The Pull-up Power Program

The pull-up is a great test of upper-body strength. Here's how to master this move.
By Dave Lipson ,

Getting your first pull-up is a milestone for many. Across the world, PR bells are ringing in gyms for Bob’s or Betty’s first legit pull-up, accompanied by high fives, chest bumps and a general feeling of victory and accomplishment by individuals who never believed they could accomplish this physical task. Likewise, the fire breathers in these gyms are trying to break their own personal records for max pull-ups and weighted pull-ups. Some of our military and law-enforcement populations are preparing in gyms for PT tests that require pull-ups as a physical requirement.

The pull-up is a great test of upper-body strength, as well as an individual’s relative strength to their body weight. Developing this strength can be done in an efficient and systematic manner to maximize results in the minimal amount of time. Whether you are going for your first pull-up, 100 unbroken or a bodyweight or weighted pull-up, I have highlighted a method to get you there fast and safely. This program is universally scalable with the use of various tension bands as well as the use of the legs to recruit the lower body to assist the movement.

This two-day-a-week program should be done alternating with two to three days in between sessions. Both days utilize various pulling positions of the grip and hand width to recruit different musculature and develop broad and versatile strength of the lats, biceps, forearms and hands. The variation and diversity of positioning make the program very efficient at developing general strength around the shoulder girdle. A chin-up refers to a grip in which the palms are turned up or supine-gripped on the bar. A pull-up refers to a palm-down or pronated grip on the bar. A closed grip is inside shoulder width, medium grip is slightly outside the shoulders, and wide is approximately 12’’ outside the shoulders. One day each week is devoted to developing muscular endurance and the ability to maintain strength through numerous repetitions. There are a target number of reps for each exercise of 10 to 15. Use assistance or added resistance to stay within the goal; likewise decrease assistance or add resistance as you progress. Day 2 is about time under tension and motor-unit recruitment (the firing strength of muscles). Try to stick to the tempo of the pulls — it is vitally important for the goal. Use assistance or resistance and stick to the beat. Test your pull-ups, try this program for four to six weeks and then retest.

Day 1 (Developing Muscular Endurance and Repetition Strength)

Two rounds through the entire series:

  • Wide-grip pull-up MAX REPS (use band assistance for 10 or more reps; use weight if you have 15+)
  • Rest 2 minutes
  • Medium-grip pull-up MAX REPS (same)
  • Rest 2 minutes
  • Medium-grip chin-up MAX REPS (same)
  • Rest 2 minutes
  • Narrow-grip chin-up MAX REPS (same)

Day 2 (Time Under Tension and Motor-Unit Recruitment of Muscle Fibers)

  • 3x 5 reps of chest to bar chin-up with a six-second negative
  • Rest 2 minutes between sets
  • 2x max-rep pull-up with five-second negative
  • Rest 2 minutes
  • 2x chin-up max hold 30 seconds or more
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