Do More Than One Stinking Pull-Up

by Brett on July 8, 2008 · 160 comments

in Fitness, Health & Sports

I’m still haunted by my 6th grade gym class. At the beginning of the semester, all the students took part in a physical fitness test. Part of the test included a visit to the old chin-up bar. I remember standing in line nervously knowing I was about to embarrass myself. You see, I was a fat kid. My mom tried to tell me I was big boned (God bless you, mom), but I knew I was fat. And looking at that bar, I knew there was no way I was going to be able to pull up my pudgy 160-pound body with my wimpy 11-year-old arms.

I watched all the skinny kids bust out pull-ups like they were nothing. “Yeah,” I thought, “pull-ups are easy when you only weigh 75 pounds.” Maybe God was trying to humble me that day because the person right in front of me in line was a girl. Not only that, she was a prepubescent athletic machine. I stood and watched her crank out pull-up after pull-up. I lost count of how many she did.

“Okay, McKay,” the coach said, “you’re up.”

I summoned all the positive thinking I could at that moment. I convinced myself that I could actually bust out 4 or 5 pull-ups. With my newfound confidence, I jumped and grabbed the bar. It was over before it even started. I put up a good fight, but gravity and my fat middle school body beat me that day. I couldn’t even do one stinking pull-up.

Ever since then, I’ve made it a goal in life to be able to do pull-ups. Lots of them. To me, the pull-up represents the ultimate test in fitness.

The Benefits of Pull-Ups

The pull-up is a strength-building dynamo. In just one pull-up, your body calls upon the following muscles:

  • Fingers
  • Forearms
  • Biceps
  • Triceps
  • Shoulders
  • Back
  • Core

Not only will your strength increase dramatically from pull-ups, but your upper body will become bigger and more defined. Moreover, the strength you derive from doing pull-ups will help you improve your performance in other exercises like the bench press or overhead press.

How Not to Do Pull-Ups

Many men who have trouble doing pull-ups go to the assisted pull-up machine to help them crank the pull-ups out. Don’t do it; it’s a useless crutch. If your goal is to do several unassisted pull-ups, you’re wasting your time with these machines for a couple of reasons:

First, a mental factor exists when doing pull-ups. Because you know the machine is helping you up, you probably won’t exert as much effort as you would if doing pull-ups unassisted. When you finally make the switch to unassisted pull-ups, you may still find yourself unable to do any.

Second, you don’t use all the muscles needed for real pull-ups when using the machine. When doing real pull-ups, your body has to call upon larger and smaller muscle groups all throughout your body for you to pull yourself up. A machine won’t recruit as many of these muscles. Thus, when you make the switch to doing unassisted pull-ups, you won’t have the strength needed to complete them.

The “Do More Than One Stinking Pull-Up” Routine

A friend recommended this pull-up routine to help turn me into a machine. And guess what? It worked. In a month, I went from doing one stinking pull-up to cranking out 10 reps in multiple sets.

So if you’re ready to start cranking out pull-ups, here’s your routine.

If you currently can only do one pull-up, start out by doing 12 sets of 1 pull-up with a 45 second break between sets. Do the routine two times a week. Once you can do two pull-ups, begin this routine:

Week 1: 6 sets of 2 reps. 45 second break in between sets. Twice a week.

Week 2: 5 sets of 3 reps. Twice a week.

Week 3: 4 Sets of 4 reps. Twice a week.

Week 4: 3 Sets of 6 reps. Twice a week. If you’re able to do more, go ahead. Like I said, by this time I was able to increase my reps to 10.

When you get to the point that you’re able to do more than 12, it’s time to start adding weight to your pull-up routine, like the bad ass guy in the picture at the top.

Where to Do Pull-Ups

Many men don’t do pull-ups because they don’t have access to a pull-up bar. Here are some options:

  1. Tree limb. Some trees have limbs that are perfect for pull-ups. When you’re out for a run, jump up, grab on, and start cranking some out.
  2. Outdoor gyms. During the 1980s, many parks installed outdoor gyms along jogging trails. The idea was that you could get a complete strength workout while jogging. Usually a pull-up bar is one of the stations.
  3. Get a pull-up bar for your house. The last, and most convenient option, is to get a pull-up bar for your door frame. I recently bought the Iron Gym Pull-up bar and have been completely happy with it. It just fits right in your door frame and you don’t have to drill holes or do any installation. What’s great about having a pull-up bar in your door frame is that every time you walk by it you can crank a few out. After doing this a couple of weeks, you’ll be doing more than one stinking pull-up.

