Here’s a basic plan that will build your weighted pull-ups to something respectable like 50% BW (pull-ups with added weight equivalent to ½ of your bodyweight).
Related article: The Most Complete Pull-up Tutorial On The Internet
Step 1: Get your bodyweight pull-ups to 12-15 reps;
The first step of the plan is to get your bodyweight pull-ups to 12-15 reps in a single set done with decent form.
There are many training programs that will get you there, but as a general rule stay away from routines promising fast results in just a few weeks. It’s either not going to happen at all or you will get there at the cost of elbow tendonitis, which is completely unnecessary.
There is no need rush things. Nobody is going to give you a million dollars to get there faster. Realistically, you will need a at least a couple of months to get from zero pull-ups to 15 in row with good form. However, more time may be required if you have been investing in large quantities of junk food over the last few years. Pull-ups don’t love fat people at all. This goal is much easier if you are 14% BF or below (note: this is only for males).
Back in the day I used the following routine to get from 2-3 pull-ups to about 14 in row:
Frequency: Pull-ups every 4th day;
Here’s how you workouts will look if you can only do 3 pull-ups in one set.
Day 1: 3,2,1,1,1,1,1 (10 total reps);
Day 2: 3,2,2,1,1,1,1 (11 total reps);
Day 3: 3,2,2,2,1,1,1 (12 total reps);
Day 4: 3,2,2,2,2,1,1 (13 total reps);
Day 5: 3,2,2,2,2,2,1 (14 total reps);
Day 6: 3,2,2,2,2,2,2 (15 total reps);
Day 7: 3,3,2,2,2,2,2 (16 total reps);
Day X: 3,3,3,3,3,3,3 (21 reps);
Guidelines: You add one rep to the easy sets until you are doing the same number of reps. In this case you do so until all sets consist of 3 reps.
After you have accomplished this, take a few days off as normal and test your max reps in a row.
At this point your max reps per one set could be about 6-7. Use that number and begin a new cycle.
Day 1: 7,6,5,4,3,2,1
Day 2: 7,6,5,4,3,2,2
Day 3: 7,6,5,4,3,3,2
Day 4: 7,6,5,4,3,3,3
Day 5: 7,6,5,4,4,3,3
Day 6: 7,6,5,4,4,4,3
Day 7: 7,6,5,4,4,4,4
Day 8: 7,6,5,5,4,4,4
Day X: 7,7,7,7,7,7,7
Test your max again after a few days of rest. You will probably do at least 10-12 pull-ups with good form. I know that this routine may look slow to you, but it does work and is good for people who are not genetic freaks.
You are free to modify the program according to your needs. In fact, this is how I came up with it in the first place. It’s inspired by Pavel Tsatsouline’s fighter pull-up routine. However, I’ve added more rest. The original routine calls for daily training. Good luck! I found for myself that a workout every 4th day allows for pretty frequent training but also gives you enough time to recover. You may need less rest days, which will reduce the downtime.
Rest between sets: Less in the beginning and more at the end. How much? At least a few minutes. Obviously, at the final this routine will require over an hour to complete. Take your time and don’t try to rush into your sets because Flex magazine says 30 to 90 seconds are optimal for hypertrophy. Kill similar thoughts.
Can I start with weighted pull-ups directly?
I’ve heard of people adding weight as soon as they can do as little as 5 reps, but I don’t like this method. The goal of the higher reps is to teach/reteach your body how it feels to do a pull-up. In the long term, this method will not slow you down one bit. If anything, you are building a strong base and conditioning your joints before the real heavy work.
Still, remember that you have no masters. Do as you find appropriate.
Step 2: Linear progression.
Once you are able to do a decent number of pull-ups, it’s time for to apply the linear progression (LP) method to your training.
The first workout will look like this:
Light warm-up consisting of 1-2 bodyweight sets;
A set with a dip/pull-up belt;
A set with very little added weight;
A set with 5-15 kg / 10 – 30 lbs;
You will probably end up doing about 5 reps. Ultimately, It depends on the person. Whatever the case is, the important part is to use this set as a reference point. It should be difficult, but not impossible. You should be able to do at least 2 more reps if you push yourself. If that’s not the case, you have added too much weight – reduce it for the next workout.
This is how you come up with a starting point for your linear progression.
The next workout you add little weight – 1-2 kg top and try to perform 5 reps for 1-2 working sets after a warm-up. You continue to add weight each workout until you start missing reps.
