Subject: Improving Pullup Strength Thu Oct 11, 2012 4:38 pm
Wednesday, March 2, 2011 Q & A: Improving Pullup Strength
Over the past couple months, I've received emails inquiring about how to improve pullup strength. Since this is a common question (and a good one) that I'm sure I'll receive again, I decided to use it as a Q & A on the blog. (The question was modified a bit to omit information that wasn't pertinent to the central question). Note that I refer to chinups a fair amount (where your palms face you, as opposed to away from you like in the pullup), but the exact same principles apply.
I also have a question for you - your thoughts on the best way to improve deadhang pull-up numbers? My upper body pulling strength is woefully lacking (upper body is weak in general, outside of the Jerk). While I'd say CrossFit can address it, the reality is accessory/supplementary work is necessary because CrossFit only does kipping pull-ups. I can't recall any time recently that my affiliate used deadhang pull-ups. (I think if fresh I could probably do 6-8 right now without incredibly awful form or resorting to a kip of sorts).
Great question. I love the pullup/chinup variations as they're a great way to keep your relative strength in check. I find it difficult to admire someone who can bench press a house but can barely pull his chin over the bar for a pullup or two.
Not to mention, your chinup:bench press ratio is actually a pretty strong indicator of shoulder health for the long run. For example, say you're a 175lb male who can bench 300lbs. If your maximum weighted chinup (bodyweight + external load) is only 225lbs (BW+50lbs added weight using a dip belt or weight vest), then you have some serious work to do on the "pulling" side of things.
Mike Boyle has mentioned this in the past, as he has coached thousands of athletes in the weight room and monitored the correlations between push:pull strength ratios and shoulder health. Is it a fool-proof formula? Certainly not, but at least balancing your pushing and pulling strength is a a huge step in the right direction.
Anyway, now to the question. I'm not the first to write about these strategies, but I'd like to share the ones I've personally found most effective in helping the athletes (and general fitness enthusiasts) I coach:
1. Never go to Failure (or "Grind Out" Reps). Want a surefire way to halt your progress in the pullup realm? Grind out reps.
Most intelligent people never continue to grind out squats and deadlifts once their form breaks down, and for good reason (I don't know about you, but I like to remain on good terms with my spine). Yet for some reason when it comes to pullups, people will approach their maximum number of reps, and then continue to push out a few more by grinding, kicking and screaming their way up to the bar. Set after set.
Once you begin to slow down through the sticking point on the way up, stop the set. Once your reps no longer look or feel like they did in the beginning (good form, decent speed, etc.), let go of the bar. If you continue to grind reps out, set after set, it will do nothing for you other than to ingrain bad habits and to burn out your Central Nervous System (which needs to remain fresh for optimal recovery and performance during subsequent training sessions).
Remember that strength training is a skill. When you practice a skill correctly, you don't continue to do it under a state of high fatigue. Pullups are no different.
Below are two videos I filmed during a recent chinup session. (For a frame of reference, my current 3-rep max on the chinup is about 130lbs added weight).
The first video is an example of what a GOOD working set looks like. In this set I have 110lbs hanging from a weight belt. Note that I don't slow down through sticking points, and each of the reps look nearly identical. Even though I probably could have ground out 2-3 more reps, I stopped the set because - based off the feel of the third rep - I knew the remainder of the chinups wouldn't have been pretty.
The next video is what a BAD working set looks like this. In the video below I have 125lbs hanging from a dip belt. Normally I wouldn't have gone so close to a true 3-rep max during a training session, but I did this for demonstration purposes. Note that the first and second rep look O.K., but on the third repetition I really slow down at the top (my sticking point, personally, is about 2 inches shy of the bar), and I continue to hang up there as I grind my way to the bar. Again, this is what NOT to do regularly when you train pullups/chinups!
So, for the person asking the question, whose max number of pullups is 6-8, I would suggest to never go above 4-5 reps during a single set in training.
The ONLY time I recommend going to failure is when you are testing your true pullup max, which should be only a few times a year. Otherwise, in training, always stay clear of hitting failure. You'll thank me later, I promise.
2. Prioritize Pullups in your Training Plan If you want to improve your pullups then you should probably: focus on your pullups. Haha, sounds like an axiom, doesn't it? However, it seems to me that people often tend to desire improvement upon a hundred different things at once.
Lose fat. Gain muscle. Improve my 5k time. Increase my bench press. Run a marathon. See my abs. Bicep curl more than the guy next to me. Improve my online ranking in Call of Duty or World of Warcraft.
