Pull up program–success or failure?

  • Creator
  • #10743
    Bruno Schull

    This spring I injured my knee skiing. During my recovery, I was drifting with no real goals, other than rehabilitating my knee. To give myself something to work toward, I decided to do the maximum strength pull up program from TFTNA.

    If I understand correctly, the basic idea behind the program is that if you can increase your maximum strength in a specific exercise, this will also increase your endurance for this exercise. So by doing this program I could also test this theory on myself.

    Some quick background: I am 45, 6’ 4”, about 210 pounds. My build is athletic and muscular, however, I have never been able to do more than 6 real pull ups (completely up and completely down with control). I think that the bio-mechanics of my upper body, and my height and weight, simply don’t favor pull up strength. Also, the bulk of my training has always been long distance endurance (cycling, hiking, and running). Only last year did I start working on specific strength, completing the Ice and Mixed strength program (see previous posts). I am aware that pull up strength is something like a party-trick, and may not correlate with climbing ability, but as it says in TFTNA, pulls ups are the king of upper body exercises, and work nearly every muscle the from waist up. I’ve always wanted to be able to do more pull ups, and this seemed like a simple goal that I could focus on during my knee rehabilitation.

    The program in TFTNA is eight weight weeks long, with two very specific maximum strength workouts per week. I followed the program exactly, and recorded data about my progress. When the program was finished, I waited four full days to recover, and then tried to do as many pull ups as possible. The results are described below.

    Start of the program
    Maximum additional weight for a single pull up: 10 kilograms
    Maximum number of pull ups: 6

    End of the program
    Maximum additional weight for a single pull up: 25 kilograms
    Maximum number of pull ups: 9

    Well, I confess, I was really hoping to get to 10 pull ups. It was a benchmark in my mind. I even hoped that I might be able to do more than 10 pull ups. So when I could not complete the 10th pull up, I was disappointed. I thought to myself, “You’re 45, your body isn’t going to respond like a younger person’s might, you’re never going to be able to do 10 pull ups.” I won’t lie, it felt like a failure, especially because I really put a huge amount of focus and energy into the program.

    However, after a few days, I realized that my goals were probably too ambitious, and I’m actually proud of what I accomplished. I more than doubled the additional weight that I could lift for a single pull up (from 10 kg to 25 kg) and I increased the number of pull ups that I could do by 50% (from 6 to 9). If I had made it to 10 pull ups, I would have increased my pull up endurance by about 65% which is probably unrealistic.

    Also, the program definitely increased the ease and control of my pulls ups, and improved my general core strength. For example, before the program, pull ups felt difficult. Now, three or four pulls ups feel easy, solid, and controlled. In terms of core strength, before the program, I was working on moving from hanging knee raises to hanging straight leg raises. Now, hanging straight leg raises are possible.

    So, ultimately, I think the program was a success, even though I did not manage to do 10 pull ups.

    I do have some questions about the program, and what I might do next.

    What is a maximal effort?
    If the program calls for 1 repetition using the maximum additional weight that you can lift, what should that repetition feel like? Should you use an amount of additional weight that allows you to do one straining, grunting, flailing pull up that you can almost not complete, or where you are not able to lift your chin over the bar, or should you use an amount of weight that allows you to do one smooth and controlled pull up, but no more?

    For about two-thirds of the program, I followed the first approach (the final rep of each set was desperate and sometimes I was not able to get all the way over the bar). Then I realized that this was probably not the correct approach, and I adjusted the weight so that each repetition was controlled and complete. I wonder whether or not following this approach from the beginning would have affected the results?

    What about multiple repetitions?
    Take workout 2 of week 5. It calls for 4 sets of 2 reps with 3 minutes of rest between sets. When I did this workout, I constantly adjusted the additional weight that I used for each set. For example, the weights that I lifted for each set were: 20 kg, 17.5 kg, 15 kg, and 12.5 kg. However, I realized that it would also be possible to do this workout using a weight that you could lift for all the sets, such as 15 kg, 15 kg, 15 kg, and 15 kg. I think I followed the right approach, but this was one of my questions about maximum strength workouts of this kind.

    Can you add other exercises to this kind of program?
    I added some other exercises to the pull up program. During each workout, I warmed up thoroughly, did a selection of four or five core exercises, did the pull up program, did some static hangs on rock rings for grip strength, and finished with two more core exercises.

    I structured the workouts in this way because I had completed the Ice and Mixed program the previous year, and it follows a similar structure. However, I am not sure that this was the best approach. The strength gains I saw must be from the pull up program and the other exercises. Also, it’s also possible that the other exercises constituted too much additional work, and my muscles never had a chance to recover sufficiently to get the most benefit from the pull up program. To be clear, I did no other pull up exercises during the program, but the static hangs and the core exercises did involve some of the same muscles as pull ups. My body seemed to handle the load well, but I don’t know if my results would have been better or worse (more or less pulls ups) if I had not done additional work.

    What should I do next?
    I’m not quite sure that to do next. Unfortunately, my knee is not yet completely healed, so I cannot return to my regular training. Also, I will be traveling, and cannot follow a regular workout schedule until the first week of August. Finally, in August or September, I would like to begin the Ice and Mixed Program.

    I think that I am going to wait for another three or four days and then try a maximum number of pull ups test again. Then I will use the short time I have before traveling to do two or three maximum strength pull up workouts, for example, 4 sets of 2 reps, which would be the same as workout 1 from week 5, or 4 sets of 3 reps, which would be the next workout in the logical progression of the program. Then, when I am traveling, I can use the gyms in the hotels wherever I am to do more work outs, or try another pull up test. Finally, in August, I don’t know whether it would make sense to do another cycle of the pull up program as an introduction to the Ice and Mixed program, or simply start the Ice and Mixed program.


    I think I found a small mistake in the pull up program in TFTNA. In workout 1 of week 7, it says 3 sets of 2 reps. If this week follows the logical pattern of the rest of the program, I think it should say 2 sets of 3 reps.

    OK, thanks for everything you do, and all the best,


  • Keymaster
    Scott Johnston on #10744

    Thanks for the feedback and info. No doubt the length of you levers (aka: upper arms) contributes to the difficulty you have with pull ups. Those with short upper arms definitely have an advantage. There’s a reason gymnasts tend to be small.

    I’d say a 50% increase in endurance and doubling of your weighted pull ups represents an unqualified success. This is your first cycle. Do this another time in a month and and you’ll see more gains. Age has little to do with this. I have know 60 year seasoned climbers who saw great gains with this program.

    I like to use increasing weight in each set. I find that way my nervous system gets fired up a bit more on each set and I recruit more fibers and feel stronger as I go. In 4 sets of two I’d propose going 15kg, 17.5kg, 20kg, 20kg. It has a kind of warm up effect.

    There is no reason to not use this prior to the Ice and Mixed plan in the fall.

    As for the typo you mention. There is no ‘right’ or ‘magic’ progression. I laid this out with a progression. People have modified it and seen great success. Its just a template.

    Good work:

    Bruno Schull on #10747

    That’s great information Scott–thanks!

    I think I will do another round in the early Fall–it was so focused and simple that I could really get into it.

    And it dead lead to real strength and endurance gains, I just had the arbitrary number in mind.

    I have to say, it is astonishing how different my body feels after doing this strength training in the last year. Big changes.

    (The knee is still not ready for strength training yet…it will get there).

    Thanks again,


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