Get Better at Pull-ups

How to master this upper-body basic

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Lat pull-downs pale in comparison to the mighty pull-up. Working on a lat machine doesn’t activate as many muscles as getting your chin over the bar (and looks way less impressive). If you want a big, strong upper body, you have to master the classic pull-up. Whether you still can’t do a single pull-up rep, you want to do more, or you’re ready to add weight and see your lats grow like crazy, we’ve got the plan for you.

YOUR GOAL: I can’t do a pull-up, but I want to.
Start doing iso-eccentric pull-ups. Grab onto a bar and jump up so your chest touches it. Try to hold that position for five seconds. If you can, take five seconds to lower yourself back down. (If you can’t, keep working at the hold until you can.)
If you can lower yourself with control, perform another rep. When you can bang out 10 reps in this fashion, you’ll be able to do at least one regular pull-up.

YOUR GOAL: I want to do more pull-ups.
Write down your personal record—the most reps you can do with good form. The next time you do pull-ups, take half your PR and do four sets of that number. So if your PR was 10, you’ll do four sets of five reps. The next week, add one rep to each set. For Week 3, go back to one half of your PR number, and add five pounds using a weighted belt. Continue progressing in this fashion. The program looks like this:

  • WEEK 1 — 4x1/2 PR
  • WEEK 2 — 4x1/2 PR + 1 rep
  • WEEK 3 — 4x1/2 PR with 5 lbs
  • WEEK 4 — 4x1/2 PR + 1 rep with 5 lbs
  • WEEK 5 — 4x1/2 PR with 10 lbs
  • WEEK 6 — 4x1/2 PR + 1 rep with 10 lbs
  • WEEK 7 — 4x1/2 PR with 15 lbs
  • WEEK 8 — 4x1/2 PR + 1 rep with 15 lbs
  • WEEK 9 — retest your max

YOUR GOAL: I want to add more weight to my pull-ups.
Find the load that allows you to do only five pull-ups with good form. Now add that amount to your body weight. Each week, you’ll work up to a heavy set that uses a percentage of that total and perform as many reps as possible. Perform several warm-up sets, increasing the weight until you reach the percentage you’re using on that day. (If the percentages give you a weight that is less than your body weight, use your body weight.) Do this for three weeks as shown below.

  • WEEK 1 — 70% x AMAP
  • WEEK 2 — 80% x AMAP
  • WEEK 3 — 90% x AMAP

After Week 3, add two and a half to five pounds to each percentage. After 12 weeks of this, take an easy week (only do a few reps of body- weight pull-ups), and then the next week see how much weight you can use for a heavy set of five again.

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