Pull-Up Workout Program – Increase or Do Full Body Pull-Ups in 6 Weeks

 

2 years ago I wrote an article on pull-ups for the now closed, Figure Athlete. While it was good, I thought I could make it better and apply it to everyone. For some, the pull up is a myth, a fable told by others. The pull-up isn’t merely an exercise or a movement, it’s the quintessential bodyweight movement.

Anatomy of a Pull-up

Before you can conquer the pull-up, you must know your adversary: understand how the pull-up works. First, you need to look at the variation of grips. A change in grip changes muscles targeted, and technically, even changes the name of the exercises themselves (pull-ups as opposed to chin-ups). For the purpose of this article, we are going to be talking about three different grips, and the importance of each to your training.

Pronated grip: this is the standard pull-up grip of palms facing forward/overhand on the bar.

Supinated grip: this is the chin-up style grip of palms facing upward/underhand grip on the bar.

Neutral grip: this is your natural inclination style of grip, palms facing medial grip on a parallel bar.

Different grips target different muscles in different ways. For example, a pronated grip is best at hitting the latissimus dorsi muscles of the back. With a pronated grip there is less stress and usage of the biceps brachii when compared to a supinated (chin-up) grip. The neutral grip utilizes your brachilalis and brachioradialis muscles in a way that neither of the other two grips do.

For some with chronic shoulder problems and impingements, the standard pull-up grip just isn’t a great idea, and you may need to do all exercises with a supinated grip. However, if recovering from persistent elbow problems, being able to lower yourself properly in a negative exercise might be tougher in a supinated grip. If you’re a complete mess, try the neutral style grip and go from there.

The success of doing a pull-up, as with all compound movements, can becomes a game of finding where your weakness is. The main muscle usage for a pull-up should be from the back. From a hang position, you should fire primarily in your latissimus dorsi, and start off a chain of support, lifting your body more with your back and core than with your arms. The most common mistake in a pull-up is failing to fire the back properly, or at all. Consider that the average person gets their guns not from curls, but from doing brute-strength arms-dominant chin-up work.

A good exercise and test for this is the hang bar lift. The purpose of this movement is to see if you can properly control the firing of your back muscles to then coordinate the rest of the proper chain of events.

Hang Bar Lift Instruction: To do the hang bar lift, position yourself in a dead hang on the bar. This can be weight assisted or not, that aspect doesn’t matter, but you need to be fully extended in a dead hang. You want to almost completely lock your elbows and paralyze your arm movement on the bar so that when you raise yourself up into a shrug, you’re using only your back to lift yourself. The movement is subtle – you’re only causing a small movement and firing almost completely with your lats. Your grip on the bar may be tired from the hang, but all the work of lifting yourself into that movement should come from your back and back alone.

If you feel any pain at all in your shoulders, then switch grips to supinated or neutral.

Full Range of Motion

Cheating a pull-up is going to cheat yourself out of success. Some of the ugliest half range pull-ups I’ve ever seen were largely due to weak rhomboids and lower trap muscles. Most kippers fall into this category.ย  A proper pull-up (with whatever grip you utilize) is from a dead hang to an above bar raise, and then lowered back down into controlled dead hang.

That lowering back down is where a lot of people miss out of the full potential of this exercise, leading to overstrained lats, tight pectorals, weak rhomboids and lower traps. Pull-ups and chin-ups, when done with the correct range of motion, are quick and excellent tools for improving a large amount of muscle weakness and imbalance. Done wrong, they just make it worse. Don’t just drop once you reach the top, you earned getting up there, earn getting back down.

Beyond the Back

You know why gymnasts rock the pull-up? They are notorious for strong cores. A weak core means a weak stabilization system and while it may not seem like a big deal swinging around on that bar and lacking the ability to stabilize force upward, it’ll hurt your pull-up.

Another strong player in your pull-up ability is your actual forearm strength and grip. Any of you involved in a good deadlifting program understand the importance that grip strength plays in being able to hold that bar up. Well what kind of role and importance do you think is going to occur when your body becomes the force of that bar?

The Assistants

In this program you’re going to have to use the aid of assistance in your pull-ups. Each has its pros and cons, so in the end you should use whatever you can to progress.

Assist machine: This is the easiest method to help assist you. These machines work on the method of giving you opposing weight to help aid in lifting you upwards. The conย  is they can help aid you too much and take out stability work that you can earn with using some other methods.

Partner or wall assistant: I love using partner assisted pull-ups because they automatically throw off stability, help give that mental push, and allow for a lot more resistance control. Don’t utilize the partner so much to help raise you; do that only as a last resort on forced reps. Instead utilize your partners body/wall to aid your legs in assisting to help pull yourself up. This way you get more core and leg training along with your pull-up work.

