Ever since I was a kid, pull-ups have always been the exercise to show how horribly unfit I was. When I was in grade-school, I quit my karate class when I had to do a pull-ups test to advance to the next belt. I was afraid to even try! Even up until 2010, I could barely do one pull-up. Now after doing P90X and P90X2, I’ve set a personal record of doing 22 pull-ups without kipping or pausing. That may not be Tony Horton’s 35 pull-ups, but i’ve come a long way. And now, I am shooting to do 200 pull-ups in under 20 minutes!
If you have never been able to do pull-ups or can’t seem to get past a certain number, here is my guide to pull-up success.
NOTE: As a way to measure progress, after each step, try to do as many real, no-kip pull-ups as you can in a single set. Mark down your progress after each step. If you can already do a good amount of pull-ups (almost/past 100 pull-ups in a workout) then feel free to skip ahead to steps 3-6.
Pull-ups are one exercise where it is very hard to do a single rep for the average out-of-shape Joe and Jane. Even assisted pull-ups can be too hard for some. Therefore, to get to the bar you should start with the bands. Here are some general guidelines starting out.
Form is always important. When using the bands, it can actually be harder to get the right form. To work the same muscles you use doing real pull-ups, here’s what you need to do:
Angle: From door-attatachment, take bands, back up, and take a one-knee stance. Bend your torso forward and lift your arms directly overhead. From the door to the bands down your arms and back should be a straight line. If your head is higher than your arms, you’ll just be doing rows, so bend forward more. If the band isn’t tight enough, back up further until the band has a good amount of tension when your arms are straight.
Tempo: With bands, you do not want to go for speed. Pull on the bands semi-slowly until your fists are the same distance from the door as your shoulders. Hold for one second, then slowly bring your arms straight. Total time for one rep should be 6 or 7 seconds: 3 seconds up, 1 second hold, 3 seconds down. Make sure you try to best mimic different varieties of pull-ups: wide-overhand, close-overhand, close-underhand, etc.
Choose resistance wisely: start with endurance, work up to strength, then back to endurance
As with any exercise, it is best to start with low resistance and high reps. That’s the idea starting with bands anyways, but even with bands, you have different levels of resistance. Here’s the steps I take:
Start with 15 work up to 20: Choose a resistance band where you can only do 15 reps per set. Whether doing P90X‘s pull-up routines or the Level 200 workout, it’s OK if you can’t keep the same reps on the last set that you started with on the first, but work toward it. Once you’ve found your starting band at 15 reps, shoot for 20 reps with the same band.
Back up: At 20 reps, start to back up, creating further distance between you and the door. But don’t back up too much where the band won’t let you do a full rep all the way to your shoulders. If you’re still able to do 20, get a new band that puts you back to 15 reps.
Move to 8-12: go from endurance to strength. Go up a couple bands until you find one where you can only do 8 reps. Now work your way to 12 reps.
Back to 20: Bands only go so far in resistance, so once you’ve gotten to the heaviest band (i.e. B-lines Black Band), work your way up to 20 reps per set. For Level 200, that means 20 reps for 10 sets in under 20 minutes.
If you’ve seen or tried P90X, you know about using the chair to do pull-ups on the bar. However, there is one variation they don’t show you that is much better than the leg out version. So here are the two variations you can use:
Feet in front: with a door-way pull-up bar, put a sturdy chair or plyo box at least six inches behind the bar. To start, place both feet on the chair after grabbing the pull-up bar with your hands. Using your upper body first, pull your body up towards the bar, using your legs to assist. Remember that this is a pull-up and not a squat! Make sure your chin is all the way past the bar, hold for a second, then come back down slowly, using the same 6 to 7 second per rep rule.
Modifications: your goal with the chair should be at most 15 reps per set. Once you get to 15, further modify this way: 1) one-leg 2) push chair back farther 3) no feet on chair on downward movements.
Feet behind you: Once you’ve mastered the feet-in-front modification, we’re getting closer to the big leagues. This works best with a door-frame bar, as elevated bars may not let you get much support from a chair this way.
Here’s what you do: place the chair in front of the pull-up bar with the edge of the seat behind you about a foot away from the bar. Grab the bar and bend your knees so that your toes and top of your feet are placed on the chair. When you do the pull-up, you can use your quads to extend your knees, assisting you in the movement. On your last rep, be sure to remove one foot from the chair on the way down for safety.
Modifications: 1) put one foot behind the the opposite ankle. 2) no feet on chair on downward movements.
I didn’t discover this amazing exercise tool until P90X2 came out, where they replaced the chair with a pull-up assist. The pull-up assist has three bands and an adjustable strap with a hook that attached to the bar and a loop you put your foot in. This tool basically makes it like doing pull-ups while weighing less. You can’t cheat like you can with the chair, as you could make the pull-up assisted exercise into a squatting assisted exercise. It’s also harder to kip (using lots of body movement) with the pull-up assist, making it a great way to learn no-kip pull-ups (i.e. real pull-ups)
NOTE: if you have a short doorway and a regular doorway pull-up bar, the pull-up assist may be hard to incorporate as it is best used when your feet can be completely straight during the whole movement. I recommend getting an elevated doorway pull-up bar or a wall, ceiling, or joist mounted bar if possible.
Goals: with the assist, your goal should be 20 reps per set, particularly for the Level 200 workout. Once you’ve mastered it, move on to the modifications.
