By John Sifferman
Author of The Pull-Up Solution
Pull-ups and chin-ups are among THE most effective exercises for building and strengthening your back, shoulders, arms, and core.
They're also very difficult exercises for a lot of people. However, with the right strategies, anyone can get better at pull-ups in a short period of time, whether you're starting at zero reps or twenty.
And when you do, you'll have a much stronger and more muscular upper body to show for it. You may also experience less back pain, better posture, and improved strength in your other lifts, not to mention the pride, empowerment, and attention that comes from dominating the pull-up bar.
In this article, you'll learn three of the best strategies for rapidly improving your pull-ups and chin-ups performance in a short period of time. Put all three of these to good use and you'll be surprised how fast your pull-up strength improves.
1. Use High-Frequency Training To Accelerate Your Pull-up Progress.
One of the most effective ways to increase your strength in any exercise is to train it frequently, and pull-ups are a prime candidate for this. But you've got to do it right. Otherwise, you'll burn out or get injured.
Enter Grease The Groove Training, which is not all that different from Nick's Daily Specialization Training method.
This is hands-down the fastest way to increase your strength in the pull-ups exercise over a period of 3-6+ weeks. And that goes for both complete beginners who can't do a single rep and seasoned athletes who can do 10 or even 20 reps already. If you want a rapid boost to your pull-ups performance, greasing the groove works better than anything else.
I've known dozens of people who doubled their maximum pull-ups reps in just one month using GTG training. Some have even increased their pull-ups by 3-4X their previous max record in that time (e.g. going from 3-4 reps to 10-15 reps in one month). It's also my go-to strategy for getting people their first full pull-up in the shortest time possible.
How to Grease the Groove with Pull-ups
1) Practice pull-ups (or an easier variation - see below) at a moderate intensity level, several times per day and several days per week. Pick a repetition amount that falls between 40-80% of your maximum reps. So, if you can do 10 pull-ups, you'd work with sets of 4-8 reps.
2) If you're using a higher relative intensity (e.g. 80% of max), do 3-5 sets per day. If you're using a lower relative intensity (e.g. 40% of max), do 5-10+ sets per day.
3) Never train to muscle failure or exhaustion, and get plenty of rest between sets (at least 1 hour is ideal)
4) Strive to train as often as you can fully recover for at least 4 and no more than 6 days per week. Also, try to increase the total number of pull-ups you complete each training day to encourage progression. You can do this by performing an additional rep or set each day. Or, you can increase your time under tension.
5) Finally, think of this as practice more than training. You're not trying to "get a good workout" so much as you're trying to practice proper form as often as you can. Here's why...
The premise behind GTG training is that the frequent training stimulus causes nervous system adaptations, which in turn, helps you to use your muscles more efficiently. The key is that you don't overload your nervous system, causing CNS fatigue. Thus, the reason for using low and moderate intensity sets, instead of training to muscle failure.
So, make sure you always leave some gas in the tank and stop well before muscular failure.
Now, if you can't do pull-ups several times throughout the day, and you need to fit them into a specific workout time, you can still do that. Just give yourself as much rest as possible between sets, and perform them at a sub-maximal intensity.
So, if you exercise at the gym for 60 minutes, you could do 6 sets of pull-ups with a ten minute break between sets, and still get much the same effect. However, spreading your sets throughout the day is the best strategy.
2. Find the Exercise "Sweet Spot" to Maximize Your Pull-up Adaptations.
The best way to get better at pull-ups, chin-ups, or any of their variations (e.g. neutral grip pull-ups), is to practice the hardest exercise progression you can perform with proper technique.
So, if you can't do a single pull-up, you'll need to use certain exercises to build up to them (see below). Similarly, if you can already do 15-20+ pull-ups, you'll want to choose an advanced pull-up exercise that is appropriate for your skill and conditioning level, such as weighted pull-ups or even one-arm pull-ups (or it's building blocks).
Now, if you're working up to your first pull-up, it's critical that you use exercises that closely mimic the actual pull-up exercise on a bar. The lat pull-down machine and other tools have their place. But if you want to get better at real pull-ups, you'll need to train on a pull-up bar - even if you're just hanging from it at first.
Here are some pull-up progressions and standards to work up to your first full and unassisted pull-up or chin-up.
