Note: A special thanks goes out to the wonderful Kristen Roche for demonstrating all of this after maxing out on deadlift, push press and floor press. Often in group and independent training settings, pull-ups and push-ups will improve dramatically until you hit a point where you just can't seem to get better. Whether your goal is one bodyweight chinup or 50 consecutive pushups, mastering your own body mass can lead to a lot of dead ends and frustration.
One of the major mistakes I see people make are going for broke on their first set. Let's say you can, for whatever reason, only do one dead-hang pullup. Now, if you've done that on your very first rep of your very first set, you've basically just performed a 1 rep max. Imagine doing that with the squat or deadlift, and then attempting that again and again as you return to do more sets. That would burn you out pretty quick and stall progress just as fast.
The other problem lies in performing “straight sets”. No, these are not sets that are attracted to the opposite sets (see what I did there?). A straight set is performing a specific amount of reps and then repeating that same amount multiple times. This time, we'll assume someone can do 8 solid chinups. If their program calls for 4 sets of 8, they'll probably hit 8 good reps on the first set and then 6, 5 and 4 on their remaining sets. So instead of getting 32 total reps, they only managed 23.
Neither of these situations set you up for much progress as the first set is always calling for far too much energy and strength that cannot be sustained over the course of all your sets. If you could perform 20 dead-hang chinups, then 4x8 is no problem; but for most people that is not the case and there are better options.
All of these modifications I suggest work both in group settings and independent training. Even if there are 40 seconds on the clock in a bootcamp style setting, you can still implement some of these protocols to help you achieve your goal of more pushups and pullups.
Pyramid or Drop Set with a Specific Repetition Range
Unlike most barbell and dumbbell exercises, those who struggle with bodyweight exercises don't find much wiggle room in making their exercises harder or easier. If you are doing band-assisted pullups, likely there will be a point where one band is too easy and the next down is too hard. Sometimes the jumps between progressions are just too big to make consistent progress on. I've seen plenty of people rep out chins on one black band, then drop it to one red band and barely perform one.
This method can be done ascending or descending, meaning it either gets harder or easier as you go. As an example, we'll imagine the least amount of assistance someone needs on a pullup for 5 reps is a red band. They have a couple options with this method:
Set 1: 3 reps red band + black band
Set 2: 3 reps two black bands
Set 3: 3 reps purple + black band
or (as in the video)
Set 1: 3 reps purple + black band
Set 2: 3 reps two black bands
Set 3: 3 reps black + red band
With either of these methods, there is only one “all out” set, which would be the 3 reps with the red band. Instead of performing as most people would with as many reps as possible at each band and then burning out after two sets, sticking with 3 reps and working up or down to the most challenging set allows for the person to get extra volume in and stay fresh. Clearly, Kristen could have done more reps and more sets at each band, but the progression would be the same whether you did 5 reps at five different band tensions.
Straight Sets with one for AMRAP(as many reps as possible)
This next one is really convenient and provides a goal to shoot for in every workout. We will use the pushup this time as an example. If a person can perform 10 solid reps in pushups before form breaking down or shaking like a leaf in the wind, we would drop the number of reps per set to 4 to 6. So they might perform 4 reps, rest, 4 reps, rest , 4 reps, rest and then on the last set as many as possible. Their progression may look like this:
Set 1: 4 reps
Set 2: 4 reps
Set 3: 4 reps
Set 4: 10 reps (as many as possible)
In this way the first three sets built in some solid work and volume but left the person fresh enough to go all out on the last set and push for a repetition record. Next time they do the exercise they could go for 4/4/4/12 or maybe 5/5/5/AMRAP.
Once again, backing a person away from their repetition max, we can build in a lot of quality work without burning them out. I've used this one quite a but recently for the pull-up and it really builds up the number of reps as the sets pass, far more than you might achieve in a few all-out efforts. As an example, I had recently ran a few weeks where I performed three pull-ups every 30 seconds for as many minutes as I could sustain it. Here's how it broke down over the three weeks:
Week 1: 3 reps every 30 seconds for 7 minutes (42 reps)
Week 2: 3 reps every 30 seconds for 8 minutes (48 reps)
Week 3: 3 reps every 30 seconds for 9 minutes (54 reps)
On week three, I had performed 54 reps in 9 minutes! Something I would not have been able to do if I had tried to do 10 reps every 1 1/2 to 2 minutes. Even though the reps and time would be about the same, performing fewer reps so that I never reached near-failure on a set ensured that I could keep working the full 9 minutes.
