First, a few terms –

Rep – one repetition of the exercise – for pull-ups or chin-ups this begins at the bottom, hanging from the bar, then raising one’s body to the top of the motion and then descending back down to the bottom.

Set – a number of reps done repetitively without releasing the bar.

Negative – the movement starting from the position at the top of the exercise and descending to the bottom of the rep.

Chin-ups – grasping the bar with my palms facing towards oneself

Pull-ups – grasping the bar with palms facing away from oneself

Kipping – kicking the legs while swinging the body during a pull-up or chin-up to assist the upward motion toward the bar

I’m not going to get into a discussion about why one would want to do pull-ups – or for any exercise for that matter. If you don’t know why you want to do pull-ups I’m not sure I can help you find the motivation to get there. I will say that it is one simple exercise which is moderately challenging.

With my 60th birthday in the rearview mirror I find healing up takes much longer than before. But even if you are in your forties your ability to heal might be slow enough that building up strength to do pull-ups has to be approached slow enough that you don’t end up injuring yourself. I had been doing this for years, trying to push myself too hard (doing as many reps per set as I could push myself to do) and ending up with repetitive use injuries and needing a break to heal. After a few weeks off healing I could not do as many as before so I started back behind where I had been when I stopped. I tended to see-saw like this all the time, always getting injured after a few months, never reaching my goals.

For many years I had been doing chin-ups, not pull-ups. But I always found that I could only do maybe 25% the number of pull-ups compared to the number of chin-ups I could do. I am not sure that this was because I was always focusing on chin-ups over pull-ups and thus I was stronger doing chin-ups or if it was because pull-ups are harder to do that chin-ups. But for me I took it to mean that I needed to train more doing pull-ups instead of chin-ups. YMMV.

What If you cannot do one pull-up?

The reason one might not be able to do pullups could be due primarily to a lack of upper body strength but it could be compounded by excessive body weight. If you are obviously overweight I will assume you are working on losing that weight as well but, as long as you are continuing to get that into a normal range, working on doing pull-ups is something you can be doing at the same time. In fact, doing both at the same time will be mutually beneficial for both efforts.

Until recently it had been “common knowledge” that most women and even some men are not capable of doing pull-ups. Theories about different muscular structures, lack of testosterone, upper body strength potential, etc were taken as gospel, Even the US Marine Corps believed this and did not require its female Marines to do pull-ups. That was until Marine Corps Major Misty Posey showed the Corps that not only could some women do pull-ups but she proved that she could train any reasonably fit person to do pull-ups.

Getting Started

For many people who lack the upper body strength to do a pull-up one hurdle which many don’t even recognize is the very first part of the movement going from hanging with the shoulders relaxed then raising until the shoulders are set and the elbows begin to bend. Before you can do a pull-up you will have to strengthen the muscles of the back and shoulders which are used to pull the body up to this position.

It may seem counterintuitive but you actually build strength on the negative – the point after reaching the top while declining back to the bottom of the rep. So for people who cannot yet do a pull-up the key is doing negatives until they build enough strength. How you get to the top position is not so important. Using a rope or band to step into to raise yourself with a leg or any other box or platform for the same purpose is one way. If you do not yet have enough strength to keep yourself descending in a controlled manner then you should use a leg in the same way to control your descent. (To gain enough strength to do an unassisted pull-up do sets of these assisted pull-ups using the Soviet system explained below.)

Once you are able to do at least one pull-up there are some points to understand and incorporate into your practice. First, you want to do full range of motion on each rep starting from a dead hang with the arms straight. Then you pull yourself up at least until you touch the bar with your throat.

As a more challenging standard you can pull yourself up until your chest touches the bar. This is significantly more difficult, requiring strength in a more extended range of motion.

One important point – while you are doing pull-ups you must tighten your glutes and abs as if you are expecting to be kicked in either place. You will be able to do more reps this way. If this is difficult for you then you will need to do strengthening exercises for your abs and glutes as well. I wish I could explain why this is true but it seems self-evident to me from the first time I did them this way.