Step 1 - Deadhang (30-60 seconds)
Hang from a pull-up bar with your arms straight (i.e. elbows locked), shoulders packed (explained in video below), and core tight. Hold for time.
Step 2 - Flexed-Arm Hang (30-60 seconds)
Hang from a pull-up bar with your arms flexed, elbows in tight toward your sides, shoulders packed, and core tight. Hold for time. You can hold a flexed arm hang in the top position (i.e. with your chin over the bar), middle position (i.e. elbows flexed at 90 degrees), or anywhere throughout the range of motion.
Step 3 - Negative Rep Pull-ups (5-10 reps)
Start in the top position with your chin over the bar (i.e. the flexed arm hang), then slowly lower yourself down under control until you reach full elbow lockout in the deadhang position. Repeat for reps, using a step or bench to reset your position (or you can jump).
Note: many people find that negative reps are a game-changer for getting their first pull-up because it focuses on the eccentric contraction, which is where most strength gains are derived from. So, when you can hold both a flexed-arm hang and a deadhang, and can lower yourself down slowly under control, you are very close to getting your first pull-up.
Step 4 - Assisted Pull-ups (3-5 reps w/ minimal assistance)
Perform full pull-ups or chin-ups (which many people find easier) with some form of assistance. You can either have a partner support some of your weight, perform a slight jump, support some of your weight with a bench or step, or use a resistance band to support some of your weight.
Note: a common mistake is using too much assistance. Practice the previous steps diligently until you only require a little bit of assistance to complete full pull-ups.
Step 5 - Pull-ups or Chin-ups (1st rep)
See the video below to maximize your chances of getting your first unassisted pull-up or chin-up as soon as possible.
While you're working through these pull-up progressions, keep in mind that the goal is to practice the hardest pull-ups exercise that you can perform with proper technique. So, keep pushing yourself right to your edge, and no further, for optimal results. Also, if you struggle with a certain section of the exercise like getting out of the bottom position or getting your chin over the bar at the top, you can focus on that area a little more in your training.
3) Put your whole body into it (even your legs).
I've witnessed several people instantly increase their pull-ups strength by making a slight change to their technique. The reason is because when they finally learn how to integrate the proper posture, structure, and alignment into the movement, they start to draw on their whole body's strength instead of trying to isolate certain muscle groups.
You need to know what to do with not only your back and bicep muscles, but also your fingers, wrists, elbows, shoulders, neck, core, glutes, and yes, even your legs.
So, instead of thinking of pull-ups as a "back and biceps" exercise, think of it as a full body exercise (because it is!). And when you learn how to recruit your whole body into the movement, you'll find it much easier to get your chin over the bar rep after rep.
Here are some of the key points for proper pull-up form that a lot of people miss:
- Keep your wrists neutral (i.e. straight) when hanging from the bar.
- Wrap your thumb around the same side of the bar as your other fingers.
- When pulling, keep your elbows in tight toward your sides.
- When pulling, keep your shoulders packed down (i.e. stabilized on your torso).
- Exhale forcefully upon initiating the pull, contracting your entire core. "Tighter is lighter," as the saying goes.
- Keep your spine as close to neutral as possible throughout the full range of motion (i.e. no back arching or neck straining).
- Squeeze your glutes and thighs for additional power generation.
You can watch my video below for a detailed breakdown of optimal pull-up form. Most people find pull-ups to be a lot easier after they make some of these subtle changes to their technique.
I guarantee you'll learn something new from this tutorial - even if you've been doing pull-ups for years.
There are many ways to get better at pull-ups, and they all have a couple things in common: smart training and hard work.
When you put those into action with the three strategies outlined in this article, you'll start seeing improvements within a week or two - maybe even sooner. And you'll be amazed at what you can accomplish after a couple of months.
So, if YOU would like to rapidly increase your pull-ups in the next few weeks and months, put some of these ideas into action, and be sure to get started on a good program ASAP.
Want to do More Pull-ups?
John Sifferman is a health-first fitness coach and the author of The Pull-up Solution: The Complete Pull-up and Chin-up Training System, which helps people rapidly increase their pull-up numbers in three months or less. using a unique twist on pull-up training. You can learn how John dramatically improved his pull-ups performance, and has helped thousands of people do the same, at his website www.ThePullupSolution.com
About the Author
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