Take Your Pull-Ups to the Next Level
Pull-ups are to workout routines like vegetables are to nutrition. We all know we should eat lots of fresh vegetables, but how many of us actually do? The same goes for pull-ups.
It's an exercise that should be in any training program, regardless of whether the goal is strength or physique oriented. There's no better test of real-world strength, and getting strong at pull-ups will have carryover to all other major lifts. They'll also add serious muscle to your lats, traps, rhomboids, biceps, and forearms, and if you control your lower body, even your core.
According to strength coach Mike Boyle, lifters should be able to do pull-ups with as much weight (including bodyweight) as they can bench press, meaning that a 200-pound guy that bench presses 300 pounds should be able to do a pull-up with 100 pounds added.
In my opinion, a 1:1 pull-up to bench press ratio should be the minimum. I'd much rather see the scale tipped towards pull-ups.
Sadly, I rarely see that happening, and considering pull-ups have been removed from most middle school physical education curriculums – because so few kids can even do them – it's doubtful that we have a generation of kick-ass "pull-uppers" on the horizon.
This is not okay, and it's time we raise the bar and get people pulling their chest up to meet it.
I'm going to assume that most of the males reading this can do at least 7-8 bodyweight pull-ups, with whatever grip you prefer. If you can't, and have been training for more than a few years, take this as a wake-up call that you seriously need to reconsider your training, nutrition, or both. Read this article from T NATON contributor Tim Henriques and get to work. If you can already do 7-8 reps, keep reading.
Once you've established a solid strength base, it's time to take it up a notch. Here are five effective ways to get more out of your pull-ups and build some big-time strength and muscle to take your training to the next level.
I put these first because they lay the foundation for the progressions to come.
- Pull yourself up until your upper chest is level with the bar.
- Keep your chest puffed out, elbows pulled down and back, and focus on squeezing the shoulder blades together hard. Now hold it right there.
Feel those muscles burning in your upper back? Those are the ones you should be using on every rep of pull-ups. For now though, just squeeze harder.
Iso holds are great because they force you to recruit the proper muscles. If you don't actively retract your scapulae and try to rely on your arms to do the work, you won't last long. They'll also help strengthen the lower traps and rhomboids, which can assist with posture and ward off shoulder issues.
I recommend doing these with a pronated "false" grip (an overhand grip with the thumbs draped over the top of the bar). While both variations work the lats, research has shown significantly higher EMG activation in the lower traps during pull-ups as opposed to chin-ups, which emphasize the biceps. Using a false grip helps take the elbow flexors out of the equation so the back can bear the brunt of the work.
Try adding a 30-45 second hold at the end of your regular pull-up workout. Once you reach 45 seconds, add weight.
Here we literally take the arms out of the pull up. You'll need a pair of ab straps, typically used for hanging leg raises.
- Get into the same starting position as you would for leg raises, with your upper arms in the straps and your legs hanging straight down (I prefer to cross them to prevent leg swing).
- Make sure the straps are flush against the top of the triceps, almost into the armpits.
- Puff out the chest and arch the back slightly.
- Now pull up as high as possible and hold for a second.
If done correctly, you should get a similar sensation in your upper back that you felt during the iso holds, and the body position should be essentially the same: chest up, elbows back, shoulders pinched together. Now lower as far down as you can and repeat for reps.
The range of motion will be slightly shorter than a normal pull-up, but the basic movement pattern is the same. These aren't meant to replace pull-ups, but can serve as a teaching tool to help you learn to use the right muscles to get more out of pull-ups. Try doing a set of these before your regular routine to help activate the right muscles and give you a sense for how it should feel.
This variation is also great if you ever (heaven forbid) incur an injury to a finger, hand, wrist, or elbow so you can still get a good training effect while your injury heals.
This is a personal favorite of mine because it's a teaching tool and a muscle and strength builder all wrapped into one. When someone comes to me saying that they "can't feel their lats" during pull-ups, I give them these and voila, it's an instant cure.
You can use any grip you wish – pronated, supinated, neutral, they're all great. However, if you go with a pronated grip, I'd recommend using a "false" grip since this is more a "feel" exercise and we want to remove the elbow flexors as much as possible.
- Perform a pull-up as normal.
- Now lower yourself halfway down until the top of your head just clears the bar, and pull yourself back up. That's one rep.
- Now lower all the way down and repeat.
- Perform 3-4 sets of 6-8 reps.
This style helps ensure that each rep is done under control and the right muscles are doing the work. Not to mention that because you're performing twice as many contractions as a normal set, it's great for strengthening the upper back and lats, and the increased time under tension can lead to more muscle growth.
1.5 reps can be used in place of regular pull-ups in your routine. Remember though, that 6-8 means 6-8 "1.5" reps. You should be able to handle about two-thirds of what you can do for regular pull-ups, so if you can normally get 12, you should be good for 8 "1.5" reps.
