A Multifaceted Approach to Pull-Up Improvement
Pull-ups—everyone knows the deal. Pull-ups are one of the best upper body exercises around. They help you build a strong, great looking back and, most of all, are pretty awesome. The following is how I, with the help of Harry Selkow, added 50 pounds in 29 months to my weighted pull-up training weight.
On the surface, the pull-up is pretty easy. You hang from a bar, rafter, rope, or door, and you extend your arms until your elbows are straight. Then you pull at least your chin over the bar with minimal flopping. Pretty simple. However, most of the population can't perform the exercise efficiently. Barring injury, everyone should be able to do at least ten quality reps with body weight, and most guys should be doing close to twenty quality reps. (For those of you who are thinking, "I can’t do that" or "That’s BS," you should do three things—stop reading this article, add me to your “people who hurt my feelings” list, and take up stamp collecting).
The point is most people can’t do one rep. In my opinion, the fact that most people aren't able to do one frickin' pull-up speaks to larger societal problems (obesity, laziness, and 0.01 percent of Americans being in the military). These are the things that I cry about before I go to sleep each night. Most people fall into one of two categories—they either “carry” a little too much weight or they're too weak. To an individual with the right mindset, neither of those problems is a problem because that person is motivated enough to do what he needs to do in order to reach his goal. I fell/fall into the second category. The following is how I changed my pull-up ability.
I had always done pull-ups, but after trying many, many poorly laid out “specialization” programs from different websites, I was ready for something a little simpler. So I started reading Harry’s pull-up articles. I worked up to ten sets of nine with my body weight, which was great, and subsequently hurt my shoulder doing the Super Yoke one weekend. So I let my shoulder heal up and decided to give pull-ups the old college try again. I did nine reps—nine insanely difficult, vein popping, seeing Satan reps. I decided that I sucked. My shoulders hurt and I was pissed that I couldn’t do more, so I asked for help.
What I did
My first session was ten sets of three with good form. This was difficult toward the end, which was kind of a shock to my ego, but it didn’t matter. I was moving forward. I had started my journey. I had taken the step.
I did all of my pull-up training on the day when I did the overhead press, mostly because it said so in the 5/3/1 Manual. (Something to do with pairing a vertical pressing movement with a vertical pulling movement). At first, I did pull-ups on both overhead and bench press days. I soon found that I wasn’t able to give the second session as good of an effort as the first. Basically, I was still sore from earlier in the week, so I moved my training to three times a week (Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Monday), and this helped tremendously. I felt more refreshed and motivated to train with the three-day split.
Next, I included rows in my training on my bench press day. I did barbell rows as my first rowing exercise, using a 5 X 10, 5 X 5, OR 3 X 5 rep scheme. I used towels to make the bar fatter on the lighter sets and usually included a set of ten or more reps after my final set with either 185 pounds or 225 pounds. After the rows, I also included body or inverted rows (four sets of ten) early on, but I dropped them after about six months.
Sometimes when my low back was sore, I used dumbbell rows in place of barbell rows but for higher reps (3 to 5 sets of 7 to 10 reps).
With dumbbell rows, I had the most success with the following progression:
- Week One, 3 X 7 X 130
- Week Two, 4 X 8 X 130
- Week Three, 5 X 10 X 130.
But with barbell rows, I was able to move up in volume (e.g., three to four sets of five) and intensity (Week One, 3 X 5 X 260; Week Two, 3 X 5 x 265; etc.). However, I could not do both in the same week. This was an important lesson. Most importantly, I started concentrating on weighted pull-ups.
Starting in August 2010, and once again with Mr. Selkow’s advice, I started working weighted pull-ups into my training. My first session was 3 X 3 X 25 pounds spread out over the entire overhead press session. Please read that again—Spread out over the entire session. This is important. You will be able to complete more reps when you spread out the workload. With the addition of weighted pull-ups, I made another adjustment in my training. Instead of training weighted pull-ups each week, I trained them every other week in a traditional monthly cycle, where I deloaded every fourth week (just like in the 5/3/1 Manual). I worked weighted pull-ups on weeks one and three. Then, on week two, I worked toward a rep goal (i.e. set X reps) and deloaded (no pull-ups) on the fourth overhead press session.
For a lifter working with 25 pounds, the progression is:
- Week One, 3 X 3 X 25 pounds
- Week Two, bodyweight X 10 X 6
- Week Three, 4 X 3 X 25 pounds
- Week Four, deload
- Week Five, 5 X 3 X 25 pounds
- Week Six, 10 X 7
- Week Seven, 5 X 4 X 25 pounds
- Week Eight, deload
- Week Nine, 5 X 5 X 25 pounds
- Week Ten, 10 X 8
- Week Eleven, 3 X 3 X 30 pounds... and so on to 5 X 5.
Some weighted days were easier than others, but I always stayed the course. If I was scheduled for 5 X 3 X 60 and it was easy, I didn’t do a sixth set. I always added five pounds, not 10, after completing the 5 X 5 session. This method enables constant progress over a long period of time, which is what we all should be after.
For my accessory work, I did YTWLs and timed weighted hangs. These were done last in my training, and I know they really helped my progress. The YTWLs were good for my shoulders and upper back, and the hangs helped prepare my body for heavier weights.
Mental training (what I didn’t do)
Most importantly, I didn’t freak out and try to reach my goals too soon! This isn't an eight-week program. Your bench won't go up 50 pounds in three weeks. I let time take its course, and I'm stronger for waiting. If I missed a rep X set goal on the body weight days, I simply calmed the f*ck down, took a step back, reassessed the situation, and attacked the bar with a driven, relentless desire because I will be damned if a stupid piece of metal is going to stand between me and my goals. If I needed to, I repeated the session on the next body weight day or asked the Oracle via elitefts™.
Another big step that I had to take was to cut out the distractions in my life and realize that it was going to take time to get stronger/smarter/be a better public speaker. In other words, I needed to do things that I was afraid of doing before or just let the f*uck go of any of my predetermined biases. So I let go of my cluttered life and let go of the distractions. I committed myself to working harder than I ever had, studying more, working a second job, taking advantage of every moment, realizing that conditioning wouldn’t hurt my squat or deadlift, and getting rid of the “Debbie Downers” who surrounded me. I cultivated an environment (i.e. I made myself do things that I hated) that would highlight my fears and give me no choice but to crush them—to kill that evil, angry little monster that says, “Maybe you shouldn’t do that” or “Wow, that looks hard—you can’t do it.” You need to believe in yourself or no one will. Think of it as method acting. From the moment I grabbed the pull-up bar during the 3 X 3 X 25-pound session, the weight was always 150 pounds, and each rep brought me closer to that goal. The training sessions are a foregone conclusion because I've already decided what is going to happen. I've chosen success.
Fast forward two years and I've just completed 3 X 3 X 75 pounds for the weighted pull-ups, a set of 23 pull-ups on a rafter outside my beautiful Arabian villa, and 5 X 18, 17, 16, 17, and 15. So there you have it—50 pounds in just over two years. When I get to 3 X 3 X 100, I will check back in again. I only hope that if you're reading this article, you can make use of the “open source” information that was provided to me and countless others by Mr. Selkow and elitefts™. All I had to do was take that step and the world moved to meet me. Now it is up to you.