The 4-Week Pull-up Challenge

It’s no secret that I love pull-ups. I won’t bore you with why I think they’re awesome – if you’re reading this, it’s fair to assume you’re already sold on that idea.

Let me preface by saying 30-day fixes and get-fit-quick schemes are not something I believe in, and I don’t expect everyone to magically quadruple their pull-up count in four weeks.

My intention with this challenge is to provide a structured way of training the movement by addressing common weaknesses, using sound progressive overload, and allowing for customization as needed. My aim is to have both beginners and intermediate lifters benefiting from this template.

At the end of the four weeks, you will test your new max, at which point you may decide to run the program again with new numbers. This is entirely up to you, but my point is that this is a sustainable method that can be repeated for as long as you want.

Finding Your Working Reps (WR)

Before you begin the challenge, you need to know how many reps you can do with good form.

If you cannot yet do any unassisted pull-ups…

Don’t worry! Your working reps will automatically be set to 2, and they are to be performed with a strength band that allows for 4-5 reps.

If your gym doesn’t have any bands, you might want to invest in one or two. This is what they look like:

As for the pull-up machine, I recommend steering clear of it. The way it is designed places way too much emphasis on the biceps without requiring any significant trunk stabilization, which means it fails to mimic a real-life pull-up.

If you can do at least 2 unassisted reps…

Your working reps will be half your max, rounded to the nearest whole number.

To find your max, perform one set of as many reps as possible to technical failure (until you’re no longer able to meet your technique standard). Do not go to muscular failure. If in doubt, leave one rep in the tank.

You may be asking yourself, if I can already do at least one pull-up, why not just keep doing as many reps as possible?

The answer is simple: the aim for each working set is to stay far away from muscular or technical failure. If you’re grinding out every set to maximal effort, fatigue will kick in early and reps will start to look sloppy. The purpose of this challenge is to ingrain correct technique, and build up your ability to perform proper pull-ups.

It may seem like a slow process but strength can’t be rushed. I urge you to check your ego and focus on executing pristine repetitions, every single time.

Technique

One of two things must happen for a rep to count: at the top of the movement, your chin must be over the bar, or your chest must touch the bar.

At the bottom, you should be able to fully extend your elbows in a dead-hang position. That doesn’t mean zero tension and shoulders up to your ears – think of it more as actively hanging: your shoulder blades are engaged, your core is braced with your legs pointing down underneath you, and you’re ready to rock and roll.

Grip-wise, you can opt from palms facing up, down, neutral or mixed. It doesn’t matter, as long as it’s comfortable for you and you can do the movement safely and pain-free.

Alright, let’s get to the good stuff!

The Exercises

The template is set for 4-week cycles, with each week building upon the previous.

The following two exercises work the muscles responsible for shoulder blade mobility and strength.

Note: for both exercises, your arms must be kept straight with elbows locked at all times.

For the scapular push-ups, pick the variation you can do flawlessly (in the video, they’re shown in order of least to most challenging).

The inverted rows are to be performed with a 3-second hold at the top of the movement, and a controlled eccentric.

You can increase the difficulty by elevating your feet so that your body is more parallel to the floor. The opposite also holds true – if the exercise is too challenging, walk your feet up so that you’re at more of an incline.

Inverted rows can also be done on a barbell, smith machine or any other parallel bar set just below chest height.

Chest-supported rows are any rows done with a chest support, which takes your lower back out of the equation and allows you to focus exclusively on the pulling movement.

Seal rows are awesome as they heavily target the lats and mid back musculature, allowing for many reps to be done with no lumbar fatigue.

You may also do these on an incline bench with dumbbells, or on any similar machine that provides free range of movement.

Eccentric Pull-ups

On Day 2, you’ll be doing eccentric pull-ups. Eccentric simply refers to the lowering, “negative” phase of a lift. You’ll start each rep at the very top of the movement, overcoming gravity to maintain a stable and smooth descent.

The goal is to complete a rep in 5 to 10 seconds, aiming for the higher end range as you progress. If you can easily do that with just your bodyweight, I suggest adding external resistance with a weight belt or by holding a dumbbell in between your legs.

If you cannot perform a bodyweight rep for longer than 2-3 seconds, try it with a light resistance band. As you get stronger, you can decrease the assistance you get by choosing a thinner band or by going band-less.

We’ll also be doing some focused anti-extension core work at the end of Days 1 and 3. Pick the exercise that best suits your current abilities and stick with it for the entirety of the program.

Long-lever Plank

This is essentially a poorly-leveraged plank, which puts you in a position of greater instability. Aim to get your elbows further out in front of you, instead of directly under your shoulders.

