Some of the biggest smiles in training come after people achieve their first strict pull-up. People feel a great sense of accomplishment when they can lift their head above the bar with their own strength. Strict pull-ups are a great measure of strength. In this article, we will discuss how to accomplish a first pull-up or build to 25.
Pull Up Paradigms
The Presidential Physical Fitness test was popular in the 1990s and it tested kids of all ages on their general fitness. It lists the following standards on pull-ups for fifteen-year-old boys and girls. How do you rank compared to a fifteen-year-old?
The United States Marines also incorporate pull-ups in their physical fitness tests. The highest-ranking for a male is at twenty pull-ups. Females are required to do a flexed-arm hang. Misty Posey, a Marine who has completed 25 pull-ups, argues in her excellent thesis that the flexed-arm hang is a poor standard for females. I agree with Misty. Strict pull-ups should be a goal for both males and females.
For Total Beginners
If you do not have your first strict pull-up, I recommend you start with a combination of ring rows and eccentric-only pull-ups. Eccentric-only pull-ups are when you jump up to get to the start of the pull-up and let yourself down slowly. This will build strength very quickly. Your goal will be to hold in the most difficult spots as those will be your weakest positions. Do not use bands for assistance as it slows progress down to a crawl. Kipping is also not advised in building greater strict pull-ups in this program.
I recently received this great email from Dawn Cameron:
Do you remember last year starting me on ring rows to work on getting strict pull-ups? I think that was June. By September I had one pull up. Last week I did 10-9-8-7-6!!!!
These types of emails are always rewarding and give me a false sense of being a genius. But the genius idea is not mine, rather it is based on Pavel Tsatsouline’s grease the groove idea. As a quick reminder, greasing the groove is doing an exercise frequently, but not excessively. If you want to get good at something, you will do it often. In actuality, it is one of the easiest programs to create.
Dawn Cameron (pictured) went from zero to ten pull ups in just one year using this approach.
Two Grease the Groove Style Programs
The goal in both programs is to always leave a little in the tank. As you will be doing pull-ups frequently, you will never want to push to failure. You will also not want to test your abilities during training. If you test yourself on one day, you might take away from your performance the next day. The goal is to be fresh every day. Testing will come later.
1. Grease the Groove
It is great if you have a pull up bar or a doorway where you can practice pull ups frequently throughout the day. If you do not have access, skip down to the next program. Once every few hours, do a few pull-ups. Pick a number where you are not hitting failure.
For example, if your maximum number of pull ups is eight, then you would do 5-6 easy pull-ups every few hours. I suggest doing it up to five times a day. If you have never completed a pull-up, then do three slow eccentric pull ups five times a day (alternate days with ring rows). Do this most every day, but take a day off after four or five consecutive days.
2. Fighter Pull Up Program
The fighter pull-up program was also popularized by Pavel. It is a more specific style of program. In this program, you will do descending ladders of pull ups five days a week. These work well integrated into other workouts. You will do five sets of pull ups interspersed with other exercises.
For someone doing CrossFit, I recommend doing the first set right upon arrival to the gym. The second set can be done right after the warm-up. The last three sets are squeezed in in the remaining hour. Basically, you do a set roughly every ten minutes whenever you can squeeze them in. Having enough rest between sets is important. You want to do each set as practice and not as a test of will. You are training the neurological system. If you practice to failure, you are teaching your neurological system to fail.
The ladder will start with a set of less than your one rep max. Each day, you will add a repetition. Here are a few examples:
For someone with a maximum of ten pull ups:
- Day 1: 9 reps, 8, 7, 6, 5
- Day 2: 9, 8, 7, 6, 6 (adding a rep to the last set)
- Day 3: 9, 8, 7, 7, 6 (adding a rep to the second to last set)
- Day 4: 9, 8, 8, 7, 6 (adding a rep to the third to last set)
- Day 5: 9, 9, 8, 7, 6
- Take a day off
- Day 6: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6
For someone with a maximum of five pull ups
- Day 1: 4, 3, 3, 2, 1
- Day 2: 4, 3, 3, 2, 2
- Day 3: 4, 3, 3, 3, 2
- Day 4: 4, 4, 3, 3, 2
- Day 5: 4, 4, 4, 3, 2
- Take a day off
- Day 6: 5, 4, 3, 3, 2
For someone with a maximum of twenty pull ups:
Note: The reps in later rounds drop off more due to the fatiguing effects of high reps.You will need more rest between sets.
- Day 1: 18, 15, 12, 8, 4
- Day 2: 18, 15, 12, 8, 6
- Day 3: 18, 15, 12, 10, 6
- Day 4: 18, 15, 14, 10, 6
- Day 5: 18, 16, 14, 10, 6
- Take a day off
- Day 6: 19, 16, 14, 10, 6
Summary and Special Considerations
These programs have led to some of my greatest successes as a coach. The line from Anchorman summarizes my success: “60% of the time, it works every time.” When it works, it works well.
There are some cases where I would not recommend this program. For people who can do 25 strict pull-ups or more, then a specialty program might be a better fit. These individuals are training for strength endurance. Someone training for heavy weighted pull ups might be better served by a powerlifting style program.
Back to where we started:
- Misty Posey makes the case that female Marines are not frail and should be tested using strict pull ups. She has completed 25 strict pull-ups.
- Fifty percent of fifteen-year-old females in the U.S. could do a strict pull-up by the 1990s standards. The above program helped Dawn Cameron go from none to over ten in a year.
Maybe it’s time for you to add in a strict pull up training protocol to your workout.
More Pull Up Articles:
- The Low Down on Pull Ups: 10 Ways to Repair Your Pull Ups
- CrossFit Pull Ups: Which Came First? The Strict or the Kip?
- 10 Tools for Getting Better at Pull Ups
- New on Breaking Muscle Today
1. Tsatsouline, Pavel. “Chain yourself to a squat rack and call me in a year.” MILO Journal, Vol 7, No. 4. 2000.
Photo 1 courtesy of Dawn Cameron.
Photo 2 courtesy of Anne Casstevens.