Pull-ups are one of the hardest exercises you can do, but the benefits they come with are amazing – by engaging a big number of your larger muscle groups and joints to work together, this devastating compound movement will tremendously strengthen your upper body, fortify your core, improve your grip strength and increase your overall functional strength.
We will even go as far as saying that given enough time, this hardcore exercise can single-handedly transform a flat musculature into a ripped physique. Just think about it – what could possibly come out of you repeatedly lifting your entire bodyweight (or more!), thereby hitting the back, traps, shoulder, arms and even chest? Nothing less than a well-developed, dense and powerful upper muscle mass.
So regardless of how you feel about them (and we all used to hate them at some point of our life), pull-ups are irreplaceable when it comes to building a strong, robust body, and the fact that they don’t require expensive machinery makes them one of the ultimate bodyweight exercises on the planet. By varying your grip, you can use pull-ups for different goals: the wider grip will help you target the lats better, a narrower grip leads to better bicep activation, while the reverse grip offers a whole other unique set of benefits. The pull-up and its abundance of variations can be progressed and performed all throughout a training year for the purpose of great strength gains.
Even more, pull-ups have a great ability to prevent or reverse muscular imbalances resulting from performing too many upper body push movements too often. When you overuse push movements, you can easily end up with back injuries or posture problems, and this exercise can fix this by powerfully strengthening your back and the rear delts. Tough bodyweight moves train the whole body by teaching it how to pull, push raise and lift itself, and are true tests of ability, endurance and functionality.
Yet, how many people that you personally know can do a series of decent pull-ups? We bet the list is pretty short. And if you’re one of those who can’t perform a decent pull-up to save their life, we’re about to teach you how to improve your pull-ups with the help of an eight week training plan that will increase your performance, strength, stamina and balance. It’s time to man up and enter the impressive world of the pull-up!
The 8-week Pull-up Training Program
• Weeks 1 and 2
In the first two weeks you’ll start from ground zero. If pull-ups are not a part of your regular routine at the moment, this part of the program will help you learn how to perform them the right way. If you’re already performing pull-ups but your form is terrible and you’re having a difficult time completing more than 3 reps, this program will help you correct your technique and start making real gains. During the first two weeks, you should continue with your normal frequency of training back, i.e. once or twice per week. Besides that, in order to increase overall back strength and power even further, make sure to perform other lifts that hit your back from all different angles possible – think barbell rows, dumbbell rows, inverted rows and rear deltoid exercises. But in addition, you will start a low rep/high volume pull-up program and put an effort into perfecting your form and technique.
Start with completing 20 total reps of pull-ups once in the week. It doesn’t matter if you do 2 sets of 10 reps, 5 sets of 4 reps or 20 sets of 1 rep – do whatever it takes to reach the 20 total reps goal. And be as generous as you need with the amount of rest between sets. Make sure to utilize proper form – employ as less swinging and swaying as possible. Once your form breaks down, end the set and rest to regain strength.
When it comes to biceps work, restrain yourself from overtraining. Most people focus too much on the biceps, exhausting them from too many angles and too often, so they ultimately end up lacking the strength needed to pull off the pull-ups. Instead, hit them with just a couple of heavy moves.
You could record your current level of strength and stamina on tape or by just writing the number of reps per set you’re able to finish with proper form. You can use this later to track your progress and motivate yourself additionally once your performance improves.
• Weeks 3 and 4
With the start of week 3, increase the frequency of your pull-up training to twice per week, while keeping your heavy back lifting to once or twice per week (but make sure that you have a couple of rest days between sessions and that you perform the back training on days when you’re not performing pull-ups). Also, increase the number of total pull-up reps to 30. Again, no matter how many sets it takes you to get there, just focus on achieving that number.
Also, this is the time to start trying out different grips. Begin with the close-parallel grip (palms facing each other), wide grip and chin-up (palms facing you) style. Pull-ups and chin-ups both primarily train your back and biceps, but there are certain differences in the degree in which those muscles get activated. Chin ups will typically hit your biceps a bit harder than pull-ups, while pull-ups can emphasize your lats. In addition, the narrower your grip is, the more it will engage your biceps, and the wider the grip, the less work for the biceps. Similarly to the narrow-grip pull-up, the close-parallel grip helps shift focus from the back to the arms. So if you want to target your biceps even further, perform narrow-grip pull-ups with a close-parallel grip style.
Needless to say, make sure to maintain proper form and technique regardless of which variation you choose to do.
• Weeks 5 and 6
Increase frequency and total volume again. This time, you will increase the frequency to three pull-up workouts in the week, while the total pull-up volume will be 40 reps. Also, schedule back training on one or more of your pull-up training days. So if you’re performing pull-ups on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, make sure to do your back weight training on the same days as well.
As the total pull-up volume increases further, you might feel like it’s a bit too much and you might struggle to catch up. Still, man up, put in the effort and complete 40 total reps, no matter the number of sets. This gradual, continuous progression is extremely important for pushing your body (and mind) beyond its limits and building a body of steel. Besides that, continue experimenting with different grips and grip styles and try not to stick with just one. Changing your grip now and then is another great way to keep challenging your muscles to strengthen and grow.
• Weeks 7 and 8
Increase volume and frequency for the last time by increasing frequency to four times per week and total pull-up volume to 50 reps. By this point you should be well adapted to the previous frequency and you should experience substantial improvement in terms of both pull-up performance, endurance and muscle mass. Your back should be thicker and overall stronger, your form should be improved and your ability to recover should be increased as well. Also, you should be able to see a significant progress in your main lifts, enabled by your newly acquired level of strength.
By now you should be able to finish your reps in less total sets. If not, push yourself a bit harder and reduce the number of sets. You should be also able to squeeze a few additional reps on every set. Continue working with different grips and maintain a tight form and correct technique.
After the end of week 8, take a few days off and then test your progress in terms of strength and endurance, record it and compare it to the beginning. Don’t forget to give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back, too!
Other ways to support your progress
Obviously, having a lot of excess body fat can significantly hinder your pull-up performance, among other things. More often than not, the people who have the biggest issues with bodyweight movements are a bit on the heavy side (and we’re not talking about the weight of lean muscle mass). That, combined with poor physical preparedness, practically destroys an individual’s ability to perform pull-ups. So first of all, be honest with yourself – if you’re completely out of shape and have more than a few pounds of fat to lose, start slowly by shedding the extra weight, getting your nutrition in order, doing heavy resistance training and some cardio work. If you want to significantly progress your pull-up, losing the extra pounds and improving your work capacity is a must.
Then, pay some attention to your grip. A weak grip is another common factor that can limit your pulling performance – if your grip strength isn’t sufficient to hold your body weight, that can be a serious problem. To improve it, add in some grip work into your arm workouts and avoid using straps because they let you get away with weak grip. Perform exercises that emphasize static contractions of the hands, forearms, shoulders and back. In addition, practice hanging from the pull-up bar and do farmer’s walks.
And finally, be dedicated and work hard. This program isn’t exactly a walk in the park – it demands iron will and plenty of discipline, so make sure you have what it takes to upgrade your pull-up and reap the awesome benefits that come with it. Just try to envision the end results and how they will affect the rest of your training, as well as the other aspects of your life, and you should become motivated enough to give your 100%.