Modifications: 1) Lengthen the strap for less assistance. 2) remove 1 band 3) remove 2 bands (only one band assisting you).
If you’ve conquered lasting a workout doing 20 reps per set on the one-band assist, then you should go back and forth between step 4 and 5 to improve your pull-ups.
So what do I mean by kippy cross-fit ugly pull-ups? Simple, do whatever it takes to get your chin over the bar. Now some cross-fitters out there may think these are reall pull-ups, but in my opinion they are not. However, they are a way to improve with real pull-ups.
Goals: DO NOT start off your workout doing kippy pull-ups, you shouldn’t need to. The goal here is to do real, clean, no-kip pull-ups. So start with Step 5 pull-ups and after you get tired, go kippy to get those extra reps in. Once again, for Level 200, the goals are 20 reps for 10 sets.
Best way to Kip: As the pic above shows you, doing kippy pull-ups involves a lot of movement and momentum, in somewhat rocking motion. Remember kippy pull-ups only work by doing them quickly, keeping the momentum.
Not pictured above, start the pull-up keeping your feet wide and facing behind you, arching you back and pushing your chest out like your in a movie jumping off a cliff… from an explosion. Quickly thrust your knees up and rock back from chest-out to leaning back while pulling your body up. Towards the top of the bar, swing your chin forward with your body while extending the legs, acting like your kicking your way above the bar.
Come back down in the same rocking fashion, though your legs stay out. Keep the momentum going quickly through each rep until you can’t do no more.
This is it, the exercise you’ve only dreamed of doing, well, at least it was for me. Before this point I thought I was getting good at doing pull-ups, until I did some without kipping and fully extending my arms. Many times, your max reps will drop by half or more when going no-kip. These are hard, but they are the real deal.
Goals: Simple, do as many as you can in a workout. As I mentioned before, after you’ve passed step 3 with the pull-up assist, start your pull-up workouts with no-kip pullup sets until you fatigue. Then, and only then, start to do kippy pull-ups to get more reps in and finish the remaining sets. Your goal in a workout should be to work towards doing more no-kip pull-up sets and less kippy pull-up sets. As Tony Horton says, “as your numbers go up, start cleaning them up.” Once again, a goal to shoot for is 15-20 reps per set.
Tips: Start with arms fully extended from the bar and legs straight with toes pointed down or up. If your bar is not high enough, you can lift your heels up to avoid the floor, but don’t move your knees to create momentum—that’s cheating. As you pull up, keep your core tight to avoid rocking. The only part of your body that creates movement is your arms.
Now we get to the big leagues. You thought regular pull-ups were hard? Think again. Outside the realm of wide-grip, close-grip, and reverse-grip pull-ups lies a whole world of tough variations.
P90X introduced a few with switch-grips, 1-towel pull-ups, and the dreaded corn-cob pull-up. Asylum fans were introduced to the mountain climber. P90X2 really pushes the envelope with Pull-up crunches, Crunchy Levers, Entman’s Chin-up, V-pullup, Around the World, Pull-up X, 2-towel pull-ups, L-pull-ups, and Levers.
From there you can go to Gymnastics with muscle-ups, L-muscle-ups, Iron Cross’s, and levers from a hanging position. And of course there is the gym favorite of weighted pull-ups. Here are a few of my favorites:
I used to think there were only two ways to do a pull-up: chin-ups and wide-grip. From doing P90X, P90X2, and learning from some Gymnastics sites I’ve realized there are hundreds of variations. Not only do these variations build your strength further, they keep it interesting and fun, with always a new way to challenge yourself.
I just showed you how you can progress from doing 0 pull-ups to doing over 20 in a single set. But you can’t improve at pull-ups on set progressions alone. You need a workout routine that particularly focuses on doing pull-ups and building the back muscles. Here are three phases to consider to build that strength:
Phase 1: P90X/Body Beast: P90X was my gateway to pull-ups. The routine has you doing pull-ups twice a week, which is more than any of the other exercises. It has in the videos the band technique and the chair-assist, and still has room for extreme pull-up enthusiasts with the aforementioned extreme pull-ups.
Body Beast is also a good intro to pull-ups as it keeps to the basics and uses a lot of weighted exercises to build back strength. This program also helps you progress with band and pull-up assist techniques.
Phase 2: P90X2: I’ve never seen so much variety in pull-up exercises in one routine, whether from a video or other guides. This routine will have you doing crazy moves you didn’t know was possible. Even with the extreme difficulty, the videos still show you ways to progress with bands and with the pull-up assist.
Phase 3: Add some Gymnastics: If you’ve mastered P90X2, particularly the Chest, Back, and Balance routine that includes the ever-difficult Levers, then go get some rings and go Olympic style! A great site with some awesome progression videos is Gymnastic WOD. Check it out, and you’ll find yourself going for stuff you watch in the olympics. Combine some of these exercises with P90X2 or make up your own and get athletic with your pull-ups.
Level 200: This is just one routine, not a whole program. But you can add it in once a week into your program to further improve at pull-ups. As I said before, the routine is simple— 5 variations of pull-ups, 10 sets, 200 total reps as fast as you can. I am currently adding this routine to Body Beast with a goal to do 200 unassisted pull-ups in less than 20 minutes. Once I’ve reached that goal, I’ll update this post with a video.
There it is, my complete guide to doing pull-ups. Whether you can’t do one, or haven’t gotten past twenty, I hope this post helps you realize that pull-ups are not only possible, but you can surprise yourself with how strong you can be.
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