Once you can get 6-8 clean reps, add weight. Just be aware that they can produce intense soreness, particularly in the beginning, so be aware and consider limiting the volume to start.
Let's shift from "feel" exercises and focus on getting stronger. Weighted pull-ups are the first step, but most lifters will quickly reach a plateau. Here's where "speed work" can come into play.
Powerlifters have long used speed work to improve their bench, squat, and deadlift. The goal is to improve rate of force development, so instead of going heavy they'll use a lighter load and move it fast. Taking this concept and applying it to pull-ups, we get the band-resisted pull-up.
- Attach one end of a band (or bands, depending on your strength level) to a heavy dumbbell on the floor directly beneath the pull-up bar.
- Affix the other end to a belt attached to your waist. The band should be taught at the bottom, but not overly tight.
- Do pull-ups as normal, trying to do each rep explosively. Speed is key here.
Bands work great because they provide accommodating resistance, meaning there's less tension at the bottom and more tension at the top as the bands get pulled tighter. This forces you to pull explosively through each rep to avoid being pulled down by the bands as the tension increases.
Once a week, perform 6 sets of 3 reps in place of your normal pull-up workout. Do 2 sets each with a pronated, neutral, and supinated grip, and don't go anywhere near failure on any set. Add more band tension as needed, but err on the side of too light as opposed to too heavy.
Supramaximal Weighted Hangs
I got this idea from Dante Trudel, creator of Dogg Crapp Training, and adapted it for my own purposes. Dante suggests strapping onto the bar and doing a heavily weighted, wide-grip pull-up hang for 90-120 seconds at the conclusion of a back workout to help stretch the fascia and induce hypertrophy in the lats.
There's research to suggest that prolonged weighted stretching may induce hypertrophy, and Dante's track record of producing behemoths certainly backs up his methods. However, that's not my primary goal with this movement.
I suggest doing the hang without straps and only holding it for 45 seconds. This is to increase task-specific grip strength and to get the body acquainted with heavier loads than you'd otherwise use for pull-ups, so when it comes time to perform the weights don't feel as heavy. It can also lead to some new muscle growth, but I suppose that's just gravy.
It's important to note that this isn't a passive hang – you still want to keep the chest puffed out, lats flared, and scapulae depressed to keep the tension on the muscles and off the joints. Another way to think of it is to keep your shoulders pulled down as far away from your ears as you can. A pronated or neutral grip works best here, as a supinated grip puts too much stress on the shoulders and biceps.
Perform one hang at the conclusion of your pull-up workout, on a different day than you perform the iso hold mentioned above. Be sure to choose your weight conservatively in the beginning and work your way up slowly. It will take some getting used to, but soon you'll be able to handle far more weight than you could ever dream of pulling up. Once that happens, grip strength should be a non-issue and your heaviest pull-ups will feel far less intimidating.
Now that you're armed with five new tools for your pull-up arsenal, it's time to figure out how to put them to use in your current program. While I suggested general guidelines for how to use each exercise, I avoided exact sets and reps recommendations as that must be based on your current strength levels and the program you're following.
I certainly wouldn't include all five variations at once though, simply because you'd have no way of knowing what worked and what didn't! Add them in slowly, and always give it a few weeks to see how things go before making further changes.
Which exercises work best for you will largely depend on your weaknesses. If you're one of those people that can't seem to "feel" their back working on pull-ups, the hands-free and "1.5" rep technique work well.
On the other hand, if your rhomboids are weak and you struggle to finish the last few inches of each rep, iso holds may help, and if you lack starting strength, try speed work. Finally, if you need grip work, weighted hangs could be just what the physique doctor ordered.
You get the idea. Figure out where your weaknesses are, and see if you can apply the right tools to help shore them up. Whichever way you chose, just make sure that you include some form of pull-ups and for goodness sake, get strong at them. After all, someone has to carry the mail for the next generation of couch potatoes.
Jose Antonio and W.J Gonyea. Progressive stretch overload of skeletal muscle results in hypertrophy before hyperplasia. Journal of Applied Physiology. 1993; 75:1263-71.
Mike Boyle. So You Think You Know Strong?
Tim Henriques. Programs For the Pull-up Deficient.
Robert M. Palmer et. al. The influence of changes in tension on protein synthesis and prostaglandin release in isolated rabbit muscles. Biochemistry Journal. July 1983; 214, 1011-1014
JW Youdas et.al. Surface electromyographic activation patterns and elbow joint motion during a pull-up, chin-up, or perfect-pullup rotational exercise. Journal of Strength Conditioning Research. December 2010; 24(12): 3404-14.
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Ben Bruno graduated Summa Cum Laude from Columbia University. He currently trains athletes at Mike Boyle Strength and Condition in North Andover, Massachusetts and publishes a blog at www.benbruno.com.