Grab a bar above you and pull yourself up – sounds simple, right? But, could you do it a second, third, tenth time? If not, you’re missing out on significant strength gains across the board and you need to keep reading. I’m a firm believer that the pull-up is one of the best strength training exercises; I also believe that every core lift – squat, bench, deadlift, and overhead press – benefits from the traditional pull-up and its variations. But, whether it’s because of improper form, strength and endurance plateaus, or general lack of strength, many people struggle to get that first, second, third, or tenth rep. I’m hoping I can change that with this post; but, first and foremost, what is a pull-up?
Grab the pull-up bar slightly wider than shoulder-width and with your palms facing away from you – I use a false grip, but that’s personal preference. Hang freely from the bar and pull your shoulder blades down – this engages the muscles required to perform the movement. Wherever your body ends up after retracting your shoulder blades is your starting position. That’s right, no half-repping allowed. Every single rep needs to begin and end at this spot.
Choose a spot on the wall in front of you that is above the pull-up bar and stare at it the entire time. This helps maintain a neutral spine as you’re not craning your neck to stare at the ceiling or whipping your head around freely. Also, it’s a good visual cue – similar to choosing a spot on the ceiling for the bench press. While staring at that spot, pull yourself directly up by pulling your elbows down and back, like you’re trying to tuck them into your back pockets. Once your chin clears the bar, lower yourself down to your original starting position in a controlled manner. Avoid letting yourself drop at a freefall; not only does this risk injury, but it also results in swinging while at the bottom of the pull-up.
Kipping, Swinging, Cheating. Call it whatever you want, I don’t care, just don’t do it. Using momentum to perform a pull-up is like drinking salt water to hydrate. It doesn’t help you in any way. Sure, you’ll get a new WOD PR time (if that’s a thing), but you won’t get any stronger. You just get caught in a Catch-22: you kip because you can’t do a pull-up and you can’t do a pull-up because you kip.
Pulling Yourself Away from the Bar. The ideal pull-up engages the posterior chain and is performed in a straight line. Many people, however, tuck their elbows in front of them instead of pulling them behind their body. This pulls your body away from the bar instead of toward the bar; this isolates the biceps instead of the back and isn’t right. To correct this imagine pulling with your elbows instead of your hands; alternatively, imagine tucking your elbows into your back pockets. These mental cues should help keep your elbows beside and behind you instead of in front.
Half Repping. Arms fully extended, chin above the bar, return to starting position with arms fully extended. That’s the full range of motion, anything less doesn’t count.
Unfortunately, I forget where I learned this progression; but, I can personally attest to its effectiveness. I’ve gone from struggling to complete 4 sets of 6 reps of body weight pull-ups to being able to complete 4 sets of 6 pull-ups with an additional 45 pounds. This is in addition to putting on 20 pounds of muscle mass, too. I’ve referred to this progression/technique as a ladder in the past and for simplicity’s sake, I’ll do the same here. My ladder looks like this:
No matter which rung you are on, the goal is to complete 24 total reps with an equal amount of reps per set. As your pulling strength increases, you’re able to decrease the number of sets by increasing number of reps. Beginning at the bottom, perform 24 individual sets of one pull-up; once you’re able to perform all reps with flawless form, move to the next rung. Continue this method until you reach the top.
This method is ideal because you’re forced to perform a certain number of reps overall. If you’re unable to cleanly complete 6 sets of 4 pull-ups, then step down a rung and complete 8 sets of 3 pull-ups until you’re ready to move up. Also, my ladder requires that you be realistic, it doesn’t allow for a single set of 8 sloppy pull-ups followed by 4 more sloppy sets of 4 pull-ups. In a way, it’s similar to linear progression training for the core lifts; instead of increasing the weight each training the goal is to increase the volume per set, decrease the number of sets, but keep the overall volume the same.
You’re not required to start at the first rungs (24 sets of 1), but I recommend that you start no higher than the second rung (12 sets of 2). Many people overestimate both their strength and endurance. 12 sets of 2 pull-ups may not seem like a lot, but the volume is still there. I use bodyweight pull-ups for conditioning at the end of my workouts. Two pull-ups in between abs, hang cleans, and farmers walks can and will tire you out. I suggest starting no higher than the second rung; if you complete the second rung with ease, then next time move to the third rung. You’re not required to wait for x days to move up nor must you move up after a certain amount of time. That’s the beauty of this ladder; you’re able to work at your own pace according to your progress and not a set timeline.
Unable to Complete the First Rung?
There are a couple options for those who are unable to complete the first rung.
- Option 1: Complete as many sets of the first rung as possible and add another set whenever able. You will work up to completing the rung in a single workout eventually and will be your way to the second rung.
- Option 2: Use a resistance band to assist the pulling portion.
- Option 3: Jumping pull-ups. Begin each rep with your hands in the air and feet on the ground. Jump and grab the pull-up bar; use the momentum generated by jumping to complete the pulling portion, then descend as slowly as possible.
- Option 4: Inverted rows, rings, TRX Machine. If you’re unable to complete a single pull-up, consider doing variations, such as the inverted row, which mimics (to an extent) the pull-up but doesn’t use all of your body weight.
Incorporating My Pull-Up Ladder Into Your Routine
It’s sad how many people don’t do enough pull-ups. I think this stems from their versatility; people simply don’t know whether to do pull-ups on deadlift, bench, or overhead press day (or back, chest, and shoulder days for the bodybuilding types). For me, I do weighted pull-ups, chin-ups, or some variation thereof, twice a week and bodyweight pull-ups once. Depending on the day, I may do chin-ups or neutral grip pull-ups; or I may focus on explosive power over slow, controlled motions – or vice versa. The pull-up is extremely versatile for both strength training and conditioning.
For strength training, I recommend incorporating pull-ups either in between sets of your core lift or paired up with an antagonistic movement immediately after the core lift. For example, I either complete weighted pull-ups in between my deadlifts sets or pair weighted pull-ups with front squats (or another exercise) immediately after I finish deadlifting.
In terms of conditioning, I lay out various assistance and cardio exercises that supplement my core lift for that day, including pull-ups/a variation of pull-ups. I place pull-ups at the end of my circuit to make sure I’m already out of breath before starting. I take a 30-60 second break after each round and dive right back in.
You’ve Reached the Top, Now What?
First of all, congrats! 24 pull-ups are no joke. But, what’s next? Do you make the ladder go to 48? You could, but I prefer to go back to the bottom rung and start adding weight. Being able to perform weighted pull-ups offers additional variety for my ladder, too. If I’m trying to improve overall strength, then I use the same amount of weight for every set. If, however, I want to fight through the lactic acid toward the end of my ladder, then I will stay on the same rung but increase the weight each set. For example, I know that I can complete 8 pull-ups with 45 pounds, but I can’t complete 3 sets of 8 with 45 pounds; so, I will do my first set with 25 pounds, second set with 35 pounds, and the third set with 45 pounds. Both methods are extremely effective for breaking through plateaus and gaining mass.
I hope you found this article helpful. This ladder has helped me both personally and while training others. If you have any questions or comments, please let me know below or contact me. Also, make sure to subscribe for weekly updates of MyLifeExplored.