Pull ups are very difficult to progress, making progressive overload a crucial ingredient to hitting your pull up goals. Thankfully you’re in the right place if you want to understand how you can use the progressive overload principle to improve your pull ups. Below we have examples for every level of athlete so be sure to look and learn how you can use progressive overload to improve your pull ups.
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Progressive overload is the act of manipulating training variables over a period of time so that the load on the body increases to create a desired adaptation. For a more detail description on progressive overload, read our full article on the topic here.
As previously mentioned, pull ups are notoriously difficult to improve, this is likely because with weights, adding as much as 1-2.5kg can feel like a win, but increasing your total pull ups max or getting your first pull up can be months worth of work in the gym. This is why they can feel like they are never getting any better, even though you may be making steady progress.
Using progressive overload to improve your pull up ability is going to be crucial if you want to make steady progress. That being said don’t try and rush this process. Strength takes time, especially in this movement.
Volume is the amount of working sets performed, this can be framed as in a session, in a week or in a training cycle. A simple way to think about it is the amount of work done in a movement pattern within a set time frame. As most studies indicate the most important volume landmark is the amount of sets done in a week.
The intensity which the work is done is very important. Intensity is the difficulty or a set or repetition. It’s the difference between a warm up set and a working set and it can be manipulated in many ways. This could be manipulating the RIR or RPE. It could also involve the adding weight to the exercise or increasing exercise difficulty.
These are important terms to understand because they are the toggles in which we can turn to use progressive overload for all movements including pull ups. So how do we manipulate these toggles in practice, how can we get someone from no pull ups to the first pull up, from one set of 3 to multiple sets of 8-10, from 12 pull ups to a ring muscle? In all scenarios we use progressive overload to create the adaptation.
In this example of progressive overload, I want to take a look at how to progressive overload from one cycle to another. A cycle is just a block of training where the same sessions are repeated with slight manipulations of volume and intensity. For a more detailed description of training cycles read this article here. The beginner in this example is a 24 year old male who plays tennis competitively and has good levels of athleticism but has never been to the gym before and has poor upper body strength that he wants to improve, he can’t do a pull up.
In this cycle we are going to do an eccentric pull up movement (vertical pull) and a single arm kettlebell low row (horizontal pull). The goal here is to get him used to the pulling motion and start to gain strength in both movement patterns.
From the previous cycle we have added more volume to the vertical pull movement pattern through adding the chin over bar hold. This therefore is an example of progressively overloading this movement pattern over the course of multiple cycles. We can also add slightly more volume and intensity to the other two movements, we might add weight to the single arm kettlebell low row and increase the amount of repetitions performed on the eccentric pull ups.
The athlete has responded well to the initial 6-8 weeks of training and now can perform 2-3 pull ups but still has a lot of work to do. So we can increase the intensity of the exercise selection for the next cycle. This increase in intensity can be seen in the more challenging exercise selected, we have moved from an eccentric pull up to a pull up. Also the horizontal pulling variation is more specific to the pull up motion and it’s bi-lateral and bodyweight based. Finally we have increase the intensity of the chin over bar hold through adding weight to the hold.
This is an example of a 9-12 week training block where we have taken an individual from no pull ups to what might be a set of 3-5+ pull ups. Over the course of the blocks both the volume and intensity was increased, a great example of progressive overload for pull ups in action.
For the intermediate example we are going to look at how we might use progressive overload intra-cycle (within a cycle). The cycle in length will be 4 weeks in duration and the training will become progressively more difficult through manipulation of our two toggles (volume and intensity), hence creating progressive overload. Obviously within a training cycle we work through multiple goals and multiple movement patterns, but for simplicity I will only outline the pull up (vertical pull variations).
This individual can perform 5 sets of 3-5 pull ups but wants to be able to improve to 10+ pull ups. We are going to be using two exercises for pull ups within the three sessions they are performing. These movements are the pull up and the banded pull up.
Here we can see how progressive overload really is within a cycle. It’s literally just adding slightly more reps or more weights to a movement. However as we all know, it’s never as simple as this, because humans are complex with many variable going into performance. On top of that adaptation takes time, so it’s the coaches role to understand how someone is feeling that day and many other factors to make progressive overload work over the course of a year or multiple years.
Those who can perform multiple sets of 10+ pull ups but want to improve, so they do a heavy weighted pull up or more repetitions, can find it just as hard to see progress as beginners trying to get their first pull up. These tiny increases in athletic performance can be very difficult and require a lot of time and patients.
This example is of an individual who can perform 14 pull ups in a row and has the goal of performing 20 repetitions unbroken. To show how we are going to use progressive overload for this individual we are going to use an example of intra-cycle progressive overload. They train 5 times a week and we will target pull ups 3 times within these 5 sessions as it’s one of their major goals.
These are very specific examples, your goal shouldn’t be to copy them, but understand the concept of how we can use progressive overload to improve any physical attribute, including pull-ups. Good luck improving your pull ups! For more information and tips have a look through some of our other resources.
Improving pull-up strength can be done by putting overload on the vertical pull movement pattern by performing weighted pullups or even chin ups. These are great for general health or sport. For very advanced individuals they can be great for muscle growth and grip strength. Try one of these drills in your workout to help grow your back if you can already do 10+ pull ups.
During workouts it can be hard to chose how many sets and reps to do, if you’re trying to improve you the number of chin ups or pull ups you can do. Science suggests that the number of reps or even the specific amount of weight you use doesn’t matter. Whats crucial is that the taking the set to a point of near failure while keeping great technique and performing enough working sets to see muscle growth. For gaining strength the weight needs to be heavy enough to create strength adaptations (80%+ of 1RM), which typically means 5 repetitions or less.
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This resource was written by Sean Klein. Sean Richard Klein has thousands of hours of coaching experience and a BSc in Sports Science with Management from Loughborough University. He owns a gym in Bayonne France, CrossFit Essor, which runs group classes and a Personal training studio.