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Neurons and Pull-Up

How to Do a Pull-Up: From 0 to 20 Consecutive Pull-Ups in Less Than 12 Weeks

by Dejan Antic | Follow Dejan on Twitter

Can you do a pull-up?

Like a proper pull-up?

Yes?

How about 20 consecutive pull-ups?

Don’t be ashamed if you can’t, for I’ve also been unable to do a pull-up for a really long time.

And that was, until I came across this “weird” training technique from this Russian fellow.

It goes completely against the grain, but it has helped me go from 0 to 20 consecutive pull-ups, in less than 12 weeks.

Want to know how I did it?

Keep on reading to find out.

3 Reasons Why Pull-Ups Are Awesome

I’d be able to sit here and name you countless of reasons why pull-ups are awesome, but for the sake of brevity, here are the top 3 reasons.

Works Your Body as a Whole

I like to think of pull-ups as some kind of an upper body squat. There’s almost no other upper body exercise that’s so simple to do, while being so effective.

Almost no muscle gets spared from the action. In the picture below, you can see, which muscles work the most.

Pull-up Muscles Worked

And what’s also cool about the pull-ups, is that they work your triceps muscle. You see, the long triceps head point of origin is located on the infraglenoid tubercle of scapula, which means that, the long head is responsible for movement in two joints—the shoulder joint and the elbow joint. So, while you’re doing pull-ups, the long head of the triceps also takes some pounding.

You Can Do Them Anywhere

There’s just no excuse for you not to do pull-ups.

You can literally do them anywhere. As long as you have a bar that’s able to withstand your bodyweight, then it’s your job to do as many pull-ups as you possibly can.

Just be creative when on the lookout for a pull-up bar.

They’re Easy to Learn

There’s nothing really much to the pull-up. At the end of the day, it’s just pulling yourself up to the bar and then lowering yourself down, with good form of course.

But simple as they are, there are still many subtleties that you need to be aware of, if you’d like to do pull-ups in the years to come, injury free. And this brings me to the next topic, which is …

How to Do a Pull-Up With Good Form

Like I said, pull-ups are a simple lift. They don’t require months of learning, like some more complex lifts—snatch, clean and jerk.

You can learn how to do a pull-up in a single afternoon.

Here’s how.

The Starting Position

Start with your hands shoulder width apart and with your palms facing down a.k.a. the pronated grip.

Pull-Up Grip Width

Now, the starting position would ideally have your body fully extended, and your rib cage over your pelvis, but unfortunately since many gyms have pull-up bars that are too low, a lot of times, you won’t be able to start in the fully extended position.

But don’t sweat it. If you can’t start in the perfect position, just bend your legs at the knees a littlebit in order to make room for the starting position.

The shoulders should be in nice and stable position. You do this, by imagining that you’re trying to bend the bar in half. This will reduce the slack in your shoulder joint capsule, thus creating a more stable shoulder position.

Bend the Bar

While you’re at the bottom part of the lift, you should keep your shoulders down and away from your ears and your chin must be a little bit tucked in, in order to create a neutral spine.

Tucked Chin

Each rep should start from a dead-hang position.

The Pulling Phase

The pulling phase should be smooth. While you’re lifting yourself up, you should really focus on activating your lats. This is best done by imagining, that you’re trying to push your elbows down—this is by far the best mental cue for activating your lats.

Your chin should always be tucked in and you should never crank your head back in order to clear your chin over the bar.

The Lowering Phase

When you’re lowering yourself, always do so in a controlled fashion.

Lower yourself till the start position and then repeat the exercise.

That’s all there’s to it.

Here’s How a Set of Pull-Ups Should Look Like

From 0 to 20 Consecutive Pull-Ups in Less Than 12 Weeks

When I was first started to work out, I wasn’t able to do a single pull-up.

Not one!

But with the training method I’m about to describe in this chapter, I was able to take my pull-up from zero to hero in less than 12 weeks.

But actually, let’s take a step back first.

Before I came across this training technique, I wasted a couple of years following dumb advice from fitness gurus that didn’t know what they were talking about. When I first started to learn how to do pull-ups, everybody and their mothers recommended, that you should first build up your back strength with some assistance exercises, before venturing out into the pull-up land.

Here’s what they usually recommended:

  • Bent over dumbbell rows for a couple of weeks.
  • Negative chin-ups for the next few weeks.
  • Then, after a couple of months went by, “try” doing some pull-ups and if you’re lucky, you’ll maybe get two reps.

I spent months doing dumbbell rows and inverted rows, but when I tried to test myself on the pull-up bar, I failed miserably. I still wasn’t able to do a single pull-up!

Talking about bad advice.

But here’s the deal …

If you want to get good at something, you need to make deliberate practice.

Specificity + Frequent Practice = Success

So, if you want to get good at pull-ups then practice pull-ups.

By doing other exercises like inverted rows and dumbbell rows sure, you’ll get stronger, but you’ll get stronger only at those lifts. There might be some carry-over to your pull-up strength, but in my experience that would be minimal.

Therefore, you need to put all of your focus on working on your pull-ups.

