How do you increase your pull-up numbers? Conventional training says to do as many reps as you can, rest and do another all-out set. Throw in circuits and you’re done. Been there, done that, got an overuse injury in my left shoulder when I was 19 and even taxed my immune system so much where I got sick.
There’s another way to increase your reps without the burnout, as taught to the Spetsnaz (Russian Spec Ops). You want to practice your skills, in this case the pull-up, while staying muscularly and neurologically recovered. In other words, your body learns the skill best when you’re fresh and when you don’t go to muscle failure. I think of these as hacks to your nervous system to make it more efficient. This isn’t a method necessarily for physique-building. The following Greasing the Groove method is good if you have regular, daily access to a pull-up bar.
Greasing the Groove for Pull-Ups
- Regularly perform half the pull-ups that you are fully capable of, e.g. if you can do 12 all-out, perform 6 at a time when go to your pull-up bar
- Vary your total reps daily, e.g. Monday do 30 total, Tuesday do 15 total, Wednesday do 45, etc.
- Take a day or two off and then test yourself once a month with an all-out set. Your pull-up numbers should’ve gone up without the burnout or by going to muscle failure!
Ladder Method for Pull-Ups
Back in the day, I wanted to out-perform an airborne 2nd lieutenant who could max out at 25 pull-ups. I used the following ladder method to get to about 18 total pull-ups starting from single digits back in 2009. This is what I used when I only had time/access to a bar once a day. Think of ladders as a compressed version of GTG above.
- Do one pull-up, rest for the same duration to do a rep, do two pull-ups and rest for the same time duration and do three pull-ups, etc.
- Stop your sets when you are 1 – 2 reps close to failure. Rest a minute and then start again back at the bottom of the ladder rung.
- For example, (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), rest, (1, 2, 3, 4), rest, (1, 2, 3), rest, (1, 2), rest, (1, 2), rest, (1), rest, (1). Done.
- Do not pyramid (1, 2, 3, 4, 3, 2, 1)
- Take a day or two off and then test yourself once a month with an all-out set
Ladder Method for Higher Repetitions
For exercises with higher reps, you can tweak the ladder rungs. For example, say if you can do 50 push-ups, just perform ladder sets in the follow manner: (5, 10, 15, 20). Likewise, for someone who can only do 25 push-ups, ladder (3, 6, 9, 12, 15) at a time. Now go ace that PT test! You can even superset ladder pull-ups and ladder push-ups together. You can also workout using ladders with weights or if you’re stuck with a single poundage.
Ladder Method for Maximal Strength
If you want to train purely for low reps/maximal strength. You can perform the below bodyweight equivalents of the barbell powerlifts and their progressions. The leveraged resistance should drop your total pull-up numbers down to a 5 – 6 rep maximum. Now simply ladder (1, 2, 3) reps at time followed by a one-minute break and continue until nearly fatigued.
- Tactical Pull-Up [Standard pull-up with a thumbless grip] – Easiest
- Hanging Leg Raise [Make an L-Seat with your legs]
- Front Lever [Your body is parallel to the floor] – Hardest
Emphasizing the Negative Phase on the Last Rep
Here’s another tip to blast the neuro-muscular groove that you’re making with your pull-ups: emphasize the negative portion of the last rep, which means on the lowering part of the pull-up, slowly let yourself down. By doing so, your muscles tense harder and you reinforce the skill that you’re practicing. Only do this on the last rep. If you feel fatigued in your pull-ups daily or in my experience, not progressing due to burnout, cut out the negative phase. This is a nuclear bomb in your arsenal, use it wisely.
Finally, I asked Pavel if one can combine Simple & Sinister workout with pull-ups; he says to alternate days, e.g. Monday S&S, Tuesday Pull-Up Ladders, as both are grip-intensive. Currently, I’m just sticking to S&S as I don’t have a bar in my home anymore.
In part two of this article on pull-up hacks, we’ll discuss ways of adding weighted pull-ups for maximal strength and endurance, as well, as form/technique. You can learn more about ‘Naked Warrior’ maximal strength, bodyweight training here.
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