Bands: These are likely the best in assistance because they offer changing resistance use of stabilization, make it very hard to cheat, and offer portability. The flip side is they can be a bit tricky to work with, and as your resistance needs change, your band needs will change as well. The best bands for pull up training in my opinion are Woody Bands.

It’s Not All Muscle Mass

Your ability to do a pull-up has very little to do with your muscle mass, but a lot to do with muscle endurance. In fact, the less overall mass you have, the easier a pull-up is going to be. If you don’t believe it, just watch a skinny-as-a-rail low grade gymnast. I’ve been witness to the frustration of a big brute strong woman raising exterior weight above their body, but not even coming close to going from dead hang to pull-up on the bar. I have seen 210lb 8% bf men barely be able to knock out a few chin ups and no pull ups.

Muscle size and amount has nothing to do with it.

Higher Body Fat Equals No Pull-ups

I already mentioned that people carrying more muscle mass would have a harder time doing a pull-up. What if you’re carrying extra weight in the form of excess body fat? If you’re an overweight guy or girl, the probability of lifting yourself over that bar can be summed up in two words: fat chance. And unfortunately, “overweight” in this case isn’t as much as you might think. Just 4-5% higher body fat and your chances just got cut in half. If you’re going to achieve your pull-ups, you have to get lean. If you don’t like being lower in weight and leaner, then this is going to be a lot harder for you. Not impossible, but a lot harder.

Note: In order to do this program it is recommended you be <20% body fat for a female and <12% body fat fir a male. If you are higher in body fat and need help dropping it, check out the Fat Loss Troubleshoot.

The Military Knows Pull-ups

I don’t always agree with everything the military does, particularly when it comes to training, but I’ve gotta admit they know the three most important secrets to pull-up success: frequency, frequency, and frequency. If you’re looking to increase bodyweight pull-ups and pushups, then you need to take a clue from them. Bodyweight training is a completely different animal than external weight training, especially depending upon the goal.

Most people think by getting strong you can simply “out run” your lower load. Meaning that if you can Bench 400lbs you should be able to do push-ups until the cows come home. The problem is it doesn’t work that way. Stronger does not equal more endurance.

Let me repeat that.

Stronger does not equal more endurance.

The military has a simple rule: when in doubt, knock ’em out. Every day, multiple times a day, you just do them, over and over again. Like it or not, it works. Of course, being so gung-ho has its downsides, which range from overtraining to severe CNS fatigue and injury. I believe there is a middle ground and room for strategy.

The Pull-Up Workout Program – Increase or Do a Full Body Weight Pull Up in 6 Weeks (or Less)

This program is modified extremely from the last one. First off, this program is not meant to be done in a significant caloric deficit. If you need to lose a large amount of fat I would recommend doing that first before applying this program.ย  Second, this program goes far into the pull-up troubleshoot. While 99% of the time a pull up is weak because of bodyweight + lack of strength/endurance, there can be other limiting factors like grip and forearm strength. There can also be postural issues and you can find yourself spinning your wheels or getting jacked in your armpits. This program merely covers those bases but don’t be confused, being able to do a strong farmers walk doesn’t automatically equal high rep pull-ups.

Also, pull-ups like anything else need to evolve. Unless your need is for extreme high endurance (like going on the Unbeatable Banzuke) you should treat it like any other movement and increase in additional weight.

Max Test:

Test the max amount of pull-ups you can do in the grip you plan on training in. If you can’t do a pull-up then test with assistance as close to you nearest failure. Remember you should be lean already before starting the program. Most women should be able to do one pull-up or almost a pull-up – men should be able to do at least 4-5. Every 2 weeks re-test.

For pull-ups you are going to be working at 55-65% max reps. If you are a girl and can’t perform one rep, then you would use 55-65% of your bodyweight. Let’s say you weigh 130lbs the equation would like this:

130lbsx.45= 58.5lbs assistance

The .45 = 45% if using 55% of your bodyweight. If 65% it so on and so forth.

Warm Up (Should include a good mix of foam work and dynamic movements. If you need ideas on this I highly recommend the Assess and Correct series)

Day 1 –

Pull-Ups

Rest time is 60 secs

-Start off with a 1 round at 35% Max for warm up
-Move to working at 55-65% of max reps
-Complete til almost failure
-Repeat until you are done for the workout.

Record the amount of sets per workout – e.g. 120 total reps at 55% max reps

Day 2

Work at 75% Rep Max for 4 sets
Rest 60-90 secs

One-legged Dumbbell Deadlifts
Farmer’s Walks
Neutral Grip Press
Plank to Plank Progressions (Weighted, Rows, or Leg Movement)

Day 4

Pull- Ups

Rest time is 60 secs

-Start off with a 1 round at 35% Max
-Move to working at 55-65% of max reps
-Complete til almost failure
-Repeat until you are done for the workout.

