Sticking Point: Max Pull-Up Reps

Boost your numbers on this challenging upper-body move for more shirt-stretching size and functional strength.

If there’s a better upper-body pulling exercise than the classic pull-up, we haven’t seen it yet. (Barbell rows give it a run for its money but come up short.) Problem is, pulling your entire bodyweight up to a bar is so inherently difficult that rep counts in your pull-up workout often end up looking like a powerlifting descending pyramid. Does 5-4-2-2 sound familiar? In a perfect world, you’d bang out four sets of 10 to 15 pull-ups before moving on to your rows. Well, Jim Ryno, personal trainer and owner of luxury-home-gym design firm Iron House in Alpine, New Jersey, is here to make your world a little more perfect with the following tips on increasing your pull-up reps. Heed these pointers and your back workouts will start being more muscle building than powerlifting. 


Up Your Frequency: If doing more pull-ups is your goal, you need to do them regularly, which means more than just once a week. For those looking to break through a plateau, Ryno advises doing pull-ups at least twice weekly. “You also need to strengthen the muscles in that specific movement pattern,” he says. “These muscles include your lats, biceps and forearms. They should be worked two to three times per week with heavy pulldowns, heavy biceps curls and heavy dumbbell rows.”

Vary Your Rep Ranges: “You need strength and endurance to be able to perform quality sets of high-rep pull-ups,” Ryno says. For increasing endurance, he recommends sets of 15-plus of band- or machine-assisted pull-ups. For building strength, keep most of your rep counts in the single digits. “Once you can complete a set of 10 to 12 bodyweight pull-ups with proper form, you can add resistance by wearing a weighted vest, attaching a lifting belt around your waist with plates or holding a dumbbell between your ankles,” Ryno says. “Vary the load and focus on the six- to 10-rep range to really see your bodyweight pull-up numbers shoot up.”

Diversify Your Pulls: There are a number of different pull-up grips you can use — wide, overhand; narrow, underhand (aka “chins”); neutral grip (palms facing each other), etc. Do them all to keep your muscles guessing and to avoid becoming a one-trick pull-up pony who’s only good at one hand position. Ryno is a big fan of using other bodyweight pulling moves, too. “Mix in TRX or ring rows and barbell inverted rows throughout your program,” he says. 

Strengthen Your Grip: “A weak grip will sabotage your success with pull-ups, so grip training should be factored into your overall workout plan,” Ryno says. “There are various exercises and grip tools (i.e., Fat Gripz and towel pull-ups) you can use to build a stronger, more powerful grip. One common exercise is to simply do a dead hang from the pull-up bar for an extended period. Focus on at least 30 seconds in the beginning.” Work up to 60- to 90-second hangs with just your bodyweight. Once you can do this for two to three sets, add resistance and start back at 30 seconds.