{ 157 comments… read them below or add one }

101 Seth August 14, 2010 at 7:48 am

being a Marine i know a little bit about pullups. it is part of our yearly physical fitness test. when i first went to bootcamp i did only 1 proper dead hang pull up. but when i broke my foot and i was put in a medical rehabilitation platoon i focused alot on pullups. all squadbays (where you live) have a pull up bar next to the bathroom. everytime we would go in or come out we had to do a max set. if you are properly hydrated you make a lot of trips to the bathroom. during our physical training time (Mon Wed Fri) we would do a max set on the outside pull up bars then after we could not do anymore another recruit would come up and assist you with 10 more.

doing this regiment i went from 1 pull up to 22 pull ups in 2 1/2 months.

102 waykno September 19, 2012 at 12:50 pm

Tip: if you can’t do one–begin with reverse pull-ups. Start with you chin over the bar and slowly lower yourself to the bottom. Jump back to the chin over position and do it again. After X amount of time, you’ll have some better strength and will be able to get the first one, then off you go.

103 ATACAT September 28, 2012 at 2:09 pm

I am in the army, a friend of mine who is a marine told me about pull-ups and all the benifits from doing them. I do 3 sets a week as many as I can each set. It’s the only training I do besides running. I am 43 and score higher than most 21 year olds in my unit. Working your core by pulling legs to chest and pulling up at the same time. It will even improve your run.

104 Seth October 25, 2012 at 5:16 am

The Ironman pullup bar is a great investment. I’ve deduced 12 pullup variations. It requires no installation, and can be used as a pushup/dip bar, as well.

105 Daniel November 1, 2012 at 1:36 pm

I also have the ironman pullup bar. It is cheap and convenient. I put it up in my office door way and crank out a set whenever I feel like it. People who are tall or have long arms may have difficulty squeezing in the door way when doing wide grip pullups. Chin ups are not a problem. Consider putting some Ankle socks or other padded material on the bar where it meets the door frame. This will keep it from marking your trim. If you buy the Iron Gym, don’t order it via telephone, as they will try to up sell you. Just go their website and get it there.

106 Daniel November 1, 2012 at 2:28 pm

I just took Seth’s advice and tried the “Marine Method” of doing a max set, then having someone assist you in doing 10 more. Wow, I’m gonna feel that in the morning! I have plateau’d at 13 pullups and am trying to get up to 20 or so. Great advice Seth, I think this method will help me get there.

107 Mike November 1, 2012 at 10:49 pm

Pull-up were one of my most hated exercises to do. They’re especially difficult for beginners, but once you get the hang of it, they become effective in any workout routine. As some guys mentioned before, they really help strengthen your grip.

108 Javier November 8, 2012 at 10:37 am

Mike i see what you did there.
quoting Mike : but once you get the HANG of it, good one there, come on high five don`t leave me hanging.
anyways i was with some girl the other day playing basketball and totally impress her but then when she ask me to do some pull ups on some football posters and i did`t wanted so she convince me come how so i try to crack some pull ups i totally fail to do no more than 7 i was very disappointed of myself and i feel worse because this girl was seeing me so i decided to go back to doing exercise and of course focus on the pull ups and Im checking some post on ArtofManliness and Ta-daa!! pull ups so Im gonna start to make a routine and now I have some pointers thanks guys good luck and remember to do always 1+ more pull up.
Have a great day

109 steve January 20, 2013 at 7:16 pm

got a door pull up bar. It slipped and I was at the top, fell flat on my back and broke 10 ribs…be careful…

110 aaron February 9, 2013 at 9:26 pm

every time I hit the basement fridge for a beer, I make it a requirement to hit the joist mounted pull up bar. I went from doing 2 to 16 in 1 session. Hurray beer and pull ups!

111 Sam February 10, 2013 at 2:54 am

The start of this article really hit home…
In elementary school we had to do a fitness test. We were in the 5th grade and one test they made us do was a pull ups test. Needless to say I wasn’t able to do even one rep. All I managed to do was get red in the face and humiliated.

