I did a few sets of weighted pull ups with 65 pounds around my waist at the gym recently.
Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a guy who was staring at me like I was an alien.
He came up to me and asked incredulously, “How did you do that?!?!?”
The answer is by following simple principles, which I have outlined in this article.
I’m not a huge guy; I’m 5’10’’ and about 167 pounds. Maybe that was part of the reason he was so surprised.
I really love pull ups because you can build excellent pulling strength, develop an impressive muscular back, and demonstrate bodyweight mastery.
The pull up is one of the best upper body exercises in my opinion. That’s why I’ve spent 20+ years of my life doing pull ups and 10+ years teaching them.
It’s no surprise that the pull up is used as a benchmark for overall strength and physical fitness in the military.
Here are my top tips to help you do more pull ups quickly.
Top 5 Tips To Do More Pull Ups
1. Practice Pull Ups
The best way to get better at pull ups is to practice them. In other words, do pull ups more frequently.
This is called “greasing the groove”.
The more pull ups you do, the more efficient your neuromuscular system becomes. In other words, the movement becomes hard wired into your brain and body.
There are tons of different ways to practice doing pull ups.
You can get a pull up bar for your office or in your home, and just do 1 rep here or there. This goes a long way to improving your strength.
Another way is simply to add them to every workout.
And finally, possibly the best but most time consuming way is to use “ladders”.
Let’s say you can do 7 pull ups. You will do 1 rep, then 2 reps, then 3 reps, then 4 reps, then 5 reps, resting between each set. Then go all the way back to the 1 and repeat 2x.
So it’s 1-2-3-4-5 repeated 3x total.
This style of training allows you to do a ton of volume without burning yourself out. You are able to practice pull ups without going to failure. That’s the key.
If you constantly max out and train to failure, it will take you much longer to build strength and injuries are more likely to occur
2. Lose Fat
The 2nd easiest and fastest way to get better at pull ups is to lose body fat.
If you have 5, 10, or 20 pounds to lose, or more, you are doing a weighted pull up every set.
By losing body fat, the pull up becomes MUCH easier.
This is one of the key reasons why I’m good at pull ups is because I’m a lean dude around 6-7% body fat.
My flagship fitness program called BuiltLean® Transformation helps you lose fat consistently every week.
If you have some fat to lose, take action and get started asap.
3. Do Negatives Or Hang (if you can’t do any pull ups)
If you are unable to do pull ups, then do negatives.
This means you use a box or bench to help you jump up to the bar, then you resist the way down.
I’m not a big fan of using the lat pulldown machine or even using an assistance band to help you do pull ups. The load is just too light.
If you are not strong enough to jump up to the bar and resist on the way down – or you are too overweight where that would be dangerous – then either do sets of hanging on a bar until you build up your strength or lose weight.
Both will help you get to the point where you can start doing negatives.
If you can already to pull ups, then don’t do negatives.
4) Increase Grip Strength
I’ve said this before, but the 2 fastest ways to increase your overall strength is to increase your (1) grip strength and (2) core strength.
If you have a weak grip, it’s like trying to drive with the parking brake on.
You are limiting your strength development.
The stronger your grip, the more your body allows you to generate force. It will be much easier for you to pull yourself up the bar if you have a strong grip.
5. Do Weighted Pull Ups
When you can do 5 or more pull ups, you can start adding weight.
This may sound crazy, but it’s a shortcut if there is one. A difficult and intense shortcut!
If you practice 1 or 2 reps with additional weight (10 or more pounds), bodyweight pull ups start to feel a lot easier.
Your nervous system adapts quickly so that you can do more pull ups.
Of course, you need to be careful. Don’t train to failure. You should not do any reps where you are struggling like crazy because that will not help you get stronger faster and may put you at risk for injury.
Other Tips To Do More Pull Ups
While the previous 5 tips are the best place to start, I have a few others I must share with you.
Remember how I said increasing your grip and core strength is the fastest way to get stronger?
Well the deadlift is the #1 exercise to help you do both simultaneously. I believe it is the undisputed king of all strength training exercises.
The reason why I did not include deadlifts above is because I don’t believe most men should do deadlifts without a coach.
The barbell is very unforgiving and the deadlift in my opinion is the most dangerous of all standard barbell lifts.
I am a casualty of deadlift – I got low back surgery after a slipped disc from doing them – but I’ve since learned how to deadlift properly. I’m even a barbell certified instructor.
The more you can deadlift, the easier pull ups will be. For most guys, it’s just not worth it. The risk is too high.
Engage Your Lats
Some guys have a lot of trouble engaging their lats, or the muscle that is on the side of your body underneath the armpit.
