While many people consider the deadlift to be the king of back exercises in terms of building muscle and increasing strength (which I don’t disagree with), I’d personally include pull ups as a very close second place in that discussion.
They are probably my favorite back (and bicep) exercise of them all, and I feel pull ups were responsible for much of the muscle and strength I’ve personally gained over the years. For this reason, I will always include some form of pull ups or chin ups in every workout routine I use myself and every workout routine I create for others.
There’s just one small problem… many people are unable to actually do them. Some people can’t do any at all (usually beginners, overweight people and women), while others can do some, but not nearly enough to get a full workout out of it. If you fall into either category, don’t feel bad.
A lot of people are in this same situation. For example, I used to be. At one point years ago I couldn’t do more than 3 pull ups or chin ups. These days I can do 8 with an additional 45lbs of weight strapped to me.
Today I want to show you exactly how I was able to increase to this point and how you can do the same. No matter how many you can currently do, how hard it seems, or how weak you are right now, here are 4 proven methods to increase strength in the places you’ll need it to do more pull ups.
The 4 Best Ways To Do More Pull Ups
One quick note before we continue. The primary difference between pull ups and chin ups is how you grip the bar. Pull ups are done with an overhand grip where your palms face away from you. Chin ups are done with an underhand grip where your palms face you. However, everything I say about increasing your pull ups applies just the same to chin ups and vice-versa. Got that? Good.
1. Actually Do Pull Ups!
That wasn’t a typo. In all honesty, the best way to become able to do more pull ups is to actually DO pull ups. I know how confusing that might sound, but hear me out.
If, for example, you can only do 3 reps today, make it your goal next time to do 4 reps. It may or may not happen that next time. You may still only do the same 3 reps. You may even do 3 and a half reps. Or, you may actually get all 4 reps. Either way, the best possible way to increase the number of pull ups you can do is to actually walk up to the pull up bar and try to do just one more rep than you were able to do the previous time.
Think of a baby learning to walk. Would they ever be able to do it if they just kept crawling and never actually attempted walking? Of course not. Pull ups and chin ups are the same way. You need to literally try to do it in order to actually be able to do it.
Push for that one additional rep (or that first rep if you can’t do any right now). If you can’t do it, that’s fine. Just try it again next time, and again after that. When you finally make it happen, the new goal is to get another additional rep.
2. Do Negatives.
The word “negative” is used to describe the lowering of the weight during an exercise. For example, when you’re lowering the bar to your chest while bench pressing… that is the negative. During pull ups, the negative would be the point when you are lowering your body downward after pulling yourself up.
What I want you to do is skip the pulling portion and JUST do the lowering portion of the exercise. Here’s why…
The thing that makes pull ups and chin ups so hard is the actual “pulling up” part. However, that’s only 50% of the exercise. The negative is the other 50%. As it turns out, this half of the rep is quite a bit easier and still uses the same muscles in the back and biceps that you would use when pulling yourself up.
This means negatives will strengthen all of the muscles that are lacking the strength needed to pull up and actually improve your ability to do that pulling up portion of the exercise. In order to properly do negatives, you have to start off at the point when you’re already “pulled up.” There are 2 simple ways to do this.
- By jumping. Grab the pull up bar like you normally would, but then instead of trying to pull yourself up, jump up so that your chin is above the bar the same way it would be if you did the actual pulling part yourself.
- By standing on something. The other (and even easier) way of doing it is to just stand on something that is high enough for you to start out in that already-pulled-up position. Depending on your height, standing up a dumbbell may do the trick. Otherwise, a bench, a chair, a couple of weights stacked on top of each other, a cardio step, whatever. Anything you can use as a mini-ladder would be perfect.
Now, once you’re in that top position, you’re ready to do the negative part of the pull up. So, lower yourself down as slow and controlled as you possibly can. Focus on the muscles being used, and try to keep your body as stable and tight as possible (no swinging around or anything). Once you have lowered yourself back to the starting position, repeat this all over again.
Don’t let go of the bar and take a break. Finish the FULL negative, then go right back into that already-pulled-up position… and then do another negative. Do a few sets of a normal amount of reps.
3. Do Assisted Pull Ups.
The reason people are unable to do more pull ups and chin ups is because their body weight is too heavy for them. If this was the problem with any other exercise, you could just take some weight off the bar or use lighter dumbbells. Unfortunately, you can’t take off your legs to lighten your own body weight. However, there are ways of creating the same effect.