The truth is, if you genuinely want to improve something, you need to prioritize it and let a few other things take the back burner. This doesn't mean you cease to work on other qualities, but you can't go balls-to-the-wall with everything. In fact, Eric Cressey wrote a fantastic short article regarding this very subject: Weight Training Programs: You Just Can't Keep Adding. I encourage you to check out!
What does it look like, to prioritize your pullups?
1.Train them in the beginning of your training session, when your fresh. Yes, even before you bench press. 2.Train them more frequently throughout the week (again, only if you're refusing to grind reps). 3.Increase the volume (combined sets x reps) of pullups, and scale back a bit on the volume of other upper body movements (press variations, as well as lat pulldowns, bicep curls, etc.) 4.Give your pullups the same INTENSITY and focus you would during your other lifts (deadlifts, squats, etc.). Prioritize your pullups in your routine and train them like you mean it. Everything else can take the backseat, at least for a little while.
3. Drop the Kipping Pullups. All this will do is take away from your current goal: improving your "dead-hang" pullups. While some other strength coaches may argue that kipping can aid those seeking improved pullup numbers, I don't personally prefer to use them (not to mention, I've helped more than one person - females in included - obtain their goal of performing their first unassisted, full-range chinup without using any kipping method for assistance).
4. Improve Your Grip Strength.
Your hands are the first link in the chain when you grab the bar to perform pullups. If your grip is weak, then you'll fail much more quickly. You probably won't literally slip off the bar, but a strong grip will certainly allow you transfer force through your upper body much more efficiently. The stronger your grip is, the less the rest of your body will have to work to perform the lift.
Fortunately, I have the luxury of a thick-grip pullup bar at SAPT. The wider diameter of the bar makes it significantly more difficult to hang on to - thus improving your grip strength. At first I hated Sarah (the President) for ordering thick-grip bars to attach to the power racks, as my ego was shattered upon trying pullups in SAPT for the first time! However, over time, I've noticed substantial improvement in my grip from using the thick bar alone. Not to mention, whenever I try pullups on a normal bar, it feels like a walk in the park!
However, I realize not many people have access to a thick bar; and besides, there are many other modalities for improving grip strength that I recommend whether or not you have a thick bar. It's beyond the scope of this post to provide various grip exercises, but Diesel Crew has some fantastic grip exercises on their website that you can check out.
5. Use the "Pullups Throughout" Method We've used this with fantastic success with our athletes at SAPT. Basically pick a number (ex. 25) and hit that number of pullups throughout the training session. The number you aim for will depend on your current pullup max. Begin at the start of the training session, and then in between every few sets of your other exercises head over to the pullup bar and bang out 2-3 reps. This is a great way to accumulate a fair amount of volume without inducing too much fatigue.
Again, stay FAR away from failure. The reps should feel light and fast.
6. Utilize a variety of grips and set/rep schemes. Just like any exercise, it will help to add a bit of variety to the picture. Just because you want to improve your pullups (palms facing away from you) doesn't mean that a healthy dose of neutral-grip pullups (palms facing each other) and chinups won't help. I would still prioritize pullups, but definitely mix in a few other variations sparingly.
Regarding number of reps, don't be afraid to train both the lower end of the spectrum (ex. 1-2 reps) with a small external load added, and on the higher end (closer to your rep-max, but still shy of failure).
You can also toy with isometrics (a static hold at the top, or a "flexed arm hang" in gym class terms), and eccentrics, in which you jump up to the top and lower slowwwly. However, I won't be sharing publicly the exact set/rep formulas I've found to be ideal for this method
Lastly: A technique Jason Ferruggia recently recommended, which I like, is the Ladder Method:
"Ladders are another effective way of bringing up your chins that we use as well. For example, you start with one rep, rest 15-45 seconds, then do two reps, rest again, then do three reps, rest again, then do four reps, rest again, then do five reps, then start the ladder over.
Again, it looks like this: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
...You burn out a lot slower when doing ladders than you do with traditional loading parameters. Use a prescribed rest period or do the ladders with 2-3 partners. You do a single, they do a single. You do a double, they do a double. And so on and so on up the ladder. Then you start back down at the bottom again.
If you can only do five chins or pull ups don’t go up to five reps. Instead stick with three as the top rung of your ladder. (Interjection: this would be the appropriate strategy for the person regarded in this Q & A).
Each workout try to beat the total number of reps you got in the previous workout. So if you got three full ladders as shown above, that would be 45 reps. You need to get at least 46 reps at the next workout." Now, I wouldn't recommend using the Ladder protocol very frequently (at least if you're training multiple times a week), but it's definitely a good one to throw into the mix. Again, make sure the reps are fast and strong (noticing a trend here?).