3 Ways to Improve Your Pull-up Performance

The pull-up is the king of upper body exercises. It builds strength and muscle in your forearms, biceps, lats, and upper back better than any other upper body strength exercise you’ll find. But many people don’t get it right. Like any potentially effective exercise there are ways to screw it up. Elbow, shoulder, and neck problems can creep up on you.

That’s why I’m here to ensure that you get it right. Here are the three essential elements to get the most out of the exercise.

1. The Hang: Start from a full hang position. That’s easy enough, right? But this is often the place where people immediately put their shoulders in a high risk position. When you’re in the full hang it’s important to keep distance between the top of your shoulders and your ears. It’s common to see a guy’s head get buried between his shoulders like a turtle going back into its shell. As my friend Pavel Tsatsouline likes to say, “Think of your shoulders as poison to your ears.” Keep your shoulder blades somewhat down when you’re in the full hang.

Now, I want to be clear here since the “keep your shoulder blades down” tip has gotten a lot of criticism. There should be some shoulder elevation in the full hang – that’s natural and healthy. What I’m advising against is a full hang where your shoulders go all the way up to your ears since that’s not a healthy position to constantly pull from. There’s a happy medium between keeping your shoulder blades all the way down and tight (a position I don’t recommend) and letting your shoulders relax and shrug up to your ears (another position I don’t recommend). Find an intermediate spot that feels right to you in the full hang.

2. The Pull: As you pull your body up, focus on pulling your elbows down and in to activate your lats. This simple trick will strengthen and grow your lats much faster. Pull until the elbow joints can no longer flex. Lower under control but keep your shoulders away from your ears in the hang.

3. Hand Position and Rotation: Like most body weight exercises, I favor a very high frequency of training for the pull-up to build the muscles fast. The upper back muscles are difficult to overtrain, and that’s one of the reasons why the guys who do pull-ups all the time have the best upper backs. However, elbow problems are common in lifters who start doing them every day. The problem is with their hand position on a fixed bar. As you pull and lower your body the wrist joints want to naturally rotate to take stress off the elbows. When you’re gripping a fixed bar, they can’t.

The chin-up (a pull-up with the palms facing you) is typically the worst culprit since there’s excess strain on the elbows right from the start. If you’re someone who suffers from elbow pain with the pull-up or chin-up, the solution is simple: do them from rings, TRX straps, or anything that allows your hands to rotate. If rings aren’t an option, focus on pull-ups with a neutral (hammer grip) hand position since it’s the least stressful to the elbows.

To embark on a high frequency pull-up plan, do them five days per week on a 3 on/1 off and 2 on/1 off schedule. So if you start on Monday you’ll take Thursday and Sunday off each week. If you can do 5-10 continuous pull-ups perform 20 reps in each workout. If you can do 10-15, perform 30 reps in each workout. It doesn’t matter how many sets it takes to achieve those reps, just get them done.

Stay Focused,
CW

29 thoughts on “3 Ways to Improve Your Pull-up Performance

  1. This is very useful, Chad. My husband has suffered from horrible elbow pain over the last few months. I am going to share this with him to see if it helps. For daily pull ups, do you recommend performing them as the first exercise in a program? Thanks!

    CW: Yes, do the pull-ups first in the workout. Happy to help.

  2. Chad,

    I am focused on strength training and would like to incorporate your pullup strategy of 5x per week. However, I also follow a strength training schedule that it appears you would often recommend of 3x per week total body workouts. So how would you incorporate this pullup training? Possibly outside of the normal workouts, doing it at home rather than going to a gym just to knock out some pullups? If so, you have any thoughts on those bars for the doorway, particularly one that would require no nails/screws?

    Also, with regards to the # of sets not mattering, how far should we take each set? Should we stop with 2 in the tank, go to failure, etc.?

    I appreciate your thoughts

    CW: The HFT plan for the pull-up replaces all pull-ups in your main full body workouts. Do the pull-ups at least 6 hours away from your main full body workouts on the days you train full body.

