3 Advanced Strategies to Break a Pull-up Training Plateau (Q+A)

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve run into over the years – either at the gym or online – who have hit a pull-up training plateau. They may come from all different backgrounds and from all walks of life, but they all share a similar story. Their pull-up progress is stuck. And a lot of these people have been stuck at a pull-up plateau for years. 

Here’s a message I got recently from a fellow named, Bob…

QUESTION: “I’m 55, exercise 5 days a week and can do 10 pull ups…but I’ve hit a plateau. How do I get over the hump as I’d like to be able to do 25 pull ups and break my current gym record?” – Bob B.

Well, that's one way to do it...partner-assisted pull-ups.
Well, that’s one way to do it…partner-assisted pull-ups.

ANSWER: Like Bob, many people get stuck in their pull-up training at some point. Maybe they can do 15 pull-ups, and have been able to for years, but they just can’t-for-the-life-of-them do 16. Obviously, that can be pretty frustrating. And so, today, I’m going to present three advanced strategies to break through a pull-up training plateau. But first, let’s get a couple of things out of the way so that we’re crystal clear.

Firstly, if you are at an advanced level, then pull-up progress generally comes very slowly. A beginner might notice a measurable increase in strength (and even reps) within a few days of good training, and certainly within a few weeks. And if you are a beginner, and aren’t getting measurable results from week to week, then something is probably wrong.

On the other hand, an advanced trainee might train for several weeks or even months before adding another single repetition to their max. To put it simply, it’s generally a lot easier to get from 3 to 4 reps than it is to get from 23 to 24 reps. So, the better you get, the harder it gets.

And this makes sense, too. I mean, elite powerlifters might spend several months trying to add a few pounds to their max squat, deadlift, or bench press. Whereas a beginner may double their max in a matter of months or even much sooner. And so, if you’re an elite pull-up trainee already, then don’t expect to be making fast gains from week to week. And fair warning that the better you get at them, the harder it will get to improve and the slower your results will come.

Also, and this is important, being elite at pull-ups can mean different things for different people because it is a bodyweight exercise and we all have different bodies. Likewise, we all have our strengths and weaknesses, and some people just aren’t cut out for high-rep pull-up performance for the same reason why some people make it into the Olympics and others don’t. So, a set of 30 pull-ups may be considered elite for one person, whereas a set of 15 reps might be elite for another. It just depends on what your peak potential is in this given exercise.

Now, that’s not to say you should doubt yourself or set your bar too low, per se. And don’t you dare go out and say that Coach Sifferman said you can’t do more pull-ups because the truth is that I think anyone can improve their pull-up performance. But at the same time, be realistic about your expectations and perhaps even a little flexible about your actual end goal, especially if you’re particularly pull-up challenged. And lastly, don’t forget patience because this stuff takes time.

3 Advanced Strategies to Break Through a Pull-up Training Plateau

Note: These three advanced training strategies are primarily meant for intermediate to advanced trainees. The reason being that most beginners who get stuck with pull-ups aren’t actually experiencing a plateau that needs to be overcome with special techniques like these. Oftentimes, they’re just lacking one or more of the key components of pull-up training success. See the “Closing Thoughts” below for more details.

1st Strategy: High-resistance Pull-ups with Additional Load

You wanna know a great way to make normal pull-ups feel easier? Try weighted pull-ups. Adding some additional load to your bodyweight for a few sets will make bodyweight pull-ups feel like a walk in the park. And if you train regularly with weighted pull-ups, the additional strength you accumulate will likely increase your bodyweight pull-up strength as well – leading to a new personal record.

So, if you have access to a weight belt or a weight vest (or even a sturdy backpack will suffice), then one of the best ways to increase your pull-up strength is with some weighted pull-ups.

