Pull-ups are an essential exercise for success on any Spartan course. The ability to conquer upper body–dominated obstacles such as the Hercules hoist, Tyrolean traverse, inverted wall, rope climb, and monkey bars can be improved by doing pull-ups. This three-week how to increase pull-ups guide below is a complement to your existing strength and conditioning routine. You should do weekly cardiovascular and strength training in addition to the prescribed workouts. Read on to uncover these simple, tried-and-true techniques for how to get better at pull-ups overall and make big gains in your fitness routine.
How to Increase Pull-Ups — First, a word about where you’re coming from:
- A fitness enthusiast who is good at most things in life. Between work, family life, and fitness you’ve found yourself a nice goal that you’re working toward. You’ve dabbled in group fitness classes, strength training, running, biking, and yoga.
- An endurance athlete who can do pull-ups but is looking to take their upper body strength to the next level. You’ve done a few obstacle course races, but you’ve had to do some penalty burpees on upper body–dominant obstacles.
The How to Increase Pull-Ups — The problem:
- You can do barbell squats, overhead presses, bench presses, and maybe even the barbell deadlift. But for some reason, there’s one thing you can’t seem to do: a pull-up! You can’t figure out how to get over this mental and physical hump. Or, you know why you keep getting stuck hanging, but you still come up short of moving yourself up.
- You’ve plateaued at a certain number of pull-ups per workout and want to break past this number.
There are a number of common reasons why people can’t do pull-ups:
- Not being able to hold onto the bar through lack of grip strength.
- A lack of latissimus dorsi (large back muscle), spinal erector (lower back stabilizer muscles), abdominal muscle, and biceps strength.
- A lack of “mind-to-muscle” connection. Some people perform back exercises incorrectly in the weight room: the weight moves but the back muscles aren’t being recruited properly.
- Failing to train without weights. Some people are strong when they lift weights but can’t effectively perform pull-ups, push-ups, lunges, burpees, and endurance exercise in general.
- Previous injuries like torn rotator cuff, torn labrum, or torn biceps that keep them from hanging from objects for extended amounts of time.
The 'How to Increase Pull-Ups' Solution
This how to increase pull-ups guide will address these issues—minus the injury one. If you’ve been seriously injured in your upper body, consult your doctor about physical activity recommendations. Now read on to find out how you can improve your pull-up game and get ready to conquer your next Spartan race.
How to Increase Pull-Ups: Week One
This guide assumes that you don’t have an assisted pull-up machine at your disposal. If you do, start each workout with three sets of five reps. Do workouts A and B once each this week.
Exercise: Dead hang
How to do it: Grab a pull-up bar or any sturdy overhead structure with an overhand grip. Slightly retract (pinch together) your shoulder blades to engage your core and activate the back muscles. Your arms should be extending straight up from your shoulders.
Duration: Beginner: 15–20 seconds; intermediate: 20–60 seconds; elite: 60–120 seconds.
Exercise: Inverted row
How to do it: Set a barbell in a power rack (or use a Smith machine) at about hip height. Lie on the ground underneath it with your back against the ground. Grab the bar with hands shoulder-width apart. Hang from the bar so your arms are straight, your core is tight, and your body is in a straight line. This is the starting position. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and pull yourself up until your chest is near the bar. Slowly lower yourself back to the starting position.
Trainer tip: You can use a suspension trainer instead of a bar by grabbing a handle in each hand and positioning yourself directly underneath the anchor point.
Exercise: Abdominal X-up
How to do it: Lie on your back with you arms and legs separated so you’re shaped like an X. Touch your right hand to the outside of your left ankle, meeting in the middle of your core. Do five reps, then switch to the other side.
Reps: 5 (each side)
Exercise: Side plank
How to do it: Place your left elbow on the ground and the side of your left foot on the ground so your back is in a straight line and your hips are on the ground. The right foot can be stacked on top of the left foot or placed in front of the left foot. Bring yourself off the ground so that your only points of contact with the ground are your left elbow and your feet. Your right hand can go on the ground, on the left shoulder or for an added challenge, on your right hip. Hold for the entire duration then switch sides, planking on the other side.
Duration: Beginner: 15–20 seconds; intermediate: 20–60 seconds; elite: 60–120 seconds.
Trainer tip: The side plank strengthens the abdominal muscles, which you need to prevent yourself from swinging when you hang from a bar.
Exercise: Dumbbell hammer curl
How to do it: Stand holding a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing each other (neutral grip). Curl both dumbbells in front of your until the weights reach about shoulder height. Squeeze your biceps at the top, and then bring the weights back down.
Trainer tip: To really increase the tension on the peak of the biceps, supinate your palms (rotate them toward you) at the top of the rep. Don’t swing the weights at any point.
Exercise: Lying triceps extension
How to do it: Lie on a bench with a short barbell or an EZ Bar. Press the bar over your chest so your arms are straight. This is the starting position. Bend your elbows to lower the bar behind your head. Then straighten them to return to the starting position.
