Pull-ups are one of the best but most underperformed bodyweight exercises. Ten is no magic number but when it comes to pull-ups it is a great goal to achieve.
Here’s a quick summary of the key principles you need to achieve your first 10 pull-ups.
- Technique: focus on the technique of a pull-up, don’t practice sloppy reps.
- Specificity: use specific training methods like inverted rows and pull-up holds.
- Train often: higher training frequency is great for those first 10 pull-ups.
- Rep goals: set up rep goals then focus on less sets or a higher goal week to week.
- Workout structure: use specific work first, then back off to weight training and isolation.
- Scaling: assisted versions of pull-ups are both specific and easier – a perfect training tool.
- Recover: no matter how you’re training, recovery determines everything. Eat and sleep.
Why Are Pull-Ups so Important?
Pull-ups are treated like the deadlift of the upper body because of the range of muscles they work and the amount of muscle and strength they build. This combination of 2 significant benefits makes them an effective way of getting an enormous bang for your buck.
Not only that, but the muscles you train with the pull-up are some of the most important on the body.
They include most of the upper back – the deep scapular retractors, the lats, the rear delts, and the traps. You’ll also build big biceps, which is always fun!
Pull-ups are a great way of building the muscles of the upper back. These build-out complete, full-body strength that improves your pushing exercises, dramatically improves the silhouette of your physique, and offers up a huge achievement.
Why Are Pull-Ups So Challenging?
The range of muscles that you’re training with the pull-up also makes it difficult. For most of us, these muscles were weak when we started to exercise, and it can leave the pull-up as a distant challenge.
Most people can’t do one pull-up, so ten looks like a huge challenge. The weakness of these muscles also has some serious knock-on effects. They’re crucial for proper upper back stability and the control of the shoulders.
Weakness results in things like poor shoulder control and thus an increased risk of shoulder injury. It also contributes to the poor posture that has so many of us looking slouched over rather than tall, proud, and strong.
A weak pull-up can also cause issues in other exercises. Weak scapular control makes the bench press and overhead presses both more difficult and increases injury risk. This carries over to anything that uses the shoulders since they have many moving parts that are only stabilized by the upper back muscles.
You need to get 10 in – that’s the standard you want to work towards
10 pull-ups isn’t some revolutionary number that changes you into a mega-stud. It’s just a great goal and milestone – nobody who can perform 10 clean pull-ups is weak!
Can I Get Better at Doing Pull-Ups?
Fortunately for you, the process of building up to 10 pull-ups is an amazing journey.
It will change your body significantly, have some gratifying moments along the way, and offer up the benefits we already hinted at. These include better shoulder health, exercise performance, and bragging rights.
Pull-ups might develop slowly, but only because getting to 10 puts so many things right in your body. You can’t be weak and do 10 clean pull-ups: by the time you get there, you’re going to be a stronger and well-rounded trainee.
It’s also not impossible for anyone to get from 1 pull-up to 10. It takes time and effort, but the time will pass anyway. The effort is paid back with results – aesthetically and in performance.
Key Factors For Performing Pull-Ups
There are a few factors that you need to work on, but these should be part of any effective training routine, whatever the goal:
Arm strength – the pull-up and the chin-up both build and demand bicep strength. This means you’re going to have a good reason to keep developing bicep strength, size, and control to get better pull-ups.
Scapular strength and control – building the muscle, strength, and control of the upper back isn’t optional. Pull-ups are heavy on both the retraction and depression of the scapular, which means you need to build up lower trap and lat strength, as these do most of the work in a pull-up.
Core development – clean pull-ups require good control of the spine and core activation. This keeps the proper position and makes sure that your upper back and arm muscles can work effectively and build the best strength and mass – it’s key to getting the most from your pull-ups.
These skills are worth your time, and the focus you put on getting your pull-ups makes sure you’re building them up week-on-week. When you’re doing pull-ups, you’re also training all 3 of them at the same time – just another reason why this is a great exercise and worth building up that max-rep set.
