The Ultimate 13-Step Pull-Up Progression Program

G. Bovell Muscle Up

By Dr. G. John Mullen

“Get higher!”


“Get your chest to the bar!”

Who has heard their coach yell these remarks during dryland? Who has had their coach provide this feedback, but the group could barely move their body? I see this too often at clubs: Swimmers just hanging on the bar for dear life trying to perform a single pull-up. I remember one club requesting their 50 11- to 12-year-old girls to perform 10 rounds of 60 seconds of pull-ups! Of the group, two could perform one pull-up properly, the rest couldn’t do one pull-up! We can’t all do biceps curls while doing a one arm pull-up like Olympic champion Ruta Meilutyte.


This high-volume and poor programming is hazardous, unproductive, and nonsensical. This lack of progressions/regressions is an issue for all dryland exercises, but the pull-up is a large issue due to the sensitivity of the shoulder and already high injury rate. Also, tracking shoulder stress and injury rate over the lifetime of the athlete (in athletics and life) is understudied and under-reported. I often hear age-group coaches claim their team or group doesn’t have any “shoulder injuries,” but then when I speak with their team and ask if any of them have shoulder pain, 50 percent of the young kids raise their hands. Then, when I ask the older kids, 100 percent of them raise their hands.

Do we think this truly means they don’t have any shoulder issues or are programming their injury prevention correctly? I’ve written about this in my book, COR Swimmer’s Shoulder System. Just because a swimmer doesn’t go to their physician for shoulder pain doesn’t mean they aren’t injured or don’t have an injury. This is something Dr. Hibberd’s research suggested a few years back.

Remember, what you’re doing in age-group programs influences long-term athletic (and health) development! Poor form or exercise volume often doesn’t result in an injury within the dryland session or even within the year, but with youth athletes (really at any age) it is extremely important for setting up the proper foundation of strength and dryland. If these kids are not laying a proper foundation, they’ll certainly add more stress to their shoulder, increasing the risk of injury in the short- and long-term.

No wonder the current injury risk is estimated as high as 90 percent of swimmers!

Many coaches will say they can’t provide progression and regressions, as they can’t spend this much time on dryland or can’t watch everyone in their group. These claims have some truth, but I hear horror stories of coaches not even watching dryland or giving their group a P90x DVD. Scary!

When I consult with swim teams, we look at the bigger picture, setting up a foundation of dryland for life. This includes setting up an environment where swimmers understand not only the purpose of the dryland exercise, but understand how it translates to swimming, how to make it challenging for each individual athlete, and how to provide appropriate feedback to one another. It is impossible for a coach to watch every repetition in dryland, but that is why you educate the swimmers on proper form, so they can teach each other!

For example, as one swimmer performs an inverted row, their partner watches, observes, and gives appropriate feedback! Appropriate feedback doesn’t mean simply counting or yelling “pull,” but helping them maintain proper biomechanics. If your athletes are older than 10, they’ll love helping each other out, learning, and providing feedback! The swimmers can also determine when to progress or regress an exercise, as simple fundamentals apply to most exercises. For example, if you want to make a squat harder, try it on one leg. Want to make an incline push-up harder, perform a regular push-up. These tools aren’t rocket science, but the kids need the correct environment and knowledge base for providing progressions and regressions. I wrote about progressions and regressions awhile back for Swimming World and stated:

“Too often I hear about swimmers performing weight training without a amount of general strength. For this reason, dryland is a highly dangerous place, leading many kids to their physicians or training rooms (MacFarland 1996; Wolf 2008).

There are multiple areas aiding to this high injury, but I want to focus on two specifically:
1. Lack of patience with developing youth swimmers
2. Use of inappropriate exercises

Many times a coach, parent, or strength coach feels pressure to keep adding items to the training program for consistent improvement. Remember, the master chef isn’t paid for what is put into a recipe, but also for what they leave out. Tailoring dryland for each individual is difficult and time-consuming, but quite possible with progressions and regressions for each desired movement.

Remember, the appropriate exercise is the best exercise, not the simply performing the hardest.

The Pull-up

The pull-up is one of the most common swimming dryland exercises. This stems from two things:

  1. the pull-up is a similar motion as a swimming pull.
  2. the latissimus dorsi (the muscle most engaged during a pull-up) has been shown in the research on muscle activation in swimmers to be one of the most activated during the pull.

A pull-up doesn’t have to be part of a good dryland program, but due to the commonality of the pull-up in dryland programs, it is important to be able to perform it safely. Many swimmers are in the off-season now, making it the perfect time to work on improving your pull-up form, with a safe and realistic progression. Also, who doesn’t like to show off a newly-acquired skill like a pull-up or even a single arm pull-up?

There are more progressions and regressions, like simply adding a weighted vest, but below are the tools we use at the Center of Optimal Restoration everyday to get our client’s chest to the bar! Also, some of these are training videos and the form is not 100 percent perfect. When working on your biomechanics, work with a professional or partner helping monitor your form (as described above).

If you’re the swimmer who can only hang from the bar, or you can perform pull-ups all day, we have challenging exercises for each of you as well! At COR, we have elite swimmers who can do a lot of pull-ups, so we have to challenge them, hence the creation of the 1-1/2 arm pull-up below.

Enjoy the 13-step pull-up progression program:

Robber (Scapular Retraction)

Hands overhead Scapular Retraction

Band Row

Inverted Row Scapular Retraction

Inverted Row

Pull-up Scapular Retraction

Feet Elevated Inverted Row

Single Arm Inverted Row

Assisted Pull-up


Muscle Up

1/2 Arm Pull-up

Single Arm Pull-up (attempt)

Where to Begin?

With all these progressions, you may not know where to begin! When starting, I suggest finding the exercise where you can perform eight repetitions with proper form (this is a key element and may require help from a professional or friend). Once you can perform this number of repetitions, begin a program of varying the repetitions and the exercises which are one level easier and one level harder. For example, if you can perform 8-feet elevated inverted rows, I suggest performing the following three times per week, in combination of a general strength dryland for swimmers routine:

Day 1
Exercise Reps Sets
1. Feet Elevated Inverted Row 4 6
2. Pull-up Scapular Retraction 3 15
3. Single Arm Inverted Row 5 4

Clearly, factors other than strength influence the pull-up. But, a program like the one above for four to six weeks, then progressing to the next exercises can make performing a pull-up achievable in no time.

Work hard, pull hard, get strong, and do it safely! If you are looking for more tips on improving your swimming, check this out!

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