Lead Photo Credit: Thomas Murphy

It sucks to struggle with pull-ups. It sucks worse to leave them out of your training plan. Here's how to get stronger and bust out more strict reps. Just scroll down and choose which section applies to your fitness or strength level.

Level 1 – I Can't Do 1 Pull-Up

Start with banded pull-ups and inverted rows:

Banded Pull-Up

Inverted Row

Now scroll down, read up on EMOM and clusters sets, then skip to the training program below. Use the same program, but substitute banded pull-ups for weighted pull-ups. Instead of adding weight, decrease the amount of band tension needed over time.

Use inverted rows (using a bar, rings, or suspension device) for volume pull-ups every week on day two of the program. Adjust your foot position to change the angle of your body to make the exercise harder or easier. The more vertical your body, the easier the pull will be. The more horizontal your body, the harder it'll be. Use this positioning as needed to in order to complete the reps in the program.

Level 2 – I Can Do About 5 Pull-Ups

EMOM (every minute on the minute) training is the best method for improving pull-up strength and endurance if you can't do more than five. All you need to be able to do is two consecutive pull-ups. Two, that's it.

Get your timer ready and prepare for a ten minute EMOM. At the beginning of every minute, do two pull-ups. Start with about 30% of your max rep set of pull-ups and build from there. Again, if 5 pull-ups is your max, just do 2 pull-ups every minute on the minute, for 10 total sets.

From here you want to increase volume slowly. Pull-ups respond well to progressive loading, but if you add reps too quickly you'll stall out or sacrifice good form. Here's an example of a three week progression for someone who can do 5 pull-ups:

  • Week 1  2 pull-ups EMOM for 10 minutes
  • Week 2  3 pull-ups EMOM for 5 minutes, then 2 pull-ups EMOM for the next 5 minutes
  • Week 3  3 pull-ups EMOM for the full 10 minutes

So you add five reps per week to the total amount of pull-ups by adding one rep to the first five sets. As long as you add at least one pull-up to your total number each week you're making progress. When you can no longer add reps each week it's time to retest your max rep set and start the process all over again... or move to the next method below.

Level 3 – I Can Do Around 8 Pull-Ups

Do cluster sets. Cluster sets allow you to do more total reps in a shorter time period without building up too much fatigue and hitting failure. With pull-ups, once you hit the wall you're pretty much done, so the short rest between clusters allows you to accumulate more total reps per set AND overall.

A cluster set is several smaller sets (clusters) of an exercise with short rest in between. So a cluster set of 10 reps might be 4 reps, short rest, 4 reps, short rest, and 2 reps. If you can't do 10 straight reps, then doing a cluster set will help you get the same total reps.

Aim for your max rep set broken up into three clusters with short rests between clusters. Let's say your max rep set of pull-ups is 8. Do this:

  • Do 3 reps
  • Rest 20 seconds
  • Do 3 reps
  • Rest 20 seconds
  • Do 2 reps
  • That's one set. Now rest 2 minutes and repeat for three more sets.

There are two ways to progress while using cluster sets. Either increase the total number of reps, or decrease the rest between clusters.

Example: Increasing reps each week

  • Week 1  4 sets of 3, 3, 2 resting 20 seconds between clusters (32 reps total)
  • Week 2  4 sets of 3, 3, 3 resting 20 seconds between clusters (36 reps total)
  • Week 3  4 sets of 4, 3, 3 resting 20 seconds between clusters (40 reps total)

Example: Decreasing rest between clusters each week:

  • Week 1  4 sets of 3, 3, 2 resting 20 seconds between clusters
  • Week 2  4 sets of 3, 3, 2 resting 15 seconds between clusters
  • Week 3  4 sets of 3, 3, 2 resting 10 seconds between clusters

You could even reduce the number of cluster sets as well, increasing the number of reps in each cluster.

Level 4 – I Can Do 10+ Pull-Ups

At some point you'll need to increase your maximal strength to keep improving. If you can do 10 pull-ups or more, train the pull-up two days per week, dedicating one day to maximal strength using weighted pull-ups. On the other day go for volume using EMOMs and cluster sets described above.

EMOM and cluster sets aren't just for increasing reps. You can use them to work on maximal strength too. Since you're adding weight, plan for the number of reps to be much lower. Incorporate straight sets when it comes to weighted pull-ups, with the goal of adding weight each week instead of adding reps.

Pull-Up Training Program

Pull-Up

This is a sample program for a lifter that's able to do a max rep set of 8 pull-ups, but you can adjust the number of reps based on your pull-up numbers. Remember to use about 30% of your max rep set to start your EMOM training.

Week 1

  • Day 1 – Weighted pull-ups:  Do 5 sets of 4 reps, resting 2 minutes between sets. Use a weight that allows you to complete all reps in each set.
  • Day 2 – EMOM pull-ups:  Do 3 pull-ups every minute for the first 5 minutes, then 2 pull-ups for the last 5 minutes.

Week 2

  • Day 1 – Weighted pull-ups:  Do 5 sets of 3 reps. Increase the weight from last week, but still complete all reps in each set.
  • Day 2 – EMOM pull-ups:  Do 3 pull-ups every minute for 10 minutes.

Week 3

  • Day 1 – Weighted pull-ups:  Do 5 sets of 2 reps. Increase the weight from last week.
  • Day 2 – EMOM pull-ups:  Do 4 pull-ups every minute for 5 minutes, then 3 pull-ups every minute for 10 minutes.

Week 4

  • Day 1 – Cluster set weighted pull-ups:  Do 5 sets of 2, 1, 1, resting 15 seconds between clusters and 2 minutes between sets. Use a weight that'll allow you to complete all reps in each set.
  • Day 2 – Cluster set pull-ups:  Do 4 sets of 3, 3, 3, resting 20 seconds between clusters and 2 minutes between sets.

Week 5

  • Day 1 – Cluster set weighted pull-ups:  Do 5 sets of 1, 1, 1, resting 15 seconds between clusters and 2 minutes between sets. Increase the weight from last week.
  • Day 2 – Cluster set pull-ups:  Do 4 sets of 3, 3, 3, resting 15 seconds between clusters and 2 minutes between sets.

Week 6

  • Day 1 – Cluster set weighted pull-ups:  Do 5 sets of 1, 1, 1, resting 15 seconds between clusters and 2 minutes between sets. Increase the weight from last week.
  • Day 2 – Cluster set pull-ups:  Do 4 sets of 3, 3, 3, resting 10 seconds between clusters and 2 minutes between sets.

After week 6 retest your max rep set of pull-ups.

Related:  More Ways to Use EMOM Training

Related:  Strengthen Your Strict Pull-Up