How To Get Better At Pull-Ups

by Al Kavadlo on March 29, 2016

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Al Kavadlo Pull Up

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 PCC candidates, the pull-up is the most difficult and intimidating part of the Century Test. Its placement at the end of the 100 rep sequence only adds to the challenge, but this is no accident. If you want to be a PCC instructor, you must be able to perform 10 proper pull-ups even when you are fatigued.

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. I’ll share a few ideas with you below, but before we move on, let’s be clear about how the PCC defines a proper pull-up:

  • The classic overhand grip is encouraged, though the underhand or “chin-up” grip is allowed during Century testing.
  • The shoulders may be relaxed at the bottom of the rep when the elbows are fully extended, but the scapulae should retract and depress as the rep begins.
  • The chin must fully clear the bar at the top, and a full extension of the elbows is required at the bottom. The body must also remain relatively straight throughout, with minimal hip or knee flexion.
  • Though you obviously have to lean back a bit to avoid hitting your head on the bar at the top of your pull-up, your torso should not travel very far forward or backward.

Tighten Up
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.

Hang On
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.

Al Kavadlo Pull Up

Pull-Up Pyramid
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.

Pull-up Superset
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.

Al Kavadlo Pull Up

***

Al Kavadlo is the lead instructor for Dragon Door’s Progressive Calisthenics Certification. Recognized worldwide for his amazing bodyweight feats of strength as well as his unique coaching style, Al is the author of five books, including Raising The Bar: The Definitive Guide to Pull-up Bar Calisthenics and Pushing The Limits! Total Body Strength With No Equipment. Read more about Al on his website:www.AlKavadlo.com.

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  • Great piece Al.

    Snap – it’s my favourite exercise as well, although at times it’s a love hate relationship!

    I find Pavel’s Grease the Groove tactics useful as well for technique development but have to fight to urge to push too hard on practice sets.

    • Thanks, Carl! I agree that “greasing the groove” is also a worthwhile technique. There are many paths to strength. 🙂

  • Akwesi

    Pushing near 60 I am wondering the continuous worth of having to push to my prior years of specific 8,10 or more reps, maybe just being satisfy with several sets of even lower reps, yet still working on holds. Oh, great beard.

    • Sounds like a good plan. Glad you like my beard!

  • Great tips! I’ve been working on pull-ups almost constantly for a good 7 years or more, but there is ALWAYS room for improvement and MORE REPS!!!! Thanks for the ideas! 🙂

  • Patrick O’Donnell

    I’m really enjoying this series of articles from Al on the PCC basics (squats, pushups, knee raises, and now pull-ups). Great timing for me because I’m coming back from a case of golfer’s elbow that kept me from doing pushups and pull-ups for a few months. I’m down to about 6 good reps of pull-ups. I look forward to putting these tips into action to build back up to double digits. Thanks for the guidance! Time to apply it.

    • Glad you enjoyed this recent informal 4-part series on the Century exercises. Hope to see you at a PCC someday!

  • Matt Schifferle

    Lov’n those shades there Al. Totally mad scientist.
    I used to struggle with pull ups a lot more until I spent more time hanging from a bar. Just getting comfortable hanging was a big breakthrough for me. Now I’m gonna try that pause method, sounds like fun!

    • Thanks, Matt! I’m the Mad Scientist of Pull-ups!

  • Swiss_Olympic

    Last year, I was fed up with not being able to do many pull-ups. I was doing 3, maybe 4 on a good day. So around March or so, I took it upon me to increase my pull-up max.

    I followed a similar strategy to the one you outlined here. Did as many pull-ups as I could, dropped down, took a quick breath, flipped my grip, and did chin-ups to failure. (Usually one, occasionally two). I was able to add one rep every two weeks, and my back blew up.

    I didn’t do pull-ups for a while after that, and sadly my capacity diminished. Now I’m back to 10, and ready to set a new PB this Saturday.

    • Glad you’re back at it! We’re Working Out!

  • FattyWhale

    My favorite technique for increasing reps for Pull/Chin-ups (or any other exercise) is: Perform 2 clean reps (your rep speed shouldn’t drop-off any between the first and second repetition) with a weight that is as heavy as possible, followed immediately by as many non-weighted reps as you can, as fast as you can (before your repetition speed drops-off).

