Pull ups can be found in just about every routine that is geared towards increasing upper body strength.
The spectrum of trainees who use this movement is very broad. Kids in gym class, weekend warriors, and even Olympic gymnasts perform pull ups on a regular basis.
Because of its exceptional popularity and reputation, one would assume that people make great progress from doing them.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. Not even close. In fact, I can tell you that most people get nowhere from doing pull ups.
However, trainees stubbornly continue to do them because they think that’s what they are “supposed” to do. I was certainly guilty of this for years.
You see, when I first started training some 25 years ago, I could easily crank out sets of 15 pull ups. I was even the pull up and flexed arm hang champion in junior high school.
Can you imagine how much better I thought I would get from years of structured and scientific training?
I thought that I would become a pull up master during the first year of training! I got a rude awakening, however, as I watched my chin up strength actually decrease — slowly and insidiously.
After one year of training, I was only able to get 13 reps. I justified my poor performance by deciding that, since I had gained 10 pounds of bodyweight that year, pulling up the extra weight would necessarily make a lift like the pull up more difficult.
But year after year, my ability to do pull ups decreased.
I’m embarrassed to admit that after 7 years of training, I was only able to do 10 pull ups.
Can you imagine consistently training for 7 years, only to decrease your pull up abilities by 33%? I was stunned and completely baffled by what was happening.
I was determined to figure out why this totally unacceptable atrophy was happening to me.
Why would doing a pulldown (which is essentially an exercise that simulates a pull up) result in measurable progress, while an actual pull up resulted in regression?
After seemingly endless obsessing and experimenting, I finally discovered the answer. I actually discovered several reasons why this regression took place. Here they are, along with my solution for each of them…
1) Most people take sets of pull ups beyond failure. For some reason, pull ups (more than almost any other exercise) seem to inspire people to take each set to beyond failure. The more you do this, the weaker you will become.
The Solution- Stop your sets before your form even begins to break down. In other words, your last rep should look like your first.
Just because you can get your chin over the bar 3 more times doesn’t mean you should. Once you start walking up the wall and rounding your shoulders, you are already beyond failure and entering into the “no progress zone”.
2) Most people always use the same level of resistance. Week in and week out, most trainees simply pull up their bodyweight. This means that the same resistance is used forever (assuming that the athlete’s bodyweight is roughly maintained).
Can you imagine going to the gym for an extended period of time and just using 135 lbs exclusively when you squat? It sounds silly but it is precisely what most trainees do with chins and pull ups.
The Solution- You really need to vary your resistance. To decrease loading, hook up some bands to the bar and do assisted chins. To increase resistance, simply hang some weight from your waist or use a weighted vest.
3) Most people use the same grip angle for every workout. It is not uncommon for trainees to choose the grip that they are strongest in and do it forever. This is a mistake and can eventually lead to lack of progress as well as tendinitis around the elbows.
The Solution- You guessed it- you should vary your grip. I prefer to vary all aspects of my grip. Supinated, pronated and neutral grips are good variations to start with.
But you can take it even further and vary grip width and the diameter of the bar you are using. You can even do your chins from a pair of rings.
4) Most people exclusively use only one style of pulling. Just grab onto the bar and pull yourself up, right? Although that is the basic premise, I find it more productive to vary the pulling style.
The Solution- Work in strict reps, pumper reps and kipping reps into your routines. You don’t need to vary the pulling style all of the time, but when you see yourself about to stall out, switch to another style for a period of time. You will become stronger because of it.
5) Most people exclusively use the same rep/set scheme. A lot of trainees just do sets of however many reps they can perform with their bodyweight. This will cause serious stagnation in a hurry.
The Solution- How to go about doing this is really dictated by your strength levels. For example, let’s say your max is 10 reps. Instead of always doing 3 sets of 8, you could do 5 sets of 5 with a weighted vest. Or alternatively, try 3 sets of 12 with band assistance.
I could go on and on about the pitfalls (and their solutions) of the pull up, but the issues listed above tend to be the main five for most people.
By integrating the solutions myself, I busted out of my pull up rut and increased my reps from 10 to 28. I know it will work for you too. Good luck!
Dedicated to your success,