Pull Ups

In my collection of books, magazines and other fitness related materials, I don’t have a lot on the pull up. It was the key exercise for most offseason athletes before the widespread adoption of the barbell and, yet, little was written about it.


For grip, upper body strength, and core work, the pull up might not have an equal. If all you could do was pull ups and either Kettlebell swings or Goblet squats, you would be doing pretty good. Yet, as many of us add pull ups to our training, our elbows begin to bark at us, the dreaded “MAPS,” Middle Age Pullup Syndrome.


So, let’s examine a few ideas to bring you from one pull up…or less… to a reasonable level. I think that five pull ups is a good, decent and solid standard for most of us. Once you get over fifteen pull ups, I can then argue that pull ups are NOT your problem.


First, practice three simple drills. Gray Cook taught me an interesting lesson: when most people struggle with pull ups, it might simply be the grip.


So, the first drill is pretty simple: jump up on the pull up and hang there. I argue that you should maintain the hanging position for thirty seconds until the day the Angel of Death visits you. If you can’t manage 30 seconds, well, there you go! Your grip strength and perhaps your upper body mobility need to be addressed. Some of us are so locked up in the shoulder area that we can’t hang freely. Take a few sessions to build this up to one minute.


Next, jump up to the bar and hold your chin over the bar as long as you can. I don’t mind what kind of grip you use from the tradional pull up grip, palms facing away from you, or the chin up grip, the curl grip or palms facing the face. Hold it there. Again, if you can’t manage more than a few seconds of wiggling, this is your issue. If you can hold this for a minute, you might not have any issues with pull ups.


Cook makes a valuable point: if you have the top of the movement (the bent arm hang) and the bottom of the movement (the straight arm hang), your body will figure out the middle part. This tends to also be easier on the elbows.


The third drill is the simple ab wheel. I love these inexpensive little devices. For the pull up, the ab wheel gives you the same feeling that you want when you perform on the bar: tight abs. If there is a “secret” to pull ups, it is to show up with an amazing set of abs.


For programming, I always use Pavel Tsatsouline’s “Russian Fighter Program.” Stick these into an appropriately early part of your workout. We do these after the warm up and after the hip and leg session. This assumes a three rep max. If this is too easy, rather than adding reps, add load. The reps seem to be the issue with both the elbows and lack of ab engagement.


The 3RM Russian Pullup Program

Day 1

3, 2, 1, 1

Day 2

3, 2, 1, 1

Day 3

3, 2, 2, 1

Day 4

3, 3, 2, 1

Day 5

4, 3, 2, 1

Day 6


Day 7

4, 3, 2, 1, 1

Day 8

4, 3, 2, 2, 1

Day 9

4, 3, 3, 2, 1

Day 10

4, 4, 3, 2, 1

Day 11

5, 4, 3, 2, 1

Day 12

Off. Rest a few days and test “as many.”


I recommend these about three days a week, so this would be a one month approach. If you improve, add more load and repeat the program again.


The pull up is one of the best training movements we can do. So, if you are struggling, try this reasonable approach to building a competent pull up.

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