Do you look on with envy at others who seem to be able to effortlessly execute an endless number of pull ups? All the while you can barely hoist yourself up three inches off the floor for a single rep?
It’s a sickening feeling. I had that feeling not too long ago.
You see, the pull up is a show of a pure strength. Those who can do pull ups for reps are strong. Simple. For me, being unable to complete a single pull up was a constant reminder of being weak.
Being able to do pull ups was a personal goal of mine, and maybe it is for you too (and if it’s not I’d suggest you make it one!). It took me a while to reach this goal but I got there in the end and now I’m going to share what I did and how I can help you.
Before I discuss what helped me master the pull up, I’ll talk about what didn’t help me: the abundance of so-called “specialized” pull up-specific workout routines. I’m a big fan of keeping things simple and simplicity is what worked for me. These specialized routines, whilst probably work for some, are overly complicated, and learning to do pull ups really doesn’t need to be. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to say mastering pull ups is easy, because it’s not. In addition to learning the appropriate technique, you need to get stronger. There’s no getting around that. But getting stronger doesn’t require an overly complicated routine.
And so, with that, here are the simple tips and principals I employed to reach my goal of mastering the pull up…
Just do it!
This one couldn’t be simpler. Just do it. Every day. Whether that be as soon as you get out of bed, before your workout or before your go to bed. Forget about the complicated routines where you’re told to do five sets of two reps with a thirty-seven second rest for the first week, followed by four sets of three reps with a twenty-six second rest for the second week. And forget about the routine where you do one pull up, followed by two pull ups, followed by three pull ups, then back down to two pull ups, then one pull up (why even do this??).
Edit: I reviewed a number of pull-up routines for the purpose of creating this article and, after I posted it, I discovered The Ultimate Pull-Up Program by renowned strength and condition coach Meghan Callaway. It is the only program that I have found (so far) to be of any use for getting better at pull-ups. Click here to take a look at the program, or read the full review here (coming soon!).
Just grab that bar and pull yourself up.
How many reps should you do? As many reps as you can! Don’t aim for a fixed number of reps. Just do it until you can’t do any more. When you can’t pull yourself up another inch, drop down from the bar and have a rest.
How long should you rest? However long you need! However long it takes to allow you to be able to bash out more pull ups! Whilst I don’t encourage aiming for a fixed number of reps, the only thing I would suggest for your second set is that you aim to at least match the number of reps you completed in your first set.
How many sets should you do? As many as you can! Personally, I kept going until my muscles were burning so much I couldn’t complete a single rep.
I’ll reiterate my earlier point: keep this simple and, like a well-known sportswear brand says, just do it! Don’t concern yourself with any of the over-training babble. Unless you physically can’t complete a rep because you’re in pain then you’re fine. Don’t think that because you did a few sets of pull ups yesterday you can’t do them today. You can!
Don’t use pull up assistance machines
Some people encourage the use of assistance machines, such as those pull up stations where you either stand or kneel on a platform and add weight as required to make the pull up easier. I don’t encourage this. Over the years, before I was able to complete unassisted pull ups, I did use these machines. Not only did I find the machines uncomfortable to use, I found them to be a hindrance and my real progression came from when I started attempting pull ups without the use of assistance machines, despite the fact I couldn’t even complete a single pull up unassisted.
Now, it may not be quite as easy if you’re seriously overweight. You have a lot more weight to hoist up towards that bar. You need to lose weight or get stronger (or both!). That being said, I would still advise against using assistance machines.
In my opinion, the assisted pull up station is equivalent to the smith machine. Once again, some people like and encourage using a smith machine for assistance however almost everyone will agree that traditional unassisted bench pressing yields far greater gains than those performed on a smith machine and therefore, by the same token, greater gains can be yielded by completing unassisted pull ups.
Frequency is king
When people want to get better at something they don’t just do it once a week. They do it as often as possible. That applies to getting better at pull-ups. It applies to getting stronger. Many powerlifters will perform squats, bench presses and deadlifts several times per week in a bid to get stronger at those exercises. Would they get stronger if they only did them once per week? Yes, but their rate of strength increase would be slower.
The point here is, you will not be training efficiently for the purpose of getting better at pull-ups if all you do is three or four sets on ‘back day’ once a week. Rather, you should do pull-ups every time you’re in the gym or, better yet, get yourself a home pull-up bar and do them every day.
Don’t get hung up on technique
When you’re still learning the pull up you shouldn’t concern yourself with perfect technique. Particularly if you still haven’t completed your first rep yet. Others may tell you the opposite but I think you should just do whatever it takes to get your chin up to that bar. That’s what I did. You will eventually want to work on your technique in order to target the appropriate muscles, but for now you just want to be able to do a pull up by any means necessary.
Kick those legs, swing that body and don’t bother going for full range-of-motion. Basically, do all the things people would tell you not to do in order to keep the technique right and just get yourself up there!
Track your progress!
This is something you should be doing anyway, but if you want to make progress with your pull ups (or any other exercise, for that matter) then track your progress! If you don’t, you’ll most likely forget how many pull ups you completed in the last session. That being said, in this case the number of reps you completed in the last session doesn’t matter because you should be aiming for failure every set! Tracking your progress here is primarily to see how much you’re improving by and often. Seeing the progress written down will increase your confidence. And it’s one hell of an ego-booster.
To track your progress you could take a piece of paper or notepad and pen to the gym, like they did in the 60s, or you could download one of the many workout tracking apps available to your phone. (You have a phone, right?)
I’ve used a lot of these workout tracking apps in the past, but my favorite and personal recommendation has to be FitNotes.
So those are just a few of the principles I adhered to while training for pull ups. They helped me and they can help you. If they did, let me know. If you have other methods I’d like to hear them in the comments or via social media!