Kipping is OK for getting above the bar to do negatives but is not proper form and doesn’t train the right muscles for pull-ups. This goes against Cross Fit dogma where kipping is allowed mostly because Cross Fit focuses on high intensity, dynamic motion which does not build strength. It’s the difference between doing barbell squats and running a 10k. Both strengthen the leg muscles but for different activities. It isn’t bad per se, it just isn’t the goal we are focusing on here.

The Soviet difference

I have recently learned of and adopted the Soviet strength training system which is quite different from the system I had always used before. This system focuses on fewer reps per set and more sets overall. The number of reps per set should only be enough to be challenging but not stressing. Very rarely, if at all, should you train to muscle failure. And there should be enough rest between sets to recover – at least 5 to 10 minutes or more.

The benefits are gains in strength while avoiding injury and consistent, if slow, gains.

For pull-ups do five sets throughout the day. This is good if you have a pull-up bar at home and you are working from home. Or if you have a pull-up bar at home but work elsewhere you can do your first set when you wake up, the 2nd set before leaving for work.

If there is a way to do your 3rd set at or near your workplace do it there. You might even do your 4th set there as well. Then do your 5th set after you get home.

If the only place you have access to a pull-up bar is at home then do your 3rd set as soon as you get home, your 4th set before or after dinner, and your 5th set before going to bed.

Start with the maximum number of reps you can do easily in proper form. The key is proper form with full range of motion. Do that number of reps for your first set. Wait at least 20 minutes before the next set. Even longer intervals are good as long as you complete the last set on that day. On the second set do one less rep than the last set. Continue, doing one less rep on each succeeding set.

So if your “max easy“ set is five reps, on the first day you will be doing 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1.

Then on the next day you do : 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 2.

On the third day you do : 5 – 4 – 3 – 3 – 2.

On the fourth day you do : 5 – 4 – 4 – 3 – 2.

On the fifth day you do : 5 – 5 – 4 – 3 – 2.

On the sixth day you rest – no pull-ups.

On day 7, the day after your rest you do : 6 – 5 – 4 – 3 – 2.

After that you continue the pattern –

Day 8 : 6 – 5 – 4 – 3 – 3.

Day 9 : 6 – 5 – 4 – 4 – 3.

Day 10 : 6 – 5 – 5 – 4 – 3.

Day 11 : 6 – 6 – 5 – 4 – 3.

Day 12 :     Rest

Day 13 : 7 – 6 – 5 – 4 – 3.

Day 14 : 7 – 6 – 5 – 4 – 4.

And so on.

  1. So you can’t do five pull-ups easily. If on your fourth rep you are already breaking form then here is the pattern:

Day 1 : 3 – 2 – 1 – 1 – 1.

Day 2 : 3 – 2 – 2 – 1 – 1.

Day 3 : 3 – 2 – 2 – 2 – 1.

Day 4 : 3 – 3 – 2 – 2 – 1.

Day 5 : 3 – 3 – 3 – 2 – 1.

Day 6 :   Rest

Day 7 : 4 – 3 – 3 – 2 – 1.

Day 8 : 4 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1.

Day 9 : 4 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 2.

Day 10 : 4 – 4 – 3 – 3 – 2.

Day 11 : 4 – 4 – 4 – 3 – 2.

Day 12 :    Rest

Day 13 : 5 – 4 – 4 – 3 – 2.

Day 14 : 5 – 5 – 4 – 3 – 2.

Day 15 :     Rest

Day 16 : 6 – 5 – 4 – 3 – 2.

Day 17 : 6 – 5 – 4 – 3 – 3.

Day 18 : 6 – 5 – 4 – 4 – 3.

Day 19 : 6 – 5 – 5 – 4 – 3.

Day 20 : 6 – 6 – 5 – 4 – 3.

Day 21 :     Rest

Day 22 : 7 – 6 – 5 – 4 – 3.

Day 24 : 7 – 6 – 5 – 4 – 4.

And so on.