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Despite being reasonably well-trained in the past, I always sucked at pull-ups. At the beginning of this summer, I started training again. In the beginning, my max was only 1-2 clean pull-ups (I am 175 cm and 85 kg and I'd like to stay around this weight).

At first, I started doing 5 sets of 5 pull-ups 3x a week. Because I could not do 5 clean pull-ups, once I felt I could not do one more pull-up, I did negatives to complete the set. So usually my five sets would look like 3 pullups + 2 negatives, then 2 + 3, 2 + 3, 1 + 4 or similar. I tried to improve each training by doing more pull-ups and less negatives.

During the same training, I would also do parallel bar dips (more on that later).

This worked, but progress was quite slow, I progressed from being able to do 5 pull-ups in (only) my first set after 2 months, but I still felt like I'm struggling with it.

To compare this with dips, where my max was also only 1-2 at the beginning, with roughly the same program, after the same time, I was doing 10,10,10,8,8 easily, so I started using additional weight.

Then, I switched to doing pull-ups 5-6 days a week, something similar to GTG. I decided to set a target volume for each day depending on how I felt. In a couple of days I ramped up to 10 sets of 3-5 a day. After a week, I was easily doing 12 sets of 5 a day, and I feel like my pull-up strength has skyrocketed. I think, what made it work are two details, first, not going over the target even if I feel like I could do more, second, using a variety of grips (parallel, overhand, false grip on rings) to keep my elbow happy.

As after 2 weeks of this, I feel great, no signs of exhaustion or pain, I plan to continue with the same volume for 1-2 more weeks, then switch to something more focused on endurance, as my goal is to get 20 clean pull-ups.

My question is:

Why did 5x5 work not so well for pull-ups for me? It seems to me, that in the beginning, volume is the main driver for progress, so being able to do more total volume means faster progress.

But then, why was it different for dips, and why is it different for barbell training?

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    This is not a full answer, but please realize that you were expecting insane results and you are not a skinny man. Many people with your height have to pull up 10 kg less. Getting from 2 pull ups to 4 is 100% more pull ups. Imagine what 100% more on your bench is like. So getting one more pull up is a lot. Putting 5 pounds onto your squat is very little and easy to do (just slap on those plates). If you want effective strength training with 5x5, you have to progressively overload. Doing the same for 2 months isn't that. – Raditz_35 Jul 27 '19 at 9:37
  • First, as I wrote, I managed to add 1-2 pullups each week (instead of a negative). So there was progress, albeit slow. Second, increasing the same exercise from 2RM to 4RM isn't "100% increase". Third, "progressive overload" is a vague term, as low as 40% of 1RM can increase strength with enough volume, so, it seems to me, that if I can do 5x30 pullups (or anything) a week sustainably, it would be far superior to doing 3x25 a week, even if I try to add intensity to that 3x25 somehow. – BKE Jul 27 '19 at 12:14
  • Also: I did not set an expectation going into training, except, that I want to increase my pull-ups. It does not really matter if it takes 3 months or 1 year until I get good at them. I am not comparing my progress against my "insane expectations", but I am comparing progress under 2 different programs, first with 3x5x5 per week, second 5x10x3 a week, and wondering, why one works better in different situations. – BKE Jul 27 '19 at 12:50
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Your question is based on numbers and sets, but no mention of techniques.

I'm going to attempt to address the question from a techniques stance.

The pull-up is in itself a little of a misnomer for beginners. To effect a pull up, you don't just "pull" but rather engage your entire lats, traps, teres, momentatry biceps, and for a lesser extent, chest for the upper part of the "pull," and your core & lower back for the complete lower body lift.

Think of it as a big bear hug that engages and pulls yourself up. So an effective pull-up is certainly not a straight pulling of your dead weight up the bar using arms & shoulders.

Try to use a bar that is just right above your finger tips at first to train. Grab the bar, but don't pull. At this point, you should be able to have a good grip (palms out, of course, and a hand pace apart from shoulders). Now, squeeze your chest and lats toward a hug, slightly upward, not directly inward. Tighten your core & lower back to effect a lift of your lower body together as well. Just by doing this, you should already be "pulling" yourself up a good bit without doing a complete pull-up yet. This "test" is to ensure you engage the right muscle groups instead of pulling yourself hurriedly up the bar, which is a quick biceps and shoulders task and is unsustainable.

Once you get the techniques down, do pyramids. If you can only get 5, do a 5 reverse pyramid (5, then 4-3-2-1). Go up one each week or twice a week (no more frequent than that). My take for training the pull-up is start with 10. Reason is if you can't do 10, something is not right. It could be techniques, and most often it is (except if your body weight is too heavy, different story). Doing 10 correctly should not be painful, albeit it could be hard. From 10, it's an easy progression to 20. Whenever you want to train to increase your reps, do pyramids & reverse pyramid over a week or two. Going 10 on a reverse pyramid will take you to 65 (10+55). The pyramids allow you time to enforce correct techniques and allow you to train sustainably in the correct techniques. This will soon take you to 30 continuous pull-ups without problems.

After each set, make sure you loosen up a little. I usually combine pull-up with core & legs work in between.

Hope this helps, enjoy the bar!

  • I agree that technique is probably a major factor in the lack of improvement but I don't fully agree with the way you explain the technique. You never even mention scapular retraction for example. Instead you talk about squeezing your chest and lats a the lower part of the pull-up? I am sorry but that's simply not good form. – MJB Nov 13 '19 at 8:49
  • Hi, thanks for answering, however, I was not looking for a tutorial style explanation of technique. As far as I can tell, my technique was the same under the two protocols. The main question is why certain protocols that work for barbells do not work for pull ups. – BKE Nov 13 '19 at 19:22
  • @BKE well, I understand why he went on the technique route because almost every amateur does pullups wrong, so it wouldn't be suprising that it would be one of the reasons why you have improved dips so much more than pullups. Another thing is it's easy to work with progressive overload compared to a pullup. – MJB Nov 14 '19 at 7:10

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