How to Increase Your Reps on Pull-ups

I get lots of emails from people who’ve gone stagnant on their pull-ups asking for my advice on how to improve.

The only way to progress at pull-ups (or anything for that matter) is consistent practice. There has never been another way and there never will be.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, there are specific methods that can be more effective than others.

Here are a few techniques that may help you bust through a plateau:

Greasing the Groove
This technique was made famous by Pavel Tsatsouline and it is especially helpful for beginners who may still be learning to do a pull-up.

Greasing the groove simply involves doing multiple sets of an exercise throughout the day, rather than doing all your sets in succession. If you have a pull-up bar at home, you can take a workout like my 50 pull-up challenge and spread it out over the course of an entire day. A beginner, on the other hand, might grease the groove by doing a couple of flex hangs and negatives in the morning, a few more throughout the afternoon and then hit it one more time in the evening. Greasing the groove is as much about training your central nervous system to learn a movement pattern as it is about building muscle. While consistent practice is key, don’t try to do too much too soon. If you start getting pain in your joints, back off and give yourself time to recover.

Supersets
A superset involves taking two exercises and performing them back-to-back with no rest. Typically the harder exercise goes first and when fatigue is reached, you switch to the easier exercise and continue repping out. By sequencing it this way, you’re essentially pushing your body beyond failure.

Try supersetting Australian pull-ups after going to failure on standard pull-ups, or do pull-ups while wearing a weight vest, then remove the vest when you reach failure and continue with just your body weight.

Pyramid Sets and The Rest/Pause Method
These old school techniques will test your body, as well as your mental fortitude. See my full articles on pyramid sets and the rest/pause method for more.

Zef’s Warm-up
This is a routine that I got from Zef of the Bar-Barians. I’ve been using it recently in an attempt to increase my numbers on muscle-ups, but it’s been helping my pull-ups, too.

The routine consists of 5 muscle-ups, followed by 5 straight bar dips, then without coming down from the bar, you proceed to do 4 more muscle-ups and 4 more dips, then 3 of each, all the way down to 1 rep of each. If you can make it to the end, you’ll have done 15 muscle-ups and 15 dips, all without coming off the bar. I’ve been adding a set of pull-ups to failure at the end as well before finally dropping down to rest.

You must be willing to push your body’s limits in order to effect change and experience growth. Get creative with different patterns of super-sets, pyramid sets and anything else that you can come up with to challenge yourself. Just don’t get too hung up on chasing progress, instead try to enjoy the process.

Check out the video below for my version of Zef’s warm-up:


For more information about pull-ups, pick up a copy of my book, Raising The Bar: The Definitive Guide to Pull-up Bar Calisthenics.

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  • Jimmy

    Zef’s Warm-up? What does he do for a workout? I think I’ll stick to greasing the groove.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    I know, right? Zef is on a whole other level!

  • Phil

    Great Stuff Al!

    What also helped me is called “Density Training”. You set a goal, for example 25 Pull-Ups, multiply the number by 2 and divide the whole thing (50 Pull-Ups) by half the number of your maximum Pull-Ups (sounds complicated :D ) .

    For example: I can do 10 Pull-Ups, but I want to do 25. So I go 25×2=50, then divide it by 5 (10/2). That gives me my number of sets to do (10). So now I do 10 sets with 5 reps each, 2 min break inbetween.

    The first workout with 2 min breaks is still pretty easy, but in your next workout you decrease your breaks by 15 seconds, means you only pause for 1:45 min between each set.

    The next workout, you decrease your breaks by 15 secs. again, 1:30 min break, and so on. The workouts get tougher everytime and you got a high volume training, which is very effective to increase your numbers!

    Take care and all the best from Germany,
    Trace from BBR Forum

  • Zakaveli

    Thanks for the shout out, I looks a lot easy than it is, everyone should try it today!

  • Zakaveli

    “it” looks a lot easier. iPhone typo

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks for sharing, Phil! There are a lot of ways to practice pull-ups. I’ll have to give that one a try some time.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    HA – you make it ALL look so easy, Z!

  • Nirosr92697

    Niiice

  • niroc

    ooops..niroc!

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks!

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Haha – I knew it was you, bro!

  • Elizabeth Harcourt

    good one! thanks, al!

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    You got it, Elizabeth!

  • Dave

    Yes, make sure you don’t overwork the number of pull-ups done. I am still recovering from too many pull-ups done 3 years ago. Tendinitis in an elbow is sore reminder!

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Damn, you must have really overdone it. Hope you recover eventually!

  • http://personaldevelopmentx.com/ Max Bronson

    Hi Al,
    I just came across your awesome site a few days ago from YouTube. Watched a lot of your videos. Great stuff!

    I’m overweight and have made a long term commitment of getting healthy and getting my weight down.

    I’ve got a plan which is basically made up of 10 week phases.

    Phase 1: Lift weights: This is just to get me back in the habit of exercising after being idle for so many years. Focused on Leg Presses, standing calf raises, lat pull downs, lying dumbbell presses, one arm standing dumbbell presses, dumbbell pullovers and the plank. I have just completed this phase and my strength grew considerably.

    Phase 2: (Starts on Monday)
    Bodyweight exercises and a few weight and exercises for legs as well as practicing on bars. In this phase, I want to improve functional strength, balance and flexibility. Main goals for this phase are:

    1. Hold a plank for 3 minutes
    2. Do a one legged pistol squat. (Never been able to do one)
    3. Do a pull up. (Haven’t been able to do one since 1993)
    4. Do a dip. (Haven’t been able to do one since 1993)

    I’ll be doing a variety of bodyweight exercises as well as stretching.

