The pull-up was installed as a definitive test of upper-body strength for several reasons, and almost all of them are entirely valid. There’s just something innately heroic about possessing the vigor required to yank yourself up by relying on nothing but your two hands locked onto an object located over your head. To that end, there’s no need to guess about the capabilities of a person when you see them stringing together sets of dozens of pull-ups in a row.
This is one of the reasons why the pull-up is so lauded as a test of practical strength in the armed forces; if soldiers need to pull themselves up to higher platforms in order to save the lives of others — or their own lives — the ease with which they can execute pull-ups is a solid indicator of how quickly they can progress through the battlefield and escape danger. It’s also why researchers have gone to great lengths to come up with the means to predictably improve pull-up totals.
What has the research taught us about how we can get better at pull-ups?
I’m so glad you asked!
A study was conducted in search of the most optimal training strategy for improving pull-up performance among three different groups in comparison to a control group. The first group consistently performed five sets of pull-ups to failure; the second group performed five sets of pull-ups to failure with an additional 10 percent body weight; and the third group executed five sets of six-second eccentric-phase-only reps (controlling your body as it slowly descends from the bar) to failure. When the study concluded after 12 weeks, all three of the performance groups achieved significant improvements over the control group, with an average of three reps gained from each group. And yet, none of the groups stood out as being clearly better than the others.
This shouldn’t come as any great surprise to those familiar with the history of the pull-up. In 1946, the Army Medical Research Laboratory studied the effects of pull-up-specific training on the pull-up outputs of soldiers. After nearly two months of efforts devoted solely to improving pull-up performance, the average number of pull-ups that troops were able to perform increased by only two reps — from seven to nine. Some might consider an average increase of 28 percent to be significant, but these weren’t exactly the results the U.S. Army had hoped for.
The point is, there really is no single clear-cut strategy for improving pull-up performance that’s directly connected to the pull-ups themselves, aside from simply attempting more pull-ups of different kinds. If anything, when we take these studies at face value and assume the best-case scenario, and then we factor in the finding that an individual of average genetics who isn’t particularly muscular can gain one pound of muscle per month, we can take a small leap and conclude that an average person in the eight-week military study also gained two pounds of muscle during that period of time, while participants in the 12-week study may have averaged three pounds of gained muscle apiece.
While there are myriad factors that influence strength gains, the acquisition of muscle mass is definitely among them, and in the test cases referenced above, it just so happens that a presumed one-pound-per-month average increase in muscle mass may have translated somewhat neatly into a one-rep-per-month improvement in pull-up performance. So if you want to start cranking out more pull-ups, a concerted effort toward making overall strength improvements should get you results, slowly but steadily.
Slow down just a second! How can I work my way toward executing pull-ups if I can’t do any pull-ups at all yet?
A first step is to learn to control your body weight with your back muscles, and to move it through the air in a way that’s manageable. If you can’t do many pull-ups, inverted rows are an excellent place to start. They’re not as difficult as a pull-up, but they’re still a consequential body-weight exercise.
Aside from inverted rows, there are countless other row variations you can perform with weights, like single-arm dumbbell rows, T-bar rows, standing barbell rows, lat pulldowns and even assisted pull-ups if your gym has a machine with that option. In addition, you should never overlook the pull-up-specific benefits that will come from training all of your muscles. Each will assist you with stabilizing your body and helping you control both the ascending and descending phases of the pull-up as you move your weight through space, because your entire body will have been strengthened.
Speaking of body weight, should I think about losing some?
I’m not going to tell you to lose weight; that’s a personal decision. However, if your objective is to pull yourself off the ground, it does improve your situation if there’s less total weight to pull.
During a pull-up, you lift roughly 95 percent of your body weight, which is essentially the mass of everything that’s raised and lowered — i.e., everything that dangles beneath your elbows. This means the total amount of weight lifted during a pull-up varies from person to person and is dependent upon how much that person weighs. Consequently, if two people of equivalent strength weigh 200 pounds and 250 pounds respectively, there will be a nearly 50-pound difference in the amount of real weight being lifted off the ground, and the addition of 25 percent more weight is massive.
On the one hand, it may be easier to make rapid strength gains if you’re required to pull more weight off the ground every time you perform a pull-up. On the other, it’s going to be far more difficult to elevate your pull-up output to the point where it crosses the threshold from a pure strength-building exercise to one of the most fantastic upper-body endurance exercises there is.
But again, generally speaking, the less weight you lift off the ground, the sooner you’ll be able to elevate yourself into the air, and the more reps you’ll ultimately be able to record.