In the simplest term, getting better at pull-ups both requires and provides excellent gains. It’s a rewarding process at the most micro level, even before mentioning how great every extra pull-up.
The next place to address with your pull-ups is being honest with yourself about a few key factors that are going to determine how the process works:
Technique – Are you doing pull-ups properly? If you’re not performing clean pull-ups, you’re going to have a harder time building up to 10 since they’re not making you stronger as effectively. No kipping, no knee-raises – we’re talking strict pull-ups. Get that right first.
Starting point – It’s okay to be weak; we all are at some point. But pretending you’re better than you are can mess up progress. Be humble about where you are right now because the only thing it’s going to change is how long it takes and how well you progress. Humility = progress.
Acknowledge weaknesses – Focusing on the things you’re bad at means better results, faster, and that requires knowing what they are. It also probably means focusing on the stuff you don’t enjoy because it’s weaker and needs more work. The better you manage this focus, the better your results.
Getting 10 pull-ups only works if you develop the muscles and movement-control they use. This should come from the combination of bodyweight and weight training – your bodyweight work is more specific, but you can’t adjust the load as easily.
We’re going back to the 3 elements mentioned above: arm strength, scapular retraction, and scapular depression. We can bundle these together because each movement has its own muscle group(s).
How to Train Pull-Up Key Movement Patterns
This is the movement associated with pulling the shoulder blades back, together, and towards the spine. It’s key to the pull-up, which combines retraction and depression.
Building muscle here is arguably easier and more common than in depression: lots of us have performed dumbbell or barbell rows. It still needs to be developed to make pull-ups easier, and specific training is going to be key.
Inverted rows – These are a great bodyweight exercise to develop retraction while also practicing proper core control. It builds up the control you need to get better at pull-ups, as well as the brute strength. It’s also easy to adjust it to your own experience and strength level with foot positioning.
Dumbbell Row – This is the obligate strength exercise for retraction, building up one-arm strength, and combating imbalance between your arms. It’s perfect for after your bodyweight work since you can easily adjust the load.
Reverse flye – A great little exercise to strengthen the upper back’s small muscles and develop better control. Consider super-setting them with face pulls as a finisher or light exercise for the lower traps.
Chest-supported rows – These are the least important on this list, but they’re great for practicing the pull-up’s end position. Put some real effort into the squeeze at the top of your chest-supported row to mimic that final chest-to-bar position of the pull-up.
This movement pattern is closely related to the vertical pulling aspects that are so specific to the pull-up.
This is where most of us struggle with the pull-up, so these should be your priority exercises for getting your first 10 pull-ups.
Pull-ups – If you can do even one pull-up, you should. Doing them makes you better at them – perform as many as you can during a workout to build specific strength before moving on to accessory exercises. Use more sets if you can’t perform many reps to build strength.
Chin-up – It’s obvious – chin-ups are a perfect easier variation. They lean more heavily on the biceps and remove some of the limiting factors that many face. They require the same core and movement-quality focus but are more accessible. Again, use more sets if you can’t do long sets.
Foot-elevated chin-up – An easier alternative to the pull-up that offers some of the same benefits and a specific vertical pulling movement. It’s a great way to practice if you haven’t got any/many pull-ups per set – as well as building up to your first pull-up for beginners.
Holds and lowers – If you can’t do the pulling up, then practice holding and lowering. Pull-up holds are more challenging than you think and train the same muscles as the full exercise. Focus on holding for as long as possible, then lower yourself as slowly as possible for highly-specific strength.
Lat pull-down – This machine and exercise exist to help develop strength for the pull-up. If you can’t do the bodyweight version, this is an essential exercise. You can build up the foundational muscle mass, strength, and scapular control with the pull-down – and apply it to the bodyweight exercises we’ve mentioned.
Straight-arm pull-down – A great finisher for the lats. This targets the muscles and movement, specifically using a cable machine. That means easy control over the weight/challenge and helps squeeze out those last few gains from a session where you’ve done all your “big” exercises.
Arm strength is last because it’s the least important of the 3. You will passively develop it while training for retraction and depression.
