Below you will find 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).
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 row.
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. Most of them do not work and give you elbow tendonitis. Besides, there is no need rush things. Nobody is going to give you a million dollars to achieve the goal faster. Realistically, you will need at least a couple of months to get from zero pull-ups to 15 in a row with good form.
However, more time will 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 lean.
Back in the day, I used the following routine to get from 3 pull-ups to about 14.
Frequency: Pull-ups every 4th day
Here’s how your workouts will look if you can 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. Add one rep to the easy sets until you are doing the same number of reps for all sets. Then take a few days off, test your max reps in a set 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
Follow the plan until you reach 12-15 reps in a set 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. It’s inspired by Pavel Tsatsouline’s fighter pull-up routine.
The original routine calls for daily training, but I found for myself that a workout every 4th day works better for people with average recovery.
Rest between sets
Keep the rest periods short in the beginning and add more time as you progress. How much? At least a few minutes.
Can I start with weighted pull-ups directly?
I’ve heard of people adding weight right after reaching 5 reps in a row. I don’t like this method. The purpose of high rep sets is to teach 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 capable of performing a decent number of pull-ups, it’s time for some linear progression (LP).
The first workout could look like this:
Light warm-up consisting of 1-2 bodyweight sets
A set with a dip/pull-up belt
Start doing sets of five with extra weight and stop once the difficulty increases to a medium level.
The last set should be difficult, but not impossible. You should be capable of performing 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.
For the next workout, add a little weight and try to perform 5 reps for 1-2 work sets after a warm-up. Continue to add weight each workout until you start missing reps.
At this point, you have two options – switch to triples and keep pushing or simply reduce the weight and build back up again to a new personal best for a set of 5.
Weighted pull-ups do not tolerate high frequency because the stress on the elbow joint is high. Even if you don’t feel irritation right away, the accumulation of heavy beating will soon catch up to you. That’s why I do weighted pull-ups only once a week.
Here’s an example workout
Set 1: 5 bodyweight reps
Set 2: 5 bodyweight reps
Set 3: 3 reps with 5kg/10lbs
Set 4: work set – 5 reps with 10kg/20lbs
Set 5 – same as 4.
Rest between sets: 3-8 minutes
Step 3: Cycling
After exhausting your linear progression, it is time for more advanced training cycles. I can’t tell you exactly 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. You will be stuck with 1-2kg/ 2-5lbs progressions. Therefore, you may need some micro weights.
When you are doing pull-ups with 25kg/55lbs, a 1kg/2.2lbs jump equals about 5-7% of the total weight. To put things in perspective, 5kg/11lbs are the same percentage of a 100kg/225lbs squat.
The pull-up is simply a lift dependent on smaller joints. The jumps between workouts need to reflect that. The percentage, however, remains the same compared to the bigger lifts.
Here’s an example program.
Let’s say that your linear progression has ended at 25kg/55lbs.
A 6-week training cycle could realistically increase your pull-up by about 2.5kg/5lbs. This makes for a 27.5kg/60.5lbs pull-up.
Select that weight for the sixth week and reduce the weights by 5-7% for the previous 5 weeks.
After this cycle, you can start a new one aiming for another 2.5 kg/5lbs PR.
Reality check: In the best scenario you will never miss a rep during the whole cycle. However, sometimes it happens, especially during the final 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, finish 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 an elite level for a natural.
Should I do pull-ups or chin-ups with this routine?
I prefer ring and neutral grip pull-ups because they place less stress on the elbows and wrists compared to the straight bar. This could potentially allow you to train with a higher frequency.
The ring pull-up and the chin-up would allow you to lift the most weight, but the first is more joint friendly. The chin-up kills your wrists at the bottom.
Don’t worry about dogmas. 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 injuries caused by training inspired by the site.