I’m still not sure why pullups and chinups are so awesome. But they are. I like to do them and so do my clients. Despite the high awesome factor (HAF), it’s actually quite hard to make progress with them.

So how can you improve on them? That depends on where you stand (hang?):

  1. Can you do a full pullup (no shame if you can’t!)?
  2. Can you do at least 1 but fewer than 5 consecutive full pullups (or chinups)?
  3. Can you do between 5 and 10 consecutive full pullups?
  4. Can you do more than 10 consecutive pullups, but still want to be able to do more?


If you fall into category 1, then check out this article that I wrote about getting from zero to 1 pullups.

Category 1: What the pullup portion of your workout will look like:

If you can do more band-assisted pullups than TRX-assisted pullups:

  • Set 1: as many TRX-assisted pullups as you can
  • Set 2: as many band-assisted pullups as you can
  • Set 3: as many TRX-assisted pullups as you can

 

If you can do more TRX-assisted pullups than band-assisted pullups:

  • Set 1: as many band-assisted pullups as you can
  • Set 2: as many TRX-assisted pullups as you can
  • Set 3: as many band-assisted pullups as you can

 

Category 2: Improving pullups from 1 to 5.

First off, give yourself a high-five because getting your first pullup is awesome. Seriously! In fact give yourself a couple more. And now let’s get back to work.

My approach to helping clients move beyond one pullup is two-fold:

  1. Keep doing partial pullups. While doing one pullup is awesome, one still isn’t a very big number, and it’s hard to get stronger at pullups when doing sets of one pullup. But doing sets of as many partial pullups as you can means doing reps, which will help you get stronger.
  2. Do some full pullups. We program a set of full pullups every second or third workout for our clients. This way they get to see how they are progressing. Also, even if they stay at one for a while, it’s still a nice reminder that you can do it. One key element though, is that we track reps down to one decimal place. If someone gets about 20% of the way up on their second rep, we write that down as 1.2; if they get to elbows at shoulder level, we write that as 1.5. Think of it this way: if you only write down progress when you add more full reps, then you’re expecting to double your output before acknowledging any progress. That’s a tough standard! Write in the decimals so you can see your actual progress.

 

What the pullup portion of your workout will look like:

Full pullup workout day:

If you can do more band-assisted pullups than TRX-assisted pullups:

  • Set 1: as many full pullups as you can (write the reps to one decimal place)
  • Set 2: as many TRX-assisted pullups as you can
  • Set 3: as many band-assisted pullups as you can

 

If you can do more TRX-assisted pullups than band-assisted pullups:

  • Set 1: as many full pullups as you can (write the reps to one decimal place)
  • Set 2: as many band-assisted pullups as you can
  • Set 3: as many TRX-assisted pullups as you can

 

No full pullups workout day:

If you can do more band-assisted pullups than TRX-assisted pullups:

  • Set 1: as many TRX-assisted pullups as you can
  • Set 2: as many band-assisted pullups as you can
  • Set 3: as many TRX-assisted pullups as you can

 

If you can do more TRX-assisted pullups than band-assisted pullups:

  • Set 1: as many band-assisted pullups as you can
  • Set 2: as many TRX-assisted pullups as you can
  • Set 3: as many band-assisted pullups as you can

 

Make sure to keep doing some core work in your workouts as well. Pullups are very much a core exercise in addition to an upper body exercise.

Category 3: Improving pullups from 5 to 10

My approach for this is three-fold:

  1. Keep working at it. There is an element of practice that is important. Get your repetitions in.
  2. Improve absolute pullup strength by doing resisted pullups. Add weight. This will likely mean fewer reps, but it can be effective at getting you through a plateau
  3. Do 1.5 partial pullups.

 

What are 1.5 partial pullups?

There are actually two versions of them:

  1. the TRX 1.5 partial pullup and
  2. the band 1.5 partial pullup.

 

Both have two functions to help improve your pullups:

  1. They help strengthen part of the pullup (the top half for the band version; the bottom half for the TRX version). Most people are either stronger on the bottom (stronger back) or top (stronger arms). If you know which is your weaker link, then work on improving it.
  2. They help improve your pullup endurance. This is key when increasing your pullup numbers. If you’re in the 5 to 10 range, then a set of pullups is actually quite a long, especially if you have long arms. That means it’s not just about strength; it’s about endurance. The 1.5 partial pullups allow you to spend more time doing pullups with a little less effort, which can help improve your staying power.

 

Check out the following video to see both versions of the 1.5 partial pullups:

What the pullup portion of your workout will look like:

If you can do more band 1.5 partial pullups than TRX 1.5 partial pullups:

  • Set 1: as many full pullups as you can
  • Set 2: resisted pullups (choose a weight such that you can do between 2 and 5 reps)
  • Set 3: as many TRX 1.5 partial pullups as you can

 

If you can do more TRX 1.5 partial pullups than band 1.5 partial pullups:

  • Set 1: as many full pullups as you can
  • Set 2: resisted pullups (choose a weight such that you can do between 2 and 5 reps)
  • Set 3: as many band 1.5 partial pullups as you can

 

And as above, don’t stop doing core work as part of your workouts.

Category 4: Improving pullups beyond 10

My approach for this is three-fold:

  1. Do more pullups. It’s simple and it’s true. 
  2. Do some sets with additional weight so you get stronger.  
  3. Do 1.5 rep pullups.

 

What are 1.5 rep pullups?

They are similar to 1.5 rep partial pullups except you will do them without any assistance. are actually two versions of them:

  1. the 1.5 top pullup. Pull all the way up, then go halfway down, and then go all the up and then all the way down. That’s one rep. 
  2. the 1.5 bottom pullup. Pull all the way up, then go all the way down, then go half way up and then all the way down. That’s one rep.

These versions improve your pullup-ability by forcing you to do extra work in each part of the movement. If you find you are equally strong in each, then this approach is not going to have a big impact, but if you find one of the two significantly harder than the other, this will be a great tool for you.

What the pullup portion of your workout will look like:

If you can do more 1.5 top pullups than 1.5 bottom pullups:

  • Set 1: as many full pullups as you can
  • Set 2: resisted pullups (choose a weight such that you can do between 5 and 10 reps)
  • Set 3: as many 1.5 bottom pullups as you can

That is the set order for the first workout. Rotate the order for each subsequent workout, meaning for your second workout, do resisted pullups as set 1, then 1.5 bottom pullups as set 2, and finish with full pullups. Continue to rotate the order for subsequent workouts. 

If you can do more 1.5 bottom pullups than 1.5 top pullups:

  • Set 1: as many full pullups as you can
  • Set 2: resisted pullups (choose a weight such that you can do between 5 and 10 reps)
  • Set 3: as many band 1.5 top pullups as you can

That is the set order for the first workout. Rotate the order for each subsequent workout, meaning for your second workout, do resisted pullups as set 1, then 1.5 top pullups as set 2, and finish with full pullups. Continue to rotate the order for subsequent workouts.

 

And as always, don’t stop doing core work as part of your workouts.

 

Elsbeth Vaino is a personal trainer at Custom Strength in Ottawa, Canada.

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