Flash forward to the 8th grade and again we were given a similar test. This time with the rope climb. Result, same ol’ thing. Couldn’t lift off the ground past 3 strokes. Result: bigger humiliation.

It’s funny now, but like heck if I was never going to manage a pull up. Thankfully I can do pull ups but maybe my biggest motivator was having to fail publicly more than once…


112 T-Dogg February 10, 2013 at 11:43 am

One of the good articles written. Try weighted pull ups if you can do about 15 or 20 bodyweight pull ups.

113 brennan February 18, 2013 at 3:05 pm

Hey man, thanks so much. I was the skinny kid in 6th grade who could only do like 3 or 4, MAYBE. I’m glad there is someone out there who knows how it is.

114 Piph February 20, 2013 at 8:20 am

..that lead-in photo caused me to spew coffee all over the cubicle.. that rangy hound, bleak atmosphere, dangling string of holiday lights, unkempt landscape and poor schmuck kicking one foot in the air pretty much sums up my life thus far.

115 AT February 20, 2013 at 8:57 pm

Just started p90x with my son ( I’m 44, he’s 14 ) and it requires a lot of pull ups..:( I’m a former Marine so my pride is being tested once again! Ooh rah!

116 Sundance February 20, 2013 at 9:41 pm

18 pullups, 195lbs, 43 yrs old. Time to add weights

BTW Piph, that poor schmuck is doing weighted pull-ups, out in his shop while taking a break from his project while he’s not hunting with his coon-dog or soaking in that hot tub! He could do a lot worse – lol!

18 pullups, 195lbs, 43 yrs old. Time to add weights

117 Bill M February 23, 2013 at 6:34 am

I am 60 years old. … I did 78 pull ups on my 60th birthday. My goal was 60 in 10 minutes. I am not a Marine, just a retired shop teacher. … Even old guys can do a lot of pull ups/chin ups… Stick with it.

118 Gato Rojo March 10, 2013 at 2:39 pm

Good on you, Bill! Way to represent the Old Fart contingent!

I’m almost 74 and have been battling stage IV cancer since mid-’09, and am still taking chemo.

I work out at least three times weekly, and start every session with three sets of pull-ups (or chin-up, every other session) and three sets of dips while my gym-partner walks on a treadmill; after which we lift weights for the next 75 minutes.

Yesterday, I did 10 sets of pullups, alternating with 10 sets of 10 dips.

My pull-up sets range from 9-10, down to 4 reps (down quickly, I add.) I vary hand position (with every set) from max width, to shoulder width and one set neutral grip. I expect to finish my chemo by the 17th of this month, and really build my pull-ups afterwards.

Chemo makes the tank run dry very early. And fitness helps deal with it!!!

119 D B March 23, 2013 at 5:49 am

Now I don’t have the faintest idea if this is true or not, but so I’ve read: The (unofficial) World Champ in pull-ups, is a Delta Force sarge who did, reportedly, cr. 250 continuous reptitions in one set. I remember distinctly reading it in Men’s Health, but memory can cheat, you know. Anyway. I don’t know if it was done correctly or not, i.e., body straight, chin over bar, because it wasn’t detailed to that resolution, but done it was, according to that info bit.
Good luck to all in beating his record. I, for one (a short 68), would satisfy my *aspirations* (!) with, say, 20? Oh, well! Let’s settle for 10, max 15, hehe…

120 Evo April 10, 2013 at 10:15 pm

“I recently bought the Iron Gym Pull-up bar and have been completely happy with it”

Beware though, this CAN damage the molding around the door frame. You may want to put a little extra protection under where the bar rests against the doorframe, that seemed to solve the problem for me (I used a twice folded washcloth for each side).

121 marqueA2 May 15, 2013 at 1:18 pm

Just to nitpick, there are no muscles in our fingers, excepting the arrector pili which are attached to hair follicles and make hair stand on end. The fingers are actually controlled by tendons attached to muscles in out hands and arms.