    I have the Iron Gym Extreme pull-up bar in my apartment and it works fine – no screws necessary. However, I use Fat Gripz around the handles since they’re too small.

    When you focus on a target number of reps per lift, leave a rep in the hole with the earlier sets. Overall though, don’t focus too much on speed with heavier lifts – just do what you can with each set.

  3. Chad,what about doing pull ups with palms facing in?Is this safer for your shoulders? thanks for your time

    CW: Yes, the neutral grip pull-up is the best out of all the fixed bar versions. Overall though, doing them from rings wins every time.

  4. Hey Chad, I was just wondering when you were going to post your findings after completing the Waterbury Challenge, and thanks for yet another great article! -Oliver

  5. Hey chad, another awesome post here. But i have a few problems. You say
    “As my friend Pavel Tsatsouline likes to say, “Think of your shoulders as poison to your ears.” Keep your shoulder blades down and tight when you’re in the full hang.”
    however i heard you can get injured due to lack of, i think infraspinatus, development. Here is a video about what i was talking about.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ON2KLcWg6I
    its related also to the kelso shrug system for lat flare

    anyways good stuff here.

    another quick question chad. I know you didnt mention it in the article but do you believe that having a thumbless grip will increase lat activation? That means that when you normally grip you have all fingers over the bar, and thumb under the bar gripping tightly. Thumbless is when all thumbs and fingers are over the bar, not quite false grip though.

    CW: There are a few problems with that video, or the way you’re interpreting it. First, at the beginning of the video, he mentions that keeping your shoulder blades down can cause problems “when done incorrectly.” I’m quoting him here. Of course, any exercise can cause problems when done incorrectly. Second, to say that you can’t fully extend your arms with your shoulder blades down is not true. That’s only the case if you lack T-spine mobility, which many people do. That must be corrected or any pull-up will cause problems.

    There will be some shoulder elevation at the bottom of the movement, this is natural. However, my point in the post was to help people avoid letting their shoulders completely elevate up to the ears. There’s a happy medium between. Finally, if shoulders are an issue, all pull-ups should be performed from rings.

  6. Thanks for these tips Chad! For the high frequency pull-up plan, what if I can only do 1-5 continuous pull-ups, how many reps should I perform in each workout? Also, off topic, for mobility drills like the ones covered in your Total Body Solution DVD, how many sets should we do of each and when is the best time to do them?

    Thanks Chad!

    CW: Well, 1-5 reps is too broad of a range. There’s a big difference from being able to do 5 pull-ups, and only 1. If you can do only 1, try to get 8-10 each day. If you can do 5, focus on 20. 2 sets of each mobility drill each day is usually sufficient.

  7. Chad, I have seen that first suggestion made by many trainers, and I believe that it is inaccurate, and possibly injurious. When I first started doing pullups, I used to try and “keep my shoulders down and back in the full hang”, until I realized that it was injuring my supraspinatus.

    If you lock the shoulder blades down while you flex the humeri, then your humeri are on a collision course with the top of the tightly compressed AC joint (compressed b/c you are holding it down with your lower traps and rhomboids). When the arms are raised overhead, the scaps need to rotate with them. This is no different than rotating the shoulder blades during a military press in the top position. The shoulder blades are designed to roll with the arms. This is the essence of scapulohumeral rhythm.

    As a test, simply try to lock the scaps down and back, and then try to get full flexion of the arms overhead. It will either be impossible, or quite painful, as the supraspinatus grinds into the AC joint.

    If you want to keep the shoulders off the ears, then use lat tension.

