Got your one pull up? Or maybe a couple, but struggling to get those numbers up? Read on for tips I found helpful when going from 1 to N pull ups.
Initially, I was training pull ups 2-3 times per week. This was enough to see consistent progress from 0 to 2 pull ups, and I thought that doing anymore would mean overtraining and have diminishing returns.
But when I found myself stalling on 2 (occasionally 3) pull ups for the whole summer, I figured I’d give more sessions a shot. I tried doing 4 sessions a week, sometimes 3 days in a row due to scheduling issues (at most 2 in a row would have been preferrable). Initially it felt exhausting, and some of the sessions later in the week felt very weak (I had to go down a band sometimes).
However, my rate of progress shot up. I sped past 3 pull ups into 4 much quicker in the next two weeks. I then had a more restful couple of weeks around Spartan, remaining on 4. In the last two weeks before competition I managed to squeeze in 4 sessions again, taking me to 5 pull ups. So for fairly quick but still relatively sustainable progress, I’d recommend increasing to 3-4 sessions a week (basically every other day).
On the other hand, if you’re training 5-6 times a week, plateauing and feeling tired, consider taking a short break to properly rest your body. You might just come back stronger after.
The next important question is to find out where your weakness is. Is it more in your shoulders, or hands and forearms? Often it turns out to be the latter.
There are a couple of ways to test this. Try seeing the difference in your max with and without using grip aid (e.g. chalk). Another interesting experiment is to see what your max number of pull ups is on a band you’d consider relatively easy. If it’s not much bigger than your band-free max, grip is probably a blocker.
There are various ways to train up your grip. The simplest is just holding. The longer you can hold, the more pull ups you’ll be able to do. A somewhat more challenging and efficient version of that is to hold at the bottom for 10-15s between each pull up when doing your regular set of pull ups. This will also train you to rest in the extended arm position. If that actually, becomes “restful” you can then squeeze out a couple more reps when you have to.
You can also try various grip trainers, but I’ve found hanging on the bar to be more effective, since it’s more representative of what you need to do.
If grip is not an problem, and you can hang for ages with no issues, the weakness is more likely in shoulders and lats. Try training the hold at the top of the pull up.
It can sound silly for a strength exercise, but sometimes, the blocker is in your head. If you’ve been stuck on a certain number for a while, that’s just what you’re mentally used to, and it can be hard to push through it without extra motivation or special circumstances. One approach to fighting this is to take a step back. For example, it may be worth going down a band to get yourself accustomed to doing a higher number of reps in one set.
The opposite approach would be to start training weighted pull ups, as long as you can do several bodyweight ones, not just one or two. If you can get yourself used to training with extra weight, bodyweight pull ups will eventually start to feel easy by comparison.
I’m listing these here as a result of my research, but I haven’t managed to try them all yet, so I can’t speak for their effectiveness.
Clustering: This technique requires you to get to some number of pull ups (which is higher than your max, so for example 20) as quickly as possible. This means you’ll need to take some breaks, but as little as you can.
The Armstrong Workout: A popular programme where each day in your training week is done slightly differently. There are some variations, but in the standard one day 1 is 5 max effort sets, day 2 is pyramid set, day 3 is varied grips, day 4 is max training sets, and on day 5 you repeat what you found the hardest before.
If you find yourself a little bit bored and struggling to progress, you can try one of the many pull up variations. You can find a good list of examples here.