Programming Pull-ups

Monday’s are devoted to female related topics to help females begin or continue to train.

In this post, about 40% of female poll-takers said that they couldn’t do a pull-up (while 7% said they could at least do a chin-up). In this post we talked about how to develop a chin-up (underhand) or pull-up (overhand), but only briefly talked about programming these methods. While the Frequency Method works well, there is some leeway on how to implement it. We’ll discuss how to go about improving the pull-up based on current ability, give tips about the Frequency Method, and offer some other methods.

What To Do
Here are the levels from no chin-up to pull-up (use this post for explanation). Note that the chin-up will develop first, so all movements focus on that unless otherwise noted.

No chin-up, weak: Use the close-grip pull-down cable machine in your gym. If you attend a non-fitnessy gym, then use some sort of body rows.
No chin-up, not so weak: Use negatives.
No chin-up, weak in top half (lockout): Use “Double Negatives” for the top range of motion.
[spoiler show=”What’s a Double Negative?” hide=”Oh, cool”]Start at the finished ROM like a normal negative, do a negative down to the halfway point (or when the elbows are about 90 degrees), and then return back to the top ROM. Then, do a normal negative. So that was down and up through the top half, then down all the way through the full ROM until getting to the bottom. That’s one rep.[/spoiler]
No chin-up, weak in bottom half (getting started): Use Double Negatives for bottom ROM.
[spoiler show=”Tell me how” hide=”Neat”]Start at the top, drop all the way down, use the stretch reflex out of the bottom to go as high as possible, then negative the rest of the way down. So, do a negative down, rebound and go as high as possible, then negative from that point down followed by a full, regular negative.

Method B would be to start at the bottom (hanging), start the chin and go as high as you can, then negative from that point back to the bottom. Then hop to the top ROM and do a full negative. So try a chin from the bottom and negative down, then do a full, regular negative after.[/spoiler]
Chin-up! Yay! But only one?: Maintain frequency method, but with full ROM (more in later sections).
Regular chin-ups, no pull-up: Start hitting doubles on chins for a week, then triples. Then start on pull-ups.
Chin-ups are pretty solid, but no pull-up: Alternate between workouts that focus on chin-ups (see previous point) and pull-ups. Find out where you are on this list on the pull-up and start there. If you can’t lock it out, then work the top ROM. If you can’t get out of the bottom, then work that ROM. If it’s no dice either way, use negatives.

Note that you’ll occasionally (i.e. once every 7 to 10 days) attempt a dead hang chin or pull-up. If you show progress, then shift to the next point.

Frequency Method Tips
First, pick the days that you will do your exercises. Common options include the weekdays with weekends off, or every day except for Thursday and Sunday (which would be three days in a row, off day, two days in a row, then another off day).

Second, find out where you are on the list in the previous section. Use that method primarily in your training, but pick a rep range to complete daily. Let’s start with ten repetitions; it’ll provide a bit of volume but probably not too much on a daily basis.

Third, distribute it throughout the day. If you’re diligent and really organized, you might have a rigid plan. It all depends on your personality, but rigid plans are hard to make a habit. Instead, let’s just break it up into two sessions: morning and night. Do half of your reps in the morning before work or school, and do the rest at night. You’ll need a pull-up bar; they aren’t expensive. Get one that looks like this unless you’re going to drill into your house (anything more fancy is just bullshit). It will cost less than $30.

There, you’re all set. You can either progress the stress by a) changing the movement as indicated by our list in the previous section or b) by increasing the number of reps you perform. Doing these reps morning and night on a daily basis may be a pain in the ass, but do you want to be a champion? Or a girl who can’t do a pull-up? That’s what I thought.

Another Simple Method
Let it be known that some kind of Frequency Method will be the most effective way of developing the pull-up. However, there are still other options. The easiest way is to train them at the end of your training sessions. Use all of the above methods in the same way, but do it at the end of your training session (but do them before any isolation work, like curls, or conditioning).

Now you need to complete a given amount of reps in a short amount of time instead of freely doing them throughout the day. The easiest way is to complete each set on the minute. This will cut down potential talking time and get the chin-up portion done in about ten minutes. At some point you’ll shift into this anyway, because if your strength gets high enough where you’re able to complete many reps, then the daily work on the Frequency Method will be too hard to recover from. So the progression will shift into about three workouts a week. Once the pull-up (not just the chin-up) becomes automatic, then you can start using one weighted session with one body weight session for a total of two pull-up sessions a week. After progressing to consistent multi-rep sets and handling extra weight, you can use any of the methods briefly described in this post.

While this may have simply been a review for some trainees, the overall point is that there isn’t one stock way to train pull-ups for all abilities. There are plenty more ways to develop a pull-up. Bands are often used, but typically I like to avoid bands since they aren’t as specific to the movement as actually hanging from the bar (e.g. the trunk stabilization is often non-existent in banded pull-ups).

The trainee’s ability in the movement will dictate how they go about it in their training session, and the training sessions should shift from low volume and high frequency to lowering the frequency and increasing the volume and/or intensity. Just remember that pull-ups are cool, but people who do pull-ups and never squat are not.

21 thoughts on “Programming Pull-ups

  1. I’m not a female, but I have a question about the frequency method. I’ve been using a ladder method for a few months, adding one rep per week, and I’m up to 30 reps now (5 ladders of 1, 2, 3). I bust these ladders out consecutively first thing after I wake up every morning. I also do weighted chins for assistance work after my lifting sessions 3x per week.

    Should I keep on doing as I’m doing adding one rep per week? Is there a point where doing so much volume every morning becomes pointless or counter productive?

  2. Any recommendation for number of reps and sets for lat pull downs for a female who fits in that category? I’ve been having her do 3×8 with a weight that she can just barely do for 8 reps. I figured it’s important to build some mass in there so I did x8 instead of x5 but I don’t really know if that makes sense. Thank you.

  3. I’d like to hear the answer to Maslow’s comment too.
    Also wondering if there is any issue with doing a few negatives every day? Up to 5 or 8, frequency method style? I ordered one of those pullup bars last week, and was planning to do morning, lunch, after work and bedtime, 1 or 2 attempts. Is there a strong requirement to take days off at this volume?

  4. i do the frequency method. i have my bar hanging in the doorway between my dining room and kitchen. i do my max rep attempts first thing in the morning when i am light. i get my coffee going and then do the pull ups while i wait for it to brew. i will then get myself jacked up on the caffeine and try to match the reps i got earlier in a second set. (for example, doing two sets of max reps in the AM got me from doing doubles to triples to sets of four, five, six, and now seven).

    then later on throughout the rest of the day rather than doing max reps, i make the reps harder. i will vary my reps between weighted (between 10, 15, 20, 25 typically) as well as using a wide grip, only holding onto the bar with two or three fingers on each hand, or attempting to do a pull up with my legs elevated (like an L-sit).

    so…yeah. that’s my frequency method. all day, every day. reps early in the day, “intensity” later in the day.

    hope that helps!

  5. nice article.

    I just tried Wendler’s “Boring But Big” program on Volume day of TM. Like drinking milk on a hot day. Bad choice. I might as well have shoved fifty dicks up my ass instead.

  6. I know this is off topic and all, but what do you think of when you see D1 football players doing muscle cleans from the hang with atrocious form, but a lot of weight regardless

  7. matthewjd: Are we at the same gym or something? I got unreasonably angry about this today. DUDE: I would like to see you properly rack just ONE FUCKING REP. JUST ONE.

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