Pull-ups: they’re officially the new bench press. Now that everyone’s agreed (right?) that having a Batman-style v-taper looks better than maintaining a ludicrously oversized set of pecs – and that being able to haul yourself up a cliff is preferable to being able to press a load of weight overhead while you’re lying on your back – we can all get on with obsessing over our pull-up numbers like we once did our bench. There are many, many ways to increase the amount of pull-ups you can do, and you’re in luck, because I’ve tried all of them. Here’s what I think of five of the biggest plans.
The programme: You do pull-ups in decreasing sets every single day for six days, then take a day off. Next week, you add a rep or two to every set. On this schedule, you probably ought to hit 20 pullups in a month.
The upside: It’s a tonne of volume, so it’s likely to work. No single set is that challenging.
The downside: You have to do pullups every day. Even if you don’t find that boring, there’s a decent chance of getting elbow tendinitis.
Do it if: You’re planning on joining some branch of the military that’s going to require lots of pullups. Otherwise, it’s tough to see how the insane volume’s a good idea.
The Barstarrz Five-Day Split
So I got this from Harry Cloudfoot, who – because he doesn’t have a very big room – did it with L-sits, which is frankly ridiculous. It’s five days of pullups, done in different variations: Monday is five sets to failure with 90s rest, Tuesday is a ladder with increasing rest, (1 rep:10 seconds, 2 reps:20 seconds, etc), Wednesday is nine sets split across three grips, Thursday is nine sets with one grip, and Friday is a repeat of whatever you found hardest.
The upside: The variations are fun: doing nine sets with a shifting grip is a fantastic way to get in more volume while hitting your muscles from different angles, and the ladder is a great challenge: I still do these occasionally even though I’m done with the plan. They’re pretty quick workouts too: you could do this in 11 minutes (ish) a day.
The downside: Again, it’s pullups almost every day – though slightly less damaging than Recon Ron because of the shifting grips. Monday and Tuesday’s workouts hurt, and if you have any honour you have to do one of them again on Friday.
Do it if: You want a bigger back and higher work capacity: this actually did more for my ability to crank out lots of sub-max sets than it did for my top-end numbers. Want to be able to do Murph strict in 40 minutes? This might be your plan.
The Waterbury Double
The plan: This comes from trainer Chad Waterbury, and it couldn’t be simpler. You do a single set to failure in the morning, a single set to failure in the afternoon, take a day off, and then repeat. To reiterate, that’s two sets of all-out pullups once every two days. Blam!
The upside: It doesn’t get much more time-efficient. And yes, it really does work. I used this to get to – at the time – my highest ever number of pullups at 18, and it only took a week.
The downside: You need a pullup bar you can access twice a day. Both sets are unpleasant. And you don’t get much volume in, so you won’t be prepared for higher numbers of pullups over a workout, or build a massive back.
Do it if: You want to get respectable numbers in a hurry – maybe for a bet or something.
The plan: Okay, this isn’t really a plan. It’s a way of working out, as seen on crossfit.com, that includes hundreds of pullups, sometimes in a single workout. I’m including it here because Crossfitters are obsessed with pullups – even if they sometimes stretch the definition.
The upside: You get a lot of reps in. From experience, I think it’s true that ‘kipping’ pullups – the ones where you wave your legs around – can somehow make you better at the strict version.
The downside: Many smarter people than me have debated the merits of the kipping pullup, so I’m not even going to get into the injury risks here. What I will say is: if you’re expecting a non-Crossfitter to be impressed by 30 ‘butterfly’ pullups, you are going to be badly disappointed.
Do it if: You’re looking for a more holistic workout plan and aren’t necessarily going strict.
The plan: Nice and specific: you do pullups three times a week, for four weeks, doing a ‘heavy’ weighted day, a ‘moderate’ weighted day, and a ‘max reps at bodyweight’ day. The sets and reps change, but the format’s pretty easy to remember and follow.
The upside: It’s a nice, manageable plan that you can easily tag onto whatever you’re already doing in the gym – or at home, if you have a belt. It works really well, and it makes your weighted pullups better at the same time.
The downside: You need a belt – dumbbells between the legs won’t cut it. If you can’t already do about 12 pullups, it’s probably not your best bet.
Do it if: You’ve already got decent numbers but you’ve hit a plateau. This is the plan that got me to 21 strict pullups.
Greasing The Groove
The plan: This is Russian special forces trainer Pavel Tsatsouline’s option: I always thought it was the same as JDPATT (see below), but recently I’ve learned it’s more specific: you work out your max, then do half that many reps at intervals of at least 15 minutes (to let your ATP stores regenerate) through the day. When that number feels easy (or once a week) up the reps by one.
The upside: It’s a fantastic way to train. 50% of max isn’t enough to tax you, so you can do the pullups whenever – when you’re waiting for the kettle to boil first thing in the morning, last thing at night, after you get ready for work. It’s easy. It makes your pullups go up.
The downside: You really need your own pullup bar.
Do it if: You want to really crank your single-set numbers (and, to some extent, your work capacity) up, and you’re patient: this won’t work as fast as the Waterbury plan, but it’s a lot easier mentally and easier to keep up long-term. This is probably my winner, though every plan has its merits.
Just doing pullups all the time
The plan: There is no plan. Just do pull-ups whenever the opportunity presents itself – while the kettle’s boiling, while you’re cooking dinner, before you shower, before work, after work, during work…whenever. Pavel Tsatsouline calls this ‘greasing the groove’,
The upside: This is a fantastic plan if ‘100 pull-up Saturday’ sounds like a fun challenge rather than a hellish chore. It’s highly adaptable, easy to follow, and fun.
The downside: This isn’t for you if you need structure or motivation before you’ll do any exercise.
Do it if: You own a pullup bar, you love doing pullups, and you aren’t training for anything specific. It’ll keep you ticking over.
In conclusion: Just pick one and do it. If it doesn’t work after you’ve given it an honest chance, do something else. The best pull-up plan, as with the best nutritional strategy or working practices, is the one that works for you. It might even change over time. There’s no wrong way to approach pullups – except for not doing them at all.