I have always been interested in fitness.
When I was a toddler, my mom was an aerobics instructor when aerobics was in its heyday. I would go to her classes and dance around with the older women doing step aerobics and had so much fun bouncing around to the music and pretending I knew how to take my pulse.
Fast forward to my collegiate years, and I decided to pursue kinesiology and exercise science and I have been a Certified Personal Trainer for nearly 15 years.
All of this is to say that I have grown up around fitness and have always been active, so when I confess to my clients that there are certain exercises that are difficult for me, they are sometimes shocked.
However, I have no problem admitting my weaknesses, and certainly one of them is pull-ups. Even though I have finally mastered pull-ups, I still cannot bang out long sets of pull-up reps.
But, how many pull-ups should you be able to do? You might wonder when planning your workouts, how many pull-ups should I do based on my fitness level and training goals?
In this strength training guide, we will discuss how to perform pull-ups properly, how to improve your ability to perform pull-ups, and ultimately answer your question, how many pull-ups should I do based on my fitness level?
Let’s get started!
How Do You Do a Pull-Up?
Before we look at how many reps of pull-ups to do, let’s discuss what the pull-up exercise entails and how to perform pull-ups correctly.
A pull-up is a bodyweight exercise that involves hanging from an overhead pull-up bar with a pronated grip (your palms facing away from your body) and then using the muscles in your back, arms, and core to bend your elbows and lift your body up.The end position of a pull-up is to have your chin or ideally your clavicles or nipple line up above the level of the bar.
Then, you slowly straighten your elbows and lower your body all the way back down until your arms are straight, resisting the pull of gravity so that you are using your muscles in an eccentric (lengthening) contraction.
To do a pull-up, you will need a sturdy overhead bar that can support your weight.
Here are the steps for how to do a pull-up:
How To Perform A Pull-Up
- Grab onto a pull-up bar with your hands positioned shoulder-width apart with your palms facing away from your face.
- Hang from the bar with your arms fully extended, lifting your feet off the ground. You can bend your knees if you are too tall to clear the floor.
- Pull yourself up by engaging your core, contracting your lats, and driving your elbows down toward the floor as you bend them.
- Lift your body until your chin is above the bar or the bar approaches chest height. Do not swing your body to gain momentum. Stay stable and use your muscles to raise your body.
- Slowly lower your body back down in a controlled manner until your arms are fully straight.
- Repeat, doing as many repetitions as possible or as desired.
How Can I Get Better At Pull-Ups?
As I admitted in the intro, pull-ups are not an easy exercise, but they are one of the most effective back-strengthening exercises.
Pull-ups strengthen almost all of the major muscles in the back, including the latissimus dorsi, trapezius, rhomboids, erector spinae, posterior deltoids, levator scapulae, and infraspinatus.
Pull-ups also strengthen your triceps, brachioradialis in the forearms, grip strength muscles, and core muscles.
Another reason I like programming pull-ups into workouts is that the pull-up is (which, by nature, is a pulling exercise), a perfect counterpart to common pushing exercises like push-ups and bench press, which are often performed much more frequently.
You might find that you are able to do push-ups with relative ease compared to pull-ups.
This is partially because you have to lift all of your weight with a pull-up vs a push-up where some of the weight of your lower body is supported by the floor, and partially because the pulling muscles tend to be weaker than the pushing muscles based on training tendencies and how we use our muscles in everyday life.
For these reasons, you may need to modify pull-ups for beginners as you work your way up to eventually doing full-bodyweight pull-ups.
Here are some steps to progress to pull-ups for beginners:
#1: Practice Dead Hangs
Dead hangs will improve your grip strength and start to build some muscular endurance and strength in the muscles used by pull-ups.
#2: Try Negative Pull-Ups
In my work as a personal trainer, I often have clients practice negative pull-ups as they are trying to get better at pull-ups or increase the number of pull-ups reps they can do without stopping.
Negative pull-ups involve jumping up so that you are at the end position of a pull-up with your clavicles over the level of the bar and then slowly lowering your body down.
The slower you can go, the better.
This is because studies suggest that the eccentric portion of an exercise triggers the greatest stimulus for muscle protein synthesis, which can translate to greater gains in muscle growth and strength for pull-up muscles.
You can even progress this exercise by pausing at certain portions of the lowering and then holding the position to build grip strength like a dead hang but in other joint angles.
After a rep of the negative pull-up training exercise, you jump back up and then repeat the lowering portion again for as many negative pull-up reps as you can or want to do.
#3: Perform Assisted Pull-Ups
If you work out in a gym, there might be an assisted pull-up machine where you can offset some of your weight and then perform pull-ups at an effective lower body weight.
If your gym does not have an assisted pull-up machine, you can use a resistance band looped around your feet to help provide some elastic recoil assistance to lift your body with a pull-up.
#4: How to Make Pull-Ups Harder
There are also ways to progress pull-ups as you get stronger.
If you don’t want to do more reps of pull-ups (which is really only ideal for muscular endurance) and you want to do pull-up workouts for hypertrophy or strength, you can add a weighted vest or chains to increase your effective body weight.
How Many Pull-Ups Should I Do Based On My Fitness Goals?
The number of pull-ups you should do may be limited by your fitness level, meaning that beginners might not be able to do many pull-ups in a row.
In these cases, continue to practice your pull-ups with the aforementioned pull-up progression exercises as well as supplementary strength training exercises that work the muscles used by pull-ups.
Examples of some of the best exercises to train for pull-ups include lat pull-downs, rows, face-pulls, curls, shrugs, inverted rows, hollow holds, farmer’s walks, and deadlifts.
Beginners can otherwise start with 2 to 3 sets of 3 to 6 pull-ups, or as many pull-up reps as you can do.
Eventually, try to build up to three sets of 10 to 12 pull-ups in a row.
If you are trying to do pull-ups for muscular endurance, do as many pull-ups as you can without stopping, building up to 30 to 50, or aim for three sets of at least 15 pull-up reps with 30 to 60 seconds of rest in between each set.
For hypertrophy, aim for 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 12 pull-ups. However, if you are not reaching fatigue by the end of the set, add external resistance as described above until you are fatigued (but still capable) by the last couple of two pull-ups of each set.
Take about 90 seconds of rest in between each set.
When performing pull-ups for strength, build up to 4 to 6 sets of 3 to 8 reps of pull-ups, again adding more external resistance as necessary to reach fatigue. Take two minutes of rest in between each set.
Always make sure you are using the full range of motion, and not “cheating” by not fully extending your arms at the end of each rep.1Iversen, V. M., Norum, M., Schoenfeld, B. J., & Fimland, M. S. (2021). No Time to Lift? Designing Time-Efficient Training Programs for Strength and Hypertrophy: A Narrative Review. Sports Medicine, 51(10). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-021-01490-1
Advanced athletes can also superset pull-ups, alternating pull-ups with another exercise that either targets the pushing muscles or pulling muscles, depending on your fitness level (another pulling exercise like lat pull-downs will make for a very advanced pull-up superset).
You can learn more about superset training here.
- 1Iversen, V. M., Norum, M., Schoenfeld, B. J., & Fimland, M. S. (2021). No Time to Lift? Designing Time-Efficient Training Programs for Strength and Hypertrophy: A Narrative Review. Sports Medicine, 51(10). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-021-01490-1