Note: this is a guest article by John Sifferman, author of The Pull-up Solution.
Pull-ups and chin-ups are some of the best exercises for building strength throughout your whole upper body. They also happen to be some of the most effective muscle builders for your back. Ask any bodybuilder or physique athlete, and they’ll tell you pull-ups are a main-stay in their back training because no other exercise builds a better back than pull-ups, chin-ups, and their many variations. Plus, they can do wonders for your arms, shoulders, and abs, too. Of course, there are other exercises you should prioritize for your back development. But if you want to bring out the best in your back and upper body muscles, you’ll want to get really good at pull-ups and chin-ups.
Now, this is easier said than done because pull-ups are a very difficult exercise for most people. So, you’ve got to be smart about training them or else you end up injured or getting nowhere. The solution is smart training. So, in this article, you’ll learn some of the best strategies to increase your pull-up numbers and use them to build a beautiful, powerful back.
How to do More Pull-ups (Top 2 Strategies)
First things first, you need to be able to do pull-ups to benefit from them. And many people, even experienced fitness athletes and enthusiasts, cannot do a single one. So, here are a couple of the fastest ways to increase your pull-up reps, regardless of how many you can or can’t do.
1) Grease the Groove Method
Greasing the groove is the single most effective method for rapidly increasing your pull-up strength and performance, regardless of your conditioning level (e.g. whether you can do zero reps or 20 reps).
Here’s how to do it: Several days per week, do several sets of pull-ups throughout the day. All sets should be performed with proper form at a sub-maximal intensity – and stopped well before muscle failure. Also, make it a point to do a few more reps each day, if possible, over the course of your GTG cycle so that your total training volume is increasing.
For best results, grease the groove for 3-6 weeks.
2) Pull-up Ladder Workouts (AKA “Pyramids”)
If greasing the groove isn’t practical or possible for you, or if you’d just like to plug some pull-up training into your normal workouts, then pyramids would be a superb alternative.
Here’s how to do it: After your warmup, start the pull up ladder by performing one repetition, and then rest for about 10 seconds or so. Then perform two reps (rest ≈ 20 seconds), perform three reps (rest ≈ 30 seconds), and so on and so forth until you max out and cannot complete the next step (e.g. your next set is supposed to be 6 reps, but you could only do 5). Rest as much as necessary between sets (10-15 seconds per repetition is a good rule of thumb). And then repeat the same process backwards to go back down the ladder.
Here’s an example…
First set: 1 repetition
Second set: 2 reps
Third set: 3 reps
Fourth set: 4 reps
Fifth set: 5 reps (max)
Sixth set: 4 reps
Seventh set: 3 reps
Eighth set: 2 reps
Ninth set: 1 rep
This method will be very effective for building your pull-up numbers. Once you’ve performed your max effort set, some of the following sets will likely be max or near-max efforts, too.
Tip: Rest as much as necessary to complete the following set. When descending the ladder, if you can’t hit your target repetitions during a particular set, feel free to perform assisted reps, negative reps, or another easier variation of the exercise to finish out the set.
Working Up To Your First Pull-up
If you can’t do any pull-ups yet, use the following progressions to build up to them:
1. Dead Hangs – hang from the bar with elbows locked and shoulders packed for time
2. Flexed Arm Hangs – hold the top position of the pull-up exercise for time (i.e. with your chin over the bar)
3. Negative Reps – start in the top position and slowly lower yourself down to the bottom, deadhang position (i.e. only the eccentric portion of the exercise)
4. Assisted Pull-ups – support some of your weight with a resistance band, partner, or assisted pull-up machine to help you complete the reps.
Note: you can use these exercises during your grease the groove and/or ladder workouts.
Using Pull-ups To Build Muscle and Sculpt Your Upper Body
Incorporating pull-ups into your training will help you build muscle no matter what your level is, whether you can do two reps or twenty. And once you can do a handful of reps, it opens up some new possibilities to enhance your physique. So, here are some ways to use pull-ups to maximize your upper body development and bring out the best in your back, arms, shoulders, and core.
