How To Improve Your Pull-ups In 8 Weeks

Brad Borland
Written By: Brad Borland
November 18th, 2013
Updated: June 13th, 2020
Categories: Articles Training
74.2K Reads
Can't do a single pull up? No problem! This program will help to improve your pull up and back strength by increasing volume and training frequency over time.

One of the best (if not THE best) all-around muscle builders of the upper body is the pull-up and its abundance of variations. Arguably considered the “upper body squat,” the pull-up calls into action such a vast amount of muscle that it can single-handedly transform an average physique into one complete with a v-taper and superhero stature.

The pull-up is a true measure of upper body strength and stamina. How many individuals do you know can do a series of pull-ups? Not many. But I bet they all do pull downs, rows and every other variation of the aforementioned.

It shouldn’t be this way. There is something very impressive about the ability to do pull-ups. Sure, everyone works their butts off to increase bench press, squat and curling strength, but how many actually specifically focus on increasing pull-up performance?

Performing body-weight specific moves trains the entire body to pull, push, raise and lift itself for better overall strength, conditioning and endurance. Push-ups, dips, leg raises, box jumps, inverted rows and pull-ups train the whole body with little to no equipment and are true tests of ability and functionality.

It’s time to man-up, step up to the pull-up bar and begin your journey UP the road to a bigger, stronger, broader back courtesy of good ole fashion planning and hard work.

Below is an eight week training plan to increase pull-up performance, strength and, subsequently, giving your physique better balance, width and power. Oh, and save a few bucks for bigger t-shirts - you’ll need them.

Pull Ups

8 Week Pull-Ups Program

Weeks 1 and 2

If you are not performing ANY pull-ups at the moment, this program will start you from ground zero. Weeks 1 and 2 are “break-in” weeks in which you will continue your normal frequency of training back (for most this is about once per week). Additionally, you will start instituting a low rep/high volume approach to pull-ups, increase supportive and ancillary muscle strength and perfect form and technique.

  • Start with 20 total reps of pull-ups. No matter if this takes you 2 sets of 10 reps or 20 sets of 1 rep, reach the 20 rep goal no matter what. Take the necessary amount of rest between sets to maximize your strength and stamina.
  • Next, be sure you are performing other lifts to increase strength in the back from different angles such as barbell rows, dumbbell rows, inverted rows and rear deltoid and trap moves. This will help provide support and strength for all-around back strength and power.
  • Be sure not to overdo biceps work. Many trainees do too many angles for the biceps in hopes of more muscle. This can translate into too much energy and strength zapped from the biceps resulting in developing a weak point during pull-ups. Hit biceps hard with a couple of moves and end it.
  • Of course, be sure you are utilizing proper form and technique while doing pull-ups. Slight body English is inevitable, but too much swinging and swaying won’t do anyone any good.

Weeks 3 and 4

Now you will increase pull-up training to twice per week keeping the other heavy back lifting to once per week or whatever you were originally doing – twice per week is fine too. Not only will frequency increase but your total volume for pull-ups will increase as well.

  • Increase total pull-up volume to 30. Remember, no matter how many sets it takes, accomplish that new number. You should be able to get a few more reps with each individual set by now.
  • Frequency is increased to twice per week.
  • Try different grips such as close-parallel grip, wide, chin-up style (palms facing you), and shoulder width.
  • Continue with the other back strength training as mentioned above. Again, this can be once or twice per week. Just be sure they have a couple of rest day between sessions.
  • Since you are performing pull-ups twice per week, perform your other back exercises on one of those days. The other day will strictly be pull-ups.
  • Since you should be progressing, there is a temptation to loosen up form. Have a partner check your form and make you accountable.

Pull Ups

Weeks 5 and 6

Once again, you will increase frequency and total volume. Also, be sure to schedule weight training for your back on nonconsecutive days in relation to pull-up workouts. In other words, if you are performing pull-up workouts on Monday, Wednesday and Friday be sure that your back training day falls on one of those days.