How to increase pull-ups trainer tip: Don’t let your elbows flare out. Keep them in line with the wrists.
Exercise: Dead hang
Duration: Hang on the bar for 10 seconds longer each set compared to last workout.
Exercise: Inverted row
Exercise: Machine lat pull-down
How to do it: Attach the long bar attachment to the pulley of a lat pull-down machine. Grab the bar with a double overhand grip so your palms face away from you and set your legs under the pad. Pull the bar to your collarbone, driving your elbows down and back. Release your elbows and straighten your arms. That’s one rep.
How to increase pull-ups trainer tip: Lean back slightly throughout this movement, but don’t lean back so far that you make it a swinging motion.
Exercise: Seated row machine
How to do it: Attach a V-grip handle to the pulley of a seated row station. Sit on the bench (or floor) with your feet against the foot plate and knees slightly bent. Grab the handle with both hands so your palms are facing each other (neutral grip) and your arms are fully extended. Row the handle to your sternum by squeezing your shoulder blades together and bending your elbows. Now straighten your arms to return to the starting position.
How to increase pull-ups trainer tip: Focus on using only your back for this move. Avoid cranking the handle with your arms. Establish a mind-to-muscle connection between your back and the weight.
Exercise: Back extension
How to do it: Lock your legs into a back extension bench by placing your feet against the plate and your calves against the pad cushions. Cross your arms in front of your chest and bend your torso forward so that your hips are bent 90 degrees. Next, extend your hips, raising yourself back up in a straight line.
How to increase pull-ups trainer tip: Squeeze your glutes at the top of the motion. We are working on the lower back and butt muscles here, which will help with good posture and stabilization during the pull-up.
How to Increase Pull-Ups: Week Two
Do workout A and workout B once each this week. Week two focuses on grip and core strength.
Exercise: Dumbbell deadlift
How to do it: Stand tall with your core engaged, back straight, and feet shoulder-width apart while holding two dumbbells in an overhand grip. The weights should be in front of the middle of your thighs. Keep your shoulders back and chest out. To begin, drive your hips back to lower the weight down. The dumbbells should stay tight to your shins and go as low as the front of your ankles. Now, drive your hips forward to lift the weight back up to the start. That’s one rep.
How to increase pull-ups trainer tip: Beginners: 10–20 pounds; intermediate: 20–30 pounds; elite: 30–40 pounds.
Exercise: Dumbbell farmer’s carry
How to do it: Walk forward while holding a dumbbell in each hand, with your hands at your sides. Keep your torso upright. Don’t slouch or lean forward.
Duration: Beginner: 25 yards; intermediate: 25–50 yards; elite: 50–100 yards.
How to increase pull-ups trainer tip: You can also use kettlebells, short barbells, sandbags, or water jugs.
Exercise: Dumbbell row
How to do it: Grab a dumbbell and bend your hips back until your torso is parallel to the floor. Turn your palm toward you and hang the arm with the weight down. This is the starting position. Bring the dumbbell toward your rib cage by using your back muscles. Your elbow will go straight back. Now, slowly release your arm to the starting position. That’s one rep.
How to increase pull-ups trainer tip: Again, use only your back muscles here. Pretend your arms are just hanging limp. This will help you engage your lats during the pull-up. You can place the free arm on a bench or weight rack for added support.
Exercise: Dumbbell wrist curl
How to do it: Stand holding a dumbbell in one hand with your palm facing forward (supinated or open grip). Raise your arm so your elbow is bent at 90 degrees and your forearm is in front of you. Let the weight roll down onto your fingertips then raise your wrist toward the ceiling to bring the weight into the palm of your hand. That’s one rep.
How to increase pull-ups trainer tip: Don’t let your biceps do any of the work. Nothing should be moving except for your fingers and wrist.
Exercise: Bear crawl
How to do it: From the top of the push-up position, step forward with your right foot inside the right arm as you simultaneously move your left hand forward in front of you. Switch sides, so that you now step forward with the left leg and gain ground with your right hand. Keep crawling forward by moving the opposite hand and foot forward.
Duration: Beginner: 20 seconds; intermediate: 30–40 seconds; elite: 40–60 seconds.
Trainer tip: This is to get you more accustomed to moving your body through space. It will also help you burn additional calories in the quest toward more pull-ups.
Trainer tip: The key with push-ups is stacking the wrists under the shoulders and keeping a straight back. This exercise builds shoulder and triceps strength.
Exercise: Bird dog
How to do it: Get on all fours with your hands under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Tighten your abs. Raise your right leg and left arm simultaneously, lengthening your spine. Don’t raise the arm higher than the shoulder or the leg higher than the hips. Hold for 10 seconds in this position then return to all fours. That’s one rep.
Reps: 10 each side
How to increase pull-ups trainer tip: Do all 10 reps on one side then switch sides. This move increases lower back strength and will help support your body weight during the pull-up.