    Hope you don’t mind an alternative point of view, and if I’m missing the point, then please help me learn. I really love your blog and work in general. Thanks, Igor

    CW: Igor, thanks for your input. And your view is certainly not “alternative,” I agree with you completely. It’s virtually impossible to perform a full pull-up and not get any shoulder elevation – there should be some. My point was to help people avoid sinking in the full hang with their shoulders all the way up to the ears – that’s not a healthy position to constantly pull from. The other issue is T-spine mobility since most people don’t have nearly enough of it. Insufficient T-spine mobility is one of the problems when people keep their shoulders relatively down in the hang. Finally, if people performed pull-ups from rings like I recommend, there would be far less shoulder problems with a pull-up.

  8. Awesome article! I didn’t know about the importance of keeping distance between the top of the shoulders and the ears.

    Also elbow pain has been an ongoing issue for me whenever I do pull-ups or chin-ups (I think I have golfer’s elbow even though I don’t play golf lol). Rings are working well for me right now. I’ve ordered a pair of TRX-like handles that I hope can be used with Fatgripz.

  9. Chad, what is this program geared toward? Improving pull-up numbers or increasing muscle mass? How long should you stay on it? Also, it’s much less volume than your last HFT program. Do you suggest once you can do more than 15 reps to add weight and continue?

    CW: This is not a program, it’s just three tips to improve your technique and joint health. There are many ways to use the pull-up and it depends on your goal. If max reps is your goal do one set of as many as possible in the am and pm hours every other day. For max strength, do 3×3 two or three times each week with the heaviest load you can handle.

  10. Chad,

    If the goal is increasing total reps (in one set) would working on one max set fairly close to failure (speed slowing down terminates set) frequently do the job as well as the method mentioned above (total rep target for the session)? For example 1 x amap (til speed slows) 4-5 times a week. Is the muscle increase likely to even out over both approaches or would this not be enough total volume for that as well?

    I realise you’ve written about both approaches previously but I’m keen to jack up the chin up and push up numbers with the minimal amount of fuss and without impacting my other full body workouts. The 1 set approach would be my preference but only if it’s likely to cover most of the benefits of the total rep approach.

    Thanks.

    CW: To boost your total reps with only one set you must work to absolute failure, and then you must strain at the failure position for 4-5 seconds. That’s the best way to build endurance with one set.

  11. Great article Chad!
    One question I have that relates…
    I’ve found that many of my athletes have difficulty switching from a pull up with chin clearing to a pull up with chest touching the bar. Do you have any tips on really boosting performance for those extra few inches?
    Thanks as usual!

    CW: Usually the problem is a lack of mobility in the shoulders and T-spine. Improve mobility in those areas and the “chest touch” version becomes much easier. Another tip is to hold the top position with the chest against the bar to build strength at that position.

  12. Great pointers Chad! I really like your writing, which I first discovered on Tnation. Enjoyed your recent post on Core training and your live spills.

    I’m working to heal up some biceps tendonosis that creeped in on me over the past year… so I can get back to some pull-ups. Is that part of the reason to keep your shoulders away from your ears? Any tips or experience on how to heal this up? A book I read on the subject suggested eccentric only training on biceps curls, starting with lighter weight. I figure I can then move to eccentric only pulls ups.

    Keep the great info coming!

    CW: Problems in your biceps tendons can be nasty because it’s constantly being hit by many different exercises. The first key is to reduce inflammation throughout your body by focusing on green vegetables, fresh fruits, and wild fish. Eat only those foods for a week – along with fish oil and curcumin supplements – and you’ll be amazed how much better your joints will feel. From there, focus on doing the pull-ups with the form I mentioned to reduce stress on the elbow joints.

  13. im looking to add mass on my arms over the next month as ill be getting into my 2nd year of school and would love some thicker arms and forearms. im on the show and go workout system by eric cressey(4 days a week, workouts after work). i came across this thinknig i could bang out some pullups before work, then do my regular workout after work. so im wondering what you may expect this could do to a skinny guys arms? (13 inches in girth, relaxed position)

    maybe if there is a good tricep exercise you know of i could do at home to go along with the pullups in the morning, that may help too

    CW: Yes, 1-2 sets of max rep pull-ups each morning will boost your forearm and biceps development. For the tris, do the handstand push-up.

