Pull-ups are probably one of the most underrated bodybuilding exercises out there – and definitely one of our favorites. It’s a compound lift so it works a lot of different muscles – your back, biceps and forearms. Which is why you need to learn how to do stronger pull-ups.
Also, it’s a great indicator of just how good your overall fitness level is. Even being able to do a single pull-up is good, but if you can do over 10 then you are in fantastic shape. It’s also not just about how muscular you are – you also have to be lean.
Since you are lifting your own weight you see fat guys at the gym who can’t do a single one despite being able to bench press 200+ pounds.
You can also do them easily with minimal equipment, which is why a lot of parks and beaches in Los Angeles and Miami put them up so people can come get a good workout for cheap.
So having said all of that, we have to deliver the bad news – they are actually quite difficult to perform, particularly if you are new to bodybuilding. The vast majority of people out there can’t so a single one – which makes it frustrating and is a reason why people opt for easier exercises.
After all, how are you supposed to get better at pull-ups if you can’t do a single one? Well, you’re in luck because today we are putting together the ultimate pull-up guide. This article will be filled with tips that will have you well on your way to improving your pull-up count, or doing your first one for that matter.
As mentioned earlier, the heavier you are the harder it will be to perform a pull-up. As a result, you are going to have a hard time performing 10+ pull-ups if you are over 20% bodyfat.
That’s not to say you can’t get started on them now. In fact, you will be working your back and arms pretty hard because they will be lifting up so much weight. If, however, your goal is to be able to do a large number of pull-ups you are going to want to cut down your body fat level.
You are also going to want to make your back progress more of a priority. Too many people tend to throw in a few back exercises at the end of their workouts, after working other muscle groups.
You will want to change this to work back first, after-all, it is a much bigger muscle group. Your pull-ups (and overall appearance) will progress a lot faster as a result.
The exercises below should be done for 3 sets of 8 reps which is a solid hypertrophy range.
If you want to move faster try 3 sets of 5 reps, but this is not necessary. Also please keep in mind that this guide is just a suggestion and does not need to be followed exactly. If you feel you are able to progress faster or do more pull-ups sooner then just go for it!
Everyone progresses at a different rate and if you are able to break through a plateau faster than others then just go for it.
Complete Guide How To Do Stronger Pull-Ups
Stage 1: Bent-Over Rows
This back exercise is pretty straight-forward and hard to screw up. Hence why we have left it for stage one. Additionally you can find a dumbbell size that challenges you while still being able to perform proper form, so performing 3 sets of 8 reps is definitely possible.
If you are starting at this level you probably not in the best of shape but don’t worry – we’ll have you doing pull-ups in no time! Take 2 minutes break in between each set and as soon as you are able to do 3 sets of 8 reps easily then move up to a higher weight. Once you get to 25 pound dumbbells or higher, move up to the next level.
However, if you are a bigger guy, you might want to do these up until 40 pound dumbbells otherwise you might find the next exercise to be too difficult.
Stage 2: Body Weight Rows
This is a great exercise because it works a lot of the same muscles as pull-ups, plus it gets you used to using your own bodyweight as the source of resistance.
Also you are able to adjust the angle you work at so that it suits your own body composition better. This is one of the reasons we hate machines – they lock you into a specific range of motion that may not be comfortable or natural for your own body not to mention they don’t work the support muscles nearly as much.
Start with the bar higher up as that will make them easier and work your way further down until you are nearly parallel with the ground and your feet are far out in front of you.
You are going to want to keep your core tight during the exercise to help stabilize you. Also get used to the idea of using the back muscles by making a conscious effort to engage them. As with the previous exercise, you will want to make things more difficult once you are able to comfortably perform 3 sets of 8 reps.
If you need to make things easier you can bend your knees and lay your feet flat on the ground.
Stage 3: Assisted Pull-Ups
If you started at dumbell rows and made it to here good work, you are making solid progress and you are well on your way to blasting out sets of pull-ups like a champ.
However, making the jump from rows to pull-ups can be tricky, hence why we added in the assisted pull-up exercise. It gets you used to the movement and teaches you how to engage the right muscles while still allowing you to progress towards your ultimate goal.
Now you might have seen people doing pull-ups at the gym on one of those assistance machines where your knees are rested on a platform. We actually don’t recommend this exercise as it is actually doesn’t fully mimic the pull-up particularly when it comes to the involvement of your core muscles.
If it’s the only option you have then go for it, but we recommend trying one of these alternatives if you are able to do.
The first is to perform assisted pull-ups with a chair. That means leaving your feet on the top of a chair for a bit of support (don’t rely on it too much) while you go through the motion of the exercise.
Again, make sure you are using your own muscles as much as possible particularly on the way down.
Second, try performing pull-ups with an exercise band. Put your foot on the band as you are performing these and you will see how it gives you a nice boost at the bottom of the exercise which is where most people struggle.
Finally, try asking a partner to help you perform pull-ups. They will give you a boost at the bottom but if they are at least somewhat competent they will know to only give you as little support as needed to get through the exercise.
It will make it a lot harder to cheat and they can adjust their support to keep you going for a few more reps.
No matter which one you choose make sure you keep your core tight otherwise you will be swinging around like crazy. One of the challenges of pull-ups is not only lifting your weight but also preventing yourself from swinging back and forth.
