Pull ups are hard, but they are one of the few true tests of strength. I say this because some powerlifters can bench 600 or squat 800, but they also weigh 300+ and can barely manage 5 pull ups. This is one of the few exercises where you can measure relative fitness by comparing the ratio of the number of pull ups completed to bodyweight. Some of you might get mad at me, talking about powerlifters training for strength rather than endurance, but the fact of the matter is that when I was powerlifting I could still do 15 pull ups at 195 lbs.
Now, let me take you back to high school gym class… the year was 1993, I was 15 years old. Mr. Buatti the gym teacher, who happens to bare a striking resemblance to Coach Buzzcut, called my name to stand up in front of the class and do an many pull ups as I can. The football jocks each knocked out from 10 to 20 and the wiry tough kid with only 3 fingers on one hand completed 14 of them. I got 3. It was humiliating.
Now we come back to the present. Recently I started doing pull ups again after a year layoff. On my first set, I got 5 reps. A week later I was up to 8 reps. Just yesterday I did a set of 11 reps. But I want more. I’ve done 18 pull ups before; I’ve also done 5 pull ups with a 45 lb plate hanging off a belt. So, how can I get back to that place? How can you get to that place?
The Pyramid Pull Up Strategy
This is the description of a little program that I’ve used to increase my pull ups quickly in the past.
Here are the instructions:
- Start by doing one pull up.
- Rest for 10 seconds, but don’t hang there. Stand on something and take all the tension off your arms and back.
- Do one pull up more than you did in the previous step.
- Go back to step 2 and repeat until you can’t complete the required reps.
- Take a break for 2 minutes and do it again. Complete 2-3 sets.
You might feel weird because normally you can do 10 or 12 pull ups in a set, and you finish this exercise with a set of 6. We need to look at an example to see why this is so effective.
Normally I could do 3 sets of 11, 9, and 7 reps for a total of 27 reps at bodyweight. Using the pyramid I ended up doing sets of 1,2,3,4,5,6 then 1,2,3,4,3 and 1,2,3,1 for a total of 41 reps at bodyweight in nearly the same amount of time. That’s nearly a 50% increase in the number of reps in just one day! Which protocol do you think will force your body to adapt and grow stronger?
Try completing a pull up pyramid twice a week for 1 month then see what your new 1 set max is. Over the course of 4 weeks I’ve gone from 5 reps to 11 reps by doing the pyramid once a week and 1 regular set of pull ups every other morning. Granted I have the benefit of muscle memory, but I’m thinking I can back up to a 15 rep set within the next month or two as long as I complete 2-3 pyramids a week.
If you try this, please let me know how you fare.
I went from 5 to 25 in about 6 months using pyramids, now I do pyramids with a 45 pound plate.
how can I do a muscle up pull up?
I'm in on this and will report progress. As I start, I can do 5, and that's being generous as the form breaks down.
I would judge pull ups by marine standards…dead hang is optimal, but i believe their requirement for a counted rep is all the way down to full arm extension, to chin above the bar. A little swing due to momentum is alright I believe, as well as a small amount of leg jerk. Knees have to remain below hip flexors at all times however
Just break out all the usual plateau busters… partial reps at the end, forced reps… dont take your first set to failure. at least from my experience
From my experience, marines are some of the best pull up freaks in the world. My brother is 36, doesn't even train pull ups until a month before his PT and still hits 20 dead hang without being at failure. He's told me stories of recon guys doing wide grip chins with 2-3 45's hanging off them, perfect form. weird
Okay, I am gonna get this!
I am trying to get to 22 pull ups by next January or February. Currently I am at 5 maybe six dead hangs. My pyramid is as follows:
I am looking for a routine to help me reach my goal. So far, this has been the best one as my first pyramid was only 13. If you could give me some pointers on a weekly routine I would appreciate it.
You can also try these tips: 20 pullups program plus a full body workout
Just don’t forget to train your whole body, including horizontal back training, or your pullups training will surely stall.
Thanks again. You provide some great stuff.
Would you recommend do this program 2 times a day every day, or will that just cause too much muscle exhaustion?
That would be too much and could lead to overtraining.
How about negatives for more reps over a single pull up?
thanks for the program. my pull ups have gone from a max of 8 to 22 in three months of doing this twice a week.
When I do pull ups in the playground monkey bars, I seem to do about 3 more reps than doing pullups at the gym. Why is that?
Is it because your muscles are fresh?
does this work for chin ups?
Yeah, this strategy works for chin ups too.
I can do 36 pull ups in a row. So, that means I will be able to 49 in a row eventually.
by rest does it mean, let go of the pull up bar and stand for ten seconds then get back on it or does it mean , put something under your feet while you hang there, then start again?