Here is a basic workout you can use to build your pull-up strength…

Set 1: bodyweight warmup set at 60-80% of max reps
Set 2: weighted set in the 8-12 reps range (select a weight that will have you max out somewhere between 8-12 reps, e.g. 15 pounds extra on weight belt, weight vest, in backpack, holding dumbbell between feet, etc.)
Set 3: weighted set in the 5-8 reps range (e.g. 25 lbs extra)
Set 4: weighted set in the 4-5 reps range (e.g. 35 lbs extra)
Set 5: weighted set in the 3-5 reps range (e.g. 45 lbs extra)

Basically, you warmup, perform a bodyweight set of pullups or chinups at a sub-maximal intensity, and then progressively add heavier weight each set until you work in the 3-5ish range for 2-3 sets. With exception of the warmup, each set should be a max or near-max effort (going to technical failure, NOT muscle failure). And if you’re having a good day, and you’re still feeling strong at the end – like you could do a little extra – one last set of bodyweight pullups would be a good finisher.

Most people should do that 2-3 times per week for 4 weeks (train it as often as you can fully and safely recover from), and then retest your bodyweight pullups at the end of the cycle to see how much you’ve improved.

2nd Strategy: Pull-up and Chin-up Drop-Sets

Instructions: Perform a max or near-max effort set of pull-ups (i.e., 90+% of a maximum effort). Immediately after your last repetition (your max), begin performing assisted pull-ups (e.g. jumping to help you or having a band at-the-ready would work, too). Perform the set of assisted pull-ups until you max out again (note: go to technical failure, not muscle failure – just as many reps as you can perform with good technique). Immediately after the assisted reps, perform a max set of negative repetitions (i.e., just the lowering portion of the exercise). After that, hold a flexed-arm hang for as long as possible. And then finally, hold a deadhang for as long as possible to finish up the set.

The idea is that after you’ve maxed out at one level, you drop down a difficulty level and max out again, until you’ve extinguished all options – without resting between exercises. Obviously, this will be quite challenging, and will create substantial fatigue. So, I’d suggest using this strategy judiciously.

3rd Strategy: Pull-up Rest Pause Sets

Instructions: Perform a set of pull-ups as you normally would, and when finished, take about 5-10 seconds to rest (for a quick recovery). After the 5-10 seconds has passed, start performing sets of 1-3 pull-ups at a time, and resting only 5-10 seconds between sets. Stop when you can no longer perform one pull-up with good technique after 10 seconds of rest.

Note: I like to do these with a grip switch every set for a little variety. 

Closing Thoughts

All right. It’s time to get really honest for a minute here, okay? In my experience, more often than not, someone who thinks they are hitting a plateau in their pull-up training isn’t really plateauing at all. Usually, they are simply missing at least one of the key components that are essential to pull-up training success; things like the proper use of progression, overload, and periodization, among others. So, sure – they might be stuck, but it’s not necessarily because their body is resisting the stimulus to adapt and change. Said another way, it’s not a true plateau that requires special intervention such as the advanced training strategies above.

But on the other hand, if I’ve got someone who is stuck at 30 reps, and just can’t get to 31 no matter what they do, then I doubt they’re missing one of the basics. And that’s exactly when the best thing to do is usually some sort of advanced training strategy like the ones I outlined above. Otherwise, the best thing to do is usually to follow a tested-and-proven program that integrates all of the key components for pull-up training success into one simple system, which is exactly what I created The Pull-up Solution for.

In summary, if you’re a beginner, then closely adhering to the basics with a good program will usually suffice, assuming you employ them consistently and with effort. And if you’re an advanced trainee who is stuck at a true plateau, then you may indeed need to employ some advanced strategies such as weighted pull-ups, drop sets, or rest pauses, among others.

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P.P.S. Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dinomite/

One Response

  1. Also a key factor is body weight, nutrition, how much sleep you get, alcohol consumption.

    For example, if you could drop a few pounds, eat more healthily, get more rest and lay off the booze then all of those things will make a major difference in your workout performance.

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