Pull-ups take the cake in terms of bodyweight exercises. Grabbing a bar and performing a few reps is enough to impress almost any of your friends. However, it can be extremely difficult to build your numbers into a large set. The pull-up requires a unique combination of relative strength (strength in relation to your bodyweight) along with core and grip strength. Absolute strength - the ability to hoist an impressive overall weight - matters less if you can’t control your own body.
To boost your numbers, you need to do more than lift heavy. Improving your relative strength takes a lot of practice. Bodyweight exercises take time to improve just like any other skill in the gym. They also require intense focus on form. A few small errors in technique can make an exercise much harder than it should be. Fix your form and you’re on the way to new records. To further elevate your numbers, your program should include variety to challenge the same movement in a different way multiple times throughout the week.
Fix Your Pull-up Form
Pull-ups are all about efficiency. You want to be moving the shortest length possible to make each rep smooth and effective. The majority of guys are messing up along the way, increasing the difficulty of the exercise and leading to potential injury down the road. There are two main points during the move to focus on form and improve technique.
The Set-up: As you hang from the bar, engage your core and avoid the use of your lower body in any way . Your stomach should be pulled in and your hips should be level. The Motion: Avoid the urge to push yourself away from the bar and move your torso in a circular fashion. Your goal should be to pull yourself straight up towards the bar, driving your elbows towards your sides. Moving in a circular fashion may make the exercise easier, but it also puts your shoulder at an increased risk of injury.
Five Pull-up Variations for More Strength
Even with the best form, performing the same variation day after day leads to boredom and plateaus. To boost your numbers and build up your strength, try mastering these five pull-up variations.
1) Mechanical Advantage Drop Sets
This variation makes use of different grips to decrease the difficulty of the exercise as the set goes on, allowing you to perform more reps. Start with a wide grip to focus most of the work on the lats. Perform as many reps as possible. When you’re tired, move to a parallel grip, which engages more of the biceps, and perform a few more reps. Lastly, move to an underhand chin-up grip to finish off your lats and biceps.
2) 1½ Pull-ups
Range of motion is a prime method to increase the difficulty of an exercise. This variation uses both full range and partial range of motion to fatigue your entire back. Start by performing a typical pull-up starting from a dead hang and finishing with your chin over the bar. As you lower back down, stop once your elbows reach 90 degrees and pull yourself back up over the bar. Lower all the way down. That’s one rep.
3) Assisted Single Arm Pull-ups
Using assistance on this impressive variation helps you improve strength while still preserving form. In terms of assistance, there are two main options. The first option is to use a band to help yourself out. Attach a resistance band to the bar. Place your resting hand on the band while you grab the bar with the other arm. As you pull up, pull down on the band with the other hand to help yourself up. As you get stronger, use a lighter band to get less help. The other method is to lock your helping hand around your wrist. As you pull up, you can pull down on your wrist to give yourself a boost.
4) Pull-up Negatives
Building up eccentric strength (think lowering a weight under control) is imperative for increasing your pull-up numbers. Eccentric exercises put a greater strain on your muscle meaning they spur more growth and adaptation. Start this variation by performing a standard pull-up, getting your chin over the bar. Focus on lowering as slow as possible. Aim for at least five seconds on the way down. Pull yourself back up and repeat. If you find you’re getting too fatigued to pull yourself up, resort to jumping from a box or step to get your chin over the bar and continue to lower under control.
5) Alternating Grips Pull-up
Using the same grip over and over gets monotonous and leads to a plateau. Use this variation to build insane amounts of forearm and grip strength. Start with an overhand grip slightly wider than shoulder width apart. Perform a pull-up as usual. At the top of the motion, change one hand to an underhand grip so your hands are alternating. Lower slowly then pull yourself back up to the bar. Move your other hand to an underhand grip so you’re in a chin-up position. Repeat changing your grips each rep until fatigued.
5 Ways to Amp Up Your Pull-ups
Improve your results on this bodyweight exercise by mastering new variations.
By Jeremey DuVall, M.S., CPT