“But wait … how am I supposed to focus all of my efforts on doing pull-ups, if I can’t do a single pull-up??!?!”

Well, I’m glad you asked.

But before I give you the answer to that question, let me first say a few words about the technique, which will allow you to unlock your pull-up potential. The name of the technique is …

The “Grease the Groove” Technique

I first came across this technique, while I was reading some material from the legendary Pavel Tsatsouline. I highly recommend you check his stuff out, because he’s a really cool dude.

Anyway, in one of Pavel’s articles, he says how very frequent and heavy training, will help you become stronger through the mechanism of “synaptic facilitation”. Synaptic facilitation is just a fancy word for saying that your motor neurons—the neurons that fire your muscles—will reinforce its connection to your muscles and it may also form brand new synaptic connections.

This means that when the time comes to lift heavy weights, more voltage will be able to flow through your muscles, which will result in harder contractions. And you know what harder contractions mean—more weight and reps lifted.

This is why Olympic weightlifters are able to lift so much weight. By training every day with heavy weights, for years on end, their neurons are able to discharge a shit-load of juice into their muscles. They probably have one of the best wiring systems in the sports world.

Anyway, to tie this technique back to the pull-ups … if you want to make good use of the “synaptic facilitation” technique, you must make sure to practice pull-ups multiple times per day.

But how does this apply to you, the beginner who can’t do a single pull-up yet?

Well, for starters, if you’re not able to do a single pull-up, you’re going to need some assistance. And by far the best way to do assisted pull-ups, is to get yourself an assisted pull-up package (some elastic bands basically).

Pull-Up Assistance Bands

With these bands, you’ll be able to progress really fast. The way you use these bands, is you tie one end to the pull-up bar and you step with your foot on the other end.

Check the video below to see what I mean.

Now, let’s say a couple of words about the programming.

Intensity

Not training till’ muscular failure is key here, since you don’t want to eat up too much into your work capacity. Remember, we’ll be doing plenty of work so there’s really no need for you to go balls-to-the walls with every set.

Don’t even think about lifting till’ complete muscular failure.

Repetitions

Ideally you should aim to get 6 to 10 reps every set. Like I said before, don’t push yourself to complete muscular failure. Always finish your sets with some reps still left in the tank.

If you’re not able to do 6 to 10 reps, then use the assistance bands to help you out. And try to get off of the assistance bands as soon as possible—just think of them as training wheels.

Volume

The goal with the “Grease the Groove” technique is to get as much work as possible per week basis. Said in other words, the goal is to increase your weekly tonnage.

You can easily keep track of how much you lift, by sticking a piece of paper next to the door, where you’ll have the pull-up bar installed. Every time you’re done with a set, just jot down how many reps you did.

In order to get how much work you’ve done in a day for example, simply multiply the number of reps with your bodyweight, in order to get your total daily tonnage.

Work on making that number bigger every week.

Frequency

“You should train as heavy as possible, as much as possible, while staying as fresh as possible.” —Click to Tweet!

These are the words to live by.

A lot of fitness pros would suggest that you should work each muscle group two times per week tops, in order to let them fully recover. But I believe that this is not an optimal strategy for regular strength training athletes.

Instead of doing pull-ups two times per week for ten sets total (5 sets every workout), it’s far better in my opinion, if you split that workload into two sets per day. This strategy of splitting up your workload over the course of the whole week is very helpful, when it comes to promoting strength gains, especially in the nervous system.

So, my suggestion is to place a pull-up bar in your door frame so every time you cross that pull-up bar, you’re going to bust out at least 6 reps with good form.

Iron Gym

I strongly suggest that you buy yourself a pull-up bar and install it on your door frame, because this will eliminate all of the excuses you might have for not putting in the work.

Do these pull-ups next to your usual workout routine.

Beyond 20 Reps…

Congratulations, you’re able to do 20 reps with excellent form.

Or, if you’re not there yet, you’re wondering, what to do, once you get to the 20th rep.

There are many roads for you to pursue. One example would be to start training for the muscle-up. Muscle-ups are an exercise, where you start at the bottom position like with the pull-ups and then you pull yourself up and over the bar.

The other thing for you to try would be to do weighted pull-ups. Just get a hold of a dipping belt and strap some weight on to yourself. With weighted pull-ups, I recommend that you stick to a rep range of 3 to 8 reps, since this will allow you to make consistent progress.

Weighted Pull-Ups

And last, but not the least, you can test yourself by doing some pull-up bar “aerobatics”. Just like you see those guys on YouTube doing stunts on the pull-up bar. It’s definitely a nice way to impress your friends and make them jealous of your newfound strength.

Over to You…

So here’s what I want you to do right now.

Go find a place, where you’ll be able to do some pull-ups and start now. Do a set of pull-ups and finish your set with some reps still left in the tank.

If you’re not able to do a single pull-up, order the woody bands and do what I told you here.

In case you don’t have anywhere to practice pull-ups, go buy yourself a pull-up bar that you can install on your door frame and start busting out those suckers like there’s no tomorrow.

Any questions or comments?

Leave them in the comments section below and let’s get the discussion going.