  • Increase total pull-up volume to 40 reps. At this point it may seem a bit daunting that you keep increasing volume and frequency and feel like you can’t catch up. Have no fear; this continuous pushing forward is what progresses not only your body but your mind as well.
  • Frequency is increased to three times per week.
  • Continue to play with different grips. Be sure you are giving each grip its fair share of the pain – try not to stick with just one. This is yet another way to keep challenging yourself.
  • Again, be sure to schedule your back training days on one or more of the pull-up workout days.
  • Keep form in check.

Weeks 7 and 8

Finally, you will increase volume and frequency one last time. At this point you should be well adapted to the frequency and should see significant improvement in not only pull-up performance but also a thicker and broader back as well. Your stamina should show marked improvement as well giving you the ability to recover faster and have an overall stronger back.

  • Increase total pull-up volume to 50 reps. At this point you should be able to crank out quite a few reps per set. Gone are the days of one rep sets – now you should be able to finish all 50 reps in less total sets.
  • Frequency is increased to four times per week.
  • Continue utilizing the different grips.
  • Since you are at the end of the eight week program, now is not the time to give in to bad form. Keep your technique tight and end the set once form breaks down.

Test yourself

After the eight week program is completed take a day or two off and test your strength and endurance from when you started. Rep out, record and enjoy!

Other Factors to Consider

Lose weight: Any excess body fat can obviously hinder pull-up prowess. If you want to significantly impact your performance on the pull-up, losing some extra poundage is a must.

Strengthen your grip: A weak grip is another factor that can put a halt on your pulling progress. If this is a problem add in some grip work into your arm workouts and try to avoid using straps on most exercises to get your grip back.

Believe: If you don’t believe in the program (whatever program you decide to do) then you will get nowhere fast. Going from barely one pull-up to multiple reps per set isn’t an easy task. It takes discipline, a sound plan and honest, hard work every day, every week. The choice is ultimately yours.

John L. Burrus
Posted on: Tue, 12/10/2013 - 15:13

Having done the "P-90-X" program, I must say the Pullup portions of the workout were the ones I had the least progress with. I could do very high reps supplementing my positions with a chair (as one trainer said, "cheaters are work, so they count !" Holding good form is exremely important , but raising your feet, to use a chair, pretty much doubles your reps---so, instead of 5 or 6, you get ten or more per set ! That IS NOT the point of THIS workout ! So, Rigorous Honesty Rules ! ha,ha! ) This workout looks and "sounds" like a genuine definition of the phrase "workout !" Since I'm training to get into shape for "P-90-X" again (three motorcycle wrecks this year---yes, I'm a closet gym-rat !), this workout is exactly what "the doctor" ordered ! Get 8 hrs sleep every night. Change eating habit to consume Protein shakes about three times daily (including Post-Workout) and three meals of about 3 0r 400 calories. this will give you about 2,000 calories, more than enuff for day-to-day needs and recovery! I'm most comfortable at between 1450 and 1600 calories, daily, at this point ! You won't really "lose weight", you'll replace fat pounds with muscle pounds, and be FIT ! If you decide to do "P-90-X", don't take that "pre-program" fitness test lightly. You need to be able to take the pain of a workout, EVERY DAY, for 12 weeks !. this Pull-Up routine looks like it will work, REALLY WORK ! I'm gonna try it. I'll want to try a hundred reps once in awhile. I won't, because that moment of glory will sabotage my next workout. I'll stick with "the program !"
HAPPY HOLIDAYS to you all ! I'm in my 70's---what's YOUR excuse ? ha,ha! Having to "press pause" for the PullUp portion of the P-90-X routines, so you can do pullups to exhaustion 3 or 4 times in that hour-long workout will be a hard-earned, unquestionably satisfying pleasure ! (Amen , Baby !)

