Pull-ups, push-ups, chest press, and deadlifts. These are the exercises we have seen portrayed countless times in classic films when the tough guy is getting in shape for his big fight or a new military career. Although the world of strength training has grown far more complex in more recent years with technological advances and growing interest, these classic exercises are still an important piece of any great strength training routine. There is a reason why the United States Marine Corps continues to use the pull-up as a part of their test for overall strength in recruits.
The pull up has been traditionally used not only to measure strength, but also to build upper body strength. It is a very effective way to target several muscle groups at once, including the back muscles, biceps, shoulders, forearms, and core. Have you ever wondered how to get better at pull ups? Whether you're an amateur athlete working on mastering one full unassisted pull up, or an intermediate looking to increase the number of pull ups you can perform, using the strength you have wisely can help you see results quickly.
What is a pull-up?
A pull-up uses an overhand grip slightly wider than your shoulders on an overhead bar. Start with your feet off of the ground and support your bodyweight with your arms. Using your back, shoulders, and biceps you lift yourself up until your chin is fully above the bar. You then lower your body back down to the starting point.
How many pull ups should I be able to do?
The numbers differ between men and women when it comes to our ability to perform pull-ups.
The average man should be able to do at least 8 body-weight pull ups. To be considered fit and strong, a man needs to be able to complete at least 13-17 repetitions.
For the average woman, the numbers are typically much lower. The average woman should be able to do perform 1-3 pull ups, and a fit and strong woman should be performing around 5-9, full bodyweight pull-ups.
If your numbers aren't on par with the average person at your fitness level, not to worry! No matter where you are starting from, we have you covered with some tried and true methods to help you improve your pull-ups with ease.
What if I can’t even do one pull up?
If you have ever tried to do a pull up and failed, you know it can be a pretty frustrating and discouraging experience. There is a great way to work around this issue and build the strength required to perform the exercise: the assisted pull-up.
The assisted pull up helps you if you are unable to lift your whole bodyweight. By partially supporting your weight elsewhere, you can perform a proper pull-up. An assisted pull-up can be done in a few different ways, depending on the type of equipment you have available to you.
Resistance band assisted pull-Up
If you have a pull-up bar at your gym, you can use a resistance band to help take some of the weight off of your muscles. Wrap the resistance band around the hand grips, and leave the loop hanging from the handles. It can be helpful to have a step nearby, as you can use it to step up and place one, or both of your feet in the other end of the band.
Try starting with the strongest band you have available, as it will support your weight the most and lighten the load you need to lift. Once doing 10 full pull-ups at this level is easy, switch to the next strongest band. This will help to increase your strength slowly, while still doing the most important thing - performing your exercise with proper form.
Assisted Pull-Up Machine
Your gym may have one of these machines that help to make pull-ups as easy or as difficult as you’d like. You can set the amount of weight that the machine helps support, and adjust to the lower levels as you become stronger.
How do I increase the number of pull ups I can do?
Once you’ve graduated from performing assisted pull-ups to full bodyweight pull-ups, you will likely still be struggling to perform more than a few while supporting your entire bodyweight. If you’re pulling between 1 to 3 repetitions with moderate difficulty, you can do some negative training and hanging to increase your strength.
To get started with hanging, get yourself into the beginning position of a pull up. From there, it's quite simple - hang from the bar as long as possible. This helps to build both grip and muscle strength.
For negative training, get a stool/step and bring it under the pull up bar. You may want to leave it slightly behind the bar so that you can reach the bar easily initially, but it won’t get in your way while you perform your exercise.
Stand on the step, and grab the bar as you would if you were performing a full pull-up. Shift your weight into your arms and keep your chin above the bar, as it would be in the top of a pull up. Instead of lifting yourself, you will practice supporting and lowering yourself until you’re at the starting point for a regular pull-up.
Step back up on your stool, and start at the top again. Lower as slowly as you can without losing good form to continue to build up your back strength.
How can I continue to increase my pull-ups, now that I have mastered five of them?
