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How to Double Your Pullups in Two Months

Updated on February 3, 2015

Introduction to Pullups

The pullup is a closed chain, compound exercise designed to strengthen the back. It should be thought of as an essential core exercise for an effective strength training program. In the military, pullups are considered the prime test of upper body strength. In weightlifting, the pullup along with the bench press are the two most important lifts for strength that are performed solely with the upper body. For those who do not have the strength to do a bodyweight pullup, most gyms now have a machine lift assist. The goal for most males is to be able to do weighted pullups – bodyweight plus added weight on a dip belt.

A Marine at the apex position of a pullup.
A Marine at the apex position of a pullup.

Muscle Diagram of the Movement

The prime mover in the pullup is the latissimus dorsi, the largest muscles in the upper back. In the skeletal muscular structure, they connect your arms to your back. The secondary movers, or assistors, are the rhomboid muscles in the upper back, and the biceps. It is these muscle groups that will be fatigued after your sets of pullups are completed.

The latissimus dorsi has two direct antagonists, depending on the direction of the move. The pullup is a vertical move. The arms move the same direction as they would a shoulder press, except they are pulling instead of pushing. Hence, it is the deltoids that are the direct antagonist and chief stabilizers. Secondary stabilizers would be the triceps and hands/forearms.

Proper Execution of a Pullup

The correct starting position for a pullup is a dead hang, arms completely extended. Ideally the legs should also hang straight down as well, though if the bar is too low, you can bend them at the knee, but keep them stationary for the duration of the set. Do not kip - jerking your legs upward to provide momentum and assistance to pull yourself up. All of the work should be done by the prime mover and the proper assisting muscle groups. Grip the bar as tight as possible, pull with an explosive movement, again leaving the legs stationary, and continue upwards until your entire head clears the bar. When you descend back to the starting position, do so rapidly, but controlled. Don’t just let yourself drop, however do not descend too slowly as it can fatigue your muscles and affect the number of pullups you will be able to perform.

The latissimus dorsi muscle group, highlighted in red.
The latissimus dorsi muscle group, highlighted in red. | Source

Starting Resistance, Rep Range

If you can not do 10 pullups with your own bodyweight without failing on the 10th, use the machine assist, and have as much weight assistance as it takes to enable you to do at least 10 reps before you start to fatigue. Fatigue in this article is defined by a significant slowing down of motion, not failure. If you are able to do more than 15 pullups at bodyweight, you should add enough weight to your dip belt that will enable you to do no more than 10 reps before you start to fatigue. If you do not have a dip belt, take a dumbbell from the rack and squeeze it between your legs at slightly higher than knee level, or squeeze it between your feet with one end resting on the top of your feet. I found that the 10-15 rep range is best for a combination of building strength and endurance for the lat muscles.

If you do not belong to a gym, you can purchase a mountable pullup bar that can range from $30 to around $100, depending on the options you want. The more expensive pullup bar will have the neutral grip options. The other option is a doorway pullup bar, however if you plan on getting to the top percentile of pullers in terms of strength, it is better to go with the mountable bar instead. The door frame pullup bars are more limited in the resistance they can handle. Some can handle 300 lbs. of resistance, others only a little over 200 lbs.

Frequency, Sets, Fatigue Variance

Pullups will be done every other day if possible. The number of sets will be cycled as follows:

Day 1: 3 sets
Day 2: 2 sets
Day 3: 1 Set

Continue to repeat that cycle. On days where you do three sets, your sets will be done with less fatigue than on the day you do one set. However, never train to failure on any day. Training to failure will overtax your nervous system and will not allow you to recover properly in time for the next session.

For the first two sets of your three set day, do as many reps as you can within that 10-15 rep range until the beginning of the fatigue point. Ideally, again, the initial fatigue point should be at the low end of the rep range, if you are using enough resistance. Stop at the first rep where you begin to slow down. On the third set, go past the point of initial fatigue and stop two reps short of failing.

On your two set day, you want to aim for the higher end of the rep range. Both sets should be stopped about two reps short of failure.

The one set day should be taken to no more than one rep short of failure. When the time comes that you have strengthened enough to do more than 15 reps on this set, don’t stop at 15. Continue to do as many as it takes for you to come one rep short of failing. This is the point where you will increase your resistance by five pounds. Do not increase the resistance until you can exceed 15 reps on your one set day.

After two months, if you have not run into any unexpected difficulties such as a brief illness or injury which sidelined you from doing pullups for part of this two month period, go back and test yourself at your original resistance. If you have maintained an adequate diet, and managed to train every other day, you should find that the amount of pullups you were able to do at your starting resistance has roughly doubled. The only other exceptions to this are people that are already in the very top percentile of pullers and are a lot closer to the maximum human potential.


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