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

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Two years ago I wrote an article on pull-ups for the now closed Figure Athlete. While it was good, I thought it could be improved and updated to apply 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 is the quintessential bodyweight movement.

Anatomy of a Pull-Up

Before you can conquer the pull-up, you must know and understand your adversary: 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. Palms facing forward/overhand on the bar.

Supinated Grip: This is the chin-up style grip. Palms facing upward/underhand grip on the bar.

Neutral Grip: This is your natural inclination style of grip. Palms facing each other on parallel bars.

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 you are 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 not sure, try the neutral style grip and go from there.

The success of doing a pull-up, as with all compound movements, can become a game of finding your weaknesses. The main muscle usage for a pull-up should be from the back. From a hanging 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, arm 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 in order to coordinate the rest of the movement correctly.

Hang Bar Lift Instructions: To do the hang bar lift, position yourself in a dead hang on the bar. This can be weight assisted or not, it 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 causing a small movement and firing almost completely with your lats. Your grip on the bar may fatigue from the hang, but all the work of lifting yourself into that movement should come from your back only.

If you feel any pain in your shoulders, switch your grip to supinated or neutral.

Full Range of Motion

Cheating a pull-up cheats yourself out of results. 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. A proper pull-up (regardless of the grip you utilize) starts in a dead hang, raises above the bar, and then lowers back down into a controlled dead hang.

That lowering back down is where a lot of people miss the full potential of this exercise, leading to overstrained lats, tight pectorals, and 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 muscle weakness and imbalance. Done wrong and 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 having strong cores. A weak core means a weak stabilization system, and while swinging around on that bar and lacking the ability to stabilize force upward may not seem like a big deal, it will hurt your pull-up ability.

Another important part of your pull-up 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. What kind of role and importance do you think it is going to have when your body becomes the force of that bar?

The Assistants

In this program, you’re going to have to use assistance to achieve your pull-ups. Each type has its pros and cons, and you should use whichever method works best for you to progress.

Assist machine: This is the easiest method of assistance. These machines give you opposing weight to help aid in lifting yourself upwards. The con is they can help aid you too much and remove the majority of the need for stability that you can gain from using other methods.

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

Bands: These are, most likely, the best assistance because they offer changing resistance, use 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 your 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, 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 210 pound, 8% bf men barely manage 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 will 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 overweight, 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 are cut in half. If you’re going to achieve doing a pull-up, you have to get lean. If you don’t want to be lower in weight and leaner, then this is going to be a lot more difficult for you. Not impossible, but a lot harder.

Note: In order to do this program, it is recommended you be < 20% body fat if female and < 12% body fat if 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 push-ups, 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 400 pounds, 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 some strategy.

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

This program is an extremely modified version of the previous one. First, 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 before starting this program. Second, this program goes deep into pull-up troubleshooting. While 99% of the time a pull-up is weak because of bodyweight plus 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 just touches on those issues, but don’t be confused, being able to do a strong farmer’s walk doesn’t automatically equal high repetition pull-ups.

Also, pull-ups like anything else, need to evolve. Unless you need to have extremely 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 maximum number of pull-ups you can do with the grip you plan on using. If you can’t do a pull-up, test this with assistance as close as you can to failure. Remember, you should already be lean before starting this program. Most women should be able to do one pull-up or almost one pull-up; men should be able to do at least four or five. Every two weeks retest.

For pull-ups, you are going to be working at 55-65% max reps. If you are female and are unable to perform one rep, then you would use 55-65% of your bodyweight. If you weigh 130 pounds, the equation would look like this:

130 lbs x .45 = 58.5 lbs assistance

The .45 = 45% if using 55% of your bodyweight. If you are using 65%, use .35 and so forth.

Warm Up

Should include a mix of foam work and dynamic movements.

Day 1:

Pull-Ups

Rest time = 60 Seconds

-Start with 1 round at 35% max for warm up
-Move to working at 55-65% of max reps
-Complete until you are almost at failure
-Repeat until you are done

Record the number of sets per workout (e.g. 120 total reps at 55% max reps)

Day 2

Rest time = 60-90 Seconds

-Work at 75% rep max for 4 sets

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 = 60 Seconds

-Start with 1 round at 35% max for warm up
-Move to working at 55-65% of max reps
-Complete until you are almost at failure
-Repeat until you are done

Record the number of sets per workout (e.g. 120 total reps at 55% max reps)

Day 5

Rest time = 60-90 Seconds

-Work at 75% rep max for 4 sets

Goblet Squats
Pinch Plate Carry
Incline DB Press
Ab Rollouts

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

If doing pull-ups is your goal, you will be able to do them in six weeks or less. Remember, this is a specific program for pull-ups only. As with any goal, dedication and focus is key to achieve it. You don’t need complexes and finishers if all you want is to get better at performing pull-ups.

To get better at pull-ups, do more pull-ups.

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33 comments

  1. crystal
    February 18, 2010 at 4:24 am

    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
    February 18, 2010 at 10:22 am

    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 🙂

  3. Roger Lawson II
    February 18, 2010 at 11:54 am

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

  4. Gina
    February 18, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    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
      February 18, 2010 at 9:09 pm

      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
    February 18, 2010 at 3:03 pm

    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 😉

  6. Covermea
    February 18, 2010 at 3:58 pm

    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
    February 18, 2010 at 7:47 pm

    What are goblet squats and plank to plank progressions?

    • Leigh Peele
      February 18, 2010 at 9:13 pm

      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
    February 19, 2010 at 2:11 am

    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! 🙂

    • Leigh Peele
      February 19, 2010 at 3:11 am

      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
      October 27, 2011 at 4:27 am

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

  9. […] do I think is the ideal female bodyfat? 100pushups.com, is it good? (Pull-up article) Can people tell if you went to the gym today? Good book for building muscle? […]

  10. Lindsey
    February 20, 2010 at 12:53 am

    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?

  11. Ilyse
    February 21, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    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
      February 24, 2010 at 7:50 pm

      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.

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  14. Pris
    April 16, 2010 at 11:09 pm

    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!

  15. […] “Training Talk” will focus on training and exercise related topics. This covers everything from exercise suggestions, programs, detailed description, controversy and more. Previous examples are – Eat More, Exercise More, Pay More?, Pull-Up Workout Program. […]

  16. NIck
    June 25, 2011 at 2:32 pm

    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.

  17. Marissa
    August 19, 2011 at 7:38 am

    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.

  18. […] to increase you pullups though I plan on making up my own routine.   This routine comes from http://www.leighpeele.com/pull-up-workout-chin-up-program.  I will post my progress weekly and look forward to seeing […]

  19. […] And here’s a great article on learning to do chins and pull-ups, and increasing the number you can do. […]

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