“Around 120 kilo’s,” he claimed as he took a sip of beer. “Maybe more.”
“Oh yeah, nice. I’m at 140kg, but it’s been a while,” came the reply.
This conversation is had by thousands of men worldwide every single day around BBQ’s and water coolers. They’re discussing their bench press. The supposed king of upper body exercises.
Whilst a big bench is impressive and worth boasting about, something impresses me even more in the gym:
A perfect pull up.
I’m still waiting for the day I’m asked, “what’s your pull up strength like?” instead of, “waddya bench.”
In over a decade as a trainer, I’ve never heard it asked. But I’m hopeful the tide is turning. One of these days, I’ll be asked how many strict pull ups I can do.
And so optimistically I’m aiming to get as strong on as I can.
When it comes to the big lifts, pull ups are right up there with the best. Sure, a pull up is nothing new or fancy. It’s one of the basics. However occasionally it helps to revisit the basics and look at the technique involved. Often the most used exercises are the ones performed the worst.
Case in point with the pull up.
Everyone wants to perform perfect pull ups, but to see them done correctly is about as rare as rocking horse poo.
So the question is: why even worry about pull ups?
Firstly, they’re a terrific upper body pulling exercise, and they’re very challenging for the core. Along with the deadlift, they will build a big, strong back. They also give a very clear indication of your relative strength, which is a fancy name given to how strong you are relative to your body weight.
Relative strength carries over to most activities, and will improve your performance in sport. Other than that, relative strength will also improve how you look.
For men, having a V-shape torso is a sign of a well-built physique and will help you fill out a tuxedo jacket or shirt. For women, you will develop a toned, sexy back that you can show off during the summer.
Most people laugh when I explain how to perform a pull up or a chin up. As the name suggests, it’s simple: you just pull your chin over the bar, right?
It’s not quite as simple as that… Eric Cressey argues that the exercise should really be called a ‘chest up.’ What he means is that the chin should be clearing the bar easily, and the angle of the torso needs to change so that the scapulae can retract.
So how do you perform them well? And then, how can you increase the amount of reps you can do?
The goal of this article is to describe what you need to know about the exercise, and then how to get better at them. Much better.
In terms of setting strength targets, let’s hear from some of the industry’s best:
Charles Poliquin claims anybody in the weight room should be able to perform at least 12 strict pull-ups.
Mike Roberston chimes in and suggests he would like to see men perform sets of eight to ten reps.
In the past decade working in commercial gyms, I can count the athletes I’ve seen perform 10 correct pull-ups on one hand.
“But I do lat pulldowns instead”
What about lat pulldowns? Aren’t they just as good? To put it bluntly, no.
Not even close. A correct chin up requires getting your chest to the bar and depressing your scapulae at the top. If you can’t do that then you’re not ready to be performing multiple reps.
If that’s the case, the lat pulldown can help bridge the gap. But even then, the reps need to be performed correctly. Far too often males load far too much weight, and the bar barely moves a few inches.
Nothing But Air
To practice the correct form, all you need is your body weight. Note: you may wish to do this indoors, so you don’t look like a complete weirdo.
Try this: Sit up straight, with your spine lengthened. Now imagine you’re grabbing the bar using the same width you would for a lat pulldown, so your hands are slightly outside shoulder width. Now pull your shoulder blades down and together as you bring the imaginary lat pulldown bar to your pecs.
Feel that? You should feel as though your chest is lifting out to meet the bar. If you’re not feeling that in your lats and shoulders, you’re not quite pulling the bar right,
Master that movement and then it’s time to move on to…
The Perfect Chin-Up
Just so we’re on the same page, the difference between a chin up and a pull up is the grip. The chin up is performed supinated, and the pull up is performed pronated.
The chin up provides the perfect progression into the pull up. Both exercises work the lats and shoulders, and heavily involve the arms. One of the most beneficial exercises I’ve learned from Keegan in his home gym is the static hold chin up. Try to hold for multiple sets of 20-seconds. This is a great exercise to recruit the lower-traps and to ward off potential future shoulder issues.
Here are some example videos of strict, no-kipping pull ups.
Strict Chin Up
Strict Pull Up
Here are the top 9 ways to improve your pull ups:
1. Lose Fat
Having any additional weight is going to make an already difficult exercise even harder. Plus, it’s unsightly and unhealthy.
So get your diet dialed in. Women should aim for <15% body fat and men should be <12%.
2. Stop using bands
Bands and lat pull down machines are not recommended. Despite their popularity soaring for people attempting their first pull-up, I want you to steer clear.
According to Ben Thompson, RealMOVEMENT Mentorship member and owner of Movement Enhanced, “there is a big difference between pulling your body weight on a machine vs pulling your body weight over the bar. Bands modify the strength curve, which can lead to weak and under developed scapular retractors.”
3. Train more frequently
Instead of only training pull-ups on “back day”, train them more frequently and grease the groove daily. Try incorporating 3-5 sets in each workout. They don’t have to be done consecutively. You could add one set at the start, two sets in the middle and a final set at the end.
Another popular method is to perform one perfect rep every time you walk past the chin up bar. If you work in a commercial gym or have a home gym set up, this could be dozens or reps each day.
4. Don’t Always go To Failure
Going to failure too often on pull-ups can burn out your CNS, and impede recovery. If your maximum with good technique is 8 reps, for example, stop all sets after just 4 reps.
