Pull-ups are my favorite exercise. I started practicing them at age 13 and throughout my lifetime I’ve pulled my chin over a horizontal bar more times than I can count. That’s probably why I’m good at them.
But that’s not the case for everyone. In fact, for many people the pull-up is a difficult and intimidating exercise.
While there are no secrets or shortcuts in the world of calisthenics, if you feel like you’ve plateaued on pull-ups, there are certain techniques and training methods that may help you blast through those barriers and take your pull-up game to new heights
One of the biggest mistakes people make when performing pull-ups is thinking of the movement purely as an arms exercise. Of course you involve your arms to a great degree when performing any type of pull-up, but the muscles of your back, shoulders, chest, abs and more all play their part. As such, it can help to focus on maintaining tension throughout your entire body as you pull your chin over the bar. Grip tightly with your hands, tense your abs, squeeze your glutes and flex your quads as your drive your elbows toward your hips to fully utilize your lats during the pull. Focus on maintaining total body tension during the descent as well in order to avoid picking up unwanted momentum.
The “rest/pause method” is an old-school technique to increase your reps on just about any exercise, and it can be especially useful for pull-ups, particularly once you can do several in a row. After a brief warm-up, simply do as many proper pull-ups as you can, then continue to hang on the bar for a few seconds. After you catch your breath, try to squeeze out one more pull-up, then hang on for a bit longer, take a few more breaths, and try for one more. You might be surprised at how many extra reps you can manage this way, plus you will get additional grip work from all the extra hanging.
Implementing a pyramid protocol is a fun way to incorporate a fairly high volume of pull-ups without sacrificing proper technique. The idea is to gradually increase, and then gradually decrease the amount of reps you perform in each of several consecutive sets.
Begin by doing one pull-up, then come off the bar and take a short break. Next, perform two pull-ups, then after another break, do three. As the sets get longer, the breaks between them should get longer, too. Continue this pattern until you reach the point where you can no longer add another rep with proper form, then start working your way back down.
A superset involves taking two exercises and performing them back-to-back with little to no rest in between. Typically the harder exercise goes first and when fatigue is reached, you switch to the less difficult exercise.
A great way to apply this concept toward improving your pull-ups is to perform a set of Australian pull-ups (aka bodyweight rows) immediately following a set of standard pull-ups. Take a long break, then repeat the superset again.
This method allows you to continue to work your pulling muscles once you can no longer perform any more pull-ups. You can do this 3-4 times in a single workout, but you’ll probably want to give your upper-body a day or two of rest afterward.
Learn To Love It
More than any specific training template or method, consistency and effort will always be the two primary factors that determine success. You have to spend a lot of time doing pull-ups in order to get good at them. There’s no substitute for hard work. Learn to embrace your pull-up practice and in time you may even learn to love doing pull-ups as much as I do.
For more information about pull-ups, pick up a copy of my book, Raising The Bar: The Definitive Guide to Pull-up Bar Calisthenics.