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Developing Your Pull-up Ability, Part 1

September 18, 2008 12:15 PM

As some people know, I have always done pull-ups, I have always enjoyed them, and I don't see enough people doing pull-ups in the gym. I have also been asked many questions about pull-ups and I have also given my two cents regarding pull-ups.

So now I am going to write a quick post (which turned into this article) about pull-ups, the best way to perform them (in my opinion this technique is the best way to perform them because you will not only develop very good pull-up form but this technique will make you so much stronger in pull-ups, meaning you will be able to do more reps or add weight quicker, your back with even pack on muscle easier by increasing the size of you High Threshold Motor Units). I will quickly explain the various tips I have picked up along the way and how to train your pull-ups to reach your goals quicker (now that's real performance).

Now what is a pull-up? Well it's not as dumb a question as you might think. Many people think a pull-up is a where you grab the bar and pull yourself up to the bar. Well a pull-up in an overhand grip (with thumbs around the bar) a tactical pull-up is an overhand grip using only the fingers (a.k.a a thumb less grip). Now some people think a chin-up is a pull-up but it isn't a chin up is an underhand grip with or without thumbs. The other grips I will quickly mention are the towel grip and the v-grip. Towel grip pull-ups are where you drape two towels over a pull-up bar grip onto the really tightly and perform your pull-ups. A v-grip is where you get a v-grip from some type of pulley machine and put that over the bar so you're using a neutral grip and pull your self up to the bar (you will develop the back more if you pull your sternum up to the bar.

Now that we have that part covered I want to talk about where you must pull your body up to. Eye level isn't going to cut it. If your doing chin-ups and pull-ups you need to bring your head over the bar (as Pavel has spoken about, and I am pretty sure its the rule with the Tactical Strength Challenge, make your neck touch the bar that way there can be no arguing if you got that rep or not - this can also be a good way to measure your performance because if you are aiming for 20 reps but only 15 of those reps are where the neck touches the bar you know you will need to aim for more where your neck actually touches the bar). Another way to do pull-ups that requires more strength is the sternum pull-up in which you will have to make your sternum touch the bar in the top position (this will also build your middle back thickness).

Now I have seen a lot of people mention kip/kipping pull-ups. I am not fond of these because I have always seen these as cheating. I note that they can be useful but I feel it detracts from the strength building, having said that I see the kipping pull-up as having more real world applications but if you can do 10 strict tactical pull-ups with 24kgs attached to your body and you find yourself needing to climb through a window I am sure you would be able to kip your self up if need be. For the purpose of strength development and pull-up prowess I would advise to stay away from kip pull-ups but if you want to throw them in do so on an easy day or for your last couple of reps on a really hard day (make a note that you kipped your way up and try and do it better next time).

Since I have spoken about the kipping pull-up I will talk about what I deem to be the ultimate pull-up technique, this technique will help you build up your High Threshold Motor units, not only that but once you get the technique down pat you will improve your pull-ups a lot quicker and it can be used for any type of pull-up or chin-up. So here is the technique:
  • Grab hold of the pull-up bar and make sure your in a dead hang position so your not using any momentum
  • Explosively pull your self up, try and do this as quickly as possible (remember don't kip, you may not go flying up but you have to try because your fast twitch muscle fiber's will work better).
  • Once your at the top position flex all your pulling muscles and control the decent for the first 3/4 of the negative portion of the (you can actively push yourself away from the bar).
  • For the last 1/4 of the negative you need to get yourself into a dead hang (aim to get a slight stretch).
  • Once you have achieved the stretch explode back up as you did in step one and repeat all the steps.

Set/Reps to improve your pull-up greatness:

Well, looking at it in a simple way, they there are heaps of methods that develop your ability to do pull-ups, the way I look at it is as follows:

If your aiming to increase the amount of weight you can use in your pull-ups you may find that treating your weighted pull-ups as a power drill will work very well (like you might train your deadlift with straight sets and various percentages of your 1RM), for example you might train three days a week doing 60%, 80% and 100% on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Do bodyweight ladders trying to add more 'rungs' (reps) to your ladder, because when you are going to be tested in pull-ups you need to be able to do high reps so provided you don't go to all out failure your body will become accustomed to the higher reps. Also feel free to use the GTG method, increasing the reps. I found that for GTG to be really effective you focus on a percentage of your rep max, test it at the beginning of the week and adjust your reps and time between each set everyday (if your doing higher reps sets feel free to increase the rest between sets that day) - this is highly effective and you can find a method similar to this in Pavel's push-up article "Hit the Deck" which is in Beyond Bodybuilding.

If you want to increase your strength in weighted pull-up's, I honestly believe using a 5RM with what I have always called 'power ladders' (I believe that they are known here as pre set ladders - I called them power ladders before Beyond Bodybuilding came out, so that is what I will call them) you do the following: 1 rep, rest a minute. 2 reps, rest a minute then rest a minute, rest a minute and start over. Now repeat the series until you have done 30, rest a day and repeat the next day but add another ladder until you doing a total of 50 reps (as I have stated before, once that anything over 50 reps is a waste of time if you want to get stronger). Now you can feel free to stay at 50 reps and decrease the rest periods if you choose (building up the density will cause more strength and muscle), or you could chose to do 40 reps but always change the variables.

The thing is that these methods are popular because they work and best of all they are simple.

You might even choose to alter all the variables with your power ladder and you might say that you will do 40 reps one week and do it three times a week so you might use a higher reps and a lighter weight and the next week you might decide to do 30 reps which would mean that you would use a heavier weight... just something for you to think about.

Also if you really want to develop your pull-ups you need to work both weighted and bodyweight pull-ups. Also I feel (but can't prove) that you should also vary your grip but still focus on the tactical pull-up style.

One last thing I would like to add is body position regarding the load you're using. I have always done my pull-ups with my knees bent so my legs are behind me and I usually cross my legs over. I also do them with a straight body. Now when you start to use a weight close to 100% of your body weight you will have to change your body position and this is OK. You may find that you may have to move your legs so they are bent forwards (for a better idea of what I am talking about view John Allstadt's article in the article section).

There are many ways to skin a cat; you don't have to do straight sets either as you can decide to alternate your pull-ups/chin-up with some form of pressing, this method is how I train and I find it really helps to relax your puling muscles.

Anyway, that's just a little food for thought. I know this will help you regardless of what your pull-up goal is. If you can't do a single pull-up just wait until the second part of this article comes out. In the second part of this article I will provide a great method that will have you doing pull-ups in no time and I can guarantee that it isn't the common advice most people give out so stay tuned.

Simon Forsyth is a strength enthusiast who has been training for almost 12 years; he was Australia's first certified Kettlebell instructor. Currently Simon is available for online coaching, program design, nutrition and diet advice. You can contact him by email for more details about his services or his up coming strength and muscle development book (50% of the profits will be going to the Motor Neuron Disease association of Australia) at: