Finding a Plan

Matt Articles


I’m not sure why but I’ve always felt that the ability to do many consecutive pull-ups was a true indicator of strength and fitness.

The pull-up: the act of hanging with your elbows completely extended and pulling yourself up until your chin reaches the bar.

The better pull-up: the act of hanging with your elbows completely extended and pulling up until your chest hits the bar. The body is completely suspended and held in tension by the musculature of the back, shoulders, and arm. The elbows have passed your midline. You look really good with your shirt off.

Wanna talk functional? A well developed pull-up capacity could save your life one day. You could pull yourself out of burning wreckage. You could pull yourself up out of a pile of rubble. You could pull yourself up and out of sight of that bookie you owe a grand to because you thought that the Yankee’s new trainer was actually going to fix their problems.

Pull-ups are good. I’ve always wanted to do a bunch of pull-ups.

Peruse these pages and read some of our workout archives. You will see that CrossFit and the training we do here involves high repetitions of pull-ups. We’ve taken people with 1 good pull-up and pushed them to 5 perfect pull-ups. We’ve put people that have had no capacity for the movement and wrought them through the gauntlet of our infamous “huge rubber bands.” When one of our first clients pumped out 21 perfect pull-ups on the thickest band after being able to complete something less than a half rep not more than a few weeks before, we were amazed. Her confidence improved, her scores were better, she felt accomplished. It feels good to pull your own body weight.

Unless you are me. If you are me you have hung from the bar like a worm wriggling on the line. You’ve kicked, screamed, squeezed, and contracted your body in so many different waves that you are sure Jake was calculating Sine in his big, technical brain. I’ve taken numerous institutional, and fitness guru’s approaches to adding to my pull-up numbers. They all worked in some capacity. But I found that their programs were exactly that: THEIR programs.

When I first began training I tended to go towards traditional military PT style workouts. For the pull-up this would be pyramids. I usually did pyramids from 1 to 10 and back down. This would be one pull up-rest-two pull ups-rest-three pull-ups-rest-etc.

I had mixed results with this. First, I never changed my pyramids. I was not as smart back then as I am now. I could get to the 4th or 5th rung of the pyramid and then my form would be shot to hell. This would continue up until 10 and then even back down. Anyone who’s done a pyramid knows that the down slope is where the real work begins.

I figured really quickly that not changing the rep scheme was ridiculous. This, in conjunction with poor form, was creating a two fold catastrophe. First, I was not challenging my body with various stimuli. If you read CrossFit’s “What is Fitness,” you will come across a rubric for training that will call for “varied, if not random movements.” This is no mistake, there is a method in what we do. If we constantly vary the rhythm and intensity of our work we will continue to shock the muscles. Shocked muscles perform favorably with strength gains, increased endurance, and hypertrophy. These things are desirable.

But! They are not as desirable as treating our central nervous system well. Flailing, kicking, half-reps, and whatever else was happening when I was hanging from the bar like an idiot really did me in. You cheat yourself when you shorten the full range of motion in a movement. This goes for pull-ups, air squats, power lifting, or Olympic lifting. In the effort to get wiped, be intense, and the stupid notion of equating exhaustion with affective training I would hang in there and bang out reps where neither my chin passed the bar nor my arms fully extended. I was training my CNS to do pull-ups like this. Even if I wanted to do them correctly the next training session it would be next to impossible to correct this muscle memory. I should have done myself a favor and dropped off the bar when they went bad.

Unsatisfied with my progress I tried to conduct pull-up training using “burn-outs.” I am positive I did not invent them but I have no idea what other people call them. To conduct a burn-out you must perform a max set of pull-ups. When you fall off of the bar pick a time interval to rest. Conduct another round of max set pull-ups. Cut your rest time to half of the previous time. Continue this process until you are resting for less than 5 seconds. Then quit because your arms and back hate you now.

I saw big improvements with my numbers on this but again my form was poor. I went from hitting 4-5 pull-ups to consistently pulling 17 or 18 on my first round. I was happy but not satiated. My pull-ups were kipped. I didn’t get my chest to the bar. My elbows didn’t pass my mid-line. I needed to keep going.

Jon Gilson, of Again Faster fame, introduced me, indirectly, to Pavel’s “Grease the Groove,” method. I read an explanation of GTG on a post of his on the CrossFit message board. I started to work on it and I liked it. Thanks, Jon. Grease the Groove is simple: find your max pull-up number. Cut that in half. Conduct 5-10 sets of that number everyday. Test again in two weeks and readjust accordingly. I liked this method because it was simple and slow. I was pulling perfect dead hang pull-ups for many sets. My numbers did go up, albeit slowly. I found when I tested myself though that I could not pump them out any faster than the pace I did them during workouts. Again, muscle memory. The beast. Going workout slow when I was testing my max was taxing on grip but even harder on my will. I wanted to go faster. Depending on future career choices there might be a very large man next to my ear screaming for me to go faster. Go faster! I had to go faster.

My ego is large. Perfection is a worthy but endless pursuit. It requires a plan. I had used many plans with blunted successes and now I needed to make my own plan.

Lately I have been using a pyramid with a time component to work my pull-ups. First I test my max. I use half of that number to decide how many reps I will do. Thanks Pavel. I then use the burn-out time component to decide how long I will rest between sets. I know I did not invent this, but thanks to whomever did. Then I use the pyramid method to figure my volume. Thanks, BUD/s. It looks like this:

3 pull-ups. Rest 30 seconds. 4 Pull-ups. Rest 20 seconds. 5 pull-ups. Rest 10 seconds. Go back down and go back up 3 to 4 times.

This every couple of days with varied rep and time schemes along with 3 rounds of the CrossFit warm-up is what I do now for pull-up work. I am not sure where it is leading but I know it will, like all my previous work, get me to the next step. I know now I need to listen and thank people for their plans. I need to try them. When they stop working I need to move on. Beg, borrow, or steal a plan. Mix and match. We all have to do what we can to reach the goal.

I will let you know when I get 15 dead hangs. Shouldn’t be long now. Hell, I might even get an unbroken Fran one of these days.