Here at T NATION, we take pride in our contributors’ ability to come up with new exercises, or show you how to build your most-neglected muscles, or even make you think about training in entirely new ways.
But every now and then, it helps to go back to basics, and review what all of us should know about some classic exercises, but many of us don’t. Case in point: the pull-up.
Go ahead, scoff. Or cough. Or floss. Or whatever you do when you’re pretty sure someone’s full of shit. You know that completing a pull-up or a chin-up is as simple as getting your chin over the bar.
Except that’s not actually what you’re supposed to do. According to Eric Cressey, the chin-up should really be called a chest-up, if for no other reason than to remind guys to keep pulling even after their chin passes the bar.
So maybe a few of us don’t know as much about this exercise as we thought we did.
And many of us who know how to do a pull-up may not be able to do enough of them to get all the benefits they offer in terms of building strength, upper-body muscle mass (obscure fact: the lower part of our pectoral muscles and the long head of the triceps are involved in a minor way when we do chin-ups through the full range of motion), and even core stability.
So the goal of this article, the first of a series, is to review what you should know about the exercise, and then show you how to get much, much better at it. If you’re stuck at single digits in chin-ups (the ones with the underhand grip) and pull-ups (overhand grip), the program we offer later in this article aims to help you double the number of reps you can do.
The benefits are huge. You’ll build bigger and stronger lats, traps, shoulders, and arms. And when you get to the point at which you can knock out sets with extra weight attached to a dipping belt … well, let’s just say that nothing focuses an athlete like a 45-weight plate hanging so precariously close to all that is important in life.
How many pull-ups should you be able to do? Is there any link to the amount of pull-ups you can do and the size of your testicles? While I can’t help you with the latter, strength coach Charles Poliquin has a general rule for the former: “Anybody in the weight room should be able to do at least 12 pull-ups.”
He’s talking about 12 consecutive reps, not lifetime achievement.
Mike Robertson doesn’t think that’s too far off. “I’d like to see my guys get clean sets of eight to 10 reps,” he says.
So how does the average guy measure up? My guess is somewhere between the world record (46 consecutive pull-ups in one minute) and the Marine Corps’ minimum requirement (three pull-ups with no time limit).
I realize that’s not all that helpful, which is why I did a comprehensive, scientific study (in other words, I watched a lot guys try to do pull-ups at my local Gold’s over the past week, and asked a few T NATION contributors what they thought) and came up with this: the average T NATION reader can do about five pull-ups, while the average guy on the street can probably only do one.
And since I don’t concern myself with random people on the street, I figure five is a good place to start and build on.
Aren’t Lat Pulldowns Just as Good?
“In the long run, pull-ups are definitely better, as they greatly increase the role of your shoulder and scapular stabilizers,” Robertson says.
The problem, he adds, is that very few people do pull-ups correctly. “If you can’t get your chest to the bar and actively depress your scapulae at the top, you aren’t ready for chins or pull-ups.”
If that’s the case, the lat pulldown can help you bridge the gap. But only if you do it right. And the hell of it is, a lot of people don’t even do lat pulldowns correctly. Don’t believe me? Watch the action at the lat-pulldown station for a few minutes. You’ll see older women pulling the bar down to their stomachs and meatheads stopping their reps six inches short of their eyebrows.
Both are using horrible form, for different reasons – the untrained newbies don’t know they’re supposed to use weights that are heavier than a window shade, and the veteran bodybuilders don’t know a weight is too heavy when they can’t pull it down to their upper chest with fully retracted and depressed shoulder blades.
You can practice the correct form right now with air pulldowns. Sit up straight, pretend you’re grabbing the bar using the same grip you’d use on a pull-up or pulldown (your hands just beyond shoulder-width apart, or whatever width you use on a barbell bench press). Now pull your shoulder blades together and down as you bring the imaginary bar to your chest.
You should feel as if you’re pushing your chest out to meet the bar. If your chest isn’t moving, if all the action is in your shoulders and lats, you aren’t doing it right.
Once you have that movement mastered on the lat pulldown, it’s time to move onward and upward.