    Phase 3: Concentrate on creating circuits and HIT cycles where I do a mixture of weights and bodyweight exercises to speed up my metabolism and improve my fitness.

    I will train 4 days a week, Mon, Tues, Thurs, Fri. This is so I give my joints and tendons some time to recover. Being heavy, I don’t want to develop tendinitis or injure myself.

    What do you think of this way? Do you have any other advice? It would be much appreciated.

    Thanks.
    Max Bronson

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Hey Max – Congrats on taking control of your life and implementing a healthier lifestyle! My advice is to spend some more time soaking up what you can on my blog and consider getting a copy of my book to find out more about my training philosophy.

  • Mattman

    I tried your “warm up” (how you do that before training I don’t know) and I only got to 2 muscles into the 4, I was dead lol.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    I couldn’t do it the first time I tried either, Matt. Believe in yourself and keep training hard!

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  • Alex

    Hey Al! You train people and give a shot for many sort of workout to yourself. What about your warm-up? I haven’t seen any spot of information about it ). If it’s a secret, i will understand )).

    p/s

    sorry for bad english, in cause. i’m just another russian

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Hey Alex – I don’t have any secret warm-up. I often start my workout with a couple sun salutations or some running. Maybe jumping jacks and/or arm circles, too. There is no magic here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/todd.dosenberry Todd Dosenberry

    Damn Al. That video is awesome. I can’t wait to be able to do stuff like that. I am well on my way!

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks, Todd! Keep training hard!

  • Jon T.

    Hey Al,

    Awsome site! Exactly what I was looking for!
    I was wondering how often one should workout and how much rest time (in days) when doing these types of workouts? Thanks.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Hey Jon! Welcome to my blog and thanks for your comment. As for your question, there is no one answer that is right for everyone.

    If you’re new here, take a look around – I’ve got over 200 posts and many of them will address your concerns. I also suggest you order a copy of my book if you’d like to know more about my training philosophy.

  • Jon T.

    Thanks Al, will do!

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  • ShavedApe

    Hi Al,

    With taking up a pull-up routine I’m finding my hands are getting very blistered and calloused.  I’ve even tried using padded gloves but they don’t help very much.  How do you deal with this problem?  Does it go away or do the palms of your hands simply become very rough and hard over time? 

    Thank!

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Your hands will toughen up in time.  See this post for more: http://www.alkavadlo.com/2010/06/why-i-dont-wear-workout-gloves/

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Carlos-Layer/100000781564531 Carlos Layer

    Hey Al! What do you think about working out early in the morning? With/Without eating something?

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    The morning is my favorite time to train!  If I am hungry I’ll eat first, otherwise I will train fasted.  As always, listen to your body!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Carlos-Layer/100000781564531 Carlos Layer

    Nice advice :) I finally suspended the workout this morning, because I found yesterday contradictory info (“it is great!” >> “it’s bad for your body because you have no energy in the body deposit”), so I ended doing nothing (internet always destroys my plans, so much info everywhere!).

    Nex time I will try, and see how my body reacts… Thanks Al!

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  • Apollo

    Awesome site, i found it through marks daily apple. I do all my exercise by greasing the groove. When i saw your article i could only do a pull and 2 chin ups, Now I’m at 9 pull ups and 10 chin ups.(no kipping) Whats a max number of pullups you think is possible without kipping?

    Thanks for inspiring me to NOT be lazy and only do pushups. Now i need to add some leg exercises!

  • http://www.goldmedalbodies.com/ Andy Fossett

    Great progress! It’s hard to say what the upper bound for pull-ups is – apparently, you can do over 200 if you’re world record material (http://www.recordholders.org/en/list/chinups.html), but anything over ten is a good number.

    Get to 20, and you’ll be be doing better than 99% of the people you meet.

    Al wrote this one recently about bodyweight deadlift alternative: http://www.alkavadlo.com/2012/09/bodyweight-deadlift-alternatives/ Plenty in there to cover leg strength.

  • RobbyTaylor

    Nice progress, Apollo! 50 or even 100 strict pull ups is possible with enough dedication, but I think you will soon get to the point where you need to evaluate your training goals. Once you get to 20, you are well into endurance…which is fine, pull ups are hard enough that having high endurance for them is great because it will be great strength endurance; 20 strict dead hang pull ups would earn you a 100% on the US Marines PT test (they will accept chin up grip), and less than 10% achieve that standard…but honestly if you want to keep progressing in terms of absolute strength you will have to move on to something like the muscle up. The muscle up is a fantastic exercise because it is a pull up and a dip, plus the very difficult transition. The best thing about them is, since they incorporate pushing and pulling, you can get a better workout in less time than if you just do pull ups and dips. If I could only do 2 exercises, they would be muscle ups and pistol squats. If you have trouble with the pistol, consider shrimp squats instead. As for GTG, I find it useful to help improve form with a difficult move, building reps for dynamic exercises and time for statics. However, you should do a regular structured workout 2 to 4 times a week, depending on your ability to recover, if you want to maximize results. 30 minutes should be plenty of time. Also, I would suggest parallel or straight bar dips once push ups get easy. It is simple enough to do them on a pair of sturdy chairs.

  • steve

    dude,no offense, but your replies are always sooo long, you need to start your own website. Some people are directing there questions to Al.

  • http://www.goldmedalbodies.com/ Andy Fossett

    Hey Steve, thanks for the feedback. It can be tough to know how much to write sometimes.

    Unfortunately, with so many people directing questions to Al, it can be a lot to keep up with, which is why he asked Robby and I to moderate and help him respond to comments and questions.

    We’re definitely just here to help – not trying to step on anyone’s toes…