Congratulations! You’ve mastered at least five pull-ups with decent form. Now you’re wondering how to improve your strength and see some big pull up progression.
1. First, you need to determine the number of repetitions you can currently do in one maxed out set. A maxed out set is the number of repetitions you can do at one time, repeating until your muscles fail. Again, only count the full repetitions. Sloppiness leads to injury and you want to have an accurate starting point, not ‘fudged’ numbers.
2. Now that you have determined your total reps in a maxed out set, it is time to do some simple math. You want to select a number of repetitions for your set based on 20% of your max number. Multiply your maxed out reps by 20%, or divide by 5 and add that to you maxed out number to find the number of reps you should be aiming to hit in each set.
For example, if you can perform 10-12 repetitions in a maxed out set…
10 reps in a maxed set x 20% or 10/5 = 2 repetitions
12 reps in a maxed set x 20% or 12/5 = 2.4 repetitions
Obviously you cannot perform partial repetitions, so if you’re in between two different numbers round up or down depending on your abilities.
3. Perform 15-20 sets. You want to rest as little as possible between each set. Stop the exercise when your technique starts to decline, or when you reach 20 sets.
4. If you reach 20 sets consistently, it’s time to go back to step one. Find your new number of repetitions in a maxed-out set, and keep building strength!
With pull-ups is the results are evident - the numbers don't lie and with every pull-up you add on to your routine you'll feel a huge feeling of accomplishment. You can easily see the strength gains in your pull up muscles that you are making with every repetition you can add on to your maxed out set.
What other ways can you increase your pull-up maximum?
Using pull ups to increase the total number you can do is a quick and effective method. On top of that, there are several other ways to make the process go even faster:
Train the relevant muscle groups. As we mentioned, the pull-up muscles we use are varied. A good strength training routine will help you to get to your goals faster. Train these muscle groups regularly using several other exercises, such as:
- Lat pull downs – good for latissimus dorsi, biceps, forearm muscles
- Planks – work primarily your abdominals (core), but also your glutes and shoulders
- Rows – great for your back and lat muscles, and arms/forearms
- Bicep Curls – for bicep and forearm strength
- Deadlifts – good to build strength in your trapezius muscles
Train Regularly. As with all other exercises, consistency is the key to building and keeping your strength. You should be working each muscle group at least a few times a week, with adequate rest (48 hours) for full muscle recovery.
Build Your Grip Strength. The pull up requires a lot of strength in your hands and wrists. Weak wrists or hands can mean you won't hit your goal, no matter how strong your muscles are. You can build grip strength by performing exercises with proper form while holding dumbbells/bars, such as the bar hang. You can also find tools specifically meant to build up your strength and squeeze them in between workouts. They are nice to use while watching tv or hanging out at home. Stretching your hands and wrists regularly also helps to keep your grip strong.
Reduce Your Body Fat. If you're already pretty lean, skip this one. A reduced-calorie diet and regular exercise can help to drop any extra body fat laying around. By reducing your overall bodyweight, you will make your job that much easier - the lighter the load, the easier it is to lift!
What other benefits can I see from increasing my pull ups?
We've already mentioned the increased muscle and grip strength you will experience from improving your pull-ups. You will also :
Maintain a healthy mind. Exercising and weight lifting help to release endorphins and other neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin. Both of these chemicals help to improve and regulate overall mood.
Improve posture. Building spinal and back muscles are central to your body's ability to easily keep itself standing up straight. Pull-up training, and the strengthened back that comes along with it will work to improve your posture and keep your body in good health as it ages.
Improve your strength in other exercises. The pull-up strengthens several muscles at once, all of which should help you to perform better in other exercises that use the related muscle groups.
Work out more efficiently. We all want our bodies to be physically fit, but in today's world we don't always have the time to spend hours at the gym every day. The more total body movements you perform, the less exercises you will need to get in a full workout. This can save you a ton of time over the long run. In 30 minutes, you can easily hit every major muscle group with the help of exercises like the pull-up and other exercises that hit multiple big muscle groups at once.