How to Improve Your Pull-up Game!

I’ve had the luxury to help hundreds of people over the course of my career.  For those that were committed and took my advice seriously, they made tremendous gains.  That’s right, not everyone that crossed my path transformed their bodies into the perfect picture of health.  That’s OK though, not everyone is willing to do what’s necessary to get the results they want.

On the flip side, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some truly devoted people that have achieved some pretty amazing things and that has made it all worthwhile.

I’ve seen guys add 100lbs to their deadlift.

I’ve seen numerous women back squat their bodyweight and then some.

And I’ve seen countless others become a master of the pushup.

There is, however, one exercise that always seems to progress far slower than any other. It serves up a nice fat slice of humble pie.  It’s like kryptonite for even some of the most dedicated athletes.

What I’m referring to is the pull-up.

If I had a nickel for every, otherwise big and strong, guy I’ve seen in the gym struggle with pull-ups, I’d already be retired living in a grass hut somewhere in the Caribbean.

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It’s all good though, we’re gonna put an end to the struggle once and for all.

Here’s how to improve your pull-up game:

1. Lead with the chest – Even though your back muscles are the main muscles used during a pull-up, it’s important to think about “leading with your chest” in order to better engage your lats and rhomboids (the muscles between your shoulder blades).  Think about sticking your chest out as far as you can while you’re pulling helping to draw your shoulder blades down and together.  Don’t let your upper back and shoulders round forward during any point of the movement.

2.  Learn how to recruit your lats – Like I said, it’s all about the back.  Learning how to properly recruit your lats is critical to your pull-up game.  Too often, guys will rush through exercises like 1 arm rows without ever actually using their lats to perform the movement.  Use a 2-3 second count when lowering the weight and a 2 second hold at the top to increase time under tension.  Focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together without shrugging your shoulders – NO UPPER TRAPS ALLOWED!  Keep the movement as strict as possible so only you feel your lats and rhomboids working. Check out the video below to see how to perform your rows correctly.

3. Lose excess body fat I love weighted pull-ups as much as the next guy but not if the weight is a 20lb beer gut.  Reducing excess body fat will make pull-ups and life in general a hell of a lot easier.  It’s simple physics guys, get a little stronger and a little lighter to become a body weight ninja.

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4.  Improve your grip strength – Next to the lats, your grip strength is most important when trying to conquer pull-ups.  The stronger your grip, the easier it is to support your body weight from a hanging position. Farmers carries, training with a fat bar, and rope climbs are some great ways to train your grip.

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5. Do negatives – A simple way to build strength for any exercise is to simply do negatives of that exercise.  Negatives focus on the eccentric or “down phase” of the pullup.  The key to performing negatives is to be do them slow and controlled to maximize tension on the working muscles.  This is another great way to recruit your lats as well.  Start at the top with your arms flexed and lower yourself down to full extension as slowly as you can.  Try to take at least 3 seconds to lower yourself. Try 3 sets of 5 quality repetitions.

6. Do Pull-ups at least 2x per week – In order to develop the strength necessary to master pull-ups, you need to increase the frequency of training of those muscles.  Try to do pull-ups at least once every 3-4 days. Increasing your training frequency will help to build your strength faster but you don’t want to overdo it either.  Hitting it too often will lead to overtraining, joint pain, and a loss of strength.

7. Focus on quality reps – This should go without saying but technique is everything with pull-ups.  For example, if you’re trying to do a set of 8 reps but only 5 were with good form then you are better off taking a small break and then finishing the last 3 rather than forcing sloppy reps.  You don’t want to get in the habit of training crappy movement patterns that will only leave you weaker in the long run.  The focus is to keep the movement strict and controlled, I’ll address kipping in another article.

8.  Mix your grips – Switching your grips from time to time will help strengthen various parts of your arms.  An underhand grip, or chin-up, will help strengthen the biceps more and a mixed grip is good to throw in every now and then as it will allow you to squeeze out a couple extra reps. Switching your grip will also put less wear and tear on your elbows and shoulders and less pain is always a good thing.

9.  Pack your shoulders – Although you want to maximize your range of motion when performing pull-ups, you need to ensure that your shoulders and lats are fully engaged at the start of the movement.  Pack your shoulders by pulling your shoulder blades down and contracting your lats before you start the movement.  Try maintain a very slight bend in the elbows to keep everything engaged.  You never want to “get loose” at the bottom.  This will prevent injury and make the movement more efficient.

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10.  Be patient – Pull-ups are one of the toughest exercises to master.  Stay consistent with your efforts, focus on quality and the results will soon come.

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That’s all for pull-ups.  It’s time to get in the gym and start building those lats!

Stay strong,

Isaac Payne

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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2 thoughts on “How to Improve Your Pull-up Game!

  1. Hey what’s going on Isaac. Just wanted to drop you a line and say I enjoyed reading your piece over at the Moose is Loose. Great pull up article as well. It’s almost embarrassing for me to admit this. I was ‘that guy’ that could do a huge stack on the lat pulldown but barely do 1 or 2 wide grip pull ups. Well that’s all in the past. It’s amazing how much I improved in other lifts once I started doing pull ups. Have a good one. Joe

    • Hey Joe,

      Thanks for the great feedback! Glad you like my articles and I’m glad you’ve got some pullups under your belt now too! Look forward to hearing more from you!

      Isaac