Bodyweight upper body movements are really difficult for a lot of people.
This statement excludes the crazy people that can just sit there and bang out pullup after pullup. They do exist and everyone hates them.
These movements are also great to train. They involve a lot of muscles groups, provide a great overload to the muscles, and can be done with little equipment.
There are many ways to train these movements, some good and some misleading.
Pushups are sometimes done on the knees which I don’t really like because it takes the whole body stability out of play. I would prefer that someone do elevated pushups on a box or a bar to learn the pattern.
Pullups are often done with a band and can work really well at first. Eventually we have to switch methods when it becomes easy.
The hardest part of a bodyweight pullup is at the bottom. This is the easiest part of a band assisted pullup since the band is completely stretched out. Again, this works at first but eventually we need to change the strategy.
This post will also fail on people that are just too heavy to pull themselves up. Pullups (and sometimes pushups) require too much weight to be pulled up. Really heavy people may never get off of bands but that will all depend on the individual. There are plenty of heavy people that are strong enough to overcome it.
To get better at the body weight exercises I like using clusters and accumulated reps.
Accumulated reps are a good starting point and the idea is to do a lot of reps at different points of the day. Doing a rep, almost randomly, and repeating that can start to improve the ability to perform them. Doing 1 pullup or pushup every hour for an entire day would be that most people would get about 16 in a day. Asking the same people to do 2 sets of 8 (also 16 reps) would be a failed mission.
Accumulating as many reps as you can in a day will make individual reps seem less difficult. We can then build to 2,3, etc.
My example does imply that you will be doing pushups at work. That is not what I want you to do. Depending on where you work maybe you can.
Accumulating a lot of reps in a day will make the exercises easier to perform. Figure out when you have some time to yourself and plan on getting some reps in. Before and after work are good times.
This might be a little bit harder for pullups since they require a bar. These might have to wait for the gym. Start with trying to get 5 total reps in the hour that you are there and slowly add to that.
Cluster sets are also a good way to get more reps than a traditional set. A 4×1 cluster would be perfect for someone that can only get 2 reps. This means that we do 1 rep, relax, wait 10 seconds, and repeat.
Now instead of only getting 2 we got 4 with the added rest time. I really like clusters in this regard.
The key to getting better at pullups and pushups is not to try to do high rep sets. Anything more than 5 is high reps in my book.
Doing a manageable number to start and building upon it will yield great results. The more exposure you have to the exercise, the easier it will become to master.
You may be sore at first, but if not they can be done every day. Since the density of the work is very low (low reps in a long amount of time) the frequency can go up. Soreness is the only thing that can hold the exercises back.
Pushups and pullups are empowering movements. People that can do them are confident with what they are doing. They also make you really strong and lean.
Getting better at these exercises takes work, but now we have a realistic strategy to get better at them.