More than 30 years ago, my PE class tested everyone on pull-ups. I did two full reps at a bodyweight of 120 pounds – not exactly top of the class. My friend Dave didn't fare much better. We decided we'd had enough humiliation and went on a pull-up rampage.

A few months later I could do 14 reps and I was the third best in school. Dave was the second best and could do 17 reps. How did we train it? We chose the only way we knew – doing them every day.

Greasing the groove and fine-tuning the nervous system works well for upping the reps in pull-ups, but we didn't know anything about that. We just did it every day because we thought that was the best way to get better. We actually weren't that far off!

Frequency and Mixed Loading

I've competed in powerlifting and bench press competitions for more than two decades. As such, the "big three" have been my main focus, but pull-ups have stayed with me as one of the main upper-body assistance exercises. Now I can do one with nearly double my bodyweight.

Pull-ups are worth doing several times weekly, but not just with bodyweight – and therein lies the secret. Most people focus on improving the number of reps they're able to do, but they should be concentrating on beefing up their pull-up 1RMs.

This will actually increase your ability to perform more bodyweight reps. Here's a program that will take you there. It still involves doing a lot of high-frequency training with bodyweight pull-ups, but the magic lies in the medium-frequency days that use pull-ups plus added weight.

Weighted

The Program

To succeed, you should already be able to do at least several strict bodyweight pull-ups, which means you're strong enough for added weight attached. Once you've checked that box, you'll be alternating between two workouts:

  1. High-Frequency Training – Pull-ups using only bodyweight: 5 x weekly (weeks 1, 2, 5 and 6).
  2. Medium-Frequency Training – Pull-ups with added weight: 2 x weekly (weeks 3 and 4).

Do bodyweight reps for the first two weeks. Week 3 and 4 will involve doing pull-ups with plates attached to your belt. You'll then go back to bodyweight reps for weeks 5 and 6.

Rotating between bodyweight and weighted pull-ups will give you the best of both worlds. The slightly lighter training and faster reps in weeks 1 and 2 will build power and set you up for the heavier, low-rep strength training in weeks 3 and 4.

The lighter weeks will also give you time to recuperate from the heavier loads, but at the same time upgrade your technique and pulling power.

As with any specialization program, when you do more of something, you should do less of something else for the rest of your body. Doing too much might halt your progress. Focus on a select few key exercises and your strength progress will likely be better.

Start out by testing your 1RM (bodyweight + weights attached). Once you've determined that, start the program:

Week 1

  • Days 1-5 – 2x5 reps

Week 2

  • Days 1-5 – 3x5 reps

Week 3 and 4

  • Day 1 – 2x5 reps (warm-up), then 3x2 reps with added weight. Use approximately 85-90% of 1RM.
  • Day 2 – 2x5 reps (warm-up), then 3x2 reps with added weight. Use approximately 80-85% of 1RM.

Week 5

  • Days 1-5 – 2x5 reps

Week 6

  • Days 1-5 – 3x5 reps

Week 7

  • Test your 1RM

Remember, when you do pull-ups, pull with speed and force without getting sloppy. Stay tight, pressurize your abs, and pull like you mean it. The eccentric or lowering phase should be controlled. Not sloppy fast, not slow.

Once you've tested your new 1RM in week 7, start over again while adjusting your poundages based on your new 1RM.

Reasons to Do Pull-Ups in the First Place

  • The pulling work aids in balancing out all the pressing work you probably do.
  • The lats are also a very important core-stabilizing muscle group.
  • Strong lats will benefit your bench press and give you a solid platform to press from.
  • Strengthening your lats will assist in stabilizing the bar on your shoulders in a heavy squat and will contribute tightness in order to maintain proper upper-body stability in the deadlift.

Related:  The Chin-Up Project

Related:  Master the Ridiculously Strict Pull-Up