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Foundation Building to Improve Pull-ups

pullupdown.jpg - 7810 Bytes pullupup.jpg - 12078 BytesThe Pull-up is the great equalizer when it comes to hard exercises to master.  Questions from how to do more, how to do any, how to ace pull-up fitness tests come in all the time.  Over the years, we have created and used many workouts (like the ones below) to improve pull-ups, but one of the first elements you should consider before doing pull-ups is:  How much do you weigh?

I had an email the other day from a 30 year old man who is 270 lbs and can do 9-10 pull-ups.   Naturally, I am impressed because when I put on a 60-70lb vest or back pack and try to do pull-ups (I weigh 200lbs), I cannot perform but 1-2 pull-ups and I can do 25+ NO KIP pull-ups on my best day.  But, he is not happy with that performance and asks, “Stew, I can do 9-10 pull-ups, but the second set drops to 4-5, and the third set drops to 2-3.  Do you have any recommendations to build up my overall numbers as well as my workout sets?”

First of all, most people who weigh 270lbs cannot do any pull-ups.  If you think about it the pull-up (and the dip) is the heavy weight lifting exercise of the calisthenics category.  To complete a rep, you have to move your entire bodyweight with your arms / back muscles up and down over a bar.  In my experience, there are three steps to building more pull-ups:

Build a Foundation:  The more you weigh, the harder this exercise is.  If any of your present bodyweight is fat that you would like to lose anyway, then start on a path of weight loss through moderate eating and cardio training to lose some of that extra weight.  Also work the muscles of the pull-up:  grip of the hand / forearm, biceps, rear deltoids, and lats (latissimus dorsi) after you have burned out from your pull-up workouts.  This will help you fully develop all the muscles in primary and supplemental workouts to better your ability to do pull-ups.  If you cannot do ANY pull-ups, then start off with pull-downs on a lat machine, try assisted pull-ups on a Gravitron machine, or have your workout partner spot you and lift you over the bar.  Once over the bar, hold the flexed arm hang for 5-10 seconds then slowly let yourself down to a 5 second count.  The more you control your weight on the DOWN, the quicker you will be able to perform an UP pull-up on your own.

Sample Workout for Foundation Building: 
Repeat 3-4 times (every other day)
Pull-ups – max or pull-downs 10-15 reps (moderate / heavy weight)
Bicep curls – 10-20 reps
Dumbbells Rows – 10-20 reps
rest with cardio or abs of choice for 2 minutes

Build Upon the Foundation:  Once you can get to the level of strength that you can perform a pull-up and your goal is to get more reps (20+), it is now time to turn the pull-up workout into an endurance and muscle stamina workout by doing multiple sets and build up to a failure point.  One of the best ways to do this is to do a pyramid workout.  This is a simple workout to create but difficult as you will be able to get a warm-up, max out, and a cool-down all rolled into a great workout:

Each level gets more difficult that the previous set.  Start off with 1 pull-up.  I like to add in other exercises to balance out the workout and provide a good opposite muscle group rest.  Pushups, dips, and/or sit-ups make a great addition to the pyramid set.  So the first set would look like this:  1 pull-up, 2 pushups, 3 sit-ups.  With NO rest, go to level 2 of the pyramid and do:  2 pull-ups, 4 pushups, 6 sit-ups.  Continue to level 3: 3 pull-ups, 6 pushups, 9 sit-ups or abs of choice.  The goal is to go until you fail at pull-ups, THEN repeat in reverse order until you get back to level 1.

Keep going if 6 is easy...See if you can get 10 and back down!

The pyramid does a nice job of getting you to the next level of pull-ups – usually in the 15-20 range.

Next Level of Pull-ups:   If your goal is to get well above the 15 rep mark, then you need to change up the workouts a little more and start hitting failure zones more often in your workouts.  For this I like to fail on multiple sets of sub-max reps.  This means I do a super set of several exercises in circuit form but do 8-10 sets of all sub-max effort reps.  For instance, If I can do 15 pull-ups, 60 pushups, 60 sit-ups, I recommend trying the following super set workout:

Repeat 8-10 times  (try this workout 1-2 times a week)
Pull-ups 10 reps
Pushups – 25 reps
Sit-ups – 25 reps
Run or bike for 1-2 minutes for an active recovery

Another harder type of workout is to fail at every set.  This one requires max effort every set, but I only recommend doing this one 1 time a week in conjunction with a pyramid or super set workout for the other two upper-body workouts of the week:

Max OUT Workout:  Repeat in circuit fashion until you reach the following numbers:
100 pull-up, 200 pushups- 300 abs of choice:  So set 1 would be pull-ups until failure, drop to do pushups until failure for 1-2 minutes, then roll over and do sit-ups for 1-2 minutes (depending on your timed PT test).  For additional challenge add in a Ό mile run at your goal 1.5 or 2, or 3 mile run timed run pace to help with muscle memory of the timed run pace required to get your goal time.

*Note – most special ops candidates I work with can do this workout in 4-5 sets.  Some have even done the 100,200,300 in 3 sets!

Another one of my favorite pull-up workouts I like to do is the 8 count bodybuilder pushup and pull-up pyramid.  This is a great way to simulate an obstacle course when you do not have one to train on:

Start 20-30m away from a pull-up bar.  Drop and one 8 count bodybuilder pushup or pushup burpee – then get up and run to the pull-up bar and do 1 pull-up.  Run back to starting area and do TWO 8 count pushups/burpees, get up and run to pull-up bar and do 2 pull-ups.  Continue up the pyramid until you fail at pull-ups, then repeat in reverse order.  This one is hardcore even for people who can do 20+ pull-ups, but it is a great way to work the entire body with a workout designed to make your pull-ups better.

As you can see at first it takes strength to be able to do a pull-up.  Once you have the initial strength to do one pull-up, it becomes an endurance exercise to be able to perform multiple reps and multiple sets without fail.  I hope you grow to enjoy pull-ups as they are an essential part of staying in great shape.

 Check out the Fitness Store for answers to your weight loss and pull-ups goals. All programs are written by Stew Smith and access to Stew is as simple as emailing him at

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Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. If you are interested in starting a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle - check out the Fitness eBook store and the
Stew Smith article archive at To contact Stew with your comments and questions, e-mail him at



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