How To Take Your Pull-ups From Meh To WOW!

by tffitness on August 3, 2016

maxresdefaultSo you can do pull-ups, and that’s a good thing. But depending on the day, you can only do between 3 and 5 reps, which isn’t all that great. You have a goal to be able to do a set of 10, but the question is, how are you going to get there? That’s the subject of this post.

By the way, I’m pretty good at these if I may say so — here’s a video of me doing 17 reps from a few years ago at age 53 and weighing 200 pounds (I couldn’t to that now simply because I haven’t been focusing on this exercise lately, but I’m sure I could still bang out 12-13 reps if I felt compelled):

All right, so the first step is to give yourself a fighting chance by choosing the easiest grip (for you). For most people, this means a neutral (parallel) grip, but for some, a supinated (palms facing you) grip will be strongest. Once you’ve gotten stronger using one of these easier grips, you can graduate to a pronated (palms facing away) grip. On a related note, at this stage of development, I recommend using wrist straps — again, let’s give yourself every possible advantage at this stage, and another reason for straps (aside from making it easier to hang on to the bar) is that they tend to encourage a lat-dominant movement, as opposed to powering yourself up with primarily biceps activation.

Here’s a GREAT Movement Cue for Pull-ups

While I’m on the subject of bicep versus lat activation, here’s a simple partner cueing exercise that’ll really help you to better understand what a proper pull-up should feel like: in a standing position, mimic the half-way point of a pull-up (your upper arms will be parallel to the floor, and your forearms will be perpendicular to the floor). Next, have a partner place their palms under your elbows, and from here, push down on their palms with your elbows as they resist you. This movement is called shoulder extension, and it’s powered by your lats, not your biceps. THIS is what you should be focusing on when doing a pull-up, and if you’re not already familiar with this concept, it’ll usually make you 1-2 reps stronger on any set just by itself.

Programming: Tension And Fatigue

Once you’ve selected the strongest possible grip (by the way, definitely test all 3 options to make sure you’ve found that for yourself), let’s now talk about programming. The big take-home I’d like to instill is the idea of fatigue management, because let’s face it — if you can only do between 3-5 pull-ups, any number of reps are relatively difficult.

Tension VS Fatigue

Now I’d like you to think about something for a moment here: in order to grow more muscle (which is likely a goal for you) you want to take your sets to, or at least close to failure. But for you, at least for now, pull-ups are a special animal. Before you can use pull-ups as an effective muscle hypertrophy tool, you’ve got to get stronger on them. Because until you are stronger on this movement, you might only manage around 10 total reps per session, and that’s not really enough volume to grow new muscle. However, later on when you’re strong enough to do maybe sets of 8, it’s fairly easy to rack up enough total reps to stimulate new muscle growth.

So our first task is to get stronger, and whenever you’re trying to improve strength, you need to create high levels of tension on the target muscle(s). So our next question should be “How to we maximize tension on the pull-up?”

The answer: for any given load (your own bodyweight in this case), the faster you lift, the greater the tension will be. Here’s a bit of an odd analogy to drive the point home: imagine trying to lift a spoon by tying a single hair to it, and pulling it up with that strand of hair. If you pull slowly, you’ll likely succeed. But if you yank on that strand of hair, it’ll break, because with more speed comes increased tension.

Now let’s take that analogy into the real World — you hop up to the pull-up bar and grind out a set of 5 pull-ups — you would have missed on rep 6 had you attempted it. Let’s further assume that you weigh 180 pounds. Here’s a rough guess on how much tension you generated on that set of 5:

Rep 1: 189 pounds

Rep 2: 187 pounds

Rep 3: 185 pounds

Rep 4: 183 pounds

Rep 5: 181 pounds

Now a few notes on these numbers:

First, the exact numbers for the first 4 sets may not be accurate, but the trend is accurate: in other words, you’ll have the most tension on rep 1 and the least on rep 5, due to accumulating fatigue.

Second, I think my tension estimate on rep 5 is quite accurate. Think about it for a moment — if you have just enough force to lift 180 pounds, then you’re generating at least 180 pounds of force, but not much more than that. That’s how I arrived at 181 pounds.

What this means is that your early reps more were effective for the purposes of tension development than your latter reps. In addition to this, the closer a rep is to failure, the more fatigue-producing it is. So in any set taken to failure, the last reps are both less effective and more costly (for strength development purposes).

Which leads me to the main take-home point of this article:

iron-maiden-pullupIf you’re currently in the 3-5 rep range for pull-ups, on any given set, perform half as many reps as possible on any given set. So on your first set, you might do 3. The second set is a bit harder, so you stop at two reps, same thing for sets 3 and 4. On the 5th and 6th set, you drop down to singles, and you call it a day. On this session, you totaled 11 reps. Had you taken your first set to failure on the other hand, I’m betting your workout might have looked like 5,3,1 (9 reps). This might not seem like a huge difference, but small things add up over time. Also, by only taking your sets ½ way to failure, you’ll recover faster, which means that you can do your pull-ups more frequently — this speeds up long-term progress considerably.

In terms of progression, look for opportunities to add reps when you can, but be patient, and always strive for crisp, high quality reps.

One final suggestion and we’re outta here: if you’re in the 3-5 rep area with pull-ups, don’t give your pull-ups a discrete time frame. Instead, sprinkle in sets of 1-3 in between sets of other planned exercises. This will provide more rest between sets, leading to faster and improved overall progress.