122 Erik May 18, 2013 at 9:41 pm

alright, what are your guys thoughts about the grip? Underhand, overhand & does it make a difference? Thanks

123 max May 29, 2013 at 1:00 am

Here’s a problem with every program/article on increasing the numbers of pull-ups. You read ie.: “if you can do 2 pullups do 5 sets of 2, 45sec. rest”. NOT! If I can grind my PR – 2 pullups, the next time I can do this is after 2 days not 45sec! Or another ie.: “if you can do 2 pullups, make it your goal to do 3 next time”. NOT! Believe me it is my goal, just there is no power to do that no matter what – that’s why I am reading such articles.

124 EL June 12, 2013 at 3:18 pm

Great post I do believe pull ups are important, and this is why I do them every weekend. My last workout I completed 62 of them and I feel stronger every time I complete a set.

125 EL June 12, 2013 at 6:50 pm

Erik – under hand works more of your biceps and they are easier to complete. over hand focuses more on your back and shoulders which makes it more difficult.

126 Josh June 22, 2013 at 10:50 pm

Hahaha, I have the Iron Gym too. I was that kid who could pull himself up halfway to the bar in school, and after I got the Iron Gym for Christmas I finally overcame it and can do multiple pullups now! It’s confidence-boosting!

By the way, I’m new to AoM, it’s wonderful, thank you!

127 Rohit Ramachandran June 26, 2013 at 3:44 pm

Thanks. Will try.

128 Daniel July 1, 2013 at 8:14 am

This site is amazing!! So many useful stuffs that I learn!! I bought a pull up bar and placed it at the entrance of my kitchen. Now whenever I passed below it, I make myself do 1 rep. Great workout!!

129 Diaz July 2, 2013 at 2:48 pm

“When you get to the point that you’re able to do more than 12, it’s time to start adding weight to your pull-up routine, like the bad ass guy in the pic.”

Well… Not really. You could try advanced versions of the pullup, like:
Clapping Pullups
Behind the back clapping pullups
Behind the neck pullups
And many more variations….

All headed towards the ultimate goal, the one arm pullup

130 Patrick July 8, 2013 at 9:04 pm

In my prime(4 years ago haha) I got to 36 pull ups and started having neck pain, I believe my technique wasn’t ideal and I was putting too much strain on my neck. I might get back into it since this article is so delicious :)

131 David July 9, 2013 at 1:58 pm

I just want to say that the bit about NOT using the assistance machine is 100% wrong. As long as you are using progression you should be able to jump from the assistance machine to the bar without any problem. I did it like that and I can do 10 solid pull ups.

132 JohnAZ July 9, 2013 at 2:07 pm

Great article. As a college freshman I did 27 strict pullups for a fitness evaluation. Today I could do perhaps 3. Time to try the Marine/bathroom circuit!

133 Lou July 9, 2013 at 8:27 pm

Swingsets are also great pull-up venues!
I also use the parallel rails on the monkey bar section to do bar dips.

134 mark July 11, 2013 at 3:37 am

Lose 10 pounds and amaze yourself wih your pullup improvement.

135 Andrew Murphy July 12, 2013 at 9:14 am


Great idea to do max sets each time you go the bathroom.
I won’t be able to implement at work but for sure I can do it at home!


136 André August 8, 2013 at 2:25 am

The last part about installing a pull up bar at home is actually a really good idea! I don’t have one myself but everytime I walk down to the basement in our house I grab on to one of the steps on my way down and do 5 pull ups. I do this everytime I go down there to do laundry or whatever brings me. Sometimes when you have to up and down several times it’s actually a good workout – totally free of charge :)

I also hit the outdoor gym that was installed right next to where I run. Use it. It’s a great compliment!

137 Will August 11, 2013 at 10:54 am

I don’t agree with the “Don’t use assisted pullup machines” advice.

Many people will plateau at a certain point because they will be engaging their arms far more than their backs. Simply said: Their back muscles aren’t strong enough to do one pull up, but the arms are, so the arms become the primary pulling force. For these people, using an assistance machine, or doing negatives, with a focus on activating the back muscles will result over time in much greater ability than doing pull ups primarily with the arms would.

138 Doug August 15, 2013 at 2:29 pm

Couldn’t do them when I was a kid. When I was a teen, I had a stocking job for a big department store and that got me in real shape. I could do 60-70 at a shot. Now I’m 51 and have some nagging shoulder trouble. I can do 2 from a dead hang and am working on more by doing many reps of “walk the plank” (start from the top and let yourself down to a hang in about 5 seconds time). Boy my whole left side and shoulder are on fire about 2 days after I do that. So be it- I will not give up.

