Pull-​​ups: Want to do More – But Man They are Hard!

The Pull-​​up is the great equalizer when it comes to hard exercises to master. Questions from how to do more, how to do any, how to ace pull-​​up fitness tests come in all the time. Over the years, we have created and used many workouts (like the ones below) to improve pull-​​ups, but one of the first elements you should consider before doing pull-​​ups is: How much do you weigh?

I had an email the other day from a 30 year old man who is 270 lbs and can do 9–10 pull-​​ups. Naturally, I am impressed because when I put on a 60-​​70lb vest or back pack and try to do pull-​​ups (I weigh 200lbs), I cannot perform but 1–2 pull-​​ups and I can do 25+ NO KIP pull-​​ups on my best day. But, he is not happy with that performance and asks,

“Stew, I can do 9–10 pull-​​ups, but the second set drops to 4–5, and the third set drops to 2–3. Do you have any recommendations to build up my overall numbers as well as my workout sets?”

First of all, most people who weigh 270lbs cannot do any pull-​​ups. If you think about it the pull-​​up (and the dip) is the heavy weight lifting exercise of the calisthenics category. To complete a rep, you have to move your entire bodyweight with your arms /​ back muscles up and down over a bar. In my experience, there are three steps to building more pull-​​ups:

Build a Foundation: The more you weigh, the harder this exercise is. If any of your present bodyweight is fat that you would like to lose anyway, then start on a path of weight loss through moderate eating and cardio training to lose some of that extra weight. Also work the muscles of the pull-​​up: grip of the hand /​ forearm, biceps, rear deltoids, and lats (latissimus dorsi) after you have burned out from your pull-​​up workouts. This will help you fully develop all the muscles in primary and supplemental workouts to better your ability to do pull-​​ups. If you cannot do ANY pull-​​ups, then start off with pull-​​downs on a lat machine, try assisted pull-​​ups on a Gravitron machine, or have your workout partner spot you and lift you over the bar. Once over the bar, hold the flexed arm hang for 5–10 seconds then slowly let yourself down to a 5 second count. The more you control your weight on the DOWN, the quicker you will be able to perform an UP pull-​​up on your own.

Sample Workout for Foundation Building:
Repeat 3–4 times (every other day)
Pull-​​ups – max or pull-​​downs 10–15 reps (moderate /​ heavy weight)
Bicep curls – 10–20 reps
Dumbbells Rows – 10–20 reps
rest with cardio or abs of choice for 2 minutes

Build Upon the Foundation: Once you can get to the level of strength that you can perform a pull-​​up and your goal is to get more reps (20+), it is now time to turn the pull-​​up workout into an endurance and muscle stamina workout by doing multiple sets and build up to a failure point. One of the best ways to do this is to do a pyramid workout. This is a simple workout to create but difficult as you will be able to get a warm-​​up, max out, and a cool-​​down all rolled into a great workout:

Each level gets more difficult that the previous set. Start off with 1 pull-​​up. I like to add in other exercises to balance out the workout and provide a good opposite muscle group rest. Pushups, dips, and/​or sit-​​ups make a great addition to the pyramid set. So the first set would look like this: 1 pull-​​up, 2 pushups, 5 sit-​​ups. With NO rest, go to level 2 of the pyramid and do: 2 pull-​​ups, 4 pushups, 10 sit-​​ups. Continue to level 3: 3 pull-​​ups, 6 pushups, 15 sit-​​ups or abs of choice. The goal is to go until you fail at pull-​​ups, THEN repeat in reverse order until you get back to level 1.

The pyramid does a nice job of getting you to the next level of pull-​​ups – usually in the 15–20 range. Next Level of Pull-​​ups: If your goal is to get well above the 15 rep mark, then you need to change up the workouts a little more and start hitting failure zones more often in your workouts. For this I like to fail on multiple sets of sub-​​max reps. This means I do a super set of several exercises in circuit form but do 8–10 sets of all sub-​​max effort reps. For instance, If I can do 15 pull-​​ups, 60 pushups, 60 sit-​​ups, I recommend trying the following super set workout:

Repeat 8–10 times (try this workout 1–2 times a week)

Pull-​​ups 10 reps
Pushups – 25 reps
Sit-​​ups – 25 reps
Run or bike for 1–2 minutes for an active recovery

Another harder type of workout is to fail at every set. This one requires max effort every set, but I only recommend doing this one 1 time a week in conjunction with a pyramid or super set workout for the other two upper-​​body workouts of the week:

Max OUT Workout: Repeat in circuit fashion until you reach the following numbers:

100 pull-​​up, 200 pushups– 300 abs of choice: So set 1 would be pull-​​ups until failure, drop to do pushups until failure for 1–2 minutes, then roll over and do sit-​​ups for 1–2 minutes (depending on your timed PT test). For additional challenge add in a ¼ mile run at your goal 1.5 or 2, or 3 mile run timed run pace to help with muscle memory of the timed run pace required to get your goal time.

*Note – most special ops candidates I work with can do this workout in 4–5 sets. Some have even done the 100,200,300 in 3 sets!

Another one of my favorite pull-​​up workouts I like to do is the 8 count bodybuilder pushup and pull-​​up pyramid. This is a great way to simulate an obstacle course when you do not have one to train on:

Start 20-​​30m away from a pull-​​up bar. Drop and one 8 count bodybuilder pushup or pushup burpee – then get up and run to the pull-​​up bar and do 1 pull-​​up. Run back to starting area and do TWO 8 count pushups/​burpees, get up and run to pull-​​up bar and do 2 pull-​​ups. Continue up the pyramid until you fail at pull-​​ups, then repeat in reverse order. This one is hardcore even for people who can do 20+ pull-​​ups, but it is a great way to work the entire body with a workout designed to make your pull-​​ups better.

As you can see at first it takes strength to be able to do a pull-​​up. Once you have the initial strength to do one pull-​​up, it becomes an endurance exercise to be able to perform multiple reps and multiple sets without fail. I hope you grow to enjoy pull-​​ups as they are an essential part of staying in great shape.

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Stew Smith

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. If you are interested in starting a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle - check out the Stew Smith article archive at Military.com. To contact Stew with your comments and questions, e-mail him at stew@stewsmith.com.

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