The biggest challenge of doing pull-ups is performing the first one, which is a pure strength exercise, and this single pullup tends to take the most time to develop for most people. However, achieving the next few reps is typically faster than getting the first pull-up.
The second-hardest area to improve pull-ups is the movement into the teens and 20s in terms of reps. These higher-level additions are purely muscle stamina/endurance issues requiring more repetitions.
The following workouts are helpful ideas to get unstuck in those difficult-to-improve zones of maxing out pull-up tests.
Getting the First Pull-up
Try this circuit to build hand strength (grip) and get your arms accustomed to your body weight to build the needed strength to get your first pull-up.
This is a combination of a flexed arm hang (isometric version), plus the negative repetition (controlled descent):
Repeat three times.
- Try a pull-up: You never know -- today may be the day.
- Pull-up flexed arm hang/negative 1-2 reps: Get your chin over the bar and hold for as long as you can. Slowly lower yourself to the down position to a five-second count.
- Pull-down machine: 3-5 reps (heavy)
Repeat this upper-body day 2-3 times a week to allow for the strength development and recovery of the pulling muscle group.
To Get Your Next Reps (2, 3, 4, 5 ...)
Start every set of upper-body workouts with an actual pull-up. Try to get a second pull-up, and when you fail, resort to the above section of flexed arm hang/negative plus pulldowns. But follow up with the following to help with muscle stamina/endurance of the muscles needed for multiple reps of pull-ups: Add some muscle stamina drills of the same muscle groups (back/biceps) to help you get more pull-ups.
Repeat three times.
- Pull-ups: Max (see whether you can do one or more reps).
- Jumping pull-ups 1-2: Jump up, grab the bar and use the momentum from the jump to help push you over the bar/timed with a remaining pull-up.
- Negative Pull-up: Burn it out with a five- to 10-second hold and controlled descent for 1-2 reps.
- Dumbbell rows: 10/arm or use barbell/machine rows
- Dumbbell biceps curls: 10-15 reps
This workout is in a nonstop circuit, so you are pushing yourself to test your strength on the first few reps, increasing your volume and building muscle stamina on the following pulling repetitions.
Do not forget to balance out all the pulling exercises with pushing exercises, such as push-ups, dips, bench presses and military presses; the need for a push-pull balance and performance in these events are also needed for other events of fitness tests and tactical events. Use both circuits 2-3 times a week and see significant improvements to your pull-ups.
Stuck at 15 and Want 20+ Pull-ups?
To get maximum pull-ups on most military fitness tests, you need to be in the 20+ range. Once again, this is another level of muscle stamina and endurance that is required. More volume is needed, but you can add a weight vest to work harder with fewer reps one day a week.
These three workouts are ways to accumulate a high volume of repetitions:
The Classic Pyramid -- Do the 1-10-1 pyramid (19 sets) that totals 100 pull-ups and 200 push-ups to build a solid push-pull muscle stamina combination using the following method:
- Set 1: 1 pull-up, 2 push-ups
- Set 2: 2 pull-ups, 4 push-ups
- Set 3: 3 pull-ups, 6 push-ups ... work your way up to 10 pull-ups and 20 push-ups on the 10th set.
- Repeat in reverse order.
If you need to rest, make it an active recovery and go for a 1-2 minute run between sets, as needed.
The Weight Vest Superset -- This one is tough but with less volume and added weight to make sure the strength has been maintained during this process of high-volume calisthenics:
Repeat five times.
- Pull-ups 5-10 (with a 10- to 20-pound weight vest)
- Take off the weight vest and see whether you can do a few more pull-ups
- Add some pushing exercises as desired or rest with easy cardio as a recovery option.
Max Rep Sets -- Now for the biggest challenge of high-volume pulling exercises. Try to get 100 pull-ups in as few sets as possible. Rest as needed between sets. Since you can do 15 reps now, try to get 15 or more on your first few sets and strive to keep each ensuing set in the double-digit range until you reach 100 reps.
These three workouts, done on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday (or Saturday), can take your teen-level, pull-up reps and push them into the 20s in about 4-6 weeks.
No matter where your pull-up goals are, people of all fitness levels often use the pull-up (or 20+ pull-ups) as a standard to obtain. Good luck, and enjoy the journey with this system for multiplying your pull-ups.
Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to email@example.com.