Here's what you need to know...
- Your strength ratio of pull-ups to bench press should be at least 1:1. There are five pull-up variations that'll increase your strength and give you a bigger back.
- Isometric holds will force you to use the right muscles, while the hands-free variation will take your arms out of the equation giving you a solid mind-muscle connection with the lats.
- The 1.5-rep variation can help you feel the right muscles working and may be used with any grip you prefer. It's a full ROM rep combined with a half-rep.
- Speed work pull-ups will increase explosiveness and strength on powerlifting movements. Spramaximal weighted hangs will help you master heavier loads and hypertrophy the lats.
- To get the most out of these variations, try one at a time for a few weeks by adding it to the program you're already doing.
The Leafy Greens of Lifting
Pull-ups are to workout routines like vegetables are to nutrition. We all know we should eat 'em, 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.
A 1:1 Ratio of Pull-Ups to Bench Presses
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.
A 1:1 ratio of pull-ups to bench presses should be the minimum, though I'd rather see the scale tipped towards pull-ups.
I'm going to assume that most 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.
Related: Programs for the Pull-Up Deficient
Once you've established a solid strength base, it's time to take it up a notch. Here are five pull-up variations that'll help you build the strength and muscle to take your training and physique to the next level.
Variation #1: Isometric Holds
These 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.
The 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 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.
Do these with a pronated "false" grip. That's an overhand grip with the thumbs draped over the top of the bar.
Research has shown significantly higher EMG activation in the lower traps during pull-ups as opposed to chin-ups, which emphasize the biceps. And 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.
Variation #2: Hands Free
This literally takes 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. 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 yourself 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 perfect if you ever have an injured finger, hand, wrist, or elbow.
Variation #3: 1.5 reps
This one is a teaching tool and a muscle and strength builder 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, or neutral. 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. 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.
Variation #4: Speed Work
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 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.
Variation #5: Supramaximal Weighted Hangs
Research suggests that prolonged weighted stretching may induce hypertrophy. However, that's not my primary goal with this movement.
Do the hang without straps and only holding it for 45 seconds to increase task-specific grip strength and 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 that's just gravy.
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. 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.
Your Pull-Up Plan
I suggested general guidelines for how to use each exercise but avoided exact set and rep recommendations. Use your current abilities and just add them to the program you're already following.
Don't include all five variations at once. You'd have no way of knowing what works and what doesn't! Try one or two and give it a few weeks to see how things go before making further changes.
Which exercises work best for you will depend on your weaknesses. If you can't seem to feel your back working on pull-ups, try the hands-free and 1.5 rep techniques.
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.
Whichever workout you're doing, just make sure that you include some form of pull-ups and for goodness sake, get strong at them. It's time we raise the bar and get our chests up to meet it.