Have you ever wondered, “Why Are Pull Ups So Hard to Progress?”
Pretty much every other exercise you perform you can typically see some form of progression on a regular basis.
However, to add even just one single rep to your pull up numbers seems impossible.
So, what exactly is going on here and what can you do about it?
Why Are Pull Ups So Hard to Progress?
One of the most common reasons that pull ups are so hard to progress is because you always train them in the same way. So, if you typically perform 3 sets of 8 reps at the start of every back day workout you may find that you have plateaued. In order to progress at pull ups you should aim to train them more often. Plus, you may have a weak link that is holding you back, e.g. weak lats, biceps, grip or core. Therefore, look to shore up your “weak link” by also training these with more regularity.
You Always Train Pull Ups in the Same Way
The main reason you’re not progressing with pull ups is because you train them the same way, all the time.
The body typically adapts to the stress we place upon it through exercise fairly quickly.
And this is often why you may hit a plateau with any exercise or movement.
Most of us will look to progressively overload just about any exercise that involves weights.
The simplest way to do this is to add more weight to the bar, or to choose a bigger set of dumbbells.
However, when it comes to bodyweight exercises, we typically look at progressing through adding more reps.
So, going back to “always training pull ups the same way”, I would hazard a guess that you may be performing the same number of reps, at exactly the same point in your workout.
And you do this week-after-week.
Let’s say that you generally train pull ups as the first exercise on back day.
Your aim is to perform 3 sets.
Perhaps you started out with 3 sets of 6 reps.
You then add an additional rep every so often, but now you’ve been stuck on 3 sets of 10 reps for what seems like months, possibly even years.
Basically, the body has become accustomed to performing pull ups in the same way at the same time.
So, even trying to add just one extra rep is a real struggle.
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Let’s Make Some Changes
For me, I would look to make some changes.
This may involve performing pull ups later in the workout.
Admittedly, your lats, biceps, and grip may have taken a bit of a hammering by the time you get to pull ups.
So, you may find that you can’t even get to 3 sets of 10 reps anymore.
However, this simple change can actually stimulate new strength gains and muscle growth.
Therefore, it may not be long before you’ve hit 3 sets of ten again.
But, you will have actually progressed as you’re not performing your pull ups “fresh”.
Then again, you could look to perform more volume by lowering the reps, but upping the sets.
Let’s say 5 sets of 7 reps.
This may not seem like progression, but simply the fact that you’re doing a few more reps can once again stimulate growth.
How about trying weighted pull ups for 5 sets of 5 reps.
Perhaps, you can do 4 sets of 8 reps, but you reduce your rest between sets from one minute to just 45 seconds.
The list could go on.
What you’re trying to achieve here is to shock the body in some way.
As I’ve mentioned this can help to stimulate new growth in terms of muscle and strength.
If you do this for a few weeks and I can guarantee that if you perform a test at the end of a month that your max reps will have increased.
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You’re Not Training Pull Ups Often Enough (Grease the Groove)
I’m a great believer in high frequency training.
Now some people will believe that training a muscle or an exercise more than once a week could be considered overtraining.
Then again, there are those that say to train the same movement or muscle group multiple times a week you need to be some type of genetic freak.
NOT TRUE on both counts.
Sure, if you’re completely new to working out then training the same muscle (or exercise) many times a week could lead to potential injuries.
However, I myself have performed squats and deadlifts (at separate times) every single day for an extended period.
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I did use variations of each exercise, plus some days weren’t as intense as others.
But I have definitely squatted 5 days a week before and I have deadlifted 5 days a week as well.
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Plus, I have probably performed push ups nearly every single day for over two decades now.
Now I’m not telling you to start cranking out pull ups every single day, with no real plan, in the hope of progressing.
However, there is a very focused way to do this, and you can guarantee that your pull up numbers will definitely go up.
Use the Pavel Tsatsouline Method
I have previously written about the Russian Fighter Pull Up Program.
This was actually a plan to increase pull ups originally penned by an unknown Russian author.
However, Pavel Tsatsouline, probably best known for introducing the Russian kettlebell to the West, re-popularized the pull up plan in the early-2000s.
In its simplest form, you basically perform 5 sets of pull ups throughout the day.
This does of course mean that you’ll require access to a pull up bar wherever you are.
The aim is to add just one rep each day, take a rest every 6th day, and after 30 days you will find that your max-rep pull ups have increased.
Plus, this isn’t about pumping out a huge number of reps either.
Check out the breakdown of the reps you should be performing each day for the next 30 days.
This is a system which Pavel has called “grease the groove” and can be used on any number of exercises.
The premise being that you perform a low amount of reps of an exercise, something that will not fatigue you, and is nowhere near your max rep for that exercise.
And you do this multiple times a day.
The aim is to get lots of volume in, which in turn can lead to significant muscle and strength gains.
Greasing the Groove
You Need to Strengthen Your Weakest Link
It seems that regardless of the exercise, we all have certain “weak points”.
Basically, there is something holding us back from progressing with an exercise.
And this is especially true of compound exercises.
The humble pull up is definitely a compound exercise and there are many muscles at work during each rep.
So, if one (or more) of these muscles is weak in relative comparison to the other, this may definitely hold you back from progressing with pull ups.
I would say that the biggest limiting factor with pull ups is weak lats.
I know most people would guess at some of the muscles that I’ll mention below, but the pull up is first and foremostly an upper back (especially lats) exercise.
Training the upper back and lats is vitally important.
Plus, having a strong back can actually help to lift bigger on just about any other exercise.
And yes, I include squats in that as well (a strong back will make it easier to support a heavy barbell).
So, in reality I would say that the back should get far more attention during training than you’re potentially giving it at the moment.
In fact, the upper back and lats actually recover extremely quickly from exercise, so I see nothing wrong with training these muscles multiple times a week.
I know that I perform some type of rowing exercise at least 3-4 days a week.
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Once your lats are sorted and strong enough you’ll find that it’s biceps that are next to fatigue with multiple reps.
The biceps are obviously a far smaller muscle than the lats, so they store less energy, and will therefore be capable of producing fewer reps.
If your biceps are strong enough to keep you going the next limiting factor is your grip.
I’m sure we’ve all performed a high-volume set of pull ups and then seen our fingers slowly peel away from the bar.
Something else to consider is that the core must remain engaged during a set of pull ups.
And therefore, weak core muscles may once again limit your pull up numbers.
Finally, I’ve often seen people forget to breathe during pull ups.
Obviously, by this I mean that you may typically hold your breath while performing pull ups, especially as you approach fatigue.
However, not breathing correctly will limit the number of reps you can do.
So, as you can see there’s definitely a lot to consider when performing pull ups.
And unfortunately, it can often be difficult to pinpoint your own “weak point”, as pull ups are done as one fluid movement.
So, the next time you’re performing pull ups pay special attention to each of these factors and see if you can decipher where your own specific weak spot is.
Number One Tip to Increase Pull Ups
If you’re not progressing with pull ups this is usually because you always train them in the same way, i.e. the same time during a workout, the same sets, the same rest periods, etc. You should also try to use a method such as “grease the groove” to perform pull ups multiple times a week. This can help with both muscle and strength gains, which should help you to increase your reps. Plus, you may have certain “weak points” holding your progression back, e.g. lats, biceps, grip, core, not breathing correctly.
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Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.