I wouldn’t bother with assisted pullup machines. The author makes that point clear: only by enduring the pain that comes from doing real pullups can one make meaningful progress.

139 Allan September 4, 2013 at 8:56 am

I am 54 and used to be able to do over 10 chin-ups. Now, 3 is a challenge. One comments on the training regime is that I cannot do consecutive chin-ups with 1 minute intervals. After doing 3 or 4 in a row, I am wiped out. Any advice?

140 Brandon September 18, 2013 at 1:02 pm

@Allan – try starting with the 12 sets of 1 with intervals of 45 seconds – he suggests this first and I agree if you don’t have the muscle endurance this is a good place to start. Do you have this issue with any other lifts or body weight exercises?

141 Dougie Gray September 19, 2013 at 6:19 pm

My dad loves pull ups he would do 3 on every tree with a low branch as he walked past while walking the dog. This was when he was 65. Now he is 73 he only does 10 a day on a bar in the house. 2 sets of 5.

142 Jason September 30, 2013 at 11:23 am

When I was much more fit than I am now I liked to do pull ups on the molding above a door frame. It would always impress my wife and my personal trainer. Also, it was fun!

143 Bob November 20, 2013 at 5:49 pm

Yeah, I was that kid too!

I respectfully disagree about the use of a pull-up machine, it can be very usefull to baby step your way to real pull ups, especially if you are concerned about any previous wrist/elbow/shoulder issues

144 Bob November 20, 2013 at 5:50 pm

Jason, finger pull ups over the door molding? We are not worthy of your presence

145 Tom November 29, 2013 at 10:11 am

Thanks for the tip on the “reverse pull up”. I’m in that “can’t do one” zone at the moment. I’m 9 weeks into a program called Power90 to try and get in good enough shape to do the P90X (which requires pull ups) and I’m a little worried about it. I’m 6’5″ with long arms and am way too tall for a door hanger (which I have tried). I think I’m going to build one in my garage. Any articles on that?

146 Leo December 12, 2013 at 10:05 pm

Respectfully disagree with some of the advice in the comments and the original post.

If you can’t do at least 6 pullups with *perfect* form, you should drop back to an easier exercise, like lever pullups or jackknife pullups. “Perfect form” for a pullup motion means: slow, smooth movement — 2 seconds ascending, 1 second pause at the top, 2 seconds descending, pause at the bottom (no “bounce”.) The point here is that you are working the muscles through the entire range of motion, and not “cheating” through your weak range(s) with momentum.

For levers: put your feet up on something positioned in front of your pullup bar, so that when you are hanging from the bar with your arms fully extended you can hold your body (shoulders to heels) close to horizontal. Now do the pullups, keeping your body stiff. Once you can do more than 12 or so with perfect form (see above) try jackknifes: same idea, but now change the height/position of the support object so that you can bend at the waist; the start position should have your torso vertical but your legs horizontal. Again, work to 12+ reps with perfect form.

If you can do 12 pullups with perfect form, make the pullups harder — put your hands together on the bar. Or hang a towel from the bar and do unevens — one hand grips the bar, the other grabs the towel below the bar (the farther down, the harder it gets.)

Why I think I have the right to opine: was a pudgy 9th grader who couldn’t do any pullups whatsoever. Went on to medal on Still Rings in statewide gymnastics competition at the age of 17. (You think pullups are tough? Try an iron cross sometime. :-)

147 Brent January 2, 2014 at 10:23 pm

Nice article, pull-ups are definitely one of the best exercises. If you want another challenge/routine to try check out the Armstrong pull-up program, it goes with a 5 day a week approach. It was created by a Marine who set the pull-up world record years ago, doing 1435 in a 5 hours. Check it out if you get the time most people who stick with it can make it to 20 reps. I’m at 14 now up about 5 reps from my previous max a few weeks ago.
& here’s the story of the Marine(who was certainly a manly man)

148 Tiana January 6, 2014 at 1:18 pm

OK, so I’m not a man…. but as a woman, I am trying to build some muscle and do some bodyweight exercises, including pull-ups. I have been looking at different articles online & I enjoyed this one, & the comments also. I can’t even get 1/8 of an inch off the ground at the moment; I have a doorway pull-up bar, however. What are the best ways to begin to do pullups when one cannot do any? It would be nice to try several different options if there is more than one way to build the necessary strength – even if some of the options do not actually involve the pull-up bar. Are there other body weight exercises that may help with building the muscles for pullups? Thanks in advance to you manly men who are willing to help a lady!