This translates to superior development of the supporting muscles not to mention a great core workout. How many people do you see doing 10+ pull-ups that also have noticeable stomach fat?
Probably not too many. You also want to focus on using the back muscles throughout the exercise – imagine you are pulling the bar towards you using your back, your arms only there to link the bar to the back.
Make sure you aren’t relying too much on support or your progress will stall – as soon as one method or support level gets easy then move right onto the next one.
Stage 4: Negative Pull-Ups
This exercise can also be used in place of stage 3 if you lack the necessary equipment (rubber band, partner to hold your feet, etc) to perform those assistance exercises. This one only requires a pull-up bar but we’re warning you it’s going to make you sore the next day. Negative pull-ups focus on the downward portion of the movement.
You see, even though you might not be strong enough to pull yourself up over the bar, you are likely strong enough to lower yourself in a slow, controlled manner. Despite what many people think, that part of the exercise still works the muscles a lot and can build the necessary strength to eventually do a full pull-up.
To perform these, grab onto the bar and use momentum (a jump for example) to get yourself over the bar and lower yourself slowly until your arms are fully extended. At that point, jump up over the bar again and lower yourself. If you are very overweight don’t perform too many of these as it can be dangerous, so start with 1-3 at first.
You want to make sure everything is done under control here – as soon as you find you are dropping down in an uncontrolled manner you are no longer benefiting from the exercise and in fact are putting a lot of stress on the joints so only perform as many reps as you can handle.
Try counting to three while performing the negative – that’s a good pace to be going at here.
Perform up to five negative reps in a given set then give yourself a 2-3 minute rest and start the next set. Once you are able to perform 3 sets of 5 reps with proper form you are definitely ready to be doing pull-ups.
Don’t do more than 3 sets of these as they put a lot of stress on your back and arm muscles.
Also don’t be shocked when you wake up the next day with some heavy DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) all over your upper body and possibly even your core.
Stage 5: Chin-Ups and Pull-Ups
Alright so you’ve spent anywhere from a few weeks to months getting up to this point and now you are ready to do some pull-ups. Congratulations, you are in better shape than 90% of the population.
If you don’t weigh too much and were able to perform the negative and assisted reps easily then you might even already be able to do more than one of these. We recommend starting with chin-ups (hands facing you) as these involve the biceps more and are easier to perform – particularly if you have spent a lot of time doing bicep work in the past (so basically everyone).
In terms of your form, you will want to keep your shoulder blades back throughout the movement and focus on pulling the bar down towards you.
Remember, your arms are just hooks linking your back to the bar. You will also want to keep your core clenched tight during the movement to stop you from swinging around.
Pull yourself up until your chin is above the bar, otherwise it doesn’t count as a full rep. If you are only able to perform one rep, just lower yourself slowly (so you get the benefits of the negative portion of the rep) and rest for a minute before performing the second set.
If you are unable to perform any more full reps after the first or second set just switch to doing negatives for the last few sets as you likely still have enough strength in the muscles to perform that negative portion a few more times.
Stage 6: Beyond
If you have made it this far congratulations, you are well on your way to building a great upper body. Once you are able to do 3 sets of 10 pull-ups you have a number of options to make things more difficult.
The most obvious one is to keep increasing the number of reps – to 12, 15 or even 20 reps per set. You can also switch up your form, going for wide-grip pull ups, side to side pull-ups, and a variety of other cool-looking movements. Finally, you can add weight to the exercise and perform weighted pull-ups and chin-ups.
Fortunately, you don’t actually have to put on fat in order to do this. You can actually get yourself a weight belt online which will allow you to hang weights down below your legs which feels more natural than putting them in a backpack.
Don’t be adding too much weight at a time – maybe 2.5 lbs per workout. Some people feel stupid putting such little weight on a belt but hey, you are still stronger than most people and within a few months you will be doing pull-ups with a lot of extra weight which will be sure to impress some of the sloots at your gym.
Like any exercise you want to make sure you are constantly adding more weight, doing more reps or more sets – otherwise you will not be progressively overloading the muscles and causing them to grow larger.
There you have it guys, a guide that will have you doing pull-ups like a champ in no time. In addition to being a great test of your overall strength and athleticism pull-ups are actually a great back-exercise.
They hit all the right muscles and have even been shown to give your core a good workout. That’s because they truly are a compound movement – the entire body needs to work hard to do these.
The great Arnold Schwarzenegger and the other guys working out at Gold’s used to do a ton of these on back day before even attempting any other movement.
It’s an exercise that is universally loved by old-school bodybuilders and new ones, not to mention there are limitless options on how you can modify the exercise to hit different parts of the back and challenge you in new ways.
Remember that anyone, no matter how out of shape you are, can do pull-ups eventually with the right amount of dedication. Move through the steps listed above at your own pace – no need to rush anything but if you feel you are able to move to the next step then go for it.
The important thing is that you are consistently making progress and challenging your body in new ways. We know guys who couldn’t even do a single pull-up when they first started who are now competing in contests and getting sponsorship deals from supplement companies.
Before long you will be doing weighted pull-ups with three 45lb plates attached to you like an absolute monster.