOUR LATS
Improved latissimus dorsi muscles translate directly to more reps. That means you want to increase your lat strength and endurance with a mix of heavy, low-rep sets (in the three to six range) and higher-rep sets of 15-25. Also, include pulldown exercises in your routine, while also considering a second back session during the week aimed at the lats.
4. BUILD YOUR BIs
In any back movement where you bend your elbow, you’re using your biceps to handle part of the load. It’s no different with the pull-up – meaning you want bis that can lift more and go longer.
Two particular pull-up variations emphasise the bis, the close-hammer-grip pull-up (palms facing each other) and the chin-up (palms facing back towards your face). Be sure to include one or both in your weekly routine, as part of your biceps or back workouts. As for endurance, do at least one exercise per week with high reps of 15 or more. (An extreme but effective idea: try a century set – 100 reps – to finish off your biceps routine. It can be done unilaterally with a dumbbell curl, or bilaterally with a machine or cable curl.)
5. GET A GRIP
Hopefully you’re noticing a pattern here. The pull-up employs a chain of muscles, from your back through your biceps to your forearms. You want all three of those segments better prepared to handle the workload – and that means doing specific forearm exercises once or twice a week. Below is a sample program that can be tacked onto the end of a workout:
6. HEED THE HELPERS
While the lats and bis can be considered prime movers in the pull-up, in reality the motion calls on a wide range of muscles, Kirchofner explains. “The pull-up also involves secondary muscle groups such as your traps, rhomboids, deltoids and even a little bit of the triceps brachii,” he says.
That means movements like upright rows, shrugs, seated presses, French presses and rows. “Dumbbell rows are
a great exercise that not only target the latissimus dorsi but also hit the rear deltoid, rhomboids, traps and biceps,”
he points out. “You can also increase your pull-up repetitions by focusing on your pectoralis minor with dips and push-ups.”
7. HOLD IT TO HIT IT
This past August, some of the most impressive feats in the Rio Olympics were accomplished by some of the smallest athletes in attendance, relatively speaking. The medal-winning gymnasts flawlessly demonstrated pinpoint control over every movement of their bodies – stopping and holding to let the judges take note.
Those feats call to mind the power of isometric training, in which you assume a fixed position and hold it for a count. It’s extremely effective for pull-ups, especially for those who struggle in various stages of the rep. For instance, if you have issues holding the top of the rep with your chin at the bar, you can practise an iso-hold – get up into that position (with a partner’s assistance if necessary) and simply keep yourself there as long as you can. Do a few holds per workout, keeping track of how long you can keep yourself there so that you can measure your progress over time.
8. INTENSIFY YOUR EFFORTS
Why do we constantly preach intensity techniques? Because they work, and this quest for pull-up supremacy is no different. Two especially valuable techniques are partials and negatives, Kirchofner says.
Partials can be used during any set of pull-ups —you can either do a set of shorter-range-of-motion reps or do full reps and then finish with partials until failure. As for negatives, you can add them to a final set of pull-ups: once you reach failure, a partner assists by cradling your shins to help you through the up phase, then you lower yourself as slowly as you can.
“You can also do negatives on your own, using a bench or box to step up and assume the top position of the exercise, then letting yourself down to full arm extension,” Kirchofner instructs. “There, you let go to drop to the floor, then step up on the bench to get yourself into position for another, repeating two to four times in total.”
9. UNLEASH YOUR INNER IRON WARRIOR
Watching those World’s Strongest Man contests isn’t just a good way to kill a lazy Saturday afternoon. It’s also fodder to improve your own workouts. No, we don’t expect you to drag a semi down your street or carry a fridge on your back – two-time Mr Olympia Franco Columbu would famously warn you not to try that at home – but training with awkward implements is a unique and effective way to build a high-performance back.
Gyms are increasingly adopting these old-school training methods, so whether you have access to sandbags, a sled, a tractor tire, a sledgehammer or similar equipment, you can add some strongman tactics to your repertoire. Consider sled pulling, tyre flipping, sledgehammer striking and sandbag lifting, tossing or carries, either as a stand-alone workout during your week or as finishers to your traditional resistance-training sessions.
10. GROW LIKE THE OAK
It’s a famous anecdote about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s training that you’ve likely heard before, but it bears repeating here because of its sheer brilliance. When it came to pull-ups, Arnold didn’t do a traditional series of sets and reps, like four sets of 10. Instead, as a mental cue to push himself, he instead chose a total number of reps he wanted to knock out that day, like 50. To get those 50 reps, it didn’t matter how many sets it took, whether five, 10 or, hell, even 50 – he was going to stick with the exercise until he had logged every single rep he set out to do.
If you need it, borrow this technique. If you struggle getting 10 reps, 50 may be too aggressive the first time out, but 15–20 would be reasonable. As you advance, push that up until you’re also doing 50, or even more.