If you try to use only your arms to pull up to the bar, it’s not going to happen!
If you struggle with feeling any tension in your lat muscles, you should activate your lats before doing pull ups. This will help immensely.
You can do straight arm pull down to help activate the lats, or you can also grab them and poke them to help to help stimulate the muscle fibers. If you have a friend to poke them as you are doing the exercise, that would be ideal.
Keep in mind when you first start the pull up, the first motion is depressing your shoulders or pulling them down, not trying to bend your arms. That comes second.
Use A Grip Slightly Wider Than Shoulder Width
There are many different pull up variations that you can do.
A pull up means your palms are facing away from you, not towards you like in a chin up. Pull ups are more difficult than chin ups because your biceps are less engaged.
The wider your grip, the harder it is to generate upward force to pull you up the the bar.
If you use a slightly wider than shoulder width grip, you will be able to pull your body up more effectively to the bar. It’s similar to why doing a reverse biceps curl (with palms facing away) is harder than standard biceps curls.
If you do start doing more pull ups, keep in mind it’s imperative to stretch.
Reason-I don’t want you to be that guy with internally rotated shoulders (your arms and shoulders are rounded forwards) who develops a shoulder injury.
Be sure to stretch your lats and keep your shoulders mobile.
Have fun with pull ups and remember to have patience. Like anything, if you stick with it you will get better and better.
Would you recommend doing the “ladder” approach daily especially if I can do say 4 pull ups before failure?
Hey Rob, if your #1 goal is to increase your pull ups, the ladder approach can definitely work. You can start with 2 reps, then just add on from there. Please see my comment to Robert => https://www.builtlean.com/2018/03/30/more-pull-ups/#comment-198720. You may consider starting out with more sets because you will not be doing many reps. So you can do 5 sets of 1 rep than 2 reps, 3 sets of 1-2, and 4 sets of 1-2 to start.
Hi Marc! I’m puzzled about your comments regarding not training to failure. I’ve always thought that was the only way to force your muscles to get stronger (and maybe that’s why I’m constantly battling tendonitis). I’d love to get your feedback on this! If you don’t know what your failure point is, how do you know when to progress, and by how much?
Hey Patrick, training to failure is one of the biggest myths in strength training. I could write forever about it – and there have been books written on the subject – but the idea is that if you want to get strong as fast as possible, train your nervous system. This means avoiding those grueling reps, which burns your nervous system out. Think about how powerlifters train. They RARELY if ever train to failure during the training sessions. Training to failure can help you get bigger muscles, but the confusing thing is bigger muscles don’t necessarily make you stronger! There are different types of hypertrophy (myofibrillar & sarcoplasmic). Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy can make your muscles look fuller but wont necessarily help you build more strength.
I also don’t like training to failure because there’s a higher risk of injury. Instead, I go to “technical failure”, which means in order for me to get another rep, my form will suffer and will not be completely crisp. Hope this makes sense and is helpful!
Marc, good article. Thanks. What do you think of doing deadlifts using a fixed bar on rails? You have deadlifts in the 12-week program, but our gym doesn’t have a free barbell.
Hey Charles, I’m sorry, but I don’t understand what you mean with “fixed bar on rails”?
Vertical rails on either side that the barbell slides up and down on. You put weights on the ends and stand in the middle.
Oh, ok. I understand. It’s a machine in the gym, it’s referred to as a Lever Deadlift.
I think that exercise is definitely useful assuming you are using good form (keeping your back neutral, breathing properly etc.). It will help you build greater grip and core strength, along with overall hip strength.
Thanks! Good to know.
Great article! Pull ups are one of my favorite exercises. I do them every day, most days I do them two times. I recently started doing weighted pull ups and I can feel myself getting stronger.I love the ladder training you mentioned. I recently did that by accident- I got interrupted during my first set- and ended up doing 14 reps instead of my normal 10. I am 59 years old, 5’8″,154lbs with a 14% body fat. My goal is to get under 12% body fat this year
and pull ups are going to help me reach this goal.
Awesome, Bob! That’s impressive you are doing that many pull ups. You are clearly in great shape, keep it up
Thank you for the article. I really enjoyed it.
I am 61, 6’5″, 180 and started doing chin ups and pull ups about a year ago. It was and still can be very difficult. But I started with one using a bar in the doorway and went from there. I want to get to ten straight, but so far have not got there.
Now I do multiple reps of five with breaks in between. Funny thing is I have become addicted. I’ll stop in the local park while walking my dog and do sets on the frame of an old soccer score frame or when I’m out jogging on the levee, I’ll use the base of a giant electrical tower to do more pull ups. I’m up to about ten sets or 50 pull ups. Crazy…
It really has helped my body and makes other lifting easier. Everyone should try. It is worth it.
