Pull-ups for Muscle Mass

By Drew Price MAppSc CSCS

Think of your favourite training montage from any film; the one where the hero is in training, the one where you know they mean business… chances are he, or she, will be doing pull ups. There are very few exercises that involve just using your body weight that are as demanding and down right impressive as pull ups. It’s simple, effective and looks badass!

muscular man doing pull-ups in the gym

Why you need to do pull ups?

This movement is one of the core exercises of your upper body muscle building and conditioning workout; it stimulates growth all the way through the back, giving your torso that tapered V that we all desire. Need more convincing? How about this: pull ups and their relative the chin-up are about the most effect arm builders around overloading biceps and building strength in the forearms and they’ll help build your beach muscle: your shoulders and chest, I’ll explain…

As the name suggests pull ups are a pulling movement, this action of pulling your elbows down by your sides from way up over your head involves a lot of hard work by the several muscles groups of the back through a large range of motion; this is very important. More often than not, trainees tend to do too much bench pressing and other pushing work relative to pulling exercises. This means that strength imbalances can start to form around the shoulder joint where you’re very strong pushing but you’re pulling muscles become weakened, leading to or worsening poor posture and often encouraging injury.

We’re all familiar with the ‘bench-n-biceps’ crew and their hunched over look. By improving your pull up you strengthen the muscles of the back, posterior shoulder and between the shoulder blades, as well as the more showy lats and biceps. This helps keep you healthy but also carries over into strength gains in a range of other movements; and while the pecs and shoulders may be beach muscle you should heed the old saying ‘a strong back makes a strong man’.

Aren’t lateral pulldowns just as good?

Well, would John Rambo be caught dead doing a lat pull down?

Seriously though, the lat pull down is a quite different movement. There are times when a lat pulldown is the right choice but if, like me, you go to the gym to train in the most effective manner you’ll want to focus on developing your pull ups. Lat pulldowns are a great segue into a proper pull up; a transitional movement and no replacement for the real thing. It’s harder to cheat on a pull up which makes them a tough and effective movement to build both strength and size. At other times pulldowns can be used as an overloading type movement, etc but always aim to increase your pull ups first.

If you are a planning on developing your pull up using the lat pulldown remember there’s one way to do it: pull the bar down in front of you in a controlled manner until it just about touches your chest just below your collarbones. If you can pull it down to your belly it’s too light, if you can only get it down to your forehead it’s too heavy. Build the right range of motion whilst using as much weight as possible. Too many people do pull ups badly and even more do pulldowns badly.

Pull ups defined

Start position

The pull up starts with you gripping the bar from just outside shoulder width, or wider, apart. Your palms should be facing away so you can see your knuckles and not your palms.

The pull

In a controlled manner you pull yourself from a dead hang up to the bar (using either a good power tower or pull-up / chin-up bar). There’s other versions but for a strict pull up try not to swing or flail with the legs; many cross their legs at the ankle a little for stability. Note the following two points:

  • Pull your shoulders down away from your ears first (like a reverse shrug) and then pull your chest up to the bar.
  • Keep your head and neck in neutral. Do not stick your chin out – look after your spine.

The arrival

The first mistake most people make is to think they’ve ‘arrived’ when their chin gets over the bar; this is NOT the case. A proper complete pull-up should see you get the bar all the way to your upper chest, this demands more work but there’s a good reason for that – more on this later. As I say, keep your neck in neutral – no lunging to get the chin over the bar!

Returning to the start:

After chest reaches the bar you let yourself down in a controlled manner until you are again at a dead hang.

That’s one rep. Notice I said ‘dead hang’; the next rep should start from the dead hang, not a nearly dead hang with your elbows bent and certainly not from halfway up to the bar. These two factors: starting from the hang and getting the bar all the way to your upper chest are important: they train and improve your range of motion making the work harder but more effective at building strength and muscle where you need it.

Why so picky about form?

Remember I said about the bar to chest factor? In the gym we’re in the business of training the body in the most effective manner; let’s face it, most gyms are expensive and reasonably unpleasant places to be so we might as well get the best bang for a buck whilst training. You abuse the muscles of your back daily with poor posture and sitting at desks. When you get to the top of the movement with your chest coming to the bar you should have a feeling of squeezing your shoulders back and your shoulder blades down and together.

