Pull-up 101, Part I

This article is part one of a three-part series.

When Elite asked me to write an article about pull-ups, I thought, no problem. This will take about one line—grab a bar and give it a tug. That’s it. Finished. Done!

Then I thought, well, no…this is impossible because the answer is dependent on so many factors and is as individual as the person asking. I would need to take into account questions such as: What is your goal? What is your training goal? What is your “training” age? How many pull-ups can you do at the moment? How much do you weigh? How tall are you? And are we talking about pull-ups or chin-ups?

With all of this in mind, I’ve determined that the simple pull-up/chin-up needs at least three separate articles to address at least the three different progressions or starting places. So this article will address those who can do at least 5–6 repetitions and possibly up to 12–15 repetitions with the goal of getting to 20 repetitions. The second article will address the fat bastards (also known as super heavy weights) who can’t pull at least one of their multiple chins over the bar. Finally, the third article will be geared toward the freaks who want to pull an extra 100 lbs over and above their current body weight for 1–3 repetitions.

These exercises—the pull-up and the chin-up—are called different things depending on where you learned them, who is demonstrating them, and how old you are. We will refer to the pull-up as an exercise in which your hands are pronated (palms away from your face when they’re holding the vertical bar so you can see your knuckles) whereas the chin-up is an exercise in which you’re in the supinated position with your palms facing you.

The basic difference between the two is that when you perform a chin-up, you’re bringing more of the bicep into flexion of the elbow. Fact—the pull-up is harder in most circumstances than the chin-up. If you want to do chin-ups by all means go ahead. However, as far as setting up repetition and set schemes, I’ll be referring to the exercise as a pull-up.

The pull-up is a humbling exercise in that if you can’t do a pull-up, you can’t do a pull-up. You can’t cheat the pull-up, and it is one of the basics of my programs. We squat, bench, and deadlift, and we do pull-ups. If your program lacks any one of these components, you don’t have a program in my opinion.

The pull-up works really well within most training programs as an accessory lift whether you follow the basic Westside conjugated program, Jim Wendler’s 5-3-1 program, or Joe DeFranco’s Westside for Skinny Bastards. It’s the antagonist movement to the vertical press and helps “build” the lift aspect of the bench. Consider this—the movement of a proper pull-up is scapular depression and retraction first followed by flexion of the elbows, with the goal of getting the chin over a fixed object that is more than arms’ length away. With the idea of a proper set-up for the bench in mind, we pull the shoulder blades together (scapular retraction) and tuck them hard, pulling them down (scapular depression) into the bench and arching the back while driving from the feet into the floor. It is the same movement as the bench set-up. It’s the perfect exercise to “build” the bench press.

Another fact—have you looked at a male gymnast and thought, “Wow! That guy’s pretty ‘jacked’!” Well, no shit. The pull-up (which a male gymnast spends countless hours doing) is also called the upper body squat. It does so much for your torso physique that you can’t help but get “jacked” arms, back, and shoulders from the performance of the exercise. Plus, when you can bang out a set of 20, you automatically become a “big dawg” even if you have a sub par squat or bench. I leave out the deadlift because ironically, as your pull-up number goes up, so does your deadlift.

Before I go into the reps/set scheme, I heard this from Joe DeFranco, and I told it to my football team—“The amount of pull-ups you can do is inversely proportional to your forty time.” The more you can do, the faster your forty. It’s the truth! Fat asses can’t run fast forties and they can’t do many pull-ups.

To be as simple as possible for the rep/set scheme, here is the easiest way to describe what I’ve offered in programs. Remember, we’re talking about getting to 20 reps in one set, and we’re assuming you’re someone who can perform 5–12 repetitions.

Take the number of reps that you can do at this current moment while leaving a rep or two in the “tank,” subtract two reps (depending on training age), and divide that into the number 20 (total to be performed). That’s how many sets you should start with.

X @ (90–95%) – 2–4 / 20 = y (for you math geeks)

In other words, I grab the bar and pull out nine reps, leaving 1–2 in reserve. I then subtract four reps because I’ve been training for a while and just now want to add pull-ups to my menu. So now I have five reps, and I need to do four sets in order to get to 20 total reps in this workout.

Here’s another example. I’m a newbie, and I pull three reps. I need to get 20 total reps in my training session of military presses following Jim’s 5-3-1 method. I space my ten sets of two reps over the entire military press training session.

There is no time limit except for the one of the entire session. If you need more rest per set, take it. We then can progress by using the reps per set variable or the time between sets. But somewhere, we will progress in every training session.

As we do progress from ten sets of two to ten sets of three (I know we just added ten reps to the total volume) and then to ten sets of four, we will get to a point where the form breaks down, and you will flop around to accomplish the suggested reps. Here’s where we can adjust and dumb it down. Remember, 20 is our number. Say we get to six sets of five reps and set seven looks like you’re a fish out of water. Cut back on the last four sets to the original number of two reps. It looks like this: 6 X 5 X body weight; 4 X 2 X body weight. We’re still getting those ten sets and keeping the form perfect while still adding to the total volume.

In the beginning, I suggest doing two training sessions before progressing. This allows joints, tendons, and muscles to acclimate a bit for the new movement and volume. If you start to experience that “bad” pain, cut a session out and add a horizontal pulling motion to your program (i.e. a dumbbell row or cable row). I also suggest that you do 3–4 weeks of the pull-ups and then retest yourself for a new max. Once you hit 15 reps, stay tuned for the third article to accelerate your progress using weight. Or you can continue with the simple body weight progression into the 20-rep count.

Now, get to tugging!

Elite Fitness Systems strives to be a recognized leader in the strength training industry by providing the highest quality strength training products and services while providing the highest level of customer service in the industry. For the best training equipment, information, and accessories, visit us at www.EliteFTS.com.

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About the Author

Harry Selkow was formally the strength and conditioning coach of the Arizona Sundogs (NHL/Central Hockey League) as well as for the Bradshaw Mountain High School football program. Harry has worked with hundreds of athletes in a multitude of sports over the course of the last 35 years. He is currently working with many teams in the Bay Area of northern California. View Harry’s training log.