However, if you patiently develop arm strength, you’re going to have a better time at the top of the pull-up. This is where the bending of the elbow is most important and finishes off the movement.
You only need to add curls to build bicep strength for the pull-up because of the carryover from exercises like rows and pull-downs. These should be performed with dumbbells, if possible – and they should focus on the full range and slow, controlled movement.
Practice your curls; actively tensing the tricep at the bottom position is a great way to ensure you’re not cheating and get the most out of each rep. It doesn’t matter if these are concentration curls, hammer curls, or seated.
Now, let’s put those altogether.
Structuring a Pull-Up Workout
Confused on how to structure a workout? Here’s a simple template that will work:
- Bodyweight exercises – either 1 or 2 exercises. Pull-ups, chin-ups, inverted rows, or holds.
- 1 scapular depression exercise using weights – using a heavy weight for high reps.
- 1-2 scapular retraction exercises – ideally 1 heavier/lower rep and 1 lighter/higher rep.
- Finish with curls to develop bicep strength and elbow conditioning.
Pull-Up Training plan Considerations
We can’t lay out a whole program right now – that requires addressing your specific weaknesses. However, we can outline some of the most important things to consider for your pull-up development and how you should structure your training.
As mentioned above, it’s about combining self-awareness on your weaknesses with smart training and continuing that over time. That’s really what it takes to get your first 10 pull-ups.
There are ways you can scale pull-ups or use assistance to make them easier. When you’re not able to do a single pull-up, these are a great way to practice the movement and build strength at the same time.
Things like banded, jumping and foot-elevated pull-ups can offer these benefits. You might also have a machine that takes off some of your body weight, depending on your gym.
Use these where possible, but they’re not enough by themselves. The exercises mentioned above combine perfectly with them to develop the overall strength and skillset required to progress at the best rate. Use scaled variations first, but then follow up with the additional work.
Frequency – How often you train – will be one of the keys to better pull-up progression. This is even truer in beginners, where you might not have as many pull-ups per set available to you.
Regularly practicing the movement itself is key. This is less true for the accessory work – especially the high-volume training you can do with the weight training exercises.
Practice pull-ups as often as you can reasonably do. Use the accessory/weight training roughly 2-4 times a week, as long as you can recover from it and don’t plateau. The more experienced you are, and the more reps you can use in your pull-up sets, the more recovery you’re going to need.
Rep Goals for Pull-ups
Rep goals are perfect for pull-ups – especially when you’re not able to perform longer sets. They allow you to overload in a very simple pattern, building up the volume without having to perform sets of 5+ reps.
Set a number of reps – ideally one that regularly increases – and perform it in as few sets as possible. This gives you 2 ways to progress: using fewer sets to achieve the same number of reps or increasing your total reps.
This is as simple and easy as it gets – and is a time-honored way of getting better at just about anything.
No matter what exercises you use or the quality of your training program, you’re not going to progress well if you ignore the recovery factors that drive change.
Nutrition and sleep are not optional: you need to build up better habits to get better results. Eight hours of sleep, plenty of protein, and making sure you’re eating enough calories to build up the muscle you need to pull yourself up to the bar.
Prioritize these changes and make improvements wherever you can because they will show up in your results.
Pull-ups are cool, specifically because they’re difficult.
Their challenge comes from the same things that make them effective: a wide-ranging set of benefits using muscles that are important to health, aesthetics, and performance.
This makes the process both important and rewarding – as well as frustrating. Ten pull-ups is an excellent goal to work with and offers both a great sense of accomplishment and great results along the way.
This is the standard we’re using today because it’s a great number to tell people when they ask how many pull-ups you can do. It requires the development of strength and control in the arms, upper back, and core.
You can use the advice here to get to 5, 10, 20, or 50 pull-ups. It’s simply the time and effort you put in to get those results. The process will get you stronger and better looking, whatever number of pull-ups you’re looking for.
Get to it – the sooner you start and the more consistently you train, the faster you’re going to get there!