I hope you found this useful, and if you’ve got questions or comments, please post them below!

You May Also Be Interested In:

• Charles can be your coach! click HERE

The Muscle Manifesto: 4 Tactics For More Lean Mass

• Follow Charles on Instagram!

Making Continued Progress In Your 40’s, 50’s And Beyond!

This Week’s Training

Training Volume: 60,040 Pounds (Last Week: 114,135 Pounds)


  • Deadlift 385×5
  • High Bar Squat 275×3
  • Trap Bar Deadlift 385×8
  • Leg Press: 410×8

Well as it sometimes happens, this week, all my best-laid plans went to shit (which might lead to a future blog post: “How To Protect Your Workouts From ‘Life Happens’”). In any event, I had a mini-crisis to deal with right when I was driving to the gym, so I never made it (might have been a blessing in disguise, since I’m trying to rest my bitchy shoulder, and I for sure would have been tempted to test it out if I had made it to the gym).

And, given that my upper body training is pretty touch & go at the moment (see my train-wreck of a workout on Friday), the 6-day-a-week deal doesn’t make a ton of sense at the moment.

As far as that shoulder issue goes, I’m just doing my best to avoid re-tweaking it, and using some cable crossovers to salvage some chest training in the mean time (but don’t tell anyone). And finally, I’m also working on thoracic spine mobility (rolling on tennis balls, lying wall slides, etc.) with the assumption that my upper back tightness might be forcing my shoulder to compensate during pressing exercises.

OK kids that all I got for this week — keep those shoulders happy, and OH! I may have some Smith machine stories for you next week. Stay tuned!

Monday, July 25, 2016

Bodyweight: 196.6 Pounds

Volume: 17,200 Pounds

Goblet Squat

Set 1: 10 lb × 10

Set 2: 40 lb × 10

Set 3: 50 lb × 10

High Bar Squat

Set 1: 45 lb × 8

Set 2: 95 lb × 8

Set 3: 135 lb × 8

Set 4: 185 lb × 8

Set 5: 225 lb × 6

Set 6: 265 lb × 1

Set 7: 275 lb × 3

Set 8: 245 lb × 4


Set 1: 135 lb × 6

Set 2: 185 lb × 6

Set 3: 225 lb × 6

Set 4: 275 lb × 6

Set 5: 315 lb × 6

Set 6: 365 lb × 1

Set 7: 385 lb × 5 (Video Below)

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Bodyweight: 198.4 Pounds

Volume: 33,040 Pounds

Trap Bar Deadlift

Set 1: 135 lb × 8

Set 2: 185 lb × 8

Set 3: 245 lb × 8

Set 4: 295 lb × 8

Set 5: 335 lb × 8

Set 6: 385 lb × 8

Set 7: 335 lb × 8

Leg Press

Set 1: 90 lb × 8

Set 2: 180 lb × 8

Set 3: 270 lb × 8

Set 4: 360 lb × 8

Set 5: 360 lb × 8

Set 6: 410 lb × 8 (Video Below)

Seated Calf Raise

Set 1: 100 lb × 8

Set 2: 100 lb × 8

Set 3: 100 lb × 8

Set 4: 100 lb × 8

Seated Leg Curl

Set 1: 145 lb × 8

Friday, July 29, 2016

Bodyweight: 197.4 Pounds

Volume: 10,800 Pounds

Close Grip Bench Press

Set 1: 45 lb × 8

Set 2: 95 lb × 8

Chin Up

Set 1: 1 rep

Set 2: 2 reps

Set 3: 3 reps

Set 4: 4 reps

Set 5: 5 reps

Set 6: 6 reps

Set 7: 7 reps

Med-Grip Bench

Set 1: 95 lb × 8

Set 2: 135 lb × 8

Bicep Curl (Dumbbell)

Set 1: 50 lb × 8

Set 2: 60 lb × 8

Set 3: 70 lb × 8

Set 4: 60 lb × 8

Tricep Pushdowns: 140 (3×8)

Cable Crossover

Set 1: 60 lb × 8

Set 2: 80 lb × 8

Set 3: 80 lb × 8

Set 4: 100 lb × 8

Leave a Comment

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }


Charles, I just wanted to let you know your link to the “get coached” doesn’t work.

Also, I just wanted to say thank you for all the work you do. It’s a shame that there isn’t a lot more traffic to articles these days as everyone is focused on youtube channels and twitter.

I would highly recommend you look into doing a reddit “ask me anything”.

You can reach out to the moderators of or If you need any help with getting in contact with the right people just let me know via e-mail and I can help you reach out.

I believe that would get you quite a bit of publicity and possibly some coaching business.

I have been reviewing a lot of your work because I have struggled with paralysis by analysis when it comes to novice programming. I have a history of researching/ looking for “optimum” ways of things. Re-reading a lot of your previous work is helping me sort out the “big rocks” for a novice by focusing on the main compound lifts and progression via weight for as long as possible before looking more into your other aspects of programming.

So I wanted to say thank you and wish you luck on your continued success.

Take care,




Thanks so much Matt! I’ve fixed the link and will investigate Reddit!



Sorry I didn’t explain the broken link.

Your link automatically adds a space and the “)” at the end of the link when you click it.

You should remove the parenthesis and it should fix it so that people just click on the link and go straight to your coaching link.

“• Charles can be your coach here


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