Here’s something fun to look for the next time you head to the gym: count how many people you see doing lat pull-downs compared to how many you see doing pull-ups. I’ll bet you a pitcher of Guinness that the lat pull-down station has more groupies than a Justin Timberlake concert.
And if there happens to be anyone at the pull-up bar trying to crank out reps, I’ll bet you another pitcher that their reps are few in number and ugly to boot…they’ve got the right idea but the wrong technique. Well, I’m here to fix that.
Latching onto a bar with your full bodyweight in tow can be a much more humbling experience than sitting at a machine where dignity can be preserved with a quick change of the selector pin on the weight stack. This is why many people end up getting stuck in Lat Pull-down Land, and fail to ever perform a single set of double-digit pull-ups.
It doesn’t have to be this way. With the right plan in mind and some well-applied effort, you can easily surpass the average gym rat’s five pullups and be knocking out sets of ten to fifteen.
Why should you get better at pull-ups? Good question.
Pull-ups are necessary for building a wide muscular back and play a major role in arm, shoulder, and trap development. They recruit a huge amount of upper body muscle and, if done correctly, activate the high threshold motor units responsible for explosive movements and dense muscle growth. Additionally, when properly performed, they strengthen the musculature responsible for depressing and retracting the scapulae and help to keep your shoulders strong and safe from injury.
Pull-up or Chin-up?
To be clear, a pull-up is done with the palms forward, a chin-up is with the palms facing you, and a neutral grip means that the palms are facing each other.
Grip used for a Pull Up
Grip used for a Chin Up
So should you do chins, neutral grips, or pullups? Ideally you’d do all three, but let’s consider the differences:
Pull-ups are harder. This is because your biceps are in a mechanically less efficient position, which is fancy talk for “you can’t use them as much.” By putting the biceps in a weaker arrangement, you create a weak link. Movement will stop when this link fails, and the decreased load that you can use with pull-ups because of mechanical inefficiency at the elbow joint carries over to less loading on the lats. Therefore, the harder the movement, the less you can do.
I recommend mixing up the three variations, although beginners should start with the chin-up. Each exercise will place your joints under slightly dissimilar stressors and load the muscles a bit differently, causing you to build bigger muscles, and giving you better strength balance.
Fixed bar or handles?
Nearly every gym has a pull-up bar, but few have Olympic rings or blast straps, although the latter may be better for your wrists since they allow for natural rotation.
A free-moving handle or ring is the best of both worlds. Typically, the palms will move forward into pronation as the shoulders adduct fully at the bottom of the movement. Then, as you pull upwards, the palms will naturally supinate, allowing maximal loading, solid scapular retraction, and an efficient pull. This gives you a full range of motion with maximal loading and also minimizes strain on your wrists.
However, if all you have is a good old-fashioned straight bar, that’s fine too!
A Quality Rep
It doesn’t matter how hard you flail; it’s not considered a legitimate pull-up or chin-up unless the bar touches your sternum. One of the major benefits of either movement comes from the retraction and depression of the scapulae at the top of the movement (when your shoulder blades are down and back), and you can’t achieve this if you’re craning your head upward in order to barely tap the bottom of your chin on the bar.
Locking out the rep is not done with the arms, but with the shoulder blades.
Never Be Bored
As you get stronger on the chin-up and work your way through the neutral and pronated grips, you’re going to want to introduce some variations to keep your mind fresh and hit the muscles from new angles.
High threshold motor units (HTMUs) are the key to strength and size when it comes to pull-ups, and there are a variety of ways to recruit them. Cycling through these various methods will help you get bigger and stronger by taking advantage of these HTMUs and will allow you to keep some novelty in your program.
It’s probably been a while since your last physics class, but here’s a quick refresher: force equals mass multiplied by acceleration. With either of those components, you’ll find good means for generating maximal force.
We’ll start with acceleration, which is kind of like the Dynamic Effort day used in the Westside Barbell powerlifting method: you’re going to move a light weight extremely fast. The catch here is that most gym equipment requires that you also slow down and control anything that you move really fast, lest you throw small metal things through the wall.
Slowing down the bar diminishes motor unit recruitment and diminishes the benefits of the lift.
The first way to overcome this is to use bands. With bands, the amount of resistance increases throughout the range of motion to the extent that despite maximal muscular effort, the bar or implement decelerates on its own. That means you don’t have to try to stop the bar.
For these, you can use a dipping belt or a powerlifting belt, but I go with a parachute rigger’s belt since I know it will never break or come off. You can get them at tactical supply stores like London Bridge or Blackhawk online for about 25 bucks.
Loop the band through the belt, and choke the other end around a heavy dumbbell. I typically use a purple Jumpstretch band and occasionally add one more red or orange band, but you may have to adjust that depending on your strength levels and the height of your bar. Even a single red band can provide enough resistance at the top to encourage greater explosiveness.
Band Resisted Chin Ups
Another great method is using weighted chins. These are on the mass side of the mass-acceleration curve. For these, chins work much better than pullups because of the greater mechanical efficiency. You’re trying to produce as much force as possible, so you want to avoid weak links. According to Charles Poliquin, a good standard is to add two-thirds of your bodyweight for three reps. Surely, this would take some work to reach, but it’s a good goal nevertheless.
