Getting your first pull up can be an arduous task.
But it’s well worth the effort.
Over the years I’ve come across a great many programs and techniques that are supposed to get you to your first pull up, others that promise huge increases in numbers.
Truth is, nothing is perfect and somethings work well for some and other things work better for others .
It’s never a simple linear line.
So when an online client dropped into the gym and asked me about building the pull up last week, I gave him that lecture and then broke down all the stages we commonly go through while making it clear that the logical order presented here rarely pans out in real life and we usually find some stages are unnecessary, some counterproductive and some are pure magic. It all depends on the individual.
1: Inverted Rows Inverted rows are without a doubt one of the most underrated exercises going . From a shoulder health perspective they are awesome, helping to balance out all the pushing, punching, throwing etc. The focus should be placed of the movement of the shoulder blade. The pull should initiate by the shoulder blades pulling back and down towards the low back, then the elbows will begin to bend. To encourage this, start by relaxing back into a stretch, sink the chest and feel the upper back muscles load up like stretched elastic. Where you feel the stretch is where you try to pull from. This should take the scapula through a large range of motion waking up and strengthening the very often underdeveloped lower and middle traps, the rhomboids as well as the lats.
Recommended standard to achieve: 4 sets of 8 reps, with the straps hanging vertically.
2: Passive Hang Passive hanging is simply a relaxed hang. There are many potential benefits from this, the primary goals though are strengthening the grip and allowing gravity to decompress the spine and shoulders.
While I’ve listed this as number 2, it really can and probably should be used way more often, simply for the spinal decompression effects, its a nice way to end any training session or simply get a good stretch.
The rider is if the lats, thoracolumbar fascia and / or neck extensors are over tight, you may experience pain symptoms. If this is you, don’t to this step. I recommend getting a handle on these problems prior to continuing on your pull up progress. Thegoa after all isn’t just getting good at an exercise, but to to be able glean the benefits of the exercise and become fitter and stronger in the process.
Work up to 30 second hangs, 3 sets with 30 second breaks. Over time aim to achieve >60s in a single hang.
3: Active Hang If the passive hang is relaxed with the shoulders right up by the ears (think shrugged), then the active is the opposite, shoulder blades pulled back and down as far as they’ll go so the chest lifts out (think military attention stance)
If the passive hang was giving pain symptoms, this may potentially alleviate them, but still, get checked.
Recommendations same as the passive hang.
4: Active to Passive aka Hanging Scaps Now we have established and developed strength in both the passive (bottom position) ad active (top of first pull), it’s time to join the dots. From the passive hang, engage and pull with the scapula until you achieve the active position, do NOT bend the elbows at any point . Pause at the top for up to 3 seconds before lowering with control to the passive position. As soon as you reach the bottom position initiate the next rep. Move smoothly with control at all times with this drill, as soon as quality drops, terminate the set.
Aim for 3 sets of ten reps, each rep with a 3 second pause at the top (active) position
5: Eccentric Emphasis aka Negatives Now we start exploring the full range. The hanging drills are what we term “straight arm work” This is the first of the “bent arm work” (except the inverted row of course) Why not start with straight arm? Because most folk will pull up using everything BUT the back! We see shoulders shrugged and rounded forwards with the biceps and upper traps doing the lion’s share of the work. So learning scapular control, positioning and strength via straight arm work is key to long term progress and injury free practice.
To perform the negatives we need an assist to get up to the bar. Use a step or get your buddy to give you a leg up. The top position has the chest fully expanded and touching the bar, basically it’s the same top position as the inverted row except you are off the floor.
Keep the scaps back and down as you descend they only start to release once you come down to the active hang position and then continue to passive
Build up to 5 sets of 5 reps with consistent form.
6: Reverse Pull Up – Partial Range Here we work in the range you have strength and build out to full range We are starting from the top so we can use the stretch reflex to help us on the pull up. As the muscles lengthen under load they are trying to contract, this tension will help you turn the direction around from descending to ascending.
As with the Negatives in step 5, jump up to the bar. Now only descend as far as you are able to pull back up from while maintaining good form. As you practice, you should notice that as you get stronger in this partial range, a little extra range will open up. Then the next bit Then the next bit. Until eventually you lower all the way down and pull all the way back up.
Work multiple sets of 3-5 reps until you are almost able to get all the way down.
7: Pull Up Singles Do one rep, the best rep you possibly can. Start from a passive hang, initiate the pull with the scap up to the active position and just keep moving. Look up, eyes on where you want to be. Squeeze the bar tight, tense your glutes, your abs. And grind yourself up there, pause for a moment and then lower under control before dismounting from the bar. Rest a while and repeat.
