The Art of Pull Ups: Conquering Rep Numero Uno

Pull ups are fantastic. Not just because they're an efficient upper body strength builder, but because they simultaneously make me feel like a super hero and a wimp.

Performing pull ups is a feat that showcases upper body strength and control, like a superhero. Pull ups are also annoyingly difficult that after just a few, I can feel my strength reserves dropping faster than Harry Potter performing a Wronski Feint diving for the Snitch, and I battle for each rep.

Typically, the first rep is the most difficult to achieve. Once rep numero uno is under a trainee's belt, accumulating subsequent reps comes a lot faster. Today we'll go over SAPT's progression for teaching pull ups, and part 2 will cover how to increase the number of pull ups you can do. To be clear, pull ups utilize an overhand grip while chin ups are underhand. And, a true pull up is not eeking your chin up to the bar by craning the neck like a giraffe, but the chin is over the bar and the bar touches the top of your sternum.

First, the exercises:

Barbell Pull Up Progression

Alternately, Suspension Strap Pull Up Progression (you can use either piece of equipment, but for sake of space I'm going to stick to the Barbell since it's more like a pull up bar.)

Barbell Pull Up, Eccentric Only

Barbell Pull Up, ISO hold at top

I usually start athletes with these variations. I like the fact that they can use their feet as much as they need to (but, I tell them, as little as possible). It helps a) teach them the form of the pull up (i.e. don't squinch the shoulders and how to use their lats) and b) builds strength in all the pull-uppy muscles. That was a terribly scientific statement, but I think you all know what I mean.

During this stage, I typically keep the reps in the 5-8 range since the higher volume increase muscle mass. I should also note that throughout this process, if an athlete is training 2x/week, he/she will have a pull up variation on each day. The best way to get better at pull ups is to do more pull ups! (Or rather, the progressions leading up to one.)

After the athlete becomes proficient at the pull up progressions on the barbell, I'll move him/her to a pull up bar with some band-assistance. There are some coaches who don't like the band-assisted pull up as much- and I agree with their logic- because it doesn't help the athlete at the top of the pull up, which is usually the hardest part. That said, I really like to use eccentric-only pull ups with band assistance.

Training the eccentric teaches control over the movement. I also like it for this because it increases time-under-tension which will elicit gains in muscle and tendon strength. By taking out the concentric (the pulling up part), I think it's a bit easier for athletes to mentally tackle the exercise.

I like to intersperse athletes' training with regular band-assisted pull ups because I think there's something that goes on mentally when an athlete is on the actual pull up bar that encourages him/her that they can actually do this exercise. Over time, I gradually decrease the reps (1-3) and decrease the band tension which, theoretically at this point, should lead them to a body weight pull up.


This post has already exceeded the length I intended it to be. Check back next week for part two on increasing pull up max.