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Do I do as many as possible to failure?

Or do I stick to a weekly plan or multiple sets with low reps?

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You could take a look at my answer to a related question (someone wanted to train up to 50 pullups). –  VPeric Aug 15 '11 at 14:01
Further thought, it might be a good idea to note your current fitness levels. The advice you'll get can be vastly different if you are going up to 5 or to 50 (like in my answer above). –  VPeric Aug 15 '11 at 20:49
It makes not difference, my answer is how it should be done. No matter how many reps you can do or want to do. You have to build absolute strength all the time then periodize strength endurance for two weeks. –  DFG4 Aug 15 '11 at 23:59
@DFG4 Sure it does: What if I can do only 3 reps? Then your advice absolutely does not apply to me as your first line is "do 3 sets of 5 repetitions". The advice that'd do me the most good is something like "Do negatives" or "Do 1 pull-up many times a day if possible". On the other hand, if I can pump out 20 reps then weighted pull-ups and periodization is probably what I need and your advice is sound. And anyway, this all related to the novice-intermediate-expert athlete stuff (body needs more to adapt the more you train). –  VPeric Aug 16 '11 at 7:05
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4 Answers

While there is little disagreement that weight should be added after a certain amount of reps is reached (commonly 15), actually getting there is a different matter. One approach, initially popularized by Pavel Tsatsouline (see this article for more info), is called "greasing the groove". Pavel claims that "specificity + frequent practice = success", meaning, one should train "as often as possible while being as fresh as possible". While this can be interpreted in multiple ways, it boils down to not going to failure on every set and doing several sets daily. Of course, you need to have an easily accessible pull-up bar for this to work.

I've personally followed this approach to work from my 2 pull-ups to ~12 quite fast - I had a bar on my way to the bathroom and my rule was to jump and do a few pull-ups everytime I went under it. Sure, at the start I cheated, jumping more, not going all the way down, but I improved quite fast. Later on, I tried to vary my grip and do them more strictly. Most importantly, I never went completely to failure, just doing however many I could while I felt "strong".

The article I linked to above goes on to mention that this can be applied for other exercises, although it's probably not a good idea (for fear of over-training), though it concludes that doing it with dips might be a good match (which is in-line with my own thoughts and experiences, except I don't have parallel bars handy so I couldn't test it).

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Also, this is all fine and dandy if all you're doing are pull-ups, but if you are doing other strenuous training (eg. a barbell program) greasing the groove is probably not a good idea. –  VPeric Aug 13 '12 at 22:35
What is the actual program? –  user3085 Aug 13 '12 at 23:15
@Sancho The program is to put a pull-up bar somewhere you pass by frequently, and never pass it without doing one or a handful of pull-ups. Even if you can only do a couple at a time, you can accrue a great volume. –  Dave Liepmann Aug 14 '12 at 2:00
Seems like it would work! –  user3085 Aug 14 '12 at 4:48
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Well the best way to increase reps would be to increase absolute strength than cycle back to strength endurance which would carry over to more repetitions.

Example of this method

NFL combine test

One of the tests they have the potential players do is bench press 225 pounds for as many reps as possible to see how much strength they have. So how do those guys manage to do up to 50 repetitions with 225 pounds? First they build absolute strength which is maximum force an athlete can generate. They have to build there one rep maximum so 225 pounds is considered light than 2-3 weeks from the combine test they work on carrying it over to strength endurance which is maximum repetitions.

So to increase reps you need to increase absolute strength on the pull-up.

