Pullups are considered to be one of the best exercises in all of fitness…and it’s for good reason. They work almost every major upper body muscle group and are a great test of strength. If you have done P90X then you know that pullups are a big part of the program. The problem is that most people can’t do them when they first start, or struggle to only get only a couple. This leads to the belief that they will never be able to master the pullup. When I first started P90X I could only muster a couple of pullups during each exercise. As I continued to do P90X my pullup strength increased as well as my rep count. Now I am able to do well over 20+ on most pullup variations.
So how do you increase your pullup strength? Below are a few easy tips to think about when going through P90X, Asylum, P90X2 or any other fitness program. Pullups are one of my favorite exercises, and easily my favorite back exercise. If you want to get stronger, have those ripped lats and back then use these tips below.
How To Improve Pullups
1. Don’t Avoid Them! I can’t tell you how many times I hear people say that they can’t do pullups so they don’t do them at all. You only get good at things you do often. You can’t expect to go play a sport without practice…the same goes for pullups. Some people also think that you can use a lat pull down machine instead as well. But again, you can only progress so far that way. In order to get better at pullups you must practice. Even if it means only doing a couple. Each time you do them you will improve a little bit. Make it a goal to try to do 1 more pullup than last time.
For the advanced: Every time you walk past your pullup bar during the day try to do as many as you can. This allows you to do more than just your max. For example, if you can do 8 pullups then try to do 6-7 each time you walk by your bar. If you do this 5x during that day then you have done 30-35 extra pullups!
But what if you can’t do any? Well try your best and forget the rest. “Don’t say you can’t, say I presently struggle with”, and move onto number 2.
2. Do Assisted Pullups! There is a great new tool in the P90X arsenal that you can use to increase your pullups that is MUCH better than a chair. The Chin Up Max Band Assist! I have been talking about this thing a lot lately and it’s for good reason. I was first introduced to it during the rehearsals for P90X2. I was amazed how well it worked, and how simple of a concept it was. The Chin Up Max is a resistance band that is only made to help you with pull ups. It has a hook on one end and a food stirrup on the other. All you have to do is hook it on your pull up bar, put your foot into the stirrup and pull away! The beauty about this thing is it forces you to use good form and engages all the correct muscle groups, assisting your pullups enough to where you are still gaining strength. I like this better than the chair because with the chair you tend to use your legs way to much to assist. The Chin Up Max is a great tool for anyone who wants to get more pullup reps.
For the advanced: I have been using it to do some pullup drop sets. So I go for my max on my pullup reps without any assistance, and I then use the Chin Up Max to help get another few reps. This has helped me use proper form and really get the most out of my pullup endurance without having to kip and lose my tempo.
3. Use Proper Form and Tempo! As I have gone through my P90X journey these last couple years I have found that form is king and tempo is queen. You need to use proper form and tempo to get the most out of all body weight exercises. Pullups are no exception. The the longest time I thought that adding weight was number one when in actuality I was hindering my pullup strength by not following the number one rule, to use good form. I started upping my weight via a weighted vest and my ego got in the way. I wanted my rep count to go up so I started to kip more and more. It wasn’t until this last round of P90X that I decided to drop the weighted vest completely and take my ego out of it. I used perfect form on each pullup exercise and my reps dropped significantly. As I continued to use proper form and controlled tempo, my reps started to increase and so did my strength. I was able to break through plateaus at the beach workout because of this key element.
Proper Form and Tempo: Proper from is going all the way down so your using full range of motion and all the way up so your chin is over the bar. Don’t sell yourself short here. I see a ton of guys only going half way down and going back up. Full range of motion is key. Your tempo should be a explosive movement to get your chin over the bar, pause for a split second at the top then a controlled “2 count” on the way back down. That is 1 rep. Do this and watch your pullup strength improve over time! Here is a video taken of me at the beach workout with Tony Horton and crew, during our warm up round for a reference.
