Pull Your Own Weight

Aug 17, 2015
Pull Your Own Weight

Give your back training a boost with the almighty pull-up.

By Joe Wuebben

Guys who frequent the gym can all appreciate a big, strong back and a thick pair of biceps – yet the pull-up bar at most gyms is severely underutilized. That's a shame. Lat pulldowns, seated cable rows, bent-over rows and a host of other similar moves are great, but nothing beats the traditional pull-up for upper body pulling strength and just generally looking like a badass in the gym.

The pull-up is a unanimously great movement. It builds thick, dense, defined upper body muscle that looks great in the mirror while also being in the good graces of all the "functional fitness" diehards who tend to get snobby (unjustifiably so, but that's another discussion altogether) when it comes to upper body exercises that train the beach muscles. Bodybuilders love pull-ups, powerlifters love pull-ups, CrossFitters love pull-ups. Gymnasts, rock-climbers, Spartan Racers, anyone hanging from a cliff who needs to pull himself up to save his own life – all huge proponents of the pull-up.

Everyone who needs to be strong, powerful and muscular in the upper body loves pull-ups – and so should you.

If you're not currently doing pull-ups on a regular basis in your training but are interested in getting bigger and stronger in your back and biceps, the first thing you can (and should) do is start working pull-ups into your back training once a week. If you're really into it, feel free to do pull-ups twice a week.

Either way, below are a few pull-up workouts I recommend. I've been focusing on my pull-ups for the last 5+ years. It's naturally a tough exercise for me because I'm tall (6'5") and fairly lanky (around 215 pounds). But I've made great progress on them, being able to bang out close to 20 straight reps now when for the longest time I was stuck at around 7 or 8 reps. And I'm talking about strict pull-ups here, not kipping. I've never done kipping pull-ups and don't have any plans to start.

One quick tip: I highly recommend incorporating a variety of different pull-up grips to hit the muscles from different angles to stimulate strength and growth but also just to keep from getting bored. The grips I use most often include: wide-grip overhand (outside of shoulder-width); medium-grip overhand (shoulder-width or slightly inside); neutral grip (using parallel grips, hands/palms facing each other); and underhand, narrow (aka "chin-ups" – palms/forearms facing you and hands inside shoulder-width). And feel free to use whatever other grip is available with the pull-up bars at your gym.

Regarding the following workouts, I recommend doing one of the pull-up schemes per back workout, preferably as the first exercise (since pull-ups are pretty tough for most people). After pull-ups, feel free to do the rest of your regularly scheduled back workout – rows, pulldowns, etc. Basically, the pull-up work is just serving as your first exercise for back. Enjoy!

Workout 1: Simple Yet Effective
Pull-ups – 3-5 sets to failure

Notes: If you haven't done pull-ups in a while, start with three sets and work your way up to five in a matter of weeks. On each set, simply do as many bodyweight pull-ups as possible, whether that's 3, 6, 12 or 18. Write down how many reps you got on each set and aim to increase those numbers over time. Since you're going to failure on each set (which will take a lot out of you), you'll want to take a decent amount of rest between sets. I recommend 2-3 minutes. If you don't break a PR every week on pull-ups, don't worry about it. Just keep plugging away at them. Eventually the dam will break and you'll start busting through your pull-up plateau slowly but surely, one rep at a time.

Workout 1a: Weighted Pull-Ups
Weighted Pull-Ups – 3-5 sets to failure

Notes: Workout 1a is exactly the same as Workout 1, only with weight added. That said, weighted pull-ups should probably only be done by individuals who can do a decent number of bodyweight pull-ups – I would say 8 or more. If at the moment you're only able to do 6 or fewer bodyweight pull-ups, you're probably not quite ready for weighted pull-ups. But don't worry, one day you will be if you keep working at it. If you're doing 8 or more bodyweight pull-ups, I recommend adding an amount of weight that has you doing around 5-6 weighed pull-ups per set. For strong individuals, this might mean dangling a 45-pound plate from a belt; for those right at or barely above 8 reps, you may only be using an extra 10 pounds. Either way, being able to put any amount of additional weight on you and bang out 5-6 reps is pretty damn good.