By doing this you activate and strengthen the hugely important muscles responsible for pulling your shoulders back, but better posture is not the only advantage. Most people who injure their shoulders bench pressing are not activating the lower traps properly. Talk to any powerlifter and they’ll tell you how important it is to bring their shoulder blades down the back, so by training the back properly you also improve your bench press and thus your chest. Add in stronger and more stable shoulders and you have a recipe for more strength on squats, deadlifts, benching, shoulder pressing… in fact, just about everything.

Again, keep your head and neck in neutral, your cervical (neck) spine is loaded not only by the weight of your head but also with force exerted by the traps, rhomboids, levator scapulae, etc. At no other time would you try and sacrifice a strong spine position under load so why are you sticking your chin out?

Getting started – how to do pull ups

Of course pull ups are difficult; if they were easy everyone would do them and getting started is the most difficult part is how to do it.

Stage one: building your pull up

Concentrate on your lat pulldown strength and range of motion and throw in a few jumping pull ups at the beginning and end of every workout. The jumping pull up is simple you stand underneath the bar, on a platform if needs be, grip the bar, jump up and slowly lower yourself down under control taking about 2 to 3 seconds to do this. Every workout aim to do about 10 of these this will develop your strength through a range of motion very quickly connecting your brain to your lats.

Stage two: greasing the groove

Once you have one pull up you’re ready to get serious. Greasing the groove is a term popularised by Pavel Tsouline, a former trainer of Spetsnaz, the Russian Special Forces. Simply put, it means every time you get the chance, do one pull up. In practice this means every time you’re at the gym and you walk past the pull up bar complete one strict pull up. All the single repetitions add up but because they’re separated by a significant amount of rest time it won’t smoke the muscle too much. After a few days or weeks you’ll notice a very significant improvement in your pull-ups.

Pull up variations

Chin ups

A pull up with your hands facing you is a chin up. This is rows with more emphasis on the bicep and is a great bicep building exercise. Why curl 15kg dumbbells when you can hang your whole body weight off your arms and lift that as well and also train your back at the same time?

Weighted pull ups

Using a dumbbell held with the feet or a backpack add extra weight to build even more strength in the back.

Kipping pull ups

Swinging the legs forward and then using a hip thrust as you pull up to make the rep easier: great for incorporating high rep sets into a conditioning workout.

Side to side pull ups

Hands 1.5 shoulder widths apart, pull up with the left shoulder to the left hand then down and right shoulder to the right hand and down and repeat.

One arm pull ups

The holy grail of pull ups, grip the bar with one arm and pull, for extra help hold the wrist of the pulling arm with the other hand and pull with both arms.

Putting the pull up into your workout

Obviously the pull up belongs on the day when you’re training your back. Because it’s a difficult exercise and involves training for a large range of motion, it’s usually best to do them first before any rowing movements, for example.

If it’s muscle gain you’re after, it’s advisable to complete 30 or more reps in total and it doesn’t matter if you can only do three in a row; just do more sets. For example, 6 sets of 5, but remember they can be used in a variety of ways.

Back training workout

  • Pull up: 6 sets of 5 reps (weighted, if needed)
  • Bent over dumbbell row: 4 sets of 8
  • Barbell deadlift: 3 sets of 8
  • Followed by biceps training

Conditioning workout

  • 10 minutes of the circuit
  • 18 bodyweight squats
  • 16 press ups
  • 8 pull ups (kipping, if needed)

Antagonistic super set workout for upper body

This is a ‘vertical’ workout; you could do rows and bench presses in another session later in the week.

  • a1) Pull ups medium wide grip, 5 sets of 7 (weighted, if needed)
  • a2) Barbell shoulder press, 4 sets of 8
  • b1) Chin ups, 3 sets of 12 (weighted, if needed)
  • b2) Dips, 3 sets of 12 (weighted, if needed)
  • c1&2) Arms movements of your choice

Pull ups are a fundamental movement and directly will build bigger, stronger arms and back; however, they will help pretty much every other part of your body as well. Lat pulldowns can’t replace them, so if a bigger stronger body interests you get working on them today.

About the author
Drew Price is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and Registered Nutritionist. He consults for elite sports teams and works with athletes or all shapes sizes in clinic and gym in London..
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