The Perfect Chin-Up
The chin-up is the forerunner to the pull-up, since it’s generally easier to do and still works a lot of the same muscles, including your lats and lower traps. And since your biceps come into play, it’s also a mass-builder for your arms.
Robertson even uses a static-hold chin-up (holding for 20 seconds at the top) to enhance lower-trap recruitment, which helps ward off shoulder problems.
To perform the perfect chin-up, grab the bar underhand with your hands slightly less than shoulder-width apart. Start each rep at a dead hang, and then pull yourself up until your chest touches the bar. Hold for a beat at the top, and then lower yourself with control. Don’t flop down like everyone else – you’ll lose tension in the working muscles.
The Perfect Pull-Up
Grab the bar overhand with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Start each rep at a dead hang. “Set” your scapulae by arching your back slightly and pushing your chest out. This will ensure you’re pulling with the correct muscles and not just using your arms. Pull yourself up until the top of your chest touches the bar. Hold for a beat at the top, and then lower yourself with control. Again, don’t flop down. You want to keep your upper-back muscles under tension.
Too remedial? Okay, fine, let’s assume you’re a typical T NATION reader, and you can do chin-ups and pull-ups with perfect form. The problem is that you can’t do a lot of them. You know the biggest benefits come when you knock out sets of 10 reps, whereas right now the only way you can get 10 reps is with two sets of five.
We asked our coaches for some strategies, and they delivered five ways to double your rep total in a matter of weeks.
Strategy 1: Volume
Let’s say your one-set max right now is six pull-ups. Poliquin suggests dividing that number by two, and doing 10 sets:
“Do 10 sets of three, and in subsequent workouts try to increase the total number of reps until you can do 10 sets of six. The day you can do 10 sets of six, then you’ll be able to do 12 by yourself. I’ve seen people do that in three weeks.”
Strategy 2: Negatives and Static Holds
Go to your last rep – doesn’t matter if it’s your third, fourth, fifth, or whatever – and on the last one lower yourself as slowly as possible. Take 30 seconds or longer, if you can. The goal is to increase strength endurance in your working muscles by continuing the set past the point of momentary muscular failure on the concentric part of the exercise.
If you normally get stuck at the same point in the pull-up (a few inches short of the top, for example), try holding yourself there for 20 to 30 seconds. Research on isometric muscle contractions has shown that they’re useful for increasing strength in a narrow range – 15 degrees above and below the point of the hold, give or take. So you can improve your strength exactly where you need it with isometric holds.
Strategy 3: Neutral Grip
Maybe you have some shoulder issues, and regular pull-ups aggravate them. Or perhaps there’s a significant gap between your performance in chin-ups and pull-ups – you can do six of one, but only a quarter-dozen of the other. The neutral-grip chin-up allows you to split the difference.
In the latter situation – you can do pull-ups without pain, but you’re just not very good at them – the problem could be with your elbow flexors. Your biceps are strong, and give your back muscles a lot of help on chin-ups. But on pull-ups, your biceps are more or less neutralized, with the arm power coming from your brachialis (a thick, strong muscle that lies between your biceps and your humerus) and brachioradialis, the forearm muscle that crosses your elbow joint and assists the brachialis in elbow flexion.
The neutral grip splits the difference – all three elbow flexors are engaged, giving your brachialis and brachioradialis a chance to catch up with your biceps.
If your gym doesn’t have a pull-up station with neutral-grip handles, you can take the triangle bar from the low-row station, set it over the pull-up bar, and pull yourself up to alternating sides. (Just make sure to hold onto the bar with one hand after your set is finished, and bring it down carefully. I don’t want to name names, but a certain T NATION editor admits to carrying scar tissue on his hairless scalp from the time he let go of the handle at the end of a set.)
Strategy 4: Band Aid
Get a basic exercise band, loop one end around the top of the bar, and place one ankle in the other loop. Now you have a boost that allows you to increase reps until you can do higher-reps sets without assistance.
According to Mike Robertson, band-assisted chin-ups offer several benefits:
- You don’t have to haul your entire body weight up, obviously.
- They give you the most assistance at the bottom (where you’re weakest), and the least assistance at the top (where you’re strongest).