Image credit: Matt Lee

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Oskar @ SkinnyFatTransformation.com

Hi Dejan,

That’s a great guide on pull ups, and very similar to what I would recommend people to do.

What’s your take on chin ups vs pull ups?

Reply

Dejan

Thanks Oskar!

Great minds think alike ;)

I prefer doing chin-ups, but a lot of people have asked me a ton of questions about pull-ups therefore I decided to write the guide for them.

The chin-ups involve more biceps work while the pull-ups supposedly focus more on your back. But as I said, I prefer chin-ups over pull-ups.

Reply

Reza

Hi Dejan,

Once again I thank you for offering such useful, interesting, and motivating material on your site/blog. Reading this article, which actually is of great specific interest to me, since I’ve recently thought about pullups quite a bit, has evoked some intriguing questions.
So, working out more often per week but less intensely per session, while maintaining the same weekly volume, could be better in terms of helping you progress faster in a specific workout/lift? Like, by avoiding going near failure, in doing pullups or pushups for instance, you do not need as long a recovery time, and your nervous system can adapt faster? This assumes you do these workouts more frequently as well, though.

Reply

Dejan

Reza, you’re correct.

I’ve noticed that the key here is very frequent practice and not going to failure.

Reply

Anto Marton

Hi Dejan, thanks for this insightful article on doing pull-ups.

Like you, it took me weeks before I could do my first pull-up. My local gym also has a low pull-up station so I can’t get the full extended figure you mention in the article.

Sadly, I’ve been out of the gym for a while and I think when I get back I’ll have to start from zero again in regards to pull-up strength. But next time I have your article to refer to so I can build my muscles stronger and faster. Thanks!

Reply

Reza

My comments/questions tend not to be very brief haha,.. so I put this one separately from my last one. Great article- learning the right technique and form is especially important and that’s included.
Just one comment on what could have been added to make it even better: doing negatives. The reverse pullup, or a “negative”, starts from a leveraged position where you already hold the bar (you’ve somehow already got to the top of the lift e.g w/ a chair perhaps) and just involves lowering to the dead-hang point. This is excellent to help you push yourself further and stimulate your muscles more, with a challenging demanding exercise like pullups, in which one rep is not as easy as it is with other exercises

Reply

Dejan

Awesome Reza, thanks for the input.

Actually I was thinking about mentioning negatives, but I decided not the because I cover the use of elastic bands. But now I realized that maybe not everyone will be able to get elastic bands, so doing negatives would be a cool strategy!

Reply

Jared

When using a pull-up door bar like the one you show in this post, what’s the difference between using the horizontal grip pads versus the lateral protuding ones and do you suggest that grip (palms facing each other) if you have that kind of bar?

Reply

Dejan

Hey Jared,

I actually don’t think much about the grip … use the kind that feels most natural to you. Test it out and see how you like it :)

What you’re referring to is called the neutral grip and it’s basically something between the pronated grip (palms facing away) and the supinated grip (palms facing you).

Reply

Steve D. Moss

Iron Gym Total Upper Body is best for it..!!

Reply

myles

Sounds like a easy and simple enough plan for me. I was just wondering if there was anywhere you recommend getting the resistance bands from snd would it be wise to get multiple bands of different resistance to work my way up?

Thanks,

Myles

Reply

Dejan

Hey Myles,

I got my resistance bands from a website called IronWoodyFitness.com –> I got their Intermediate Push-up Package. It costs $54, but it’s money well invested :) Get these bands if you can mate!

Reply

blade

how long would you say it will take you from doing 5 pull-ups to 5 muscle ups training your back twice a week with another body part? I’m 5 weeks in and can do 3×5. I’m really bad at pull ups but for chin ups I can do 3×10

Reply

Dejan

Just train, it’ll take as long as it takes. Everybody’s different :)

Reply

Al

Unless we stay home the whole day it won’t be possible to do pullups multiple times per day. So for those of us who can only allot a certain time for workouts, what’s the solution?

Reply

Dejan

Door frames, or any other objects that would allow you to do pullups (tree branches for example … use your imagination) :)

Reply

Antonio

Why not? Every time when you pass you go to bathroom do some pull ups.

Reply

Dejan

Agree 100% :)

Reply

Ollie

Hi Dejan thanks for the tips. I can do 3 strict deadhang chinups. So I am doing more negative chins, maybe even 10 or so after doing 3 regular chins. U really think negative chins help in doing more (regular) chins later on?

Reply

Dejan

I think they can help, but like I said in the article, get yourself an assistance band … that will help you with your pull-ups the most.

Reply

Allen

Hey, what if i cant afford resistance band? what should i do?

Reply

Dejan

Find a way to get the money to buy yourself a resistance band :) Check for ebay if you can find a good deal.

Reply

Antonio

Hi Dejan,

I really liked this article and I respect you for sharing your journey.

The greatest thing is that you described to get a pull up bar on a doorway and every time you pass it you must do X reps. I did it by myself and you can do really much pulls per day with this method.

Reply

Dejan

Awesome to hear that Antonio! :)

Reply

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