  14. How do suggest training for the one arm pull up, and also can you do a one arm pull up?

    CW: That’s a max strength exercise so you need to first boost your max strength to the point where you can do 5 pull-ups with 50% of your body weight attached. Then, focus on doing the pull-up with one hand over the other. Then move to holding your wrist with the non-working arm.

  15. Hi Chad,

    (Sorry for my approximate english, I’m french).

    First I would like to thank you for all your tips and articles which are very interesting. You really make the strenght training fun and pleasant.

    I have some questions about this article.
    You say “If max reps is your goal do one set of as many as possible in the am and pm hours every other day.”. Does it means that this five days per week plan will not increase my max reps pull up and will not add mass to my lats ?
    Currently i’m training 3 days per week with a full body workout (monday, Wednesday, friday), so i have removed lats exercice to follow this five days per week plan. So in each full body workout I do only a chest exercice and a lower body exercise (Squat, deadlift…). After a week i have add one rep at the first set (6 to 7) but I wonder if doing one set of max reps everyday will not be more effective…

    Does this kind of plan can be applied to dip or all other strength exercices ? For example : everyday doing one set of max reps of dip ?

    Leo

    CW: There are many ways to boost your max pull-ups, what I mentioned is one way. That equates to 8 pull-up workouts per week. If you want to do just 5, that’s fine too. For full body work focus on leg exercises and upper body pushing exercises. The pull-ups take care of the upper body pulling needs. Some guys can do body weight dips everyday with no problems, but push-ups are a safer bet to boost the same muscles.

  16. Hey Chad,

    Is attaching the “Perfect Pullup” handles that rotate a good alternative to using rings?

    CW: Definitely. It’s always best to use anything that lets your wrists naturally rotate.

  17. I recently did the PLP program and got to 45 reps, but then had to stop due to elbow pain. The program was really effective and I was knocking out strong sets of pullups with varied grips before needing to stop. I’d like to start up again, either on PLP or just pullups, so will follow your advice and buy some rings. Any suggestions on the best ones to purchase? Something portable would be great so that I can throw them in my gym bag.

    CW: I like these from Perform Better http://www.performbetter.com/detail.aspx_Q_ID_E_5008_A_CategoryID_E_500

  18. Hi Chad,

    I can do about 10-12 reps of chest-to-bar chinups but not even 1 chest-to-bar pullup (can do quite a few chin-to-bar though). Any suggestions to overcome this?

    Thanks in advance.

    CW: Two things. First, stretch your shoulders, chest, and mobilize your T-spine (improve T-extension) since many people are too stiff in these areas to get their chest to the bar. Second, perform an isometric hold at the top position for 2 sets every other day. Hold as long as possible.

  19. Hi Chad

    Does using a thumbless grip when performing neutral grip pull ups actually de-activate your biceps? I have found when using this grip it takes the stress off your forearms and elbows, but still works biceps?

    Cheers

    CW: Yes, for most lifters it’s easier for them to focus on pulling from the lats when using a thumbless grip.

  20. quick question, why is it pullups on rings are better than on a normal pullup bar? i can think of a few reasons but i just thought id ask and get a straight answer. thanks chad

    CW: Rings allow for natural wrist rotation, thus making it easier to do for a higher frequency without fear of injury.

  21. Chad,

    You’ve written recently about your pull up experiment and conclusions (failure sets good for endurance but not size, volume good for size but not necessarily endurance). If the goal is more reps in a single set and a tad more muscle as well do you feel the two approaches lead themselves well to being performed together in overall programming? For example:

    Mon – Pull ups and pushup/dips to failure (1-2 sets to total failure) plus sprints
    Weds – Full body: Pull ups and pushups/dips (overall target reps for volume – many sets) plus lower body work
    Fri – Pull ups and push up/dips to failure (1-2 sets to total failure) plus sprints

    Personally I’m more interested in increasing total numbers per set but also hope for that lean and defined boxers look. Lots of extra muscle that has no real purpose isn’t of interest.