Either way. Just take the tension off the muscles while you rest.
i started this program today. i can currently do 9,10,11 pull ups in a row depending on how heavy of a lunch i eat! i am wanting to get up to 15-17 pullups before october 2010. would anyone recommend doing this workout every other day or every third day? and when should i max out a set to see what my max is again? also if i would out my chest and arms at the gym, will it effect this program in a negitive way?
ill post on here again in about a month to share improvents which i am sure will show.
Where is your follow-up post? You can use this program several times a week outside of your regular training, and can probably max once a week to see where you are at. Too much back and arms work at the gym in combination with regular use of this program outside the gym, could potentially cause you to overtrain in certain areas. Just be smart about it and rest when your body tells you to.
ha, i did something similar before i read this article. I couldn’t even do one pull up so i just hang on the door sill while putting some strain on my muscle for a couple of minutes. The next day my muscles started hurting… after 2 days of rest i managed to do 2 full pull ups…then i did something similar to that pyramid thing and i then managed to do 5. and i find that it also works with other workouts
Yo Steve, your website is awesome thanks for posting all this great info. I don’t know who you are or what you do, but it seems like you really know your stuff.
Anyway me and my buddies just started doing pullups at the gym (WED back&bi’s). We all really suck at them, but they are in your best 5 back exercises and chinups are in your best 5 Bi exercises so i knew we needed to do them. I did 4 sets of 3 last WED and I’m going to start this pyramid.
BTW is there anyway I can e-mail you the routine I came up with to get your thoughts? Thanks again.
Use the contact form, but I’m so busy that I often fail to answer emails. Sorry everyone! I think we need a forum.
This sounds cool, I`ve been doing 4 sets of 4 pull ups, followed by 4 sets of 4 chin ups with the intention of increasing to 4 sets of 5 on both pull and chin ups, do you think I`ll benefit from the pyramid method?
Yes Rob I think you will benefit just from changing up your routine for a while. Shock some growth into those muscles.
Thanks for the comments guys. Keep banging out those pull-ups.
I’ve just started doing this as of about 2-3 weeks ago and I can do 10 pullups – my aim is to get to 15 and then I’ll be really chuffed. Doing them everyother day is what I’m doing at the moment.
i am 13 yrs old and do 500 press ups i also can do 12 chin ups, 15 dips
this sounds really cool. ive always had a hard time with pull ups, but ive recently gotten up to 12 narrow grip chinups in a row. they require more bicep strength so they are eiasier.
Im gonna start doing your pyramid pull-ups tomorrow! But the thing is I already weightlift, but I was disappointed to see my pull-up count decrease after weightlifting. Im not all bulky i’m just looking for good shape, so I need to weightlift. Can you help me find a way to include this in my workout routine. Which workout should i include this in? I workout one muscle group a day 5 times a week.
Ramy: Clearly you would implement pyramid pull ups into your back routine in place of regular pull ups or chin ups. If you really want to make some progress, do the pyramid pull up sets in the morning and your regular lifting program at night.
I’ve got about 25 gineau pigs I’d like to try this on. Do you think that this is something people who can only do 3 or 4 pullups can benefit from? And how do you think it compares to a 3 sets a day- morning noon and night plan, with out maxing it during any of the sets. I’m anxious to know what you think
my sister just bought me an iron gym, and im a freshman, im only 15. but i want to get built. im just reading your article today, and im just starting today the way you said. ill let you know in a month how far i get. thanks bro
Let me tell you that I m also trying to increase my number of consecutive pullups since a few weeks.
At the moment I m at 12 with about 220lbs body weight.
Do you think your training is also something for “heavy guys” like me?
What kind of pull-ups do you prefer? I mean as there are several variations of it.
I think this type of pull up training is for ‘heavy guys’ like you. After you do this for a while, you can integrate the 20 pull ups program with a regular training routine.
What do I prefer? I prefer weighted medium grip pull ups, wide grip pull ups, and medium grip chin ups. I have also been messing around with a very odd way to do behind the neck pull ups, but so far I don’t like it.
this is amazing, will it work with out the regular bi daily pull ups?
Yeah, that Armstrong program got me from about 3-4 to 12-13 pullups in around 6 weeks. Pyramids are also good.
Another good idea is to try the USMC Arm Strong Pull Up Program. This pullup program is a real pyramid and will get you in shape if your looking for a little extra challenge.
Personally i find pullups to only be good for those who can already do a few unassisted and those who dont want to spend money. You cant judge how much assistance youre getting by using a stool or partner. Weighted pullups for advanced people at home are hard because doorways arent tall enough to hold a dumbell comfortably inbetween ur legs and vests are expensive. Pull ups will give u lots of endurance but the strength gains kind of peak.