Weighted Chin Ups
A third option is to do standard chins, but with a single arm eccentric. Pull yourself up to the bar as you normally would, then lower yourself under control with only one arm, trying to slow yourself down as much as possible. You are capable of generating more force in an eccentric movement than a concentric, and this allows you to overload your muscles with more weight than they would normally handle. After lowering with one arm, pulling yourself back up with two will make you feel like you’re floating. For an added bonus, you can start by holding yourself at the top of the bar in a single-arm isometric before beginning the eccentric portion of the movement.
Single Arm Eccentric Chin Ups
If you’re having trouble locking out a single bodyweight pullup, or can only get two or three in one shot, you should go with band assistance in order to get in sufficient volume.
Bands allow you to stay in the same range of motion as a normal pullup, and provide the most assistance at the bottom, where you need it most. Most of their pull is dissipated by the time you’re at the top of the movement, leaving your muscles to pull their own weight.
The setup is simple. Just choke a band over the pullup bar and loop the other one around a foot. You can easily graduate to less assistance with a smaller band, or just loop the band over a bent knee instead of your foot.
Band Assisted Chin Ups
Putting it all together
If you’re stuck in the single-digits on chin-ups, advanced techniques like weighted chins are a lifesaver.
If you can do five reps with your bodyweight, you should be able to add ten or fifteen pounds and get sets of one or two reps. It’s important to focus on the quality of each individual rep and think of your workout in terms of total reps, not just a cool-looking set and rep scheme.
Twenty-five single reps done with added resistance or single arm eccentrics will result in a much higher level of motor unit recruitment than a 5×5 template using only bodyweight.
Let’s get to chinnin’!
This sample program will allow you to increase your strength levels in vertical pulling movements and get on the road to more muscle. If you’re stuck around five or six pullups in a single set, this should get you into double digits within two months or so.
This program assumes that you do upper body pulling twice per week, such as on Monday and Thursday, and that you can do about six reps in a single set. A day or two before you start, test yourself on max pullups to establish a baseline.
Workout 1 – Chin-ups, 25 total reps done as singles.
Do your rep, drop off the bar, and let your arms and back relax for ten to fifteen seconds. Aim for more rest initially until you get a feel for what you can do. Ensure that every single rep is perfect and that you feel a maximal contraction between your shoulder blades. Really focus on pulling your scapulae down and back. Don’t get impatient. This should feel easy at the beginning.
Workout 2 – Single-arm dumbbell row, 26 total reps per side done as 12 sets of 2 reps.
For these, you remain focused on quality reps and locking your scapula back as hard as you can on each rep. Perform two good reps, rest ten seconds or so, and then switch sides. Do your two reps there, rest about thirty seconds, and start over for twelve total sets.
Workout 1 – Weighted chin-up, 25 total reps done as singles.
Add weight only if you finished 25 single reps in the previous week without difficulty. This will be the same as last week, but this time you’ve got a little bit of weight strapped to your waist.
If you reach a point at which you can no longer lock out a single rep cleanly, stop the workout there and make a note to do the workout next week with less weight or more rest between sets. If you finish the workout easily, add weight to the belt next week.
Workout 2 – Single-arm dumbbell row, 26 total reps per side done as 12 sets of 2 reps.
Workout 1 – Band resisted chin-up, 26 total reps.
Speed is your goal here. Get your sternum to the bar as fast as you can and feel your scapulae retract maximally, then drop right back down. You can start these as sets of two reps, but drop down to singles if your rep speed slows at all on the second rep.
Workout 2 – Neutral grip cable row, 25 total reps, done as doubles or singles.
Once again, the focus here is on individual quality reps with as much motor unit recruitment as possible in each one. Focus on scapular function. Only pull the handle until you feel your shoulder blades lock all the way back; don’t keep rotating your arms back and force your shoulders to pitch forward. Use enough weight so that sets of two reps are challenging and give yourself enough rest between each set to make it all the way to the end.
Once week nine rolls around, you should be able to hop onto a bar and knock out around twice the number of reps that you could do two months ago. Keep experimenting and use your newfound strength to work up to triples (sets of three reps) with weight or band resistance. Stay with chins until you can get more than ten reps at a time, and then you can start working pull-ups into your routine.
Stick with it and soon you’ll be rewarded with increased upper body strength, size, and density and a really smug feeling as you walk past the guys who are still stuck in Lat Pull-down Land!
Written by Craig Weller
Discuss, comment or ask a question
If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Leave Lat Pull-Down Land and Build A Bigger Back discussion thread.
About Craig Weller
Craig spent six years as a member of a Naval Special Operations Force known as SWCC, the Special Warfare Combatant Crewmen.
The methods which result from this training philosophy are designed to deliver maximal results with improvised or non-existent equipment in as little time as possible for men whose lives depend on their physical abilities.
This passion for showing others the path to a stronger, healthier body stayed with Craig and led to the founding of Barefoot Fitness
You can keep up with his training methods on Facebook.