T Nation

Improving Pull-ups

CT,
You’ve said you are not that big on lats training, but let me try this anyway. My pull-ups suck. PR is 6 reps, done a week after 30d of Waterbury “7x/wk” pullups, lots of sets of 1,2,3. Most pullup programs here say “get to a 10RM before you try this”, but a 10-rep set is still a long way off, even after a 25% BW loss.

I tried doing “strength” ramp/clusters with weighted pullups then wtd chins, but never improved my wtd pullup max (it actually started to go down after 5 sessions, so I stopped).

I then tried the rep loading ramp (set of 1, set of 2, set of 3, add 15lbs, and repeat) with pullups, starting with BW. After 6 sessions, I had not made any progress (stalled everytime at the set of 3 with BW+15lbs.) Thought maybe I was starting too heavy, so I then started with a band-assist 1-2-3, then BW 1-2-3, but missed with the BW x3 each time. I did have more lat “pump” doing band-assisted reps first.

So, on my deload week for a change of pace I did a conditioning workout using Alwyn Cosgrove style complexes, 8 movements, 6 reps each with just the 20kg bar, which included bent rows, DL, and cleans. And WTF my lats are sore for two days?!?

My one thought was to quit the low rep stuff and try high-rep/high-volume pulldowns and rows, just to get my lats and rear-delts to fire in sequence. My other thought is to try volume pulldowns after some eccentric wtd pullups that create lat tension.

Short background: former fat powerlifter (1200 @220), now 40yo at 180lbs. Using HP Mass and then Layer programs, I bench and squat at 180 what I used to move at 220. I have freakishly long arms (I lockout deadlifts 1-2" above the knee). My biceps also lag my triceps (strict bar curl 65x8-10 max versus strict skullcrusher 95x10-12).

Thanks!!

It’s not that I don’t like lats training is that, much like you, I was always bad at pull-ups. Heck at one point I could high pull 180kg, bench press 190kg, deadlift 270kg and couldn’t do more than 3-4 strict pull-ups!!!

Now I can do 6 to 8 with an added 50-60lbs super strict with a 2 sec hold at the top of each rep.

Three things helped (well four):

  1. When I did Crossfit for about 2 months with my wife. We HAD to do high reps pull-ups even if they were not always done in a row the total volume was very high. That helped a lot. Even if some of them were cheated (kipping) it still helped a lot.

  2. Since I sucked at pull-ups I decided to do 50 chins every day at the end of my workouts. My goal was to do them in as little time as possible, but I could take as many sets as necessary to complete all 50.

That’s what I did for the 2 months I did Crossfit and the 2 months after that (then I was hospitalized for my heart). After that I did:

  1. Double progression chin-ups every other day. I would do 3 work sets. The first one was an all-out set and the two other were back-off sets. In the first one the goal was to get anywhere between 4 and 6 reps. For the second set I reduced the added weight a bit and had to do one more rep than I reached in the first set. Then for the third set I would reduce the weight again a bit and do one more rep than I did in the second set. So for example if I got 6 reps with 10lbs I would do 7 reps with 5lbs in set no.2 and 8 reps with no weight on set no.3.

If I reached 6 reps in my first set, I increased the weight by 2.5lbs in the next workout. If I couldn’t reach 6 I stayed with the same weight. I went from doing 4 reps with 10lbs to doing 7 reps with 50lbs in 3 weeks.

  1. Losing weight. If you lose 10lbs, you have 10lbs less to lift which makes it that much easier. A client of mine went from doing zero body weight pull-ups to doing 5 reps with 30lbs in a month… but he lost 20lbs. In the same period he went from barely doing one body weight dip to doing 5 reps with 120lbs.

Another thing I found to help was doing negative-only reps (4-6 seconds lowering) for 4-6 reps per set and 4-6 sets twice a week.

3 things that I believe helped me:

Losing weight

Doing pull-ups about twice a week.

Neutral grip pull-ups were better for me in getting regular/pronated pull-up numbers up, particularly close neutral grip

As stated, probably the 2 biggest helpful things are less weight, and more reps.

After missing ~6 months due to injury, I was barely able to rep 2x pull-ups at ~185# of skinny-fat. In the 4-5 months since then, I’ve dropped to 170 and built back up to 185. I never focused on pull up training, but I have a bar in my doorframe, and would force myself to do a set when I walked by. Set of 3, 5, 10, whatever. NOT to failure, just a short set; if I got tired, I stopped.

Since I’ve recomped and have been doing those intermittent sets, I’ve gone from a max of 1-2 to being able to hit 19 strict BW, and sets of 5+ with 45# added. Not sure if the weight(fat) loss or the practice helped more, but both were key to making progress for me. Best of luck!

On a side note - I’d love to be able to hit 25 strict BW, and/or 10 reps with 45+ lbs. Is there a suggested way to train for higher-endurance rep ranges? My arms and even grip seem to fail before my back gets tired, so it may be a technique issue? Open to suggestions, but I don’t want to compromise my main training just for a fun side goal.

[quote]Apothecary wrote:
As stated, probably the 2 biggest helpful things are less weight, and more reps.