Posted on: Mon, 12/02/2013 - 05:43

We've got a pull up bar (kinda) at the back of our main office building. I've been doing the stronglifts variation of 5x5 training and gaining a good amount of strength with it on all the big compound moves like deads, bench, and squats BUT i still was unable to a single pull up. No BS, kicking and screaming, I could only get my arse half way up to the bar. I've always been terrible with pull ups. Found this article, read it AND the comments/opinions others had, and gave it a go. Now, cause I'm so damn stubborn, I started out at twice a week instead of once for the first two week but mixed it up instead of going for straight pull ups as some folks suggested. So for my first go at it, I was able to get about 4-5 chin ups, then i took however many sets necessary to get to 10 reps of pull ups, and finished with 5 negatives(these felt awesome). I was pretty sore the next day. My second go at it, I went straight for the pull ups. Very tough. I got 3-4 solid reps and had to stop for a rest. Did that till i got to about twelve and switched to chin ups then finished with negatives again. Yesterday I managed 5 solid well performed pull ups and two less than stellar ones before i had to stop for a rest. So it feels like it's working for me so far. Confidence is up and I think it's directly contributing to better form of some of the other moves I'm performing for the 5x5 training. Excited to see where I'll be with pull ups at the end of the eighth week. Thanks guyz!

John L. Burrus
Posted on: Tue, 12/10/2013 - 16:00

You got it Bro ! The reason the other work is getting better, is because your posture is improving with your back strength ! This will help you avoid injuries, because the "straighter" your spine is, the easier it is to maintain proper form! (bumped up the weight on your deadlift yet? ha,ha!) Deep that back straight !

Posted on: Thu, 11/21/2013 - 09:03

"If you are not performing ANY pull-ups at the moment, this program will start you from ground zero."

Weeks 1 and 2: "Start with 20 total reps of pull-ups."

How does the author not understand what ground zero means?

Posted on: Wed, 11/20/2013 - 22:14

I agree with the others. How is someone who can't do any pull-ups supposed to do a total of 20 reps? The article doesn't explain what these folks are supposed to do.

Posted on: Wed, 12/04/2013 - 14:26

Keep at it and the numbers will get there. As a 49 year old at 240 lbs. I am up to sets of 6 wide grip Pull Ups.

John L. Burrus
Posted on: Tue, 12/10/2013 - 15:53

How does anyone who's never bench pressed 250 lbs, get around to pressing 300? Oh, that's easy, you just say "that's for THEM, not me!" Start at number One, and push forward! 30 miles seems like a long walk, 'til you've done it a few times, then walking from Colorado to Texas is a beautiful Walk, not a chore! (of course, you'll rip-off a roadside reflector sign and strap it to your backpack, to protect yourself from that pack of animals that's been following you the past 6 hours ! ) Life is more than "what everybody is doing !" Go get some!

Posted on: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 15:41

I totally agree with Priscilla that you are better off starting with negatives. I have tried a similar plan like the one above and now have serious rotator cuff problems and may never get to chin ups again only because of poor advice from somebody who knew it all. Hey! But you can do whatever the #%¥£ you want to do.

Posted on: Tue, 12/10/2013 - 10:24

One would tend to think your rotator cuff problems are due to form. Pull-ups do not inherently cause damage to the shoulder.

John L. Burrus
Posted on: Tue, 12/10/2013 - 15:44

Sorry to hear your shoulder problem, Bro . there are really effective Supplements available for improving suppleness of connective Tissues ! MEMORY THIS : STRETCHES (before and after workouts !) Have your Chiropractor put your shoulders into Position a few times, and do simple, light (2 or 3 lb dumbells) weighted exercizes, like lateral rotations frontwards and backwards. When you can get up to 50 reps each way, you'll be ready for some "sensible" exercizing with heavier weights. If you are doing workouts and NOT working your shoulders, you are guaranteed (guaranteed) to injure yourself again. So, back to the future! Start with REALLY light weights, and "sissy" routines, or you're gonna cripple yourself.
DO STRETCHES BEFORE ANY WORKOUT. Get some DVD's from Netflix and watch how the "pro's" do it ! They stretch the "fuck" out of themselves, before, during and after a workout ! (you ever done 100 sets of 30 Crunches (Obliques included) with 25 lbs on your chest?) Lotsa' Stretches is the "secret"! Good Luck, buddy ! Oh, and quit "blaming" others for your forgetting "it's your ass, take care of it !" Get a bunch of books on Anatomy, Nutrition, Exercize form (for EVERY exercize), the "Master Blaster" has the basic literature and "tips" that "Makes Champions". Men's Health has GREAT LIterature! there are great technical Books available through these "cheap" book clubs ! Open your mind, it'll "open" your body as it follows better thinking ! Tuff Love Bro, but you better take it ! Good Luck (make your own luck !) jb.