- The muscle action is basically the same, so the strength and strength endurance you build with band assistance will transfer to unassisted pull-ups more readily than whatever strength you might build on your gym’s assisted pull-up machine.
- You can use smaller and smaller bands until you no longer need them.
Strategy 5: Grease the Groove
Practice, practice, practice. For a week, tell yourself you have to do one perfect pull-up every time you walk past the bar and no one’s using it.
You can also buy a doorway pull-up bar, and set it up in your home. Just make sure your doorframe is strong enough to support your body weight. (You’ll want to clear this with your wife or girlfriend first. They get kind of touchy about that whole alter-the-domicile-without-asking thing.)
Double Your Pull-Ups in Eight Weeks
“To get someone from five to 10 pull-ups, I’d start with higher-volume hypertrophy work for the first three weeks,” says trainer Chris Bathke. “We need to build your pulling muscles.”
Try this eight-week program from Bathke, and double the number of pull-ups you can do. The workout assumes you’ll do upper-body pulling exercises twice a week, separated by at least two days.
- Workout 1: Band-assisted pull-up with a medium band, 3 x 8.
- Workout 2: Dumbbell row, 3 x 8-10. Don’t work to failure – leave 2 reps in the tank on each set.
- Workout: Band-assisted pull-up with a medium band, 3 x 9.
- Workout 2: Dumbbell row, 3 x 8. You should be close to failure on the final rep of your final set.
- Workout: Band-assisted pull-up with a medium band, 4 x 8.
- Workout 2: Dumbbell row, 3 x 10, using the same weight you used for Week 2.
- Workout (test day): Body-weight pull-up, 1 x max reps.
- Workout 2: Dumbbell row, 2 x 15.
- Workout: Body-weight pull-up, 3 x 4 with slow negatives on reps 2 and 3.
- Workout 2: Inverted row, 2 x 8. (If you don’t know how to do this one, check out this article.
- Workout: Body-weight pull-up, 4 x 3 with slow negatives on reps 2 and 3.
- Workout 2: Inverted row, 3 x 8.
- Workout: Body-weight pull-up, 4 x 4 with slow negatives on reps 2 and 3.
- Workout 2: Inverted row, 3 x 10.
- Workout (test day): Body-weight pull-up, 1 x max reps.
The Next Level
Now that you’ve hit double digits in pull-up reps (or if you could already do double digits before you started reading, and this is the first part of the article that applies to you), it’s time to add some weight.
Looking for a benchmark? Poliquin, who has admittedly high standards, offers this: “Anyone who can do three dead-hang pull-ups with an additional load equivalent to 66% of their body weight is pretty damn impressive.”
Thus, to hit the Poliquin Standard, a 180-pounder would need to do three pull-ups from a dead hang with an additional 120 pounds dangling from his waist.
Assuming you aren’t at that level already, Robertson recommends this program:
One workout a week for four weeks, do weighted pull-ups or chin-ups – 5 to 8 sets, 3 to 5 reps. After four weeks, go back to body-weight chins or pull-ups for max reps. “You’ll be surprised at the improvements,” he says.
If you’re not looking to impress King Charles, here are two variations you can try, partly because they’re slightly different movement patterns that should stimulate new muscle growth, and partly just for the hell of it.
Start in the dead-hang pull-up position. Instead of pulling straight up, pull to your left side, touching the top of your left pectoral to the bar. Descend under control, then do the same thing to the right. You can also go side-to-side for two reps before descending: pull to the left, hold at the top, transition to the right, then lower yourself. Start the next rep by pulling to your right.
Get two sweat towels, wrap them around the bar, grab the ends, and do a neutral-grip pull-up. This really stresses your grip and forearms. If you can hold on for more than three reps the first time you try it, consider yourself a stud.
If you rarely get above the bar, you’re truly missing out on one of the best mass-building exercises there is – not to mention the opportunity to observe the ancestral dust on top of the power rack.
For those of you who want to go from single to double digits, try the eight-week program. For those who want to get from one set of 10 or 12 to multiple sets with 10 or more reps, try some of the other techniques and advanced versions of the exercise.
While you’re trying them out, let us know what other exercises, techniques, and essential gym knowledge you’d like us to cover in this series.