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How To Increase Your Pullup Strength

The pullup is perhaps the most useful compound exercise for the back – focusing mainly on the latissimus dorsi muscle (the lats).

Apart from the lats, it also uses the elbow flexors, forearms, shoulders and abs.

It’s easy to see how effective pullups are for building strength and muscle from the number of muscle groups it engages.
Even though it’s the most useful exercise for training the back, it has one major disadvantage – it’s hard to progress in without the right knowledge.
Many people fall into one of two groups:

1. Can't Do A Single Pullup

Those who are new to strength training, quickly realise that the pullup isn’t as easy as it seems. It’s difficult for beginners, either because that person has a high amount of body fat or that person isn’t strong enough (or both of these reasons).

In this case, one must work towards being able to do a single pullup.

If you are overweight, you must lose weight (link) to progress since your weight is too heavy to lift. It’s as simple as that.

If you aren’t overweight, then your best bet would be to start out by doing negative reps (link) i.e. only doing the easier part of the motion. By doing so, you’d be training your muscular and nervous systems to perform part of the movement, and this will help you to do the full pullup when you become better at doing negative reps.

As you get stronger at doing negative reps, eg. you can do 8 negative reps, then you can try doing one full pullup. Once you’re able to do a full pullup, you should do an isometric (LINK) hold at the top of the motion – holding the top position of the movement until you’re too tired to hold – and then lower yourself down.

Keep doing this until you’re able to do multiple reps.

2. Can Do Many Pullups But Can’t Progress Further

This is a common problem in people who have been training for a while, and is a cause of lack of progress. Once you’re able to do multiple reps, it becomes harder to progress and add more reps. Lifting your whole body up is a difficult movement, and doing it repeatedly is exhausting.

And when you become exhausted after doing the first set of pullups, the following sets will suffer. For example, this is how your sets might look like:

Set 1 – 8 reps

Set 2 – 5 reps

Set 3 – 4 reps

Set 4 – 4 reps

To avoid this exhaustion, I recommend doing 5 sets of 5 reps. You MUST do 5 reps on each one of those 5 sets and you can alter your rest time between sets so that you’re able to finish those 5 reps.

So this is how it might look like:

Set 1 – 5 reps – 90 seconds rest

Set 2 – 5 reps – 110 seconds rest

Set 3 – 5 reps – 120 seconds rest

Set 4 – 5 reps – 130 seconds rest

Set 5 – 5 reps – 150 seconds rest

So now that we have the exhaustion part of the pullup is covered, how do you get stronger?

In order to understand how you can progress and become stronger at doing the pullup, without increasing the number of reps, one must understand how one becomes stronger.

Strength and muscle come from a progressive increase in the volume of work your muscles do. This volume of work can be increased by increased the number of reps, sets or weight lifted per rep (WLPR).

The problem here is that you can’t increase the number of reps.

So, to become stronger at doing pullups, you must increase the weight lifted per rep (WLPR). This is somewhat intuitive when it comes to lifting weights eg. for bicep curls – everyone understands that they need to increase the weight they put on the bar as they become stronger.

However, it’s less intuitive for the pullup since it’s seen as a bodyweight exercise.

To increase the WLPR, I recommend attaching weights to a dip belt or placing them in a sturdy bag and wearing that bag when you do pullups.

When you’re starting out with adding weight, you should start light – using 0.5kg/1lb weights and increasing the weight in 0.5kg/1lb increments when you become stronger.

But how do you know when you’re stronger?

If you’re able to do 5 sets of 5 reps at a certain weight, then you should increase the weight you’re lifting.

Now, if you don’t manage to do 5 sets of 5 reps, for example:

Set 1 – 5 reps

Set 2 – 5 reps

Set 3 – 5 reps

Set 4 – 5 reps

Set 5 – 4 reps

If this happens, then you either need to take longer rest between set 4 and set 5 or you need to drop back down to the previous weight you were using.

If you follow this guide, I guarantee that you will become stronger at pullups – and get that coveted big back.

Now go and pull yourself up!

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