Workout 2: Pull-Up EMOM
Pull-ups – EMOM with 1/3 RM

Notes: CrossFit popularized the "EMOM" workout, which stands for "each minute on the minute." Meaning, you keep a close eye on the clock or your stopwatch and do X number of reps at the top of each minute for X number of minutes. Here, you're doing it for pull-ups as a means of increasing strength by doing a relatively high number of sets but stopping most of those sets short of muscle failure. To determine how many reps to do each set, identify your "rep max" (RM) – the maximum number of consecutive pull-ups you can do when well rested. For this EMOM workout, you're going to divide your RM by three and do that many reps at the top of each minute. (So for example, if your RM on pull-ups is 15, you'll do 5 reps per set; if your RM is 10, round down to 3 reps, and so on.) The number of sets/rounds performed will vary from person to person, but here's the deal: You'll keep doing your 1/3 RM at the top of each minute until you can no longer reach that number. For example, if my RM is 15 and I can do 5 reps EMOM for eight minutes but then on the ninth minute I'm only able to do 4 reps or fewer, I'm done. As you can imagine, the first few sets will be pretty easy, but as your muscles fatigue the sets will get tougher and tougher.

Workout 3: Assisted Pull-Ups
Assisted Pull-Ups – 3 sets to failure at high reps

Notes: Am I big fan of the assisted pull-up machine? Not really, but it certainly has its place. First of all, it's a great tool for those who can't yet do bodyweight pull-ups. But also, it's an easy way for those who can do bodyweight pull-ups to do high reps of pull-ups. And I think we can all agree that changing up rep ranges is a good idea for making continual gains, which sometimes means shocking the muscles with 20-30+ reps. My recommendation for weight and reps on assisted pull-ups is this: Take your RM, multiply it by two and do your best to select an assistance weight that will allow you to reach that number of reps on the first set. So if my RM is 15, I'll be estimating an assistance weight that will have me hitting 30 reps. Once you've selected that weight, simply do three sets to failure with it. If you don't hit exactly twice your RM, that's okay. Just make sure you go to complete failure on that first set. Rest around 90 seconds to two minutes. On the next two sets, make sure you hit the exact same rep count as you did on the first set. Chances are, your muscles will be fatigued and you won't quite be able to do it with consecutive reps. No worries – that's what rest-pauses are for. On those last two sets, rest-pause until you reach that original rep count. Three sets of high reps on pull-ups and you'll be ready to move onto something else. 

Workout 4: Pull-Up 10-to-1s
Pull-ups supersetted with Dips, 10 sets, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 reps

Notes: First of all, this workout is a sort of a bear. I recommend it only to those who currently have a good pull-up base (ie, you already do pull-ups on a regular basis) and have a pull-up RM of at least 15 or so. The reason I've chosen to superset pull-ups with dips is that (1) with this rep scheme you're going to have to let the back and biceps muscles rest between sets and (2) what better way to have them rest than while doing another great bodyweight upper body exercise (dips)? The pull-up/dip combo is one of my favorite superset pairings of all time – it provides a great pump and feeling of strength in the entire upper body.

How you do this workout is simple (but grueling): Do 10 pull-ups, then 10 dips, then 9 pull-ups, then 9 dips, then 8 pull-ups, then 8 dips, and so on until you're down to 1 pull-up and 1 dip. As for resting between sets, try to keep it to a minimum but do what you have to do. In this case, I don't mind if the pull-up bar and dip station are a little far apart on the gym floor; the walking back and forth gives me the little extra rest that I need to power through. Also, most people (even those who can do 15+ plus pull-ups) aren't going to be able to achieve the rep count on each set – especially the 7-10-rep sets – straight through. Again, that's where rest-pauses come in. Rest-pause until you hit the rep count, then do your dips. If it takes a lot of rest-pauses through the course of the set, that's okay. This 10-to-1 workout is designed to be a grind. Do you what you have to do to finish all the reps – 55 total for each exercise.

And lastly, as you can see, you're also working chest and triceps in this routine with the dips. This makes it ideal for a chest/back or upper body day. If you don't currently train chest and back in the same workout, keep this in mind: Arnold Schwarzenegger ALWAYS did chest and back together in his heyday when he was winning Mr. Olympia titles. Just saying.

Try these pull-up workouts and see if they don't help you increase your rep max on this amazing upper body exercise. Since I'm a pull-up fanatic, there's a good chance I'll be posting many more pull-up workouts in the future on WorkoutTrainer.com.

More Articles