Exercise: Glute bridge
How to do it: Lie with your back against the floor, knees bent at 90 degrees, arms at your sides, and palms facing the floor. Bring your butt up, squeezing your glutes at the top. Pause for two seconds, then return to start.
Trainer tip: Do these slowly, focusing on the glute contraction. You can also isolate one side by keeping one foot on the ground and raising one leg off the ground as you bridge up.
Exercise: Suspension trainer biceps curl
How to do it: Stand facing the anchor point, holding the suspension trainer by the handles. Lower your body until your arms are fully extended and you’re in a tight plank with your body in a straight line. Pull body toward the anchor by bringing your knuckles to your temples, with your elbows high and eyes forward. Return to the starting position with your arms extended. That’s one rep.
How to increase pull-ups trainer tip: Let your body hang down before the start. Keep your core tight throughout the movement.
How to Increase Pull-Ups: Week Three
Do workouts A and B once each this week. Week three will be your first attempt at a pull-up after intentionally working on improving it. This week also targets grip and upper back muscles.
Try to do a pull-up. If you can, great. See how many you can safely do in a row. Record the number. Continue the plan to increase the number. If you still can’t do it, try a chin-up.
How to do it: Grab a sturdy bar overhead with both hands using a pronated (overhand) grip slightly wider than shoulder width. Keep your legs straight; don’t cross your feet over each other. Pull yourself vertically until your chin is higher than the bar. Return back to start position with your arms fully extended. Do not “kip” or swing yourself up so your chest hits the bar.
Related: Bodyweight Training Plan: Power
How to do it: Same as the pull-up except your palms are facing you instead of facing away. If you have access to a neutral grip handle, where your palms face each other, this is also considered a chin-up.
Reps: As many as possible
Trainer tip: If you can do this and not a pull-up, then you need to work on your grip and back muscles more than your biceps. You also may be psyching yourself out. The pull-up and chin-up are quite similar, although most people find the pull-up more difficult.
To improve grip strength more than you have already, you can visit indoor rock climbing gyms and do bouldering and roped climbing. Use spring-loaded hand grippers and other grip-specific tools like Hand X Band. Target the muscles in your fingers with the following two moves.
Exercise: Plate pinch
How to do it: Lift a weight plate (start with 10 pounds) off the ground in one hand using only your fingertips. Hold for as long as possible at your side then put it down. Do 10 reps, then switch hands.
Sets: 3 (each hand)
How to increase pull-ups trainer tip: Beginner: hold plate with just fingertips for 30 seconds; intermediate: hold for 30–45 seconds; elite: hold for 45–90 seconds.
Exercise: Pinch grip transfer
How to do it: While standing, hold one weight plate at your side in your right hand with the fingertips of all five fingers. Raise the plate in front of you so that your right arm is straight in front of your chest. Grab the plate with only the fingertips of your left hand, transferring it from hand to hand. Lower the plate to your left side, still only using the fingertips. That’s one transfer. Start the next rep by raising the left arm and switching the plate to the right arm.
Trainer tip: Start with a 10-pound plate and if it’s too easy, try a 25-pound plate.
Exercise: Banded pull-up
How to do it: Throw one end of a looped resistance band over the bar, feed it through the other looped end of the band, and create a secure anchor point on the bar. Place a box or bench under the bar, step on the box, then place one foot or knee over the band. You’ll sink down toward the ground here. Now, pull yourself back up.
Related: Different Types of Power Workouts
Reps: as many as possible
How to get good at pull-ups trainer tip: If you were able to get chin-ups last week, then instead of banded pull-ups, do the same number of chin-ups you did last week. If you’re were unable to do pull-ups or chin-ups, do banded pull-ups.
Exercise: Lat pull-down machine
Exercise: Seated row machine
Exercise: Lying dumbbell lateral raise
How to do it: Set an adjustable bench to a 30-degree incline and lie on it chest-down with a light dumbbell in each hand using a neutral grip. Raise your arms out to your sides by squeezing your shoulder blades together. Slowly return the weights back to the starting position.
How to get good at pull-ups trainer tip: This move targets the upper back muscles and rear deltoids, both of which are prime movers during the pull-up.
How to Get Good at Pull-Ups: Week Four
The How to Get Good at Pull-Ups Test
Do as many pull-ups as possible in three sets.
Results (and How to Get Good at Pull-ups: The Road to 30):
- A quarter to three-quarters of the way up: good job! Next time you do pull-ups, aim for getting a quarter of the way higher.
- One set of one to five: awesome! This plan helped you get over the hump. Now you’re ready to take on any obstacle.
- Two sets of five: cool! Next time, try to do all 10 pull-ups in one set. Then see how many you can do in the second set.
- Three sets of five: great, you’ve built yourself to a real challenge. Your goal is now to be able to complete three sets of 10 pull-ups.
- Three sets of 10: once you can do this, you can start add weight for some serious Spartan gains by wearing a dip belt that attaches a weight plate to it or holding a light dumbbell between your ankles. Or opt to stay with your bodyweight for maximum muscular endurance and go for four or five sets of 10 in the same workout.