Updated: Jul 20
WEEKLY CIRCUIT CLASS: Tuesday 22nd November, 6:30pm Turnham Green, Chiswick - Come down and get involved!
Edition 42 - A Recipe for Mastering Perfect Pull Ups
Good quality pull ups are arguably one of the hardest training exercises to master. Depending on the environment you are in, you will see a wide spectrum of peoples ‘pull up capabilities’ - for example, I could be coaching a team of footballers, where maybe 70-80% can execute more than 1 pull up - but perhaps only 10-20% of this group are able to carry out more than 5 with proper form. Then I could be at The Hogarth Club, where perhaps only 5% of members are able to execute a bodyweight pull up with correct form. It is hard to state what percentage of the UK population are able to do a pull up (my guess would be around 10% for a number of reasons, but this could be wildly inaccurate). A couple of factors to consider:
Strength relative to bodyweight: around 65% of men and women in the UK are overweight or obese. I do not believe that being overweight is inherently a problem regarding health (obese perhaps moreso), but it is certainly a barrier to aspects of athletic performance such as this. My guess would be that pull ups will be undeniably harder for this 65%, although it is important to note some people in this group will still be strong enough to do them with ease (eg. rugby players, or general population with enough training experience).
Training experience and explosive capabilities: So we are left with 35% of the population who may not be overweight, but despite this, they still may not be able to do a pull up - why? Because being ‘not overweight’ doesn’t make you fit or healthy. People with less weight to pull may simply be untrained, never having done them before, or possibly being older and less active. There will still only be a small percentage of this group who are fit, strong and explosive enough to pull their own bodyweight.
So what is the recipe for developing the strength to be able to do some quality pull ups?
Identify Your Starting Point
Bearing in mind the points above, start by identifying:
a) what you can currently maximally lift - a simple test would be to progressively work up to your 5 rep max on a lat pulldown machine.
b) how much you weigh
c) what proportion of your bodyweight you are able to squeeze 5 reps out for
For example - if I weigh 80kg, and max out at 5 reps on 40kg on the lat pulldown, I am only able to pull 50% of my bodyweight.
You can use this as a marker on your journey and whenever you like, ‘check-in’ on your max - it may be that halfway down the line you are able to perform 5 reps at 60kg (75% bw), meaning you are drawing ever closer to being able to pull your own bodyweight. Lat pulldown will not completely replicate the pull up but provides a straightforward way to get an idea of your pulling strength.
Create a Plan and Stick to it
The most obvious place to start is by committing to practising getting stronger at modified/regressed versions of the pull up, and gradually building your strength until you can increase the difficulty to the extent of a full bodyweight pull up. For this, I would recommend having 2-3 days per week where you are doing something to focus on your progress (3 per week if you want to get there as fast as possible, 2 per week if you aren’t in a rush). But what should that plan look like?
Above, you can see a plan I put together for my wife, who wanted to go about achieving a bodyweight pull up - and this was the basis for my first ever Patreon video episode. You can see there were 3 sessions each week - Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Mon and Weds were short sessions with only one key focus, followed by 48 hrs rest, while Friday was the ‘hot’ session, with the most volume and intensity, followed with 72 hrs rest.
Fill the Buckets
Low reps focusing on power. For these sets it is important to have enough support so that you can generate speed in the pull up. The mistake many people make whether doing lat pulldown or assisted chin ups, is the load is either heavy to the point it makes the lift too slow and laboured, or light to the point they are not required to pull aggressively to generate the necessary force. On Monday’s I simply gave Cally a warm up routine with some primer exercises, followed by 5 sets of 5 maximal, explosive reps with the cue to get up ‘as fast as possible’, and most importantly - a specific amount of support that would a) make her work for each rep b) still allow her to generate the necessary speed and momentum to train her power capacity.
Eccentric (negative) reps. This for me is the most important aspect of achieving a high quality pull up. The power and hypertrophy stuff allows you to smash them out - but the eccentric training is the glue that makes the technique stick. Negative reps are basically the opposite of the normal pull up - instead of starting at the bottom and pulling to the top, we are starting at the top and lowering for as long as possible to the bottom position (the dead hang). The reason they are so effective is because as you can probably imagine, the stronger you become at them, the longer you can delay your descent from top to bottom. What is the extreme of this? Well, with enough practice, eventually you can slow your descent to the point where you can pause yourself mid-journey and hold a static ‘half-pull-up’ position. Better yet, not only can you pause as you are lowering, but you can also switch it up and begin going the opposite way and lifting yourself back up! Mastering the negatives gives you total control of your pull up throughout the entire range of motion.
Hypertrophy, intensity and volume. The final important bucket to fill is the *hot* session - this is the main session of the week where we tick a few boxes:
✅Try a maximal set of pull-ups to establish current ‘ceiling’
✅Follow it with 3 more sets to failure (go to the dark place)
✅Carry out other pulling exercises for higher reps
✅Isolate supporting muscle groups (rear delts, biceps etc.)
Consistency & Regularity
Carrying out these 3 routines consistently is enough to make some dramatic changes to your ability to pull up. Check out the Patreon episode to see how Cally got on with her challenge!
1 short power session, 1 short eccentric session, 1 hot session (max reps and volume)
Train high reps, low reps & everything in between
Train full range of motion
Keep the workouts short and sweet
Keep showing up
“I hated every minute of training, but I said - ‘don’t quit. Suffer now, and live the rest of your life as a champion’” ― Muhammad Ali
Movement of the Week: Pull Ups (you guessed it!)
3-5 sets of 3-5 reps
That’s all for this week! Check out my Patreon channel for video episodes, on-demand workouts, training programmes, training guidance/advice and more!