Awesome, happy to hear pull ups have helped you Chris. And your determination has clearly paid off!
Thanks for the suggestions, Marc. This is one area that I have never been proficient. First of all, I have fought obesity most of my life, secondly, I have never been able to do more than ten pull ups. I am going to use the ‘ladder’ strategy starting today.
Cool, let me know how it goes, Robert. The key is that over time, you start adding reps and even sets to the ladders.
So assuming you can do 5 reps, it would look something like this using a Monday / Wednesday / Friday routine:
M 1-2-3 x3 ladders
W 1-2-3 x1 ladder
F 1-2-3 x2 ladders
M 1-2-3 x4
W 1-2-3 x2
F 1-2-3 x3
M 1-2-3 x5
W 1-2-3 x3
F 1-2-3 x4
M 1-2-3-4 x3
W 1-2-3-4 x1
F 1-2-3-4 x2
…then you keep on going. This type of training can be tedious, but it’s one of the most effective ways at building pull up strength, if not the most effective way! Of course, you can take a less structured approach and just do more pull ups throughout the day, but usually more structure will win out handily.
Marc, could you please elaborate on your comment in the article about not doing negatives if you can already do pull-ups? Interested to hear why you feel this way 🙂 Cheers.
Hey Allan, practicing 1 rep of a pull up 10x (or 10 sets) will help you ingrain the movement faster than doing negatives. That’s the idea. Might as well start out with the ladders ASAP
Two quick comments followed by a more detailed question:
1: On your point about “greasing the groove”, I couldn’t agree more. I used to do maybe just 1 rep, 2 reps, 2 reps (5 total) in the morning when getting ready for work. Since I moved into a new apartment where oddly enough a pull up bar won’t work in any of my door frames, I’ve lost this daily consistency and it shows.
2: The title of your article is different in the main text than what shows up on the top of the browser tab, which says “How to Get Better At Pullups FAST (10+ Reps).” I know you’re recommending an effective way to improve, but my general understanding is that you appreciate more than anyone that none of this is truly fast, and requires steady work.
3: Could you elaborate on the rest times for the “ladder” set? Would the duration of the rests scale up with the # of reps? If I’m resting a full minute between each of the 1-2-3-4-5, and do that sequence 3 times total, that time will really add up.
Thanks for the comments, Steve!
Here are my answers:
1) Yes, greasing the groove is the fastest way I know of to get stronger and it’s what most powerlifters do. They constantly “practice” reps as opposed to a bodybuilder who is trying to burn out his muscles.
2) I changed it, thanks for pointing that out.
3) The downside of doing ladders is that they take a long time. One thing you can do is that you can superset something with them, so you can do lets say push ups with pull ups superset. It makes the pull ups a little harder, but you get more done in less time. Around a full minute of rest between each set would be ideal. Many strength athletes rest 3-5 minutes between sets for near maximal recovery, but that’s not what BuiltLean is about. We want to be more efficient with our time and get 80% of the results in 20% of the time.
Great article as always Mark, I’m happy you’ve stated to add articles more frequently. I think pull-ups are a great metabolic exercise.They always leave me tired AND breathing heavy. A couple of keys that I learned that have helped are to change up your grip and try to pull your shoulders away from your ears as you pull.
Hey James, thanks for leaving a comment. And that’s one of my favorite tips is to “pack” the shoulders. This applies to all lifting exercise, especially deadlift, pressing, and pulling!
Thanks for a very helpful article yet again.
I have always felt the same about the risk of deadlifts without someone to guide me through them. Can you suggest any alternatives that are as effective as deadlifts, but with a lower risk of back injuries?
Hey Aditya, I think there are a few options:
1) Kettlebell deadlift – while this is still a deadlift, you can place the kettlebell in between your feet, lower down, then pick it up. It’s much safer than a barbell deadlift. You can also make it a “partial deadlift” by putting the kettlebell on a raise platform so that it’s let’s say 5 inches off the ground so you don’t need to bend over as far
2) Farmers Carries – this is one of the best exercises you can do and least talked about in the exercise world. You build awesome grip strength. Yes, it’s not a hip hinge like the deadlift, but you will build exceptional grip strength which is what the deadlift does.
3) Hip Thrusts – There are many different variations of hip thrusts, but the idea is that you are extending your hips powerfully to increase your glute activation.
Hope this helps!
I did see the Hip Thrusts as suggested alternatives. I’ll incorporate all 3 in my routine.
Thanks a lot!