    The large contrast between the two, makes the latter feel so much easier than it normally would — I actually feel like I’m ‘floating’ up to the bar! xD And all my personal bests (weight lifted, AND repetitions) have been achieved using this technique.

    • Thanks for sharing! There are so many ways to train pull-ups!

    • Dan Almasan

      Great advice. I got to the same point by doing RPT style (leangains) training. Short warm up, and 2 working sets 1st 3-5 reps, 2nd set add 1-2 reps with 10-20% less weight. For volume I do a 3rd set only with bodyweight, same feeling of “flying”.However I am not sure if the 3rd set really produces any sort of adaptation. Once I completed 5 r
      eps BW+40kg, does it really matter if I knockout a set if 10-14 with BW only?

  • Paul Vrana

    Thanks for the article, Al. One question – why is it wrong to bend the knees (I’ve noticed many like to cross their legs)?

    • I wouldn’t say it’s “wrong” to bend your knees, just that it’s better to keep your legs straight. Straight legs are more conducive to creating total body tension and allow for better core activation.

      • Paul Vrana

        Thanks Al. I just got “Raising the Bar” & Danny’s “Strength Rules” (already had “Pushing the Limits, but of course that doesn’t go into pull-ups ;-p)

  • Brad Sadl

    Excellent article! I’m in the middle of a 6 month cycle to increase my pulling strength. Definitely gonna use some of these ideas 🙂

  • John

    Awesome, I’m 53 and I do 14 – 15 max pull-ups, I then follow with a set of 10 pull-ups every morning. I also mix it up with 34 Chair pushups, 70 Crunch-reverse crunches and some lighter high rep weight training (20 Military presses and 20 Barbell Curls). I love your articles.

  • Mattias Östergren

    Hey Al

    I bought your book ‘Raising the Bar’ to reward myself when I progressed to pull-ups. That was scilly because there are some pretty useful tips on preliminary exercises that would have been useful in my training up to that point as well.

    Anyway I’ve found that there are soooo many nuances to pull-ups through this book and in my own training. Grip, hand placement, technique at the bottom, elbow ‘path’ etc. at the top to name a few.

    I would love to read really nerdy in-depth articles on such sub-topics of pull-up training.

    Keep up the good work!

    • Thanks, Mattias! I’m so glad that Raising The Bar was helpful for you. I will keep your suggestion in mind for a future blog post.

  • I did my first pull up at 18. 24 years have passed & I wouldn’t claim to be any good at them yet, but I’m improving slowly. Overhand grip has never suited me, so underhand mostly. I lived on a farm for a few years & got kicked on the wrist by a cow. I get some problems from that occassionally. The last few years I’ve switched to angled (palms inwards) & rings as that doesn’t affect the wrist as much. So many variations, possibilities. There are many yet to be discovered.

    For a few years I used to use a set of fire escape steps for pull ups opposite my house. The vertical metal tread guard was about quarter of an inch thick so I used to have to wear welding gloves to protect my fingers. Other days I used tree branches in the woods. Scaffold tubing, anything at the right height. I’ve never worried too much if I couldn’t get a full range – some days are tougher days – & I have the philosophy that “every one is better than none.”

    Was in the park yesterday doing some basic movements. A young chap was doing push up burpees into back flips, plyometric pull ups onto successively higher bars & some flag attempts. He was a delight to watch, we got talking after he finished – his name was Echo & he was very impressive. Later I watched some gymnasts doing forward rolls into handstands, running back flips & other tricks. I never get tired of watching others do such moves. I never get bored of my basic exercises.

    It was a good day to reflect. Sun shining, blue skies: summer is coming. The cold steel bars will soon be warm to the touch. In just over a week I’ll be travelling to London to meet Al & the team at the PCC. I know it will widen my perspective & I’m looking forward to learning some new movements & refine some of the old habits.

    Life is good.

    • Sounds like a great day, Dan! I’ll see you soon!

  • Raff Hindustani

    hey Al! what do you think about one legged sissy squat and drinking bird squat on toe (putting your knee on the floor on the end of negative)?

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