Record the amount of sets per workout – e.g. 120 total reps at 55% max reps

Day 5

Work at 75% Rep Max for 4 sets
Rest 60-90 secs

Goblet Squats
Pinch Plate Carry
Incline DB Press
Ab Rollouts

**Watch high volume of cardio during these 6 weeks.

If pull-ups are your goal, you will have them in 6 weeks. Remember this is a specific program for pull-ups only. With anything else zooming in on your goal is key to achieving it. It makes no sense to fuss around with complexes and finishers, if you just want to get better at pull-ups. To get better at pull-ups, do more pull-ups.

Before starting any new diet and exercise program please check with your doctor and clear any exercise and/or diet changes with them before beginning. I am not a doctor or registered dietitian. I do not claim to cure any cause, condition or disease. I do not provide medical aid or nutrition for the purpose of health or disease and claim to be a doctor or dietitian. This is merely an opinion blog. Read full disclaimer here - http://www.leighpeele.com/disclaimer

 

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33 Comments

  1. crystal

    is there any way you can post pictures of each grip? I do pull-ups a lot in my exercises, but I’m never sure what to do with my hands. thanks, leigh!

  2. melissa

    awesome article! i am working on correcting some muscle imbalances and a winged scapula so i will probably start out with the neutral grip. thanks for the tips ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Roger Lawson II

    Great program, Leigh. I’m pumped like Ahnuld to see the results that people get!

  4. Gina

    Leigh! I have been looking for this old article everywhere I am so glad that you updated it. If I am 5’6″ and 155 do you think I could start doing this? Thanks!

    • Leigh Peele

      It depends. Like I said it is a guideline, it doesn’t mean a female with 20+% body fat couldn’t do it. Just saying if you are hitting bad sticking points or have a hard time progressing know that bodyweight can be a factor.

  5. Greg

    I don’t know why but this clicked with me.

    “Also, pull-ups like anything else need to evolve. Unless your need is for extreme high endurance (like going on the Unbeatable Banzuke) you should treat it like any other movement and increase in additional weight.”

    I don’t think I have been challenge my pull-ups like I should. Thanks for the article Leigh. One of your best yet.

    What is the Unbeatable Banzuke or do I want to know ๐Ÿ˜‰

  6. Covermea

    Okay I did it, I finally bought assess and correct. I am looking forward to seeing how this programs works for me. Thanks Leigh.

  7. Over-The-Hill

    What are goblet squats and plank to plank progressions?

    • Leigh Peele

      Goblet squats – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJdMPB1FWUo (wait for #3)

      Plank Progressions – This in when you have hit your tapout limit with planks and adding in progressions. For instance you can start to do weighted planks, plank rows, Plank with leg progressions (raises one leg, hold for 30, switch legs, etc).

      Keeping the base movement the same but adding progressions.

  8. MV

    I don’t think I’m below 20% body fat, but I can do 5-6 bodyweight pullups. You seemed pretty adamant that women above 20% shouldn’t do the program. Can you elaborate further on why you think that’s true? I’d like to be able to do 10 or so pullups and one day *gasp* weighted pullups! ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Leigh Peele

      As I stated in the other comment, it is just a general guideline. Weight of Body=Harder, that is all. Also, as a general statement higher body fat in general (not in general) can mean lower conditioning. If you can already do that amount then simply utilize the program to increase your max. Perhaps start at 55% of rep max and see how it increase. When you hit a 10-12 max range start to add weight.

    • Elora

      Normally I’m against killing but this article slaguterhed my ignorance.

  9. Lindsey

    On Days 1 and 4, if my max is 6 pull ups would I just keep doing sets of 3 until I can’t do anymore sets of 3 and record my total reps?

  10. Ilyse

    Great post! I just completed stage 7 of the New Rules of Lifting For Women, and have been looking for my next fitness challenge. I have a request– could you please post videos of some of the exercises, I was able to find a youtube clip of farmer’s walks, but I have never heard of pinch plate carries. (I see that there is a clip of Goblet Squats–thanks for posting it!)

    • Leigh Peele

      Pinch plate carries are just like the farmers walks but instead of DB’s you pinch the plates for weight. If anything else you need instructions for let me know.

  11. Pris

    What do you think about the total gym’s approach to pull ups. At the top level, you would pull 60% of your body wt. You can also add wts to the bench. You can do overhand or reverse grip.

    I enjoyed the article. Thanks for sharing!

  12. NIck

    Good stuff. I can remember when I first started pullups I was in high school ran a lot, did pushups and situps and 3X12 half pullups a day. Then one day bam a pullup, and the nex tthree…The rest was history. I’m 51 now still so calistentics.

  13. Marissa

    Great article. I have a quick question on the Iron Woody bands.

    I only have access to a home pull-up bar mounted on the door frame. Can you safely use the bands for pull-up training at home? I can do unassisted pull-ups, but just want to improve numbers.

    Thanks.

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