149 Sam January 7, 2014 at 5:12 pm

Tiana–If you can’t do any full pull-ups, start with negative-rep pull-ups–jump, or use a stool, to reach the top of the repetition, then lower yourself down slowly, in a controlled movement. Keep doing these and lengthen the movement (go slower and slower) until you’re strong enough to hit 1 full rep. Then you’re off to the races!

150 Tim January 8, 2014 at 2:13 am

I just tried to do a pullup (not a chinup but a pullup, overhand grip) and I could barely manage one. Looks like the lat pulldown machine is the best option (the only option actually) for now.

151 CPT_Dad January 15, 2014 at 4:38 pm

Pull-ups are the ultimate man exercise. In the Army, I made soldiers do pull-ups before they entered my office. (Not many people came to talk to me after I implemented that.)

My thoughts? ( I do sets of 25, then corn cobs, then one arm lockouts, variations with softballs, etc) Negatives are the best way to go for people who can’t do any pushups, or for those looking to improve through a hump. Some studies show that negatives actually generate 1.3 times as much gain as the actual movement.

So jump up there, lower yourself slowly and repeat. Over and over until you drop from the top position instead of slowly descending.

Also, don’t be ashamed to put down the keg you are carrying around before you can try pullups.

Need motivation? I put together a video for a Krav Maga class to help inspire some of the guys there.

152 rdc January 26, 2014 at 5:15 am

I can’t look at that picture without laughing. That dog is just too much.

153 Vaughn Ripley January 29, 2014 at 11:57 am

I enjoyed this article and dig what everyone is commenting here. I especially agree when folks are arguing the assisted pull-up part… I think assisted pull-ups can really help if you aren’t able to do one (or even only a few). Also, negatives are an excellent way to help get that first pull-up.

Also, I think it’s important to point out that you can sometimes get yourself to that first pull-up by simply losing weight. If you are close to getting your first one, knocking off 5% (ish) of your body weight (preferably in body fat) you will be able to muscle that first one out. I would venture a guess and say that with a 10% body fat loss, you could get an extra three pull-ups out… This is not only handy for someone trying to get only one pull-up, but also for advanced guys!

Crank ‘em out!


154 Hasnain January 30, 2014 at 8:15 pm

I just took Seth’s advice and applied it to pushups. I try to crank out a max set every time I go to the bathroom for 3-4 days every week. I’ve gone from 20 to 35 pushups in 3 weeks. This is a great idea.

I’m really considering getting the Iron Gym pull up bar and starting with Waykno’s suggestion of reverse pull ups.

155 Hasnain January 30, 2014 at 8:23 pm

Bill M & Gato Rojo, I love you guys. I have so much respect for you. I have no excuses and your posts were a solid slap in the back I needed to move fwd. Hats off sirs!

156 Andre February 17, 2014 at 5:06 pm

If you cannot do a single rep do the routines of the article with bodyrows. Pull ups are one my absolute favourites because you can never outgrow it. there are always more challenging variations available, such as on towels, adding weight, closegrip, with less than 10 fingers etc.
THERE IS NO EXCUSE FOR NOT FINDING A PULLUPBAR. Every City has playgrounds and steps, every countrysides Barns and trees.

157 JTS March 7, 2014 at 4:01 pm

47, been doing pullups for years, though not to extreme. Here are some tips.

Varied grips. Try one hand pronated and other hand supinated, alternate between sets. Each set, vary grip width, even try asymmetric grip (e.g., left close to body, right hand past shoulder). Vary grip thickness.

Don’t be a pussy, go all the way down. Fully extend arms.

Breathe like you would if running sprints. Don’t use inhale/exhale like lifting, breathe freely and quickly as you feel the need.

Finish with some negatives. Have a handy means to cheat to the top (a nearby chair to push on with a foot), get up to the top, remove the cheat, and go down slowly.

Focus on activating more than biceps, possibly by pinching shoulder blades.

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