PT on the Net Research

Increased Pull Up Ability


Question:

I'm training a Marine who wants/needs to do a certain number of pull ups for his PT test. I'm thinking of using negatives, loading his body at certain points of the movement and assisting him at other points. I know we're all stronger at certain points of a pull up and weaker elsewhere in the movement. With these general concepts in mind, can someone give me some ideas on how to increase one's pull up (or chin up) ability? Thank you.

Answer:

The chin up is often called the upper body squat, and for good reason. It is often the benchmark of athletic strength and perhaps the ultimate bodyweight exercise. It is commonly used in the military and public services as a marker of strength and power.

When it comes to improving the amount your client can do, there is no hard and fast right way to do it, but there are lots of different approaches you can take. Hopefully, I can give you some ideas here.

First, it will depend in part on where you are starting out from. If your client can’t manage one full chin up, you are going to need some work on improving his maximal strength. Assisted chins will work for this, but similar exercises that strengthen key areas such as grip, forearm strength and elbow flexor strength will also go a long way to helping.

Start by spotting your client through the whole range with his legs bent and you holding his ankles. The client can then extend against you.

Once he can perform 10 to 12 of these, you can start spotting the upper body and only help through the sticking point of the movement. Allow him to descend under control and to begin and finish the concentric phase on his own. Keep rest periods to a good length (three to five minutes) to allow sufficient recovery as fatigue will rapidly limit improvement.

When it comes to improving numbers, similar rules apply as for strength training in general, such as progression, overload and specificity. Certainly, some eccentric work is likely to help improve his strength, though bear in mind eccentric work causes more muscle damage, greater soreness and short term reduction in performance, so it isn’t ideal if he is going to be doing chins regularly (which he is going to need to do, as once a week won’t get the results).

When it comes to increasing numbers for passing a test, I agree with Pavel Tsatsouline’s approach that volume is central. Training at a very high intensity to total overload on a daily basis will quickly result in overtraining, so intensity must be tempered to match volume. An example of this is gymnasts who are able to lift their bodyweight many times in a range of challenging positions against gravity. It is unlikely that many gymnasts train only once a week to total failure in these movements, so although this may be a favored approach for hypertrophy, it may not be optimal for improving chin up performance.

Pavel’s approach (inspired by Russian Special Forces training) is based around high volume/non-exhaustive training, which he calls “greasing the groove.” It is also known as a “Ladder Approach.”

The ladder involves ascending from one rep to a point one or two reps short of failure (again to limit blowing out for that session or week). Only rest between each “set” as long as it took to perform the previous set. Once you have reached the top of the ladder, rest for three to four minutes and then start again from one.

The advantage of this system is that it allows plenty of recovery between your toughest sets, while enabling you to achieve a greater volume of reps. This is preferential to a pyramid approach where all your hardest sets come together. Also, as it doesn’t involve working to failure, this can be performed regularly (five to six times a week). The theory is based on what Pavel calls “synaptic facilitation.”

So, for example, if your client currently can do 10 chin ups unassisted, his ladder might look like this:

Ladder 1

Set Reps Tempo Rest
1 1 2-1-1 5s
2 2 2-1-1 10s
3 3 2-1-1 15s
4 4 2-1-1 20s
5 5 2-1-1 25s
6 6 2-1-1 30s
7 7 2-1-1 35s
8 8 2-1-1 40s

Ladder 2

Set Reps Tempo Rest
1 1 2-1-1 5s
2 2 2-1-1 10s
3 3 2-1-1 15s
4 4 2-1-1 20s
5 5 2-1-1 25s
6 6 2-1-1 30s

A note regarding tempo: I have shown a tempo of a controlled descent with only a short pause and concentric phase. You could alter this with view to “test pace” being as fast as possible. This may be a good method of periodizing the training, though specificity tells us that time spent training at a 1-0-1 tempo will be beneficial.

So, this is a different approach perhaps to the conventional method of blasting the muscles with negative rep training or high intensity lifting, but it has good reason behind it. This method addresses specificity (how good can you hope to become good at any task you perform only once a week for a total of about 90 seconds?), progression (you can easily adapt this by either adding extra weight or adding “another rung” to the ladder) and overload (optimized to match the volume and prevent neural and metabolic overload).

Of course, it would be tough to train every movement pattern or exercise like this as it would involve an inordinate amount of time and motivation. But for a single selected movement where you have to get beyond a sticking point, it could prove an excellent alternative to the favored high-intensity approach.

As with any aspect of training, figure out what your client’s limiting factors are and work with those. If he cannot manage more than two or three chin ups, then the ladder approach isn’t for him. Increase his strength through a progression of assisted movements combined with supplementary strengthening of upper arms, forearms and grip strength.

If they are getting stuck at six or seven (or more), try using the Ladder approach. Initially, you can start this three to four times a week, always when fresh and NOT to total exhaustion. Ensure your warm up routines and other sessions support what you are trying to achieve. Good luck!