Pull-Ups: A Matter of Function

Take a look around the majority of gyms in America, and what will you see?

Guys bench pressing.

Guys incline pressing.

Guys working their chest and arms into a state of non-functional pump.

Some of these characters can even bench press decent weights without the aid of support gear (although, if I were they, I wouldn’t go bragging to any power lifters).

In fact, bench presses above and beyond 300 pounds are almost common in the commercial gyms of today.

You know what I say to that? I say whoopadeedo. Who cares? What can these guys deadlift? What can they squat? What can they clean, or overhead press, or snatch with dumbbells or barbells or, God forbid, kettlebells? What can these guys lift in any of the numerous lifts that require true functional strength? Last but certainly not least, what can these guys pull-up or chin?

The unfortunate answer to all of these questions is: diddley squat.

(Please understand that I mean no offense to powerlifters. A big bench press can be an impressive thing in CONJUNCTION with lifts that display all-around power, such as the deadlift or squat. One-trick ponies do not impress me, particularly when it comes to the bench press.)

Let’s focus on what are possibly the simplest of the aforementioned lifts: pull-ups and chins. I have personally witnessed 300+ pound bench pressers failing to do a set of 5 measly pull-ups. For that matter, I know of one man who can incline press 400 pounds (400!), yet who, on being coaxed into a set of pull-ups, hit failure at three reps. Three reps! This is a pathetic state of affairs.

It wasn’t always this way. Consider the following pull-up and chinup performances of some of the strength game’s true greats. John Grimek and Olympic lifting legend John Davis could both chin themselves six or seven times with EITHER ARM, at bodyweights of around 200 pounds. Eugene Sandow could perform a one-arm chin with ANY ONE OF HIS TEN FINGERS, at a bodyweight of around 190.

Marvin Eder could perform 11 one-arm pull-ups at a bodyweight of no less than 195, and also do 80 (that’s right, 80) consecutive two-arm pull-ups.
For you smaller guys, consider the many gymnasts out there who can perform numerous one-arm pull-ups, or even more frightening, the rock climbers of today who can chin themselves with as much as 150% of bodyweight…. with ONE arm!

And of course, for you really big guys, think about this: Bert Assarti, a strength legend from the early 1940’s, could chin himself three times with either arm at a bodyweight of 265 pounds! Mr. Assarti could also do a two-arm pull-up with over 200 pounds of additional weight strapped to his body. Keep in mind that all of these performances were done well before anabolic steroids reared their ugly heads.

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Now that you have a little inspiration, let’s talk about how to train for pull-up and chinning strength. As with most lifts, there are numerous ways to train for pull-up power, as long as one stays within a general set of rules.

Rule number one: in accordance with Pavel’s logic, forget about training to failure. You can train close, within a rep or two, and occasionally (perhaps once or twice a month) push a set all out (read: A SET), but if you train to failure often, forget about achieving true pull-up power, and start worrying about your frayed and shattered nerves.


It is always good to vary your grip in order to get the maximum benefit. I know that Pavel believes in overhand pull-ups first and foremost, and I do too. However, if you are not a member of SWAT personnel, and do not have to climb walls and ledges on a regular basis, go ahead and vary your grip. Doing so will ward off boredom, and train your neural pathways to a wider degree. Grips worth using are: 1) Overhand or underhand, with or without thumbs. 2) Neutral grip–the best way to do these would be to drape a thick towel over the bar for maximum grip work.

Worthless techniques 1) Wide grip pull-ups and 2) Pull-ups behind the neck. For some reason, body-builders think that a very wide grip makes for very wide lats! Ha! This is bogus for a few reasons, the first being the greatly reduced range of motion, the second being the greatly reduced leverage, and the third being the extreme stress on your rotator cuffs. Optimal leverage is extremely important in strength training.

Question: Would you try to pull a heavy deadlift on your toes with a rounded back? I didn’t think so. As for pull-ups behind the neck, the same reasons apply. Do yourself and your shoulders a favor–keep your grip slightly wider than shoulder width or less, and pull to your chest, not to the back of your neck. And no grip aids please! (chalk is o.k.)

Rule number three: You can vary the number of reps you use, just don’t do it excessively. Pick a training goal. If it is maximum muscular endurance, stick primarily to high reps. If it is maximum pull-up power, stick with five reps or less ( I prefer lower reps and use high rep DBell or KBell quick lifts for muscular endurance. Just a matter of preference).

Every so often, do the exact opposite of your current routine. If you are training low reps go high one workout, and if you are doing high reps try for some heavy sets of 3-5. That being said, there seems to be a fair degree of carryover either way, so don’t sweat it if you are in a situation where you can only train high reps.

There really aren’t any “tricks” to training pull-ups. In my training, there are only two things I do that I suppose one could consider “tricks”. The first, and I have been doing this for as long as I can remember, is to alternate sets of overhead presses with my pull-ups. Not superset, but alternate.

Do a set of presses (whether they be handstand pushups, barbell or dumbbell presses, or kettlebell presses. Rest about a minute, then do a set of pull-ups. Rest another minute and go back to presses, and so on and so forth. This method not only saves time, but also allows the antagonist muscle groups to relax as the other muscle groups are working.

The second “trick” is to go out and find something weird and hard to do pull-ups on, such as rafters, door frames, or a sturdy tree branch. I do this for the variety, but more for the experience, just in case I happen to be stuck somewhere where there are no training facilities and I am forced to improvise (this HAS happened to me, and I’m sure it will happen to you).

One of the great things about pull-ups is that with a little imagination, you can do them just about anywhere.

Here is my current pull-up and overall training schedule. It is performed 3-5 days per week. Remember that I stick to this for the most part, but occasionally change things up for the hell of it.

Presses ( Handstand pushups or Kettlebell, Bbell, or Dbell). alternated with chins or pull-ups for 4-8 sets of 3-5 reps.

One legged squats 3-5 sets stopping a rep before failure.

Kettlebell or dumbbell work (snatches, one or two arm cleans or clean- and-jerks), 4-6 sets of 5-20 reps, sometimes doing drop sets (when I can stomach it).

Hanging leg raises, 3-4 sets (these should help with your pull-ups).

I occasionally do weighted dips for two sets of 5-6 reps.

That’s it. Keep in mind that there are many ways to skin a cat. This one just happens to be the most effective for me.

Guide to Pull-up Greatness

Bodyweight pull-ups… Weighted pull-ups for 5 reps….
15 = decent 120% Bodyweight = decent
25 = good 145% BW = good
35 = very good 170% BW = very good
45+ = physical badass! 200% BW = physical badass!

One arm pull-ups…..
1 = good
5 = very good
10 = physical badass!

Questions from SGPT Athletes
Question: Coach; I want to get my first pull up and am in need of some help. I want to complete a Spartan Race and need to be able to pull my body up and over obstacles. My hands will be muddy and it will be a tough course. Do you have any quick tips you can help me with? Jimmy

Answer: Jimmy – I am psyched to hear that you have a big gnarley goal to finish a Spartan Race. For pull ups start out with jumping pull ups. Jump and put your chin over the bar. Add in some negatives (lowering your chin down off the bar). Improve your nutrition and drop any excess weight. Work on your grip with farmers walk carrying buckets of water. Check out those tips and you will be on your way to doing your first pull up.  Best of luck in your race.

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