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Getting (or perfecting) Your Pull-ups

The bar needs to stop your chest from going any higher.

I remember way back when I was 10 years old, and I first discovered out how hard it was to even do a pull-up, after 4 weeks, I’d worked up from 1 to 5, doing them every day. When I was 16, I could do 50 push-ups comfortably. I could do just 7 pull-ups. Pull-ups are hard. The muscles we use for them are relatively small compared to the rest of our body, so it’s harder to develop significant strength in a short space of time. They are also very easy to strain. The tendons are small. The blood supply is relatively limited. In order to get a decent hormone response from them you have to be consistent, BUT you have to be careful not to over do it.

I know many who have decided they want to improve their pull-ups, and start doing them (or a progression) every day, and end up getting a tendon strain because they’ve pushed them too hard. It’s really easy to do. Unlike the legs which can recover, and handle a decent amount of volume (such as 100 or 200 air squats in a session) unconditioned doing that many reps is a recipe for disaster with pull-ups in the beginning. You simply cannot train them in the same way.

First of all, what exactly is a perfect pull-up?

My definition, is one where we keep our body, dead in line, abs, glues, and lats switched on. All stretched out, hanging, with toes pointed. Then, we pull down with our shoulder blades into what we’d call a ‘scap pull-up’. Then, you drag your elbows down and behind your body, keeping your body completely in line, until your collar bones (or chest) hits the bar. Pulling to a point where your body is physically stopped by the bar, is the only way to properly strengthen the lats, back and shoulders (and core) to a point where you’ll be robust enough to attempt certain movements such as the coveted muscle-up (going from below to above the rings/bar).

Developing an excellent pull-up, takes practice. It also takes persistence, because progress will be sometimes slow and frustrating. What it also asks, is that we are at a low enough body fat percentage so that we aren’t lifting up any unnecessary weight (to do a number beyond 15-20 reps).

Becoming proficient in the pull-up is a sign of pure athleticism and health. If you can do set’s of beautiful strict pull-ups, then you’re part of the healthiest percentage of people in the world. Especially if you are female.

The challenge of developing strength is the muscular strength isn’t just necessary to be able to do it. It also takes denser bones, stronger ligaments, thicker tendons, and tougher connective tissue. You’ve also got to have enough flexibility in your thoracic spine to be able to raise your arms fully over head, without any pain, or impingement.

Needless to say we love training pull-ups because they are so effective at producing healthier people. There is so much work involved it is a constant cycle of strength, mobility, strength, mobility, conditioning. To say that the effort is worth it, would be an understatement. The sense of achievement that I see when people pull themselves over the bar, unassisted for the first time, is almost as good as seeing their first muscle up. It’s amazing, and one of the main reasons why I started training people in the first place. We deserve, all of us, to be stronger. No matter where we are. The pull up is one of those movements that defines our sense of well being more so than other movements.

Over the last few years as a coach, we’ve helped many of our clients to achieve unassisted or improved pull-ups. Our method is simple, and has been derived from Pavel Tsatuline’s training principles. This particular program can take you from no pull-ups, to at least 1,2 or more, provided you follow the progression as written and do your best to keep up with it for as long as is necessary to achieve it.

Here are the basic rules:

If you have less than 1 or two pull-ups, then consider using a progression to assist you with getting between 3 and 5 reps as a minimum.
Every set has to be executed with perfect form (no cheat reps). If your form is less than perfect in your first set, use an easier progression.
Make contact with the bar every time to ensure proper range is being trained through.

Start with a max set. Rest. Then do another set with one less rep*. Repeat for a total of 5 sets doing one less rep each set.

*If you can do more than 10 strict pull-ups, then you will need to reduce the reps by more than one. From 10-15 reps, reduce by 2 reps. From 15 to 20 reduce by 3 reps each time. From beyond 20, reduce by 4 reps. More on this later in this article.

Here is the progression:

The 3RM Program

For those who have 3 pull-ups here is how you’d progress (or if you want to add weight to this you can add enough to bring your reps to 3):

Day 1     3, 2, 1, 1
Day 2     3, 2, 1, 1
Day 3     3, 2, 2, 1
Day 4     3, 3, 2, 1
Day 5     4, 3, 2, 1
Day 6     Off
Day 7     4, 3, 2, 1, 1
Day 8     4, 3, 2, 2, 1
Day 9     4, 3, 3, 2, 1
Day 10   4, 4, 3, 2, 1
Day 11    5, 4, 3, 2, 1
Day 12    Off

By this point you’ll be ready for the next step which is the 5 rep progression.

5 RM Progression:

Day 1     5, 4, 3, 2, 1
Day 2     5, 4, 3, 2, 2
Day 3     5, 4, 3, 3, 2
Day 4     5, 4, 4, 3, 2
Day 5     5, 5, 4, 3, 2
Day 6     Off
Day 7     6, 5, 4, 3, 2
Day 8     6, 5, 4, 3, 3
Day 9     6, 5, 4, 4, 3
Day 10    6, 5, 5, 4, 3
Day 11    6, 6, 5, 4, 3
Day 12    Off
Day 13    7, 6, 5, 4, 3
Day 14    7, 6, 5, 4, 4
Day 15    7, 6, 5, 5, 4
Day 16    7, 6, 6, 5, 4
Day 17    7, 7, 6, 5, 4
Day 18    Off
Day 19    8, 7, 6, 5, 4
Day 20    8, 7, 6, 5, 5
Day 21    8, 7, 6, 6, 5
Day 22    8, 7, 7, 6, 5
Day 23    8, 8, 7, 6, 5
Day 24    Off
Day 25    9, 8, 7, 6, 5
Day 26    9, 8, 7, 6, 6
Day 27    9, 8, 7, 7, 6
Day 28    9, 8, 8, 7, 6
Day 29    9, 9, 8, 7, 6
Day 30    Off

The principles are simple. The execution is the hard part. It get’s boring, but you get really really strong. It’s not unusual to add a serious amount (2.5 times) of reps to your max.

Again if you’ve got more than 10 strict chest to bar pull-ups then go Pavel’s website and use his progression to work out exactly the reps that you’d be doing.

If you’d like a print friendly sheet, to cross off days, for when you complete them, go here. Having a record make this, makes it much easier to complete. The print friendly is here –  Pull-ups Strength Progression. But if you’d like a blank PDF to print off go here – Blank Pull-ups Strength Progression.

Let us know how you get on!

Archie,
Head Coach,
CrossFit Chichester.

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