Pull Ups: Strategies for Getting More Reps
By Tom Venuto
Chin ups are a superior upper back exercise and it's worth the effort
to get good at them. Here are six excellent ways to improve your chin
1. Work on multiple sets of low reps.
Most people are really stuck "in the box" in the way they think about
their training. They say, "I suck at chin ups" just because they cant
pull themselves up for 3 sets of 12. This kind of thinking will get you
Instead, think out of the box; think different: A great way to start
getting good at chin ups is to do multiple sets of low reps - even sets
of singles. For example:
10 sets of 1 rep
6 sets of 2 reps
5 sets of 3 reps
You don't have to do conventional sets of 10- 12 reps.
2. Set a rep goal such as 30, 40 or 50 reps and take as many sets as
necessary to reach your rep goal.
As you begin to get a little stronger, an advanced variation of strategy
number one is to set a rep goal. For example, if a conventional routine
calls for 3 sets of 10 reps, that's 30 reps. If chin ups are a challenge
for you, set a rep goal of 30 and take as many sets to hit 30 as
necessary. Don't obsess over how many reps you get in one set.
5 sets of 6
6 sets of 5
8 sets of 4
10 sets of 3
15 sets of 2
3. Use negatives.
You are much stronger on the negative portion of the pull up. In other
words, you can lower much more weight than you can lift. Just because
you can't pull yourself up doesn't mean you can't lower yourself.
Put a bench or stool underneath you and kick yourself up with your feet
and then lower yourself slowly to a count of four or five. Continue
until you reach negative failure (you can no longer lower yourself under
control). If you have a training partner, your partner can help you up.
Suppose all you can do is four reps. Your progress might look something
Workout 1: 4 reps, 4 negatives
Workout 2: 5 reps, 4 negatives
Workout 3: 6 reps, 3-4 negatives
Workout 4: 7 reps, 2-3 negatives
Workout 5: 8 reps, 1-2 negative
Workout 6: 9 reps, 1 negative
Workout 7: 10 reps
Workout 8: 11 reps
Workout 9: 12 reps.
I've seen many people go from ZERO reps to sets of ten or twelve in a
matter of weeks using this technique.
4. Practice the rule of training specificity.
The rule of training specificity says that to get good at something, the
best way is to practice that thing specifically. If you want to be a
better 100-meter sprinter, you have to practice 100-meter sprints.
Running long distance, swimming, or cycling isn't going to help your 100
The best way to get good at pull ups is to DO pull ups. There's
definitely some carry-over value in assistance exercises, of course. For
example, if your biceps get stronger, you're going to get better at
pull-ups. But don't kid yourself into thinking that you'll become a pro
at pull-ups by doing pulldowns or the assisted chin up machine.
5. Use slow progression with patience.
The problem with most people is they do only 2, 3, or 4 reps and then
say, "I can't," "these are hard," "I suck at these," etc, and other such
nonsense negative self-talk. That's why they never get past a few reps -
they're pessimists and quitters.
Few people have the patience to USE PROGRESSION slowly and
systematically. If you can MASTER THIS ONE CONCEPT (slow, steady
methodical progression,) you can get as strong and muscular as you want
to be! This requires a lot of patience and a goal-oriented mind.
If you can do only one or two reps today, it's hard to think about doing
12 reps next week isn't it? So don't! Think about doing THREE reps. Then
four. Then five, and so on. Doing ONE more rep is a lot easier to
picture isn't it?
6. Visualize yourself being light as a feather and pulling yourself
up so easily it feels like you're floating.
I've written extensively about visualization in my book, "Burn
the Fat, Feed the Muscle" (BFFM) and in the
and Fitness Secrets newsletter, so I won't go into great detail
Let me just emphasize that mental images are so incredibly powerful,
it's beyond what most people can even fathom. If you understood the true
power of your mind, you would be forming positive mental pictures of
everything you wanted every minute of every day. Unfortunately, most
people "poo-poo" the visualization principle as corny or Pollyanna.
In Arnold Schwarzenneger's autobiography, "The
Education of a Bodybuilder," Arnold explained how he would "see' his
biceps as "huge mountains, much bigger than a bicep could ever really
be." He did this before and during every bicep workout. You'll see
similar examples cited by every champion athlete in every sport.
I've developed many "secret visualizations" I use to get the most from
each exercise. Here's a few ways to use the visualization principle for
I find it counterproductive to think about using pure strength and brute
force to pull myself up. Instead, I visualize the exact opposite: I
imagine myself being as light as a feather or helium balloon and I
literally "float" up. Sometimes I picture an imaginary hand underneath
me, giving me a lift. Or, I picture strings from above pulling me
upwards. They all work.
Use visualization before your workouts too. Mentally rehearse yourself
doing chin ups in your mind before you do it in the gym. Think about it
every day for several days before your chin up workout. Believe you can
do it and you will.
Does this stuff work? Let me put it this way and you decide: In my late
teens I couldn't pull myself up even once. Today, at an off season
bodyweight of 195 lbs or more, I can easily do 25-30 pullups with a
palms away (pronated) grip and I've done 6 strict reps with 85 pounds
strapped to my waist.