4. Add Variation! This is what is great about P90X and P90X2. Your not just doing pullups and chin ups. Your doing switch grip pullups and closed grip pullups, corn cobs and towel pullups. Adding variation is crucial. P90X2 takes this to a whole new level. You will see some awesome pullup variations that aren’t in P90X. Again, you have to use good form. You can’t do these moves sloppy…if you can’t do them with good form then go to tip number 2 and buy the Chin Up Max so you can! Below is a pic of me doing a Lever Pull Up.
5. If you follow 1-4 then you can now Add Weight! This is for the advanced fitness guru who wants to continue to break plateaus. Adding weight is great for any body weight exercise. You can do this very easily with a weighted vest or by holding a medicine ball between your legs. The one thing you MUST do is use proper form and tempo. My biggest mistake was not following proper form when I added weight. I started Kipping way to much to get more reps. This forced me to plateau. If you can follow tips 1-4 then you can add weight and continue to get strong!
Do you currently struggle with Pullups? Are these Tips Helpful? Comment and let us know!
Great Article Sean. You are a master! Been doing X for 2.5 years and way better than when I started but haven't got to Level Sean yet. :)
You say in your post to pause for a split second at the top and then lower for a 2 count, but in your beach video it didn't seem like you were doing that. Is that because it was just for a warm-up?
@Jay: In the beach workout, Is a performance based workout...a "game day" of sorts. So in that case, I go for the most efficient way to do each exercise with good form. This is different than say a typical resistance workout, where I am trying to get stronger and improve my numbers for the future. The idea of pausing a split second on the top of the move, helps to engage the muscle, create more time under tension, and ultimately help you improve your pull ups. So when you go for a max rep set, you can start to do more and more. Does that make sense?
How do you know when to stop doing assisted pull ups? I can do about three now (that's a big improvement for me). Should I use a chair after the three or just stick with that number unassisted?
@Matthew: You can stop with assisted when you are hitting over 8 reps. In the mean time do as many without as you can and then put on the assist and crank out some more.
Did you ever (still?) have a problem with calluses, and if so, would you contribute that kipping? I suspect that movement (kipping) may be a factor contributing to my callus problems. I use the standart "door bar" which has cushion grips (the ones I use for the wide-grip (inside the " U's ") are actually torn, but I've re-tied them to keep them in place) and I wear my padded bike gloves. Oddly, I really only have an issue with my left hand (and I'm a rightie). One issue that makes even some kipping difficult to avoid is I have to bend my knees to get full RoM, and that in and of itself, lends itself to at least some movement.
@JimNYC: I do have some calluses but I wouldn't necessarily attribute it to kipping. It's just something that naturally occurs when you are working out a ton. All of that gripping of dumbbells and pull up bars will do that. If your hands are slipping a lot when you kip then it could be a reason why they are bothering you for sure...especially if you are tearing your pull up bar up. Some movement is fine but if you're kipping a ton then you need to take your ego out of it and focus back on form and tempo. Even if that means your reps drop a bit. That's what I had to do and it was the best thing I did to improve my pull ups.
Great advice here, I just started using the chin up max and love it. The advice about tempo and doing pull ups whenever you walk by your chin up bar is great, hadn't thought about all that. Pull ups are my nemesis, I've never had good upper body strength, but I'm improving rapidly with P90x.
Great article Sean, I like the point about cranking out sets everytime you walk by your pull up bar. I like to also throw in rounds of pushups in the mix also. I find that your strength and endurance goes way up, and you are able to add a ton of reps to your P90 work outs. Wondering will this impact negatively, your recovery, and growth at all?
@Robbie: Thanks man. It won't impact your recover negatively if you space it out throughout the day. The point of this isn't to destroy yourself but to increase the amount of work you are doing over a given period of time. So it's best to go to near failure but not full failure. Adding push ups makes it more like a workout so maybe alternating days would work.
I'm glad everyone enjoyed this post!! I too fell into the ego trip of not letting my reps dropped, but I realized I was selling myself short. Form is king! That Chin Up Max is the best thing for pullups since the pull up bar ;)
Very insightful. i tend to sell myself short sometimes when trying to reach my preset goals as opposed to just maintaining good form.