    Thanks for all the great work and sharing your knowledge. Can’t wait for the new bodyweight programme!

    CW: Yes, that will work.

  22. Chad,

    Thanks for your insight and diligence in answering everyone’s questions – I am becoming a new fan of your work.

    I read your posts on T-nation and you have sparked my curiosity regarding endurance vs. size. With all the comments like the gentlemen before me regarding pullups for muscle size vs. muscle endurance, could you elaborate a little more on the type of program you would use to build muscle versus what you would use to increase endurance – perhaps with a sentence or two on the science behind the idea.

    Btw – I was 7 weeks into the Armstrong pullup workout when elbow pain forced me to stop. Readers, definitely heed Chad’s ring advice!

    V/R,

    George

    CW: For muscle, focus on fast reps and avoid failure. Shoot for 25 reps every day for the pull-up. If you can already do 12-15 straight pull-ups do 50 reps every day until you’ve achieved the growth you want. At that point, revert back to heavier, low rep sets of the pull-up for 8×3 2-3x/week.

  23. Hey.

    Great article! I have been trying to use pull-ups to build mass on my upper body. I aim to do 4 sets of 10-12 reps each. I space these out with a 30-60 second jog. I do this routine, plus push-ups, crunches and some lower back exercises 3 or 4 times a week, but very rarely on the same day. If I do have to do all of them on the same day, but I split them into am/pm sessions.

    I have found that whilst I can do more pull-ups than I could 6 weeks ago, I haven’t seen any increase in mass. Am I overworking the my body? I give myself a day or two of recovery time between working the same muscle groups, so I wouldn’t think it would be an issue.

    Thanks, Sam

    CW: For pull-ups, a higher frequency is better. Start doing them 6 days per week and you’ll grow.

  24. Hey Chad, this article was exactly what I was looking for and very similar to a couple of articles you did on T-nation, however one thing that got me confused was that you gave 3 methods for increasing pull up/push up but I am not sure which is best for REP vs SIZE. HFT 6 sessions every other day in the am and pm, 1-2 sets each day, or shooting for a set rep. And one clarification for set reps, is the set rep meant to be achieved in multiple sets, or throughout the day. I have read many different approaches from not sure.

    Thanks man for all the information

    CW: There are many ways to build size. For reps, you need to push to failure on a consistent basis. For size, avoid failure and do many sets each day with the goal of completing at least 50 total reps per day. If you train in am/pm, do pull-ups every other day. You can do the reps throughout the day (this is better for muscle growth) or do them in one workout. Either will work. I prefer spreading them out over the day since it’s less fatiguing.

  25. Oh, wow. So you’re saying that chin ups are actually BAD to do unless you’re doing them with gymnastic rings?….

    CW: Not bad per se, risky is a better word.

  26. Hi Chad,

    Sorry to resurrect a dying thread but I was wondering could you hypothetically use this method as a full body workout? I’d do 20 pull ups, 40 push ups and 25 one leg squats (as far as my current range of motion allows).

    Is the push to pull ratio too high?

    Many thanks in advance.

    CW: Add in some external rotation work twice per week with weights and you’ll be fine.

  27. Hi Chad, I know that you dont recomend doing pull ups daily from a fixed bar, but what about every other day? I mean, Do you think that 120 pull ups every other day is excessive if done from a fixed bar?

    CW: Yes, it’s excessive. Use rings, TRX straps or do hammer grip pull-ups.

  28. I’ve been a hybrid of this. Adding one rep per day to my pullup til I hit 100. I just hit 100. Havent had any elbow pain or shoulder issues but Ive gotten bad calluses on my palms. Should i grab some kind of glove?

    CW: Yes, gloves are fine or have a manicurist scrub off those calluses.

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