1) Make good use of variety.
To truly maximize the muscle building benefits you receive from pull-ups, you’ll want to use them in a variety of ways.
a) You can vary your grip and hand placement to emphasize different areas of your muscles. For example, you can do pull-ups (i.e. with palms facing away from you), chin-ups (i.e. with palms facing toward you), or neutral-grip pull-ups (i.e. with palms facing each other on a set of parallel bars). You can also use a wider grip or narrower grip, which will stimulate the body in different ways.
b) You can vary your repetition speed (e.g. slow reps, fast reps, isometrics, etc.).
c) You can vary the number of reps you do per set (e.g. high rep sets using just bodyweight and/or assistance, or low rep sets using extra weight or an advanced pull-up exercise such as one-arm pull-ups).
d) You can vary what you’re holding onto. For example, you can do your pull-ups on a straight bar, thick bar, towel wrapped around the bar, rope(s), rings, among other implements. Each tool provides unique benefits.
2) Use targeted exercises to emphasize certain areas.
Some pull-up exercises are particularly good for building certain areas of your musculature. For example, standard pull-ups are generally best for your lats. Whereas, chin-ups are generally best for your biceps. Here are some more pull-up variations that will help bring out a certain area of your upper body musculature.
Note: these are very general descriptions since all pull-up exercises train the same muscle groups to varying degrees.
a) Wide grip pull-ups and chin-ups (i.e. great for increasing back width) – Grip the bar with your hands placed wider than shoulder width apart.
b) Close grip pull-ups and chin-ups (i.e. great for improving arms and upper back) – Grip the bar with your hands placed narrower than shoulder width apart.
c) Sternum pull-ups (AKA “perfect pull-ups” and “Gironda pull-ups”, which are great for developing your lats and mid back) – When pulling up, arch your back so that you pull your sternum to the bar.
d) Side to side pull-ups (i.e. great for increasing the tension on the muscles and also for working up to one arm pull-ups) – From the deadhang position, pull yourself up towards one hand, emphasizing that side of your body as you pull. Alternate from side to side.
e) L-sit pull-ups and chin-ups (i.e. great for increasing the core challenge and building your abs) – Simply raise your knees or your legs out in front of you so that your hips are at a 90 degree angle (i.e. like you are “sitting” in the air). This is just like performing an isometric hanging knee raise or leg raise while doing pull-ups.
3) Put your
back whole body into it.
While the pull-up most certainly emphasizes the muscles of the back and arms (i.e. lats, biceps, forearms), when performed properly, it is a full body exercise. And when you train it this way, it kills two birds with one stone.
First, it ensures that you’re maximizing your results from the exercise. In fact, some people notice an immediate improvement in their strength and performance (i.e. able to do more reps) once they tie everything together. And secondly, it ensures that you’re minimizing the risk of injury, which is important regardless of who you are, but especially for those who are a little older or have more years of training experience.
So, here is a comprehensive tutorial on optimal pull-up technique. I guarantee you’ll learn something new from this in-depth how-to video…
With these strategies, you’ll be well on your way to increasing your pull-ups strength and building a powerful back. If you put these tips to work for you, you’ll likely start to notice results within a couple of weeks. And you’ll probably start to notice changes in the mirror within a month or two.
So, if you want to strengthen your arm, back, and core muscles, spread your wings (lats) to create that V-tapered back appearance, and increase your vertical pulling strength, put some of these ideas into action today and get on a good program ASAP.
Want to do More Pull-ups?
About the Author
John Sifferman is a health-first fitness coach and the author of The Pull-up Solution: The Complete Pull-up and Chin-up Training System, which helps people rapidly increase their pull-up numbers in three months or less. You can learn how John dramatically improved his pull-up performance and has helped thousands of people do the same with a unique twist on pull-up training at his website www.ThePullupSolution.com.