There’s a few ways to work this. One is to do one rep every minute (use a timer) for up to 10 reps. If quality drops off before the ten, stop at whatever number you get, and build the volume over a few weeks. Once ten is achieved, reduce the rest time slightly. Try to get down to one rep every 30 seconds.
Another is to simply do 3-5 single reps at the beginning of every workout.
And the last, one that has possibly the highest success rate of all, is to do a rep as often as possible through the day, each and every day until the rep gets easy. Maybe set a daily target, start with something easy like getting 3 reps done from morning till night, then 5, then 8, then 10 and so on. This is termed “Grease the Groove” training and it works a charm for pull ups, more on this in the next step.
The key here is one high quality rep. As soon as you are too tired to maintain that quality, either rest longer or quit for the day and come back tomorrow.
8: Build Volume We’ve already touched on this in the last point. In step 7 the goal was to dial in that good rep, make it solid. Now we are going to work on developing more reps. There are, as there always is, several ways to achieve this. I have had clients make great gains using each method.
Grease the Groove has already been mentioned. This was popularised by Pavel Tsatsouline in his book the Naked Warrior. It is essentially practicing sub maximal sets frequently through the day. Here’s what to do: Do an all out set of pull ups, as many as you can do, we’ll even allow form to deteriorate (but only a little!), this number is your baseline. Half it. This is number is how many you pull ups you will do repeatedly over the day. Example: You score 3 pull ups in your test, half of 3 is 1.5, lets round it down to 1. You will do as many sets of 1 pull up as you can every day for the week and then retest. Second Example: You score 15, well done you! Half of 15 is 7.5, again we round down. So you will do sets of 7 solid reps at frequent intervals through the day, not so many that you burn out, but enough that you get in some high quality practice. Each week you retest a get a new number to work with.
Ladder Training, another of Pavel’s suggestions. Ladders are a great way to build volume over a course of weeks. You do 1 rep, take a rest. Then do 2 reps, then rest, then 3 reps etc The work time and rest time should be around the same, so longer sets get more rest.
I write ladder sets as (1,2,3) which means do 1 rep, 2 reps and 3 reps. That is one set, giving you 6 reps in total. So 3 sets is written as: (1,2,3) x 3 This is 18 total reps. Here’s how we build it: Add a set each week to a max of 5 sets or (1,2,3) x 5 (total 30 reps) Then add a “rung” to the ladder to a max of 5 rungs, (1,2,3,4,5) x 5 (total 75 reps) We generally train this three days per week, but have had success with two sessions. The first session of the week is Hard Day, subsequent days are one one rung less than the previous. Example: Week 1 – Monday: (1,2,3) x 3, Wed: (1,2) x 3, Fri: (1) x 3 Week 2 – Monday: (1,2,3) x 4, Wed: (1,2) x 4, Fri: (1) x 4 Week 3 – Monday: (1,2,3) x 5, Wed: (1,2) x 5, Fri: (1) x 5 Week 4 – Monday: (1,2,3,4) x 5, Wed: (1,2,3) x 5, Fri: (1,2) x 5 Week 5 – Monday: (1,2,3,4,5) x 5, Wed: (1,2,3,5) x 5, Fri: (1,2,5) x 5
Of course it’s rarely that smooth, you may have to repeat a week a few times. You may not be able to complete a rung or a set, that’s fine. You’ll get it next time. Once you have done the final week successfully, start over with either a harder variation of with additional weight (weight vest, plate hung from the waist)
Warm Up As pull ups develop best from high frequency, we often have people do 2 sets of 5 at the end of every warm up prior to training. Even if pull ups are in the workout, we still do the 2 sets in the warm up.
80% method. Test your pull ups, call whatever number you get 100% Now, in the gym perform 3-5 sets of pull ups never going over 80%. So if you can do 5 in your test, you only do 3 in training. Start with 3 sets of 3, build to 5 sets of 3, then add reps, for example 5 sets of 5. Retest after a few weeks (say 4 weeks) and get your new 80%.
Each method works, choose the one that best fits your overall training plan. If you want fast results and are willing to specialise for a while, Grease the Groove and Ladder training are excellent. Grease the Groove allows you to continue other training, maybe moderate how much upper body pulling you do tough. Ladder training will dominate your gym sessions as the volume goes up, but it is absolutely worth it.
Last point, no stage becomes obsolete, ever. Inverted rows should be used for warming up the pull up or assistance work after the main training, go for 2-4 sets of 8. Same can be said for the scap up, in fact I use these frequently for my own shoulder health. Hanging is a great decompress after training and helps with the grip. Revisit each stage frequently, no is too advanced to go back to basics.
And don’t kip!