Pull-up exercise is a good movement to add to your workout routine. It is a compound exercise that will work a lot of muscles from your forearm, arms, shoulders and all the way to your core muscles. But if you are new to Calisthenics training, or you just want to try adding pull-ups for your gym training session, it is a little confusing on how to incorporate this exercise in your program.
A beginner in Calisthenics practice should aim to do a total of 20 to 30 repetitions of pull-ups in a session practiced two to three times a week. The number of pull-ups needed and its distribution in sets will depend on your goal. 3 sets of 8 reps is a standard distribution for building muscles and 5 sets of 5 reps is for building strength.
But there is more to it rather than locking up yourself with a fixed number. The numbers, the version of pull-ups you are doing, and how you spread the reps in a session will depend on what type of beginner level you are in. Let us investigate further on which group you belong to.
Beginner level who wants to build muscles
As a general practice, doing a 3 sets of 8 reps routine with 60-90 seconds rest between sets is a good place to start to stimulate the muscles to grow. You can then progress to 3 sets of 9 reps, 3 sets of 10, and building up all the way to 3 sets of 15 repetitions.
But there is more to muscle building than just looking at these numbers. The key thing to consider is the intensity of the pull-up exercise you are doing. You want to make sure that you are on the point of rep failure in every set to stimulate muscle growth. One obvious way of adding intensity to the set is by doing more reps but there are other options to increase the intensity of your pull-up as well. Read this post I wrote on how to build more muscles with Pull-ups to see more options for the exercise.
Beginner level to build more strength
You need to decrease the pull-up repetitions in the sets if strength gain is your goal. 5 sets of 5 reps that is highly recommended by Pavel Tsatsouline is a standard guideline. On average, 4 to 10 sets of 2 to 6 reps are being practiced by strength athletes. The range is very wide as this will depend on which stage of the training you are in. If you are close to your peak season, a very low rep count per set is the common practice.
The low rep count only defines a fraction of the real meaning. You need to make sure that the intensity is really high that you can really only do a low rep set, and at the same time, you need to rest three to five minutes in between sets. Here is my article about programming Calisthenics for strength.
A serious beginner who wants to take Calisthenics practice to a high level
If you are in this for the long haul, then that means serious business for you when doing pull-ups. The recommended numbers can vary from 30 to 100 pull-ups in a session. Yes, you read it right! You need to do lots of pull-ups in one stage of your calisthenics practice as a beginner. This is how Calisthenics athletes get really strong, by building very high-volume training.
But before you jump into just doing lots of pull-ups, it is good for you to understand strength training deeper as I assume that this will be your main goal for doing Calisthenics.
- First is you need to know where your current level is. Assessing where you are at this stage will give you a better idea of how to plan for your program.
- Then work on perfecting your form before pushing harder. A great way to improve your movement is by working on your body awareness. Doing easier practices like yoga or Pilates will be good for this. These methods will be also good for you to incorporate in your training in between your hard training days for recovery.
- Build volume to develop better musculature, strengthen your tendons and ligaments, and widen your base before going to a higher intensity version of the exercise.
Here is a post I wrote about the things you need to consider in order to have a more effective Calisthenics strength program.
Beginner level who wants to join an obstacle race
This will not be a problem if you can already do a few pull-ups in a row. You can either just work on a muscle-building pull-up program or a program biased towards strength depending on which stage you are in in your training. This should be enough for you to get ready for your event.
You may want to work on different types of surfaces or objects to hang on like walls and ropes as this will feel very different compared to regular bar pull-ups. It might be your grip and finger strength that will be the weakest link at the event.
The tricky one is if you cannot do one. Hopefully, you have enough time to prepare for the event to train for your first pull-up as it will take some time. Better to seek advice from an experienced Calisthenics instructor who does obstacle racing so you can get good guidance in your training.
What if you cannot do a single pull-up?
This will be the most exciting, frustrating, and confusing stage to be in. Doing pull-ups is not as simple if you compare it with a typical biceps curl exercise where you can just grab a pink dumbbell and start counting. If it’s too easy then progress to a heavier one.
And it will be tempting to just ditch out this exercise because you can’t do it anyway. But there is actually a version of pull-up that you can do even if doing the standard one is not possible.
The leg-assisted pull-up is the go-to exercise that I teach in my Calisthenics class for beginners. Grab a box or bench so that your chin will be over the bar when you stand up. Do the pull-up movement but keep your feet on the box all the time and use your legs to assist you as you pull your body up. Make sure to use your leg only as much as your arms need to get your chin over the bar.
Doing this version will enable you to still do around 8 repetitions for 3 sets in your routine. Here is an article I wrote that will guide you step-by-step to achieve your first pull-up.