The Path to Twenty Pull-ups

By Bryan Alger on March 14, 2016

The Story

We all have our favorite muscle group, movement or even exercise, it's usually whatever we are the strongest in. For me, that has always been my back. Maybe it was because I spent an inordinate amount of gym time as a teenager curling in front of the mirror or on the pullover machine, but once I finally got on a good weightlifting program, I found that the weight came easily on back exercises.

Man performing a pull-up
Pull-up: the ultimate bodyweight exercise

I was a chubby kid, little debbie cakes and soda were staples of my diet. Our school fitness test was always a bit humiliating to me as I was bad at everything. While the one mile run and even the toe reach portion of the test were tragic, when it came time for the strength assessment portion of the test, I was relegated to performing the flex arm hang with the girls while the more fit boys of the class pumped out pull-ups. I still remember watching in awe as one of our track stars did over a dozen, it seemed like an impossible feat to me at the time.

Finally, I saw the world below, from the other side of that cold, round, iron bar and I was hooked.

My fascination with the pull-up began in elementary school, but I wouldn't be able to pull my bodyweight up for the first time until I was 17. By then, I had lost the baby fat as mom called it and I was regularly hitting the gym. I was now in pretty solid shape, but the assumption that pull-ups were somehow beyond me stuck with me until I found myself in the Marine Corps recruiter's office. Once there, it didn't take long before I was facing my fear head on. I jumped up to that now familiar bar, wrapped in sweat stained tape, and for the first time I lifted myself up. Finally, I saw the world below, from the other side of that cold, round, iron bar and I was hooked.

I ended up joining the Marines and pull-ups became a regular part of my workouts. Twenty was the target; that was the number of pull-ups a Marine had to perform to max out that portion of the Marine Corps physical fitness test. In a testosterone fueled environment, hitting that number was even more important. Sure, a stronger score puts you up for promotion sooner, but on test day, it's all about bragging rights. For years, I was a solid 11 or 12 pull-ups guy. It didn't matter what I tried: narrow, wide, supinated or pronated grip, I couldn't increase my max reps.

And then I took a step back. For a couple of years I added a few sets of max-reps pull-ups to the end of my workouts hoping to hit a new personal record. I didn't see any progress until I finally changed my strategy. Instead of going for three sets of all out effort, I reduced my reps. Rather than targeting my max of 12 on the first set, I went for 8 or 9. My workouts went from doing sets of 12, 9, 8 reps for example to 4 sets of 9. I added just a little bit of volume, but reduced intensity as only my last set was to failure. Believe it or not, that's all it took to break through my plateau and I was once again able to regularly increase my reps. It took mere months to go from 12-20 pull-ups with this approach.

The Plan

  1. If you can't do a single pull-up, start with assisted pull-ups and negatives.
  2. Work your way up to a max set of 8 unassisted pull-ups. The goal here is to get strong enough that you can perform pull-ups with relative ease so that we can target a moderately-high volume without doing tons of sets.
  3. Once you can do at least 8 unassisted reps in one set, drop to about 70% of your max reps and do that for four or five sets, always performing the last set to failure. Use five sets if you're doing 6 or fewer reps per set, and four sets if you're doing 7 reps or more.
  4. When you can beat your rep goal on your last set, increase your reps by one for your next workout. It might be difficult when you first increase your rep target to hit your goal for all four sets, so feel free to do this gradually by only increasing the last two sets by one rep at first until you've added a rep to all four sets. You don't want to tire yourself out prematurely, you should always be able to hit your rep target on the last set.
  5. Throw in an all-out one set effort every two weeks to evaluate your current benchmark and then repeat steps 3-4 as necessary until you've hit your goal.

Give yourself a day's rest between sessions, you should aim to hit pull-ups 2-3 times per week. If you're doing them on a designated back day, do your pull-up sets before any other vertical pull in your workout.


You don't start with your max weight on squat and then reduce the weight with each set, so you shouldn't treat pull-ups or other bodyweight exercises differently. Instead of going for your max reps from the start with bodyweight movements, add weight and pyramid up as you would other lifts, or keep the resistance to bodyweight only and perform multiple sets of the same number of reps.

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Bryan Alger - Gravitus profile

Bryan is the Co-Founder of Gravitus and also a Marine Corps veteran and seasoned engineer. The only thing Bryan likes more than hacking code is pumping iron.