When discussing progress, one thing keeps coming up over and over again:
People want to make more progress at pullups/are frustrated they’re not making more progress at pullups/ feel stuck at pullups etc etc
So let’s talk about this. There’s a couple of things you’re going to need in your quest to become a pullup ninja.
1. Realistic Expectations
To steal and paraphrase a great line from Greg Glassman – “Every new pull-up is an event worthy of celebration. With modern medicine, you might live to be 100 but you’ll never get that many pull-ups, so treat the new ones like birthdays.”
We need to be realistic about our expectations here right from the get-go. If you can currently do 1 or 2 pullups, there is just no way in hell you’re going to be doing 20 any time soon. Getting to 5 reps is going to take a while. And getting to 10 reps is going to take even longer.
Strength-gain is a slow process of accumulation. You will see faster progress at lower body exercises like squats and deadlifts because the muscles involved are so much larger. Your glutes, hamstrings and quads are the largest and most powerful muscles in your body, and you can quite easily add 5kg per week to your deadlift. Your poor little shoulders are tiny and delicate by comparison, so if you get an extra rep or 2 on your pullups every couple of months, you’re actually doing really well!
Patience. It takes YEARS to reach your full potential for strength training, so you’ve got loads of time. Chill out and enjoy the journey.
2. Break It Down
For an adult beginner, doing your first pullup is a big goal.
Big goals should always be broken down into a series of smaller, manageable goals in order to make them attainable. Cleighton Abrams tells us “When eating an elephant, it is best to take small bites”. When training for your first pullup, you’re going to take a couple of smaller bites at it too. Specifically, you’ll need to work through the following milestones:
1. Straight arm bar hang for 60 seconds.
2. Bent arm hang with chin over bar, palms facing you for 30 seconds.
3. Bent arm hang with chin over bar, palms facing you for 3 sets of 30 seconds.
4. Bent arm hang with chin over bar, palms facing outwards for 30 seconds.
5. Bent arm hang with chin over bar and palms facing outwards for 3 sets of 30 seconds.
6. Negative chin-up for 10 seconds
7. 6 Sets of 10-second negative chin-ups.
8. Negative Pullup for 10 seconds
9. 6 Sets of Negative pullups for 10 seconds
10. Negative pullup with a 3 second stop in each position
11. 6 sets of of negative pullups with a 3 second stop in each position
12. 1 Chinup
13. 6 sets of 1 chinup.
14. 3 Chinups
15. 5 sets of 3 chinups
16. 1 Pullup
If you’re missing anything on that list, work back up the chain and sort it out!
3. Ditch The Excess
If you’ve got some excess bodyfat you need to lose, get on that.
Pullups are a strength-to-bodyweight ratio exercise, meaning your pullup performance will improve when your bodyweight goes down, or your strength levels go up. For best results, work on both!
If you want to see how much this will help, palce a 5kg weight in your pocket and see how many pullups you can do. You will quickly discover that a little weight makes a HUGE difference on these.
Nothing fancy required here. Eat your palm-sized portions of protein, fist-sized portions of vegetables, cupped handfuls of dense carbohydrates and thumb-sized portions of healthy fats about 80% of the time, get plenty of sleep and keep doing it long enough for it to work.
4. High Frequency
Pullups respond brilliantly to high-frequency training. Do a few every day…just don’t make it too hard.
We programme pullups (or chin-ups) into your workouts here in CFS about 2-3 times per week, which is enough to see improvement.
If they’re a higher priority for you though, you can get better, faster by doing them more often. The trick is to do “easy” sets. Put up doorway pullup bar somewhere in your house and do 1 rep every time you walk past it.
Or, every time you come to the gym, do 1 small set of pullups at the beginning of your workout, and 1 small set at the end. Or whatever.
Don’t do enough to wear yourself down, but your keep the movement pattern very fresh in your nervous system. In essence, you’re improving the “skill” aspect of teaching your body to use the relevant muscles, and get more out of the strength you already have.
Major caveat here though: most people stink at doing “easy” training. It very quickly turns into “medium” or even “max effort” training. And if you do that 5-6 days per week, you will have nothing but sore elbows and physiotherapy bills to show for your troubles. You have been warned.
5. The Pull-up Glass Ceiling…
There aren’t really a tremendous number of differences between training men and women – human physiology is human physiology, for the most part.
Once you account for bodyweight and training age, men and women actually have reasonably similar levels of lower body strength. A 60kg guy and a 60kg girl with similar bodyfat levels who have both been training hard for 5 years will often squat and deadlift similar numbers.
Upper body strength will usually be MASSIVELY different across genders though. Women have proportionally smaller shoulder joints, with smaller muscle attachment points, and thus, unfortunately, a much harder time getting stronger at pushing and pulling exercises.
If you were to go out and round up 1000 random women off the side of the road, you’d probably find at best 5% of them might be able to do a strict pullup. (After you got out of jail for mass-kidnapping, that is…)
Don’t let that discourage you though! Ladies will still see a massive benefit to their fitness and strength levels as they move through the progression we listed up there earlier. Every new bit of strength will bring new results (and better-looking arms!). It’s just going to be a longer road, with a lower ceiling.
6. You Gotta Have Back-up
It should go without saying that none of this actually works if you don’t back it up by getting enough protein, total calories and enough sleep to recover well from training.
Over the last 10 years as a coach, I’ve learned that nothing “goes without saying” though. So let’s say it.
If you’re not:
-Sleeping at least 7 hours every night
-Eating at least .75g of protein per pound of bodyweight
-Eating at least 12 calories for every pound of bodyweight
then you don’t get to go around acting surprised that you’re not getting any better. All the training tips in the world don’t matter if your lifestyle doesn’t support recovery. Prioritise and fix that before everything else!