Notes: keep feet together, legs fully extended, tuck your tail bone in and squeeze the bejeezus out of your glutes and core. A slight rounding in the upper back is fine.

Hollow Hold

The flipped-up version of a plank. You can decrease the difficulty by keeping your arms pointing down by your side.

Engage the glutes and abs by tucking your tail bone in, keep your toes pointed straight and bring your arms and feet slightly off the floor.

Body Saw

Ab Wheel Roll-out

Possibly my favourite dynamic core exercise. The ab-wheel roll-out forces you to avoid extension through the lower back as you extend your arms overhead.

Stir The Pot

This one is the more challenging cousin of the group. If you can do a plank for time on the Swiss ball, the next step is to slow introduce small circles while resisting the movement through the trunk.

Note: if doing Stir the Pot, the target number of reps must be done in each direction.

The Program

Click here to download the program (Excel File) 

Week 1

Day 1 

Scapular Pull-ups 2 sets of 6-10

Pull-ups: 6 sets x WR

Chest-supported Rows: DBs/ BB or machine, 4 sets of 10-12

Choose from: plank, weighted planks, long-lever planks, hollow-holds

3 sets for time

Day 2

Eccentric Pull-ups 5 sets of 1 rep, 10s

Lat Pulldown, same grip 3 x 8-10

Inverted Rows, isometric hold 3 sets of 5, 3s hold each

Day 3

Scapular Push-ups 2 sets of 6-10

Pull-ups: 6 sets x WR

One-arm Rows 4×6-8

Choose from: ab wheel roll-out, stir the pot, body saw, 4 sets of 6-10 reps (if doing STP, that’s 6-10 reps per side)

Week 2

Day 1 

Scapular Pull-ups 2 sets of 6-10

Pull-ups: 7 sets x WR

Chest-supported Rows: DBs/ BB or machine, 4 sets of 10-12

Choose from: plank, weighted planks, long-lever planks, hollow-holds

3 sets for time

Day 2

Eccentric Pull-ups 5 sets of 1 rep, 10s

Lat Pulldown, same grip 3 x 8-10

Inverted Rows, isometric hold 3 sets of 5, 3s hold each

Day 3

Scapular Push-ups 2 sets of 6-10

Pull-ups: 7 sets x WR

One-arm Rows 4×6-8

Choose from: ab wheel roll-out, stir the pot, body saw, 4 sets of 6-10 reps (if doing STP, that’s 6-10 reps per side)

Week 3

Day 1

Scapular Pull-ups 2 sets of 6-10

Pull-ups: 2 x (WR+1), 3 x WR

Chest-supported Rows: DBs/ BB or machine, 4 sets of 10-12

Choose from: plank, weighted planks, long-lever planks, hollow-holds

3 sets for time

Day 2

Eccentric Pull-ups 5 sets of 1 rep, 10s

Lat Pulldown, same grip 3 x 8-10

Inverted Rows, isometric hold 3 sets of 5, 3s hold each

Day 3

Scapular Push-ups 2 sets of 6-10

Pull-ups: 3x (WR+1), 2 x WR

One-arm Rows 4×6-8

Choose from: ab wheel roll-out, stir the pot, body saw, 4 sets of 6-10 reps (if doing STP, that’s 6-10 reps per side)

Week 4

Day 1

Scapular Pull-ups 2 sets of 6-10

Pull-ups: 4 x (WR+1), 4 x WR

Chest-supported Rows: DBs/ BB or machine, 4 sets of 10-12

Choose from: plank, weighted planks, long-lever planks, hollow-holds

3 sets for time

Day 2

Eccentric Pull-ups 5 sets of 1 rep, 10s

Lat Pulldown, same grip 3 x 8-10

Inverted Rows, isometric hold 3 sets of 5, 3s hold each

Day 3

Scapular Push-ups 2 sets of 6-10

Pull-ups: 2 x (WR+2), 4 x (WR+1)

One-arm Rows 4×6-8

Choose from: ab wheel roll-out, stir the pot, body saw, 4 sets of 6-10 reps (if doing STP, that’s 6-10 reps per side)

Notes: if you don’t want to stand around and wait in between pull-up sets, you can choose to spread them out over your training session. For example, you can alternate sets of pull-ups and a lower-body movement, resting about a minute in between. That way, you get more work done in less time.

However, I do not recommend alternating sets of pull-ups with any other pull or rowing exercise, as you might fatigue your upper body muscles.

If you want to increase your pull-up strength, I encourage you to focus for the next four weeks ahead and really give it your all, in every set that you do. You will be amazed at what consistent practice can do for you.

Don’t forget to tag @trainwithbarbara in your videos as I would love to see your progress. Have fun!