At this point, you have two options – switch to triples and continue or simply reduce the weight and built back up again to a personal best for a set of 5 (5RM).
Weighted pull-ups do not tolerate high frequency, because the stress on the elbow joint is high. Even if you don’t feel it in the beginning, the accumulation of heavy beating will soon have an effect on you. That’s why I do weighted pull-ups only once a week. You may be able to recover better and perform a workout every 5th or 6th day. Obviously, you should determine this on your own.
Here’s an example workout:
Set 1: 5 bodyweight reps: – this should be easy;
Set 2: 5 bodyweight reps;
Set 3: 3 reps with 5 kg / about 10 lbs;
Set 4: working set – 5 reps with 10 kg / 22 lbs;
Set 5 – same as 4.
Optional set 6: same as set 4
Rest between sets: about 5 minutes or a little more between working sets. Less for the warm-up sets.
Step 4: Cycling
At this point you have exhausted your linear progression and it is time to start following more advanced training cycles. I can’t tell you at what weight this will happen, but most people end their linear progression at about 30-45% BW.
Note: I have explained how cycling operates in more details in this post.
Weighted pull-ups require small jumps in weight. At the beginning, you will be stuck with 1-2 kg / 2-4 lbs progressions. Therefore, you may need some micro weights. I know many believe that those are for cowards, but let me explain.
When you are doing pull-ups with 25 kg/55 lbs, a 1 kg (2,2 lbs) jump equals about 5-7% of the total weight. To put things in perspective, 5 kg/11lbs are the same percentage of a 100 kg/225 lbs squat.
The pull-up is just a smaller lift, depending on smaller joints and the jumps between workouts need to reflect it. The percentage, however, remain the same compared to the bigger lifts. Once you get stronger you may pump the jumps a little, but make sure they are not larger than 5-7%.
Here’s an example program:
Let’s say that your linear progression has ended at 25 kg / 55 lbs.
A possible 6 weeks training cycle could realistically increase your pull-up by about 2.5 kg / 5 lbs. This makes for a 27.5 kg/60.5 lbs pull-up.
You just type that weight for week 6 and reduce the weights by 5-7% for the previous 5 weeks.
Optional: Week 7: 30×2-3 reps;
As you can see only week 5 and 6 are PR (personal record) weeks. The first few weeks will be relatively easy.
After this is done, you start a new 6-8 weeks cycle, aiming for another 2.5 kg / 5lbs PR.
At this point, you may use bigger jumps to allow more rest at the beginning of the cycle.
Another way is to simply use 8 week cycles, but I know many of your are greedy and want to add weight as fast as possible.
Week4: 27×5 – end of bigger jumps;
Note: Some people are not so good at sets of 5. I am one of those individuals. I do better with triples. That’s why I usually turn the last few weeks into sets of 3. This is something that you should determine on you own. There are people who consider triples dangerous. Nobody can tell you what’s 100% right for you. Listen to your body.
Reality check: In an optimal situation you will will never miss a rep during the whole cycle. However, sometimes it happens – especially during the later weeks.
Week 1: 20×5
Week 5: 28.5 x 4 – The weight felt like a heavy fridge hanging off your waist. Cool. Don’t kill anybody around you, yet. Just cut week 6 to a triple, end the cycle and next time choose a more appropriate weight. Search for the root of the problem. You may need a few extra workouts to peak properly or maybe it was one of those ”the boss made me stay until 4 a.m.” days.
After a few cycles you will reach a 50% BW pull-up for 3-5 reps. This is the baseline. Think of it as a 2 BW deadlift – it’s not that impressive, but it’s pretty decent and everything above is taking you closer and closer to elite level for a natural.
Should I do pull-ups or chin-ups with this routine?
The best version of the exercise in my opinion are ring or neutral grip pull-ups because they place less stress on the elbow and wrist joint compared to the straight bar. This could potentially allow you to train with higher frequency.
Obviously, the ring pull-up and the chin-up would allow you to lift the most weight, but the first is much more joint friendly. The chin-up kills your wrists at the bottom.
For those who worry about stupid dogmas – stop. Just choose whatever feels the most comfortable to you. In most cases that would be the ring or neutral grip version, but if it’s not – who cares?
The good news is that regardless of your choice, there will be a solid carryover to all other versions. Just pick one and proceed. Good luck.
Disclaimer: Be careful when doing this or any other routine. Listen to your body carefully. If something feels bad, just stop and evaluate. NattyOrNot.com is not responsible for pain or injury caused by training inspired by the site.