After missing ~6 months due to injury, I was barely able to rep 2x pull-ups at ~185# of skinny-fat. In the 4-5 months since then, I’ve dropped to 170 and built back up to 185. I never focused on pull up training, but I have a bar in my doorframe, and would force myself to do a set when I walked by. Set of 3, 5, 10, whatever. NOT to failure, just a short set; if I got tired, I stopped.

Since I’ve recomped and have been doing those intermittent sets, I’ve gone from a max of 1-2 to being able to hit 19 strict BW, and sets of 5+ with 45# added. Not sure if the weight(fat) loss or the practice helped more, but both were key to making progress for me. Best of luck!

On a side note - I’d love to be able to hit 25 strict BW, and/or 10 reps with 45+ lbs. Is there a suggested way to train for higher-endurance rep ranges? My arms and even grip seem to fail before my back gets tired, so it may be a technique issue? Open to suggestions, but I don’t want to compromise my main training just for a fun side goal.[/quote]

Sometimes the grip issue could be from exploding too much (even if the form stays pretty strict) you must “accelerate smoothly” when doing pull-ups.

Another thing is that you can use a “reverse hook grip”… basically pin your index against the bar by pressing hard on it (on the index) with the thumb.

Finally, isometrics holds for max time at the end of each training will help… hold yourself as long as possible at the top of the movement, then lower yourself and hold the low position as long as you can. 1 set at the end of every session.

Last thing, it might be a mobility issue at the shoulder (tight internal rotators) or elbow (tight pronators).

Christian,

Did you notice your lat or arm size increase substantially as your pull up strength increased?
And good luck with the health issues!

[quote]lotsi81 wrote:
Christian,

Did you notice your lat or arm size increase substantially as your pull up strength increased?
And good luck with the health issues![/quote]

Lats yes, definetly. Arms I’m noticing my brachialis a tad more. But since I’m not doing direct arm work at the moment they aren’t really growing but it’s not something I’m worried about right now, all in due time!

Thanks CT, will try adding in holds. Not something I would have thought of! Should I do those weighted?

You could be right about shoulder mobility, as I tore my right RC years ago, and it’s still giving me grief from time to time. But I also have been using your workout pattern to focus on strength, mainly living in the 3-6 rep range for months now, so I see this kind of “fatigue” in all compound movements when the reps get high. I’ll likely start on an Indigo program once my strength gains slow down (since my weights are still going up leaps and bounds), but that’s for another thread…

CT,
Thank you, great stuff as always.
I have no plans to Crossfit, but I will start with the negatives for a couple weeks, and then try that double-progression loading scheme you describe. That is just what I needed.
You’ve written before about pressing muscles being more fast-twitch, needing to be trained explosively, and back/bicep muscles designed to “hold” and contain more slow-twitch fibers. Eccentrics are consistent with that thought on the biology.
I’ll start those with BW for 4-6 rep sets, and then add weight as I progress from there.

One question: Other than for measuring progression, how important is it to keep the negatives in a certain time range? Did you use a mental count, or breaths or did you have these timed?

[quote]Apothecary wrote:
Thanks CT, will try adding in holds. Not something I would have thought of! Should I do those weighted?

You could be right about shoulder mobility, as I tore my right RC years ago, and it’s still giving me grief from time to time. But I also have been using your workout pattern to focus on strength, mainly living in the 3-6 rep range for months now, so I see this kind of “fatigue” in all compound movements when the reps get high. I’ll likely start on an Indigo program once my strength gains slow down (since my weights are still going up leaps and bounds), but that’s for another thread…[/quote]

Do not add weights for the holds unless you can do at least 30 seconds per position (so 1 minute total of hold in your set).

[quote]orcrist wrote:
CT,
Thank you, great stuff as always.
I have no plans to Crossfit, but I will start with the negatives for a couple weeks, and then try that double-progression loading scheme you describe. That is just what I needed.
You’ve written before about pressing muscles being more fast-twitch, needing to be trained explosively, and back/bicep muscles designed to “hold” and contain more slow-twitch fibers. Eccentrics are consistent with that thought on the biology.
I’ll start those with BW for 4-6 rep sets, and then add weight as I progress from there.

One question: Other than for measuring progression, how important is it to keep the negatives in a certain time range? Did you use a mental count, or breaths or did you have these timed?[/quote]

at first I counted to give me an idea of what the proper tempo was, then I simply focused on keeping the proper tempo without counting which allowed me to focus more on the quality of the contraction.

Note to anyone that reads this thread looking for help with pull-ups: CT really knows his #@$%&!!

Instead of doing my usual low-rep pull-up sets, I did three sets of 6sec eccentrics. Having just read Bret’s article this week on mind-muscle cxn, I really focused on my lats, making sure my shoulders didn’t slump forward. These were much harder than I expected, and was only about to do a descending sets of 4, 3 and 2 reps. 2 days later, and holy buckets are my lats still sore!

This type of work avoided me being an “arm puller” on chins. I’m finally getting lat engagement.

CT, you are the man!!