- Assisted Pull Up Machine. This is probably the easiest way to do it assuming your gym actually has one of these. If so, what this machine basically does is it takes away a portion of your body’s weight by balancing it out with weight from the machine (like how a see-saw works). You set how much of your weight you want to pull, and it provides the counter weight to balance it off. Your goal here would be to gradually increase the amount of your own weight your are using until you get to the point where you can pull 100% of your own weight. At that point, you can do actual pull ups.
- Bands. You know those elastic workout bands that people use for 100 different things? Well, if you hook the top of the band around the pull up bar, and then rest your knees in the bottom part, you create what is called a band-assisted pull up.
- Get A Spotter. Similar to the band method mentioned above, you could just as easily have a friend supply the “assistance” by putting their hands under your feet/ankles/knees.
4. Increase Your Frequency.
Remember earlier when I compared trying to do more pull ups to a baby trying to learn to walk? Well, imagine if that baby only attempted walking just once per week. Now imagine if that baby tried 2 or 3 times per week. Which way do you think would lead to that baby walking sooner… trying less frequently or more frequently? Obviously… more!
So, my question for you is, is your workout routine using a split that causes you to train each muscle group just once per week? If so, that means you are only doing pull ups or chin ups just once per week, and that is the absolute worst way to train when trying to increase them.
As I explain in my article about how often you should workout per week, the ideal frequency is to train each muscle group about 2 times per week (or 3 times if you’re a beginner). So, if you’re still using an outdated once-a-week workout frequency, it’s time to increase it if you want the best results.
Summing It Up and My Personal Experience
So there you have it, the 4 best ways to increase your pull up strength and therefore do more pull ups (or chin ups). It’s hard to say which method is better or worse, because they all definitely work. I think #1 (actually attempting to do them) is the only real “required” method on the list that everyone should probably do.
Not just because I think it’s the most effective way to increase your pull ups, but because if you don’t, how will you know when one of the other 3 methods are actually working? So, combine #1 with any of the other methods on the list and watch how quickly you’re able to do more of them.
Here’s How I Did It
For me personally, I started off doing lat pulldowns for a long time. At some point I decided I wanted to start doing pull ups. I remember my very first attempt was after doing 4 sets of lat pulldowns, and I think I was able to do about 3 reps that were okay at best.
My goal from there was to do 4 reps. And, just by using method #1 from the list above every back workout, I was able to do it. To ensure I was still getting enough back volume in (after all, 4 reps isn’t much of a workout), I followed it up with 3 sets of 8-12 reps either using an assisted pull up machine or doing negatives. Sometimes a little of both.
Eventually this combination got me to 6 good pull ups, at which point I did one less set of the assisted or negative-only version, and one more set of actual pull ups. At some point after that, I was doing 8 reps on my first set, and 5 or 6 reps on the second. So, I added in a third set of pull ups, and removed another set of the assisted or negative-only version I was doing after.
Eventually, I wasn’t using any of the methods on the list anymore because I was able to do 3-4 good sets of 5-10 reps each set. My goal from there was to get to the point where I could do 3 or 4 sets of 8-10 reps. And soon after, I was able to do just that.
Now, you may be wondering, where do you go from there? Simple. Like any other exercise, when it gets easy, you need to add weight and keep progressing otherwise you’ll stop building muscle or getting stronger. So, in order to progress with a body weight exercise like pull ups or chin ups, you increase the weight by adding more weight to your body.
I don’t mean get fat and gain 30lbs so you become heavier. I mean either hold a dumbbell between your feet, wear a backpack with a weight in it, or the best method of all… get yourself a pull up belt. This is a specially made weight lifting belt with a chain attachment that you can hang a weight from.
They’re pretty cheap and extremely easy to use and increase with. I personally got mine from Amazon. I highly recommend getting one when you get strong enough to need it.
Now, I’m sure there is someone reading this right now and thinking that adding ADDITIONAL weight to their pull ups and chin ups is SOOO far off for them. Honestly, I used to think that too back when I could barely do more than 2 or 3 reps with my own body weight. But, like anything else, with enough time and work… you’ll be there before you know it.
So, use the methods described in this article and have fun increasing. And by the way, with each bit of progress you make, take a look in the mirror. An awesome side effect of increasing the amount of pull ups you can do is an increase in muscle mass and a huge improvement in how awesome your body looks. Enjoy your results.
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