In my prime i was able to do 150chins then 150 pullups back to back (no pun intended) in sets of 25. Then i got a job and 3 months later turned into a weak sack of crap. I couldnt do more than a few sets of 10 pulls/chins. So i got a 10$ month membership for planetfitness and after working out for a month i’ve found that my endurance and back strength increased faster by doing rows,back extension and machine/dumbell shoulder press going 80% of my max weight and keeping the reps high 10-20.
Awesome! How many pull ups can you do today? How many do you hope to be able to do in a month? You’ll be repping out 20 in no time flat!
I’m going to start this routine today. I’ll check back in and give you my results in a month. Thanks for the informative and helpful site.
I have checked out https://pull-ups-training.com and the workout routine looks pretty solid. I was wondering if anyone has give it a try.
Eh, it’s like a one-sided pyramid I guess. haha
Seriously though I know what you’re talking about, a true pyramid goes up then down. Calling this program a pyramid is kinda like claiming to squat when all you ever do is squat in a smith machine. Not real squats. This idea is still good though. =)
Those are not pyrimaids. To do real pyrimaids you have to go back down. A good add on is dont rest between reps, do about ten pushups
I found this site today: https://pull-ups-training.com/
The routine described there might help you. Cheers
I can do about 30-35 pullups to but i never had a routine to be able to do this. Just did a lot of full body workouts…I weight 195lbs as well. Without the suggestion of losing weight by doing more cardio, any ideas on how I can get to 50 pullups. Just a goal I have. Looking for suggestions about adding weight, amount of reps / sets and load per week I should be doing…or if there’s any crazy types of pullups that may help that. Thanks
Strength does not increase with increased reps, only endurance. If you’re looking for endurance for such things as rock climbing (as you need both strength and endurance) then it’s great. But if you’re purely looking for strength, it won’t help.
Instead, add weight to yourself or increase the weight on yourself. If you can do more than 10 add more weight.
I personally use those ironman vests that add weight as belt weights got too awkward after so much weight.
If you can’t do a full pull up, you should definitely do assisted pull ups first. If you don’t have access to an assisted pull up machine, you should definitely put a box behind you and use one leg to offset the body weight that you can’t lift. Eventually you will just have one toe left on the box, and then no toes.
I have yet to try this method with very many other exercises, but the theory can be applied to nearly anything. I wouldn’t try it for squats, but you could try it with the bench press. The problem is that you will need a spotter because the weight can get real heavy, real quick when you get up into sets of 5,6,7… This is why I used pull ups, since you can end on a half rep and just let yourself down, rather than dumping 200+ lbs on yourself if you can’t make the lift.
Wow, 30-35 pull ups in one set is real good man. You climbers can always do a ton of pull ups. I’ve been intrigued by rock climbing for probably about 8 years now, but have yet to try even one class.
I do agree that all other muscles should be trained as well. Even when one muscle is being prioritized with maximum intensity, all other muscles should still be hit with at least one exercise each week.
This really works. I’m very good at pull ups but even to me this is a fantastic training method.
I have found since losing some weight pull ups are easier. I still cannot do a proper pull up, just a semi-pull up where I use a low bar and support my feet in front of me on a bench. I really would like to be able to do pull ups. Along with being able to do many dips, pull ups do allow you to show off you strength on a beach, if you feel that way inclined!
I will try it and get back to you. I compete in Pump-n-Run events where bench press endurance is needed. Ever try this method with other muscles? Thanks
Pull ups are one of my favorite exercises because, like you said, it shows true strength compared to body weight. I can do from 30-35 pull ups in one set, depending on how I am feeling. The way I increased my pull up count was through doing 3 sets of pull ups with added weight, enough so that i can barely eek out about six reps per set, along with my normal lifting routine. Now I usually do about 12 pull ups per set with a 53 pound kettlebell on my waist. Another huge factor to my pull ups is rock climbing. I go to a climbing gym about 2 or 3 times a week 10 minutes from my house, and it has really helped me become exceedingly strong for my body weight. Climbing constantly works almost your entire upper body and involves a lot of pulling yourself up. I think finding a good climbing gym near you would help you a lot. Also, I would advise lifting for all your upper body muscles because any added strength will help you do more pull ups. For people who can do less than ten pull ups though, I do agree with your pyramid workout.
You won’t regret it. This pull up program has kicked the ass of more than one workout partner, and has help 3 women, on 3 different occasions, go from being able to do 10 assisted pull ups to being able to do 3-5 real ups in a matter of a couple months.
I like that pull-up program. My lifting partners can’t do pull-ups very well so they think they are “stupid and pointless” but I believe pull-ups are one of the best upper body exercises one can do. I’ll definitely be giving the Pyramid strategy a try. Thanks.