Pull Ups

If you can’t do a pull up, you’re either too fat or too weak. No ifs or buts. That’s the cold harsh reality, no sugar coating here. And for those of you laughing that you can do a pull up, if you cannot do a chin up with your equivalent bench press weight, then you have a muscle imbalance and you are still weak. And remember, I’m talking about a true and honest pullup; no lower body swinging, no cheating, no half distance ROM’s.

This simple exercise is probably the simplest, most effective and best indicator of total upper boddy strength. A lat pulldown just isn’t the same as a chin up and won’t have the same physiological effects on the body. Although, if you can’t do a pullup, the lat pulldown will be your new best friend, working your way up in weight, till you can lat pulldown your equivalent bodyweight, then you graduate to a pullup.

Pullups pretty much work all of the above

As we all know, the pullup obviously targets your back muscles, namely the latisimuss dorsi. For bodybuilding purposes, the pullup helps add width to the back and aid in getting those ‘wings’. The abdominals also get some assistance work in by stabilizing the body. Grip strength will also increase with pullups. Most interestingly however, in my view, the pullup is also the best bicep builder you can do for.

If you can’t do 10 pull ups then you have no business doing any type of dumbbell/barbell curl whatsoever. Flip the grip, so your grip is supinated (palms towards your face) and you start to place more emphasis the bicep brachii. Mechanically, you are now overloading the bicep muscle, since you are in effect ‘curling’ your body weight with the assistance of the latisimuss dorsi. I hardly ever do any direct bicep work these days and instead use pullups/chinups as a double whammy for both a wide back & big biceps

Want to add width to that back and impress those ladies with that sought after ‘V’ taper? I prescribe 50 pullups a day, everyday, in as many sets as it takes and making sure that each set isn’t to failure. What if you can do 50 pullups in a row no dramas? Well, you already have a thick back and should consider doing 100 pullups everyday. Now with this plan, there are a couple of options, you can perform all the sets in a row and then move on to your next exercise. Alternatively, you can spread the pullups throughout the workout. Squats supersetted with pullups has to be one of the most brutal supersets I have done and really rev up the metabolism and heart rate.

Franco demonstrates good height in the pullup. Chest to the bar

One thing that the 50 pullups a day won’t help with is to increase maximal strength. If this is your goal, then weighted pullups will be your tool. Now that I think about it, anyone interested in increasing strength should be doing weighted pullups, with a goal being to pull up the same weight as your bench press, E.g., if you can bench press 225lbs for 10 reps, you weigh 180lbs, you should then be able to do 10 pullups with a 45lb weight plate. You can either grap a dip belt to add the weight or grasp a dumbbell between your legs (this also activates the abductor muscles). Weighted pullups work better with lower reps, higher sets & as much weight as possible, going to failure on the last set.

Now I always advocate changing things up, so each time you do pullups, vary the grip and width, narrow, medium, wide and everything in between, if you have access to the TRX system, do pullups on them, if not try the rock climber grips, neutral, supinated, pronated, mixed. This will take full advantage of all the benefits from the different variations available and also minimise repetitive strain injuries from getting your joints too much ‘in the groove’.

A few points on form:

  • No kipping! (No cheating, i.e., swinging legs for momentum) Keep that lower body steady and stable… Until maybe the 60th pullup.
  • No cheating also means going all the way down till your arms are almost straight. No half pullups here!
  • Think of bringing your chest to the bar, rather than bringing your chin over the bar. This top part of the movement will really target the lats
  • Don’t let your shoulder blades retract upwards. Keep tension in your shoulders and keep your deltoids as far away from your head as possible.
  • To make it easier for the mind-muscle connection and targeting your lats there are a couple of options

    – Think of pulling through your pinky finger

    – Think of pulling your elbows down to your sides

    – Use a thumbless or hook grip

    Basically, you want to remove as much stimulii from the biceps as possible and think of your arms as simple hooks hanging onto a bar
  • Try to avoid using lifting straps unless absolutely required towards the last set

Remember your latisimuss dorsi is one of the largest muscles in the body, don’t be a fool and let it be one of your weakest. If anything you want this to be your strongest, aim to beat your bench press strength standard. Not only will it help with maintaining good posture throughout the day, it will correct any slumping of the shoulders due to muscle imbalances. It will help with your posterior chain strength development (hello bigger deadlifts). It will also help give you a bigger bench press (the lats ‘pull’ the bar back to your chest), your body has a funny way of self preservation, if it notices one muscle is lagging, it will limit the development of the stronger, more dominant muscle..Most importantly, who wants to look like a pencil pusher with no back. An impressive build is incomplete without a wide thick back. So get up and do some pullups!

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