I must have written at least 50 articles for fitness magazines over the years on how to get more pullups. Next to building the bench press and getting bigger arms and sharper abs, there’s probably no other goal that people want more than to increase their pullup number.
Here’s the best of everything I ever learned about increasing reps on this timeless body-weight back-builder.
If you can’t do one rep…
First of all, if you’re not reasonably lean, you won’t be able to do a pullup even if you are pretty strong. So if you find that you can’t do a single rep, lose some weight. If you’re a woman who just lacks upper-body strength, focus on lat pulldowns to strengthen your lats in the meantime. You can also do slow negatives: jump up and get your chin over the bar and then slowly lower your body to the dead-hang position. Do three to five reps like this and eventually you’ll build the control over your body weight to pull yourself up.
If you can’t do more than 5 reps…
When you’ve got a few reps under your belt, it can be hard to get more of them because every time you do a set it’s like you’re maxing out. You wouldn’t expect to build your squat by trying to squat your absolute max every week—you’d just burn out—and the same applies to pullups. Train pullups frequently but leave two reps in the tank every set. It really helps to get a pullup bar in your house so you can work them often.
Do five or so sets over the course of the day, holding back a little each time, so your technique finds its groove. Change your grip often, too, so you change the way the muscles are recruited. This should get you up to 10 reps or so in a few weeks.
If you can’t do more than 10…
Most guys seem to get stuck at 10–15 pullups, depending on their structure, within a year or so of serious training. They find they can build their lats and make their backs stronger but their pullup number never varies by more than a rep or two. This is where you need to get creative.
One thing you can try is the “1/2 plus 1” method, which I learned from strength coach Jay DeMayo. I describe it in the video below:
Another thing that works is wave loading. Do a set of 6 reps with extra weight—not quite a 6-rep max but a challenging set. Then increase the weight and do a heavy single rep. From there, go back to 6 reps with a heavier weight than you used the first time. This time it should be a 6-rep max. Up the weight again and do another 1 rep—not quite a max but close to it. Rest as needed between all these sets.
Now you’re ready to rep out. Lose the extra weight and go for broke with just your body weight. If you can normally do about 10 reps, you should be good for a rep or two more at this point because your nervous system is excited from all the heavy lifting. Now your body weight alone feels easy by comparison.
Each week, try to do more reps in that final set. I bet you can increase your number by at least 5 reps in a month.
One cool strategy I recently experimented with, as recommended by Don Saladino, a trainer to celebs in NYC, is using speed work for pullups. Dynamic-effort training is typically seen with the squat, bench press, and deadlift, but there’s no reason to think it shouldn’t work for pullups, too. And it certainly did for me.
It’s easy. Do 8 sets of 3 with as much speed as possible. Just pull your chin over the bar fast. Rest a minute between sets. Add weight when you can—five to 10 pounds but no more. The most important thing is to keep the speed up—don’t add so much weight that you slow down. Another way to progress it is to add a rep or a set here and there, so you could do 8 sets of 4 one week. But again, you don’t want to do so many reps that the last one or two are slow and sloppy. The point is to make your form very efficient and precise, so while it may feel easy, you’ll see improvement after six weeks or so. I usually get around 12 pullups in one shot and this method took me to 15 (without losing any body weight).
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