Study Results: No Easy Answer On Pull-Up Improvement



By Adam Scott, MS, CSCS

What is the best way to improve pull-ups?

In July 2015 we conducted a Pilot Study trying to answer that very question. Building on our little study, twelve weeks ago, Dr. Eric Martin of California State University Monterery Bay (CSUMB) started a much larger, academic experiment using athletes from MTI, Grit Strength and Conditioning and students from CSUMB.

Dr. Martin’s results are in…and it turns out that the answer might not be as simple as we had hoped.


Quick Review

The study began with 214 initial participants.  All participants were randomly divided into four training groups:

(1) Control Group – No pull-up training
(2) Traditional Training – Trained with “regular pull-ups
(3) Eccentric Training – Trained pull-up “negatives”
(4) Weighted Training – Trained pull-ups with additional load

Each group trained their pull-up method twice per week for twelve weeks as a part of a regular training program.

To assess their improvement participants completed a maximum repetition pull-up test three times during the study:

(1) An initial assessment at the beginning of the study
(2) A mid-cycle assessment during week 6
(3) A final assessment at the conclusion of the study (week 12)

Results and Discussion 

For a full analysis of Dr. Martin’s results, check out the video where he walks through the study: Dr. Martin Pull-Up Video
Here is a quick look at a few of the things we found particularly interesting.
Pull-Up Performance Week 1-6:
    • No single demographic statistic was correlated to changes in Pull-Up performance during the first six weeks: Not height, weight, age, initial performance…nothing.
      – This was particularly surprising because one would expect there to be some connection between these measures and pull-up changes – especially the athlete’s initial performance.
    • There was no significant difference between the eccentric training group and the control group during the first six weeks.
      – This finding was contrary to what we found in our pilot study.  Although we employed a slightly different training protocol, we found that eccentric training produced the largest improvement of all training programs.   


Pull-Up Performance Week 1-12:

    • The Eccentric Group finally showed significant improvement during the second 6 weeks.
      – It was odd that the eccentric group’s improvement was slower than the other two training groups (traditional and weighted).  Perhaps this says something about the type and time-frame of eccentric training adaptation, but this study was not designed to specifically assess this.  
    • When compared to the control group, ALL GROUPS SHOWED SIMILAR IMPROVEMENTS BY THE END OF THE STUDY – WEEK 12. 
      – Against our assumptions, based on this study, essentially, all forms of training are pretty much equally effective.

GRAPH 1: Average Pull-Ups By Group (Courtesy of Dr. Eric Martin)
Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.27.03 PM

Study Participation:

Every study loses participants, but when we look at the fall-off experienced in this study the numbers are pretty staggering.  TABLE 1 shows the drop-off of participants at each assessment.
TABLE 1: Participant Loss Over Time
Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 3.04.35 PM

For us at MTI the attrition rate is doubly-troubling. Our push towards research means trying to complete more studies like this one.  Losing 70% of participants in the first six weeks and another 10% during the final six weeks is going to make answering research questions difficult.

Overall Conclusions

As a practical recommendation…we conclude that, if you are dedicated to two days a week, five sets max, just do normal pull ups. Do not waste your time with eccentrics, and do not waste your money buying a weight vest.

– Dr. Eric Martin



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