Posted on: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 08:55

I'm surprised there is nothing in here about practising negatives. Before I got my first pull-up, this was what I practised. If I hadn't, I'd still be trying to just get 1 pull-up. Trying to complete 20 reps when you have zero pull-ups seems a bit silly. For some this could take more than 1-2 weeks! Practising negatives is a much more effective way of getting your first lot of pull-ups. (Negatives: place hands in pull-up position. Jump up to bar to where you should pull-up to and slowly lower yourself back down to floor keeping complete control at all times. Do this no more than 3-5 times so as to avoid rhabdomyolysis)

Posted on: Tue, 12/10/2013 - 10:26

What do you mean by 'do this 5 times'? 5 sets? 5 reps?

John L. Burrus
Posted on: Tue, 12/10/2013 - 15:23

You're my Hero, Bro ! Who says Gym Rats can't think beyond "four-letter words ?" ha,ha! Happy Holidays !

Posted on: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 06:57

" Weeks 1 and 2
If you are not performing ANY pull-ups at the moment..."

"...Start with 20 total reps of pull-ups...."

Posted on: Tue, 12/10/2013 - 10:18

What's the question? I don't get it. You start with 20 total reps in as many sets as it takes. I don't see the confusion.

Posted on: Fri, 05/31/2024 - 10:07

I had the same question. If you can't do one, how do you do 20 reps to start even with an hour rest or whatever in between? Do you just ATTEMPT 20 reps? I can barely do a half of one at this point. Or do I use the machine that provides some assistance and start there?

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Fri, 06/07/2024 - 13:13

Hi, Diana. I would actually suggest starting by doing partials or assisted reps with a band or machine. A way that helped me was to use bars I could reach without jumping, taking hold, then jumping to the top position and holding it as long as I can. That may help in this case. Try to do 20 like that or the other suggested ways and you should start seeing improvement.

John L. Burrus
Posted on: Tue, 12/10/2013 - 15:20

That's why it's called a "workout", buddy ! Try it . You'll fail IT, but it won't fail YOU ! Think "Success !" Your comment says you've "quit" before you've even tried once ! "think again !" , champ ! Happy Holidays !

Posted on: Mon, 02/09/2015 - 08:33

What he means is, if you can't do ANY pull-ups, how are you going to do 20, if you can't even do 1.

Posted on: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 03:54

great plan. I can knock out pull ups quite proficiently but i think everyone will agree that they could always do MORE and that what progression and gyming in general is about (at least to me).

One other thing i found that helped me in the beginning (when i struggled with 1 to 2 pull ups) was to focus on close grip chin ups. These are easier and if you build some strength there it immediately adds reps to your wide grip pull up! happy pulling :)

Posted on: Mon, 11/18/2013 - 19:22

I've always been a firm believer that the pull-up is a true show of upper body strength and an effective way of building that perfect back. I do pull ups throughout my workout week and do pullups at the beginning and end of my back day in the gym. Nothing is impressive about a lat pull down, but get on that pull up bat and knock out 5 sets of 10 or even better weighted ones, and you will turn heads. Or even better those haters will act like they are not looking so they will still watch using their peripherals!!!! Get up there, is my motto, Get up there!

Posted on: Mon, 11/18/2013 - 19:21

I've always been a firm believer that the pull-up is a true show of upper body strength and an effective way of building that perfect back. I do pull ups throughout my workout week and do pullups at the beginning and end of my back day in the gym. Nothing is impressive about a lat pull down, but get on that pull up bat and knock out 5 sets of 10 or even better weighted ones, and you will turn heads. Or even better those haters will act like they are not looking so they will still watch using their peripherals!!!! Get up there, is my motto, Get up there!

Posted on: Mon, 11/18/2013 - 17:42

I'm in. I hate doing pull-ups because I can't do too many. I'll give this a try.