Simple, Not Easy: How to Increase Your Pull-Ups

I can't remember when I did my first pull-up.  But I can tell you it wasn't until I was in my 20's.

Growing up I was the kid in gym class who would attempt a pull-up, not get anywhere close, then fall to my feet in shame.  I also remember being a lanky freshman in college, and how sore my biceps would be after carrying a case of bottled water up four flights of stairs.

But I think I've made up for lost time.

During a two and a half month stretch earlier this year, I increased my bodyweight pull-up total from 13 to 20.  My results may not be typical - after all, it's 0.5 more pullups/week - but I think my plan and program were a big reason for my success.  

(As well as some loud, obnoxious, early 2000's heavy metal to help along the way.)

Below is the plan, program and results I experienced.  I hope it helps you as well!

The Plan:

I don't like to reinvent the wheel.  And it just so happens there's already a widely successful pull-up plan by Pavel Tsatsouline, called the Fighter Pull-up Plan.  It's helped many people "sneak up" on higher amounts of pull-ups and it's very easy to follow.

But I'm also a firm believer in the Pareto principle - that 20% of our efforts are responsible for 80% of our results.  So instead of adopting the Fighter Pull-Up plan completely, I tweaked it to coincide with my current program and goals.  For example:

-I'd perform 2 days of bodyweight pull-ups, instead of 5 on the Fighter Pull-up plan.  My thinking?  My total pull-up volume each week was just about 15 reps - 3 sets of 5 with added weight. The thought of increasing my weekly volume to 13 times that amount didn't sit well with me and I was worried about overuse.  Just like you wouldn't run five days a week if you were training for a marathon, I wanted to keep my volume low and chase quality instead of quantity.

-I'd also do one day of weighted pull-ups.  If I could continue to increase my absolute strength (bodyweight plus external weight) it'd be much easier to do a higher amount of bodyweight pull-ups.  For example, it's much easier to deadlift 135 lbs for reps if you can deadlift 300 lbs.  But it's going to be a lot harder to lift 135 for multiple reps if you can only deadlift 150.

-Because time was of the essence - I started this plan with 7 weeks to get ready for the Tactical Strength Challenge - I'd perform as many good reps as possible with each bodyweight set. Rather than stopping at a set number, I'd try to PR each individual set and get comfortable with being very uncomfortable.

The Program:

While pull-ups are obviously a staple, grip strength and core stability are the other two rocks that usually impede people's progress.  As you can see below, I made sure to do plenty of each:

Starting with Turkish Get-Ups on Day 1 provides a nice contrast to the movement of a pull-up.  Since pull-ups place our shoulders under distraction forces, the TGU provides compression and forces you to stabilize.  It also provides some stimulus to arouse your nervous system helping you get the most out of your pull-ups.  After three sets of TGU's, I'd move to three sets of bodyweight pull-ups, getting plenty rest (and doing nothing else!) in between each set.  

After that, I'd finish with my Captains of Crush grippers. "GTG" means grease the groove, so I'd use the grippers to help my grip but I wouldn't come close to fatiguing or "maxing out" on my grip.  Staying fresh for the next day is always a priority.

Pavel demonstrating the "hollow" position.

Pavel demonstrating the "hollow" position.

Day 2 is similar, but I'd start with Ab Wheel Rollouts.  While I teach it as a challenging and very advanced exercise, it helps to mimic the "hollow" position during pull-ups.  Then after completing my pull-ups and greasing the groove with my Captains of Crush, I'd move on to kettlebell snatches.  Why?  Besides the grip strength, you need to be lean to maximize your bodyweight pull-ups.  Quite simply, kettlebell snatches are possibly the best fat burning exercise I've ever encountered.

With snatches, I started with 6 on each hand on the minute for 7 minutes (84 total). I progressed to doing 10 on each hand for 7 minutes (140 total), before increasing bell sizes and starting it all again.

Day 3 once again begins with core - dead bugs - before changing to weighted pull-ups.  By only doing three sets of three reps, we're chasing neurological gains as your brain learns how to produce more force.  It also acts as a refresher, as constantly emptying the tank on bodyweight pull-ups can feel like pounding your head on a wall.  In a good way.

Ending Day 3 with single arm swings once again helps improve overall conditioning, grip strength, and body composition.  

The Results:

As with almost anything in life, results were not linear.  After having zero improvement over the first two weeks, I increased one pull-up a week over the next month.  Proof of progress comes from this video of my pull-ups during the Tactical Strength Challenge in April of this year:

What else can I say other than "Holy midriff!"

All joking aside, one week after this competition I hit 19 pull-ups.  Three weeks later - and with the help of Rage Against the Machine and Godsmack - I finally hit my goal of 20.

The new goal?  25.  And that most definitely won't be comfortable.