  • Do 3 sets of 5 repetitions on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
  • Always progressively load. Attach 5 pounds to your body 'every' work out.
  • Your muscles will get used to lifting 5 pounds more each work out resulting in a 15 pound increase in absolute strength every week.
  • When you can pull up 45 pounds attached to you 5 times, spend two weeks on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and do one set of body weight pull-ups trying to do as many as possible. With each workout, increase your repetitions by a few more and at the end of the two weeks you will be able to do many more of repetition.
  • Cycle back to weighted pull-ups to keep increasing absolute strength.
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This is nitpicky but the NFL combine record for 225 bench reps 49, set this year: profootballtalk.nbcsports.com/2011/02/27/… Most players, depending on position, get somewhere in the 20-35 range. –  whaley Aug 15 '11 at 19:49
It is the NFL combine record yes lol but ive seen college football players training for the combine and they have done 50 repetitions and more. Anyways the combine strength test is stupid, repping 225 as many times as possible is not a true test of strength period just strength endurance out the wahzzoo –  DFG4 Aug 16 '11 at 0:08
Now that I've read this carefully I have a feeling you just copied your advice from a different exercise (maybe the mentioned bench press) and changed it to pull-ups. Why? Because I don't feel adding 5 pounds (~2.5 kgs) every workout is realistic, not even for one week. The advice I've seen over the internet is that adding the 2.5kgs per week is the more realistic goal (and one which mirrors my own experiences). Have you actually followed this program (with pull-ups!) and managed to increase the weight so fast? –  VPeric Aug 16 '11 at 7:20
haha i dont read crap off the internet i have trainied quite a few ppl and trained myself for 10 years maybe i know what iam talking about. the question wasnt how can i do one pull up it was how can i increase my pull-up reps. maybe if he said how can i do 'a' pull-up he would of gotten a different answer like eccentric pull-ups. by they way muscles do supercompensate this fast, 99% of ppl that dont half ass it can progress for a month or so with this simple program. Assuming they can do at least 5 repetitions. –  DFG4 Aug 16 '11 at 15:51
@DFG4 Do you have some kind of source (I'll even settle for someone's blog) where someone was adding almost 7kg per week to their pullups? It sounds pretty far-fetched to me. You can definitely get that with deadlifts and squats (and probably more), I guess the bench press too, but I really don't think it's a realistic rate of progress for pull-ups. I'd love to be proven wrong, though. :) (btw, please tag me with @ VPeric if you are responding to me so I get a notification) –  VPeric Aug 17 '11 at 10:52
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This article is pretty good. It makes four basic points, including increased frequency, negatives, and assisted pull-ups:

The reason people are unable to do more pull ups and chin ups is because their body weight is too heavy for them. If this was the problem with any other exercise, you could just take some weight off the bar or use lighter dumbbells. Unfortunately, you can’t take off your legs to lighten your own body weight. However, there are ways of creating the same effect.

Assisted Pull Up Machine. This is probably the easiest way to do it assuming your gym actually has one of these. If so, what this machine basically does is it takes away a portion of your body’s weight by balancing it out with weight from the machine (like how a see-saw works). You set how much of your weight you want to pull, and it provides the counter weight to balance it off. Your goal here would be to gradually increase the amount of your own weight your are using until you get to the point where you can pull 100% of your own weight. At that point, you can do actual pull ups. Bands. You know those elastic workout bands that people use for 100 different things? Well, if you hook the top of the band around the pull up bar, and then rest your knees in the bottom part, you create what is called a band-assisted pull up. Get A Spotter. Similar to the band method mentioned above, you could just as easily have a friend supply the “assistance” by putting their hands under your feet/ankles/knees.

Basically, keep doing them - try different hand positions, add weight and make it a game, such as doing a set prior to every meal and when you wake up or when you pass by the pull up bar (get one in your house on a door frame). There are some basic body weight exercises that you can (and should) do when you can: pull ups, push ups, sit ups......

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Do three sets to failure, using some assistance if necessary. Do chin-ups one day, take a day rest, then do pull-ups the next day, and then rest. That should be your cycle.

That may mean your first day looks like this:

  • Chin-ups: 4, 4, 2

That's okay. The next time you do it (4 days later), you may get:

  • Chin-ups: 4, 4, 3

And so on... Your pull-ups will be weaker than your chin-ups, probably.

Eventually, when you get up to 15 reps, you should add weight by hanging plates from a lifting belt and chain.

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If someone can only do a few pull-ups in a set, I feel they would be much better served by a "grease the groove" style method. Ah, I guess I should write that up and see what gets upvoted. :) –  VPeric Aug 13 '12 at 21:28
What is that kind of method? –  user3085 Aug 13 '12 at 21:36
Check my new answer; I thought this was pretty well-known actually. –  VPeric Aug 13 '12 at 22:36
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