In a group training setting, let's say you had 40 seconds on the clock and you could perform 5 good pushups (from the floor or box/bench). You might just do, as in the video:
rest 5 seconds
rest 5 seconds
rest 5 seconds
rest 5 seconds
If it takes you two seconds to perform every pushup each set followed by 5 seconds rest, it is about 11 seconds total. You could just about make it through four rounds the way I wrote above. That's 12 total reps. If you went for 5 right out of the gate you might have completed 5, then 3 and then 1. Remember, with bodyweight exercises the drop-off in performance is pretty quick so often people hit one or two decent sets before the rest are either half-reps (which don't count!) or no reps at all.
One great thing about the pushup and pullup is that just holding a point any way through the range of motion can be really challenging and a good way to increase total work. For both exercises, I think holds can be used in two really effective ways.
The first is to simply hold a challenging position once you cannot perform any more reps. This could be your last set of pullups or pushups when you cannot get another rep even though there are 10 seconds on the clock. The best option for the pullup is to use your legs to jump to the top and hold for the remainder of the time(or set). For pushups it would be to come down towards the floor to a challenging position that you can hold for the remainder of the interval(or set). So you might hit 9 reps and then simply come down 1/2 or 1/4 of the way and ride out the last 10 seconds in the interval while holding that position. It is difficult, its a good change in stimulus, and it drives progress which is our main goal.
The second way, and very similar to the first, is for the person who cannot perform many (if any at all) full range of motion pushups or pullups(even with band assistance). This person can still work within their limitations by finding the point on the exercise they're weakest (usually halfway) and just holding that position for as long as possible, as many times as possible. For the pushup, this person might do:
Holding an isometric pushup position halfway to the floor or pullup halfway to bar
Set 1: 12 seconds
Set 2: 10 seconds
Set 3: 8 seconds
Once again, with 30 or 40 seconds on the clock, this person did 30 full seconds of work. If they tried to perform a full pushup, they likely would have struggle the entire interval(or set) and done very little actual work.
One of the great ideas to come out of bodybuilding fits in perfectly with bodyweight exercises. Just like above, a person can use these either at the end of a set when they can no longer perform reps or in place of full reps. The negative is simply getting to the top of the pushup or pullup and lowering yourself as slowly down as possible. Generally, people are significantly stronger eccentrically compared to concentrically which is why this method works even with weaker people. Performing these eccentric only reps will not only cause a decent amount of muscle damage (think muscle growth) but also allows someone to either A. Keep working or B. Perform full-range negatives in place of partial reps.
For the pullup you can simply jump up and lower yourself back to the box or your feet under as much control as possible. With the pushup, the person can stay on their hands and toes and lower themselves to the floor under as much control as possible, then let their knees come to the floor, lock their arms back out and then get back on their toes before performing the next rep. So, after each negative, it looks like you are doing a “girl” pushup (I hate writing that, don't throw eggs at my house) and then getting back into a real pushup stance again.
If you are struggling to get past a sticking point in your bodyweight exercises, something needs to change. As hard as it is to read or hear, you can literally go weeks and months performing partial range of motion pushups and pullups and make zero progress. That is not a slam either, but should be a realization that it is time to try something different. Stop worrying about the people around you that can do lots of pushups and pullups with good form. Guess what? Some people are really light and bodyweight stuff comes easy. Some people have been training for years so they have perfected form and gotten strong.
Remember, progress is progress, and it will be different for every single person. Be the person doing perfect sets of 3 on the pullup for many sets rather than burning out on the first and getting sloppy. Be the person doing rock-solid, controlled eccentrics on the pushup. Try something different. Be the person actually getting better and making progress. In the end, that's what its all about.