This will allow for perfect form, and allow you to perform more overall sets during a workout.
5. Start in the Proper Position
All too often people start in the dead hang position with their scapula elevated, and their shoulders up touching their ears. This is not optimal. When you do this all of the tension is placed on your tendons and ligaments instead of your muscles.
When you get on the bar you want to pull your shoulder blades down and lock your shoulders into their sockets. This position ensures that the stress will be placed directly on the muscles and not the tendons.
6. Drive Your Elbows Down
To get the most out of your lats when you perform pull-ups you should think about driving your elbows down and back as hard as you can.
Don’t simply “pull” with your biceps; imagine your elbows pointing to the floor.
7. Use a Variety of Grips
Once you are making progress, it’s great to mix up the grip. You can do reps with your palms facing you at varying widths. You can also do chin ups with your palms facing each other, or pull ups with your palms facing away at multiple grip widths. Then you can add in bars, rings, off-set grips, ropes, towels, suspension straps, beams, and even baseballs hanging from a chain.
The variations are endless. Use as many different pull up variations as possible to avoid burnout or overuse injuries.
8. Use a Variety of Rep Ranges
To do a lot of pull ups you need both strength and you need endurance.
One way to do this is to perform both high-rep and low-rep sets. Low reps can be performed with weighted vests, or you can simply increase the difficulty by using slow tempo or pauses.
Endurance is built with high reps, and this is where other upper back exercises like ring rows will help.
9. Strengthen Your Grip
A stronger grip will mean less fatigue. My favorite way to improve the grip is via farmer’s carries, deadlifts, Fat Gripz, and rack pulls. You can also use direct forearm training, such as pinching and wrist curls.
Real Movement Training Plan
We’ve enlisted the help of Real Movement coach and owner of Crossfit Mandurah, Sam Beechey, to put together a 6-week training plan for you.
Sam recommends you follow the plan for 6-weeks, and then re test your maximum effort.
And he should know… Here’s footage of Sam performing pull ups with an additional 35KG.
How strong is strong enough? A question most athletes will ask themselves on a regular basis. In my option there is no such thing, as long as balance through movement is taken into account. Keeping in mind chasing one thing on an endless journey will only decrease your capabilities in the long term. It’s important to remember if you become stagnant through one aspect of your life the rest will follow suit soon enough. I’m not at my best with my pull ups but I’m chasing to get back there soon enough. @Prime_SC @CrossFitMandurah @RealMOVEMENTProject #Prime_SC #CrossFitMandurah #RealMOVEMNTProject #iChooseMOVEMENT
Day 1 – Test max unbroken reps, any pause longer than 1 second at bottom would be a missed rep.
Rest 5 Min
5 Min DenseSTRENGTH (Start a new set each minute aiming to perform 60% each set)
At 35 % of max reps
Day 2 Build to a heavy 3 rep weighted Pull Up
Rest 3 mins
DenseSTRENGTH15 (3 reps starting a new set every 60 seconds for 5 min)
Pull Ups at Tempo 41×3
Day 3 – 5×10 Scap Pull
5×10 Ring Rows (make these hard)
Day 1 – DenseSTRENGTH5 – 10 seconds pause chin over bar
Rest 3 mins
DenseSTRENGTH (40% of max for 5 sets, start each set on 60 seconds from initial test)
Day 2 – Double DenseSTRENGTH5 Blocks (10 minutes total work)
1 Weighted Pull Up, moderate weight, no slow sloppy reps
Day 3 – 5 Mins Max Pull Ups Total
Day 1 – DenseSTRENGTH 45 % reps of max
Rest 3 mins
DenseSTRENGTH10 – Weighted Pull Ups (Same weight as used last week)
Day 2 – Bent Over Row, work to 8 RM
Day 3 – Pull Up Ladder, EMOM increase by one rep. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and so forth until failure.
Day 1 – DenseSTRENGTH35% 3 second pause on each rep, change pause height each set.
Day 2 – Dumbbell Single Arm Row, work to a 5 RM each side
Day 3 – 10 Sets for Quality, 3 Pull Ups + 8 Ring Rows (moderate difficulty)
Day 1 – DenseSTRENGTH 50% of max reps.
Day 2 – 3 x 3 Weight Pull Ups holding weight
5 x 1 Building from above weight
Day 3 – DenseSTRENGTH Double Block alternating arms each min, 6 Single Arm Ring Rows (10 min work)
Day 1 – DenseSTRENGTH60%
Day 2 – Work to a heavy 8 rep Bench Pull (Raise bench on plates if not available)
Day 3- 3 Sets 1 min Max Pull Ups, rest 90 second
*NOTE – Ideal % intensity will be higher for those achieving less total reps. You will have you round off your percentages. If you drop a tonne of fat and add some WINGS then you might also be able to use higher percentages. A good way to add intensity if the block was easy is to go for maximum reps on the last set. This isn’t necessary if completing the block was a struggle.
It’s time to spend more time above the bar. If you’re not, then you’re missing out on one of the best strength-building exercises there is. Not to mention the chance to view the decade old dust at the top of the power rack. Build your pull up strength over time, and watch your strength and physique reach new levels.
For those who wish to go from single to double digits, try the six-week program. For those who want to go beyond ten reps, try the other techniques mentioned.
While you try them out, let us know here at RealMOVEMENT what other exercises, techniques and essential gym knowledge you’d like us to cover in this series.