The Truth About Pull-Ups

The Pull-Up is Overrated. Get Stronger Anyway

Pull-ups actually aren’t a great measure of strength. But if you want to get better at them anyway, try these proven strategies.


Strong People Can Still Suck At Pull-Ups

Many believe that if you’re strong, you should be able to do a ton of pull-ups with added weight. But that’s not quite accurate. In a recent video, pro strongman Brian Shaw struggles to get four bodyweight pull-ups, and he only gets his chin over the bar in the first two.

This should tell you that pull-up performance isn’t a realistic measure of strength for everyone because it involves other variables, like body weight and body type. If you think you “ought” to be awesome at pull-ups, then you’ve got a false perception of your progress and current strength level.

Here’s why, plus how to get stronger on pull-ups anyway if that’s your goal.

Is Doing More Pull-Ups Even a Good Goal?

Is Doing More Pull-Ups Even a Good Goal?

For some, sure. But one of my male clients, who’s making tremendous progress in all areas of strength and fitness, still can’t do a pull-up. And it’s not just him. This is something I’ve heard from figure girls, too. These are often people I train who, despite their amazing gains in just about every other metric of fitness, are frustrated with their pull-up numbers.

Sure, improving pull-up performance is a respectable goal, but it’s not a realistic one for many. And if you’re in the same boat, fixating on this single exercise will set you up for failure.

First, having long arms is less conducive to being good at pull-ups. You not only have to cover more distance (than someone with shorter arms) to get your chin above the bar, but you’ve also got less of a mechanical advantage over your bodyweight.

Second, research shows that the ability to perform pull-ups is heavily influenced by body composition (1,2) and may not be a good indicator of absolute vertical pulling strength (3). This explains why people with a thicker and stronger lower body often struggle with pull-ups.

Just look at some heavyweight powerlifters who have impressive lifting numbers but couldn’t do a chin-up if they got free PEDs for life. Yet you can find rock climbers who can bang out real one-arm pull-ups for reps because they’re lean and don’t have thick, muscular lower bodies. They’re all upper body and core.

Additionally, a larger body mass – even if it’s mostly lean body mass – may invoke a certain penalty when performing pull-ups (2), but could aid in performing lat pulldowns.

You see, when you gain muscle, you’re gaining overall body weight (lean mass). So, getting bigger and stronger legs, glutes, chest, arms, etc. works against your pull-up ability. This explains why some people make great gains in muscle and strength on just about every exercise but struggle with pull-ups.

I’m not saying pull-ups don’t demonstrate strength. They obviously do. Pull-ups are a “relative strength” exercise – your performance in relation to body weight.

So, if your current max level of strength is 100 pounds and you weigh 150 pounds, you’ve got to gain 50 pounds of strength to do a single pull-up. To put that into perspective, most elite lifters are stoked when they’re able to add 10-pounds to a lift. And that may take a year to achieve.

This highlights why it’s unrealistic to use pull-ups to gauge progress. It often requires a major improvement in strength that even elite lifters can’t get after years of training hard and taking Mexican supplements.

What About Band-Assisted Pull-Ups?

What About Band-Assisted Pull-Ups?

You can’t micro-progress pull-ups or chin-ups like you can with most other exercises. You can’t gradually add the small amounts of load needed to create enough overload to stimulate strength adaptations without being too heavy for you to move through a full, controlled range of motion.

Band assistance is one way to train pull-ups, but it’s still difficult to make small enough progressions for consistent strength gains. Why? Two reasons: First, a band will help you a ton at the bottom when it’s stretched, but it’ll help you less and less as you pull yourself up.

Second, one band may offer too much help, but switching to the next closest level won’t give you enough of a boost. There’s too big a gap to make small loading increments.

Do Lat Pulldowns Improve Pull-Up Strength?

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Yes! The lat pulldown improves pull-up performance for those working on their first pull-up or who can’t get past one or two reps.

In several studies, pulldown repetitions appear to have the capability of predicting 1RM pull-up strength with reasonable accuracy in college men, male athletes, and adult women. (4-8)

Interestingly, another study found that based on muscle activation patterns, the kneeling lat pulldown is the most similar to the pull-up for near maximal efforts (9).

This also means the Gravitron (assisted pull-up) machine found at many gyms is also likely to elicit similar muscle firing patterns because it’s also performed from a kneeling position.

The researchers noted: “When performing the kneeling lat pulldown, participants were pulling a load that was equal to 80% of their body weight. As a result, they were lifted off the ground for a portion of the pulling (concentric) phase of the movement, similar to the suspension aspect of the pull-up.”

Also, “The rectus abdominus (abs) should be emphasized in training programs, as it was the most active muscle group assessed for both the pull-up and kneeling lat-pulldown for all participants.”

If you’re dead-set on mastering the pull-up, then do lat pulldowns and kneeling lat pulldowns two to three times per week. Do them early in your workout when you have the most mental and physical energy.

Each workout, alternate between underhand grip, neutral grip, and the traditional overhand grip to ensure you’re not only stronger from all angles but also not overusing one specific angle that could lead to an overuse issue.

Do 4-6 sets of 1-5 reps. Rest 3-5 minutes between sets.

You can apply these same programming guidelines to the Gravitron machine. Alternate between using the Gravitron and using the lat pulldown while still mixing up grips on each.

For kneeling lat pulldowns, a great way to avoid being lifted off the ground while still going heavy enough to maximize strength gains is to do them one arm at a time.

Two More Ways To Boost Pull-Up Strength

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There’s no need to crap on anyone who has a goal of doing their first pull-up or wants to do more. But set yourself up for success by having realistic goals, then try one of these proven strategies:

STRATEGY 1 – LOSE SOME FAT

The more unnecessary weight (fat) you’re carrying, the weaker you’ll feel and the less work you’ll be able to complete.

Pull-up performance isn’t a great tool to gauge your progress (yet) because there’s too much of a difference between your current bodyweight and strength levels.

So, make fat loss (while minimizing muscle loss) your main goal. Once you achieve it, your pull-up performance will improve automatically, and taking your pull-up game to the next level will be more realistic.

STRATEGY 2 – FOCUS ON THE NEGATIVE

The reason why it’s so hard to do your first pull-up or to go from two reps to three, is because you’ve got to be able to pull your entire bodyweight. To make the breakthrough you’re after, focus on gradual and consistent progress on lat pulldowns by following the programming guidelines above.

In addition, do some eccentric overload pull-ups and chin-ups before you do your lat pulldown sets.

Let’s say you can barely do three pull-ups.

  • Find your 1RM pull-up weight by gradually adding small weight plates to your dip belt.
  • Once you’ve found your 1RM, add 5%. Researchers found that a 1RM can be increased by applying a supramaximal load (105 percent of 1RM) only on the eccentric/negative phase of the lift. This increase in eccentric loading improved 1RM concentric performance by 5-15 pounds. (10)
  • With this extra load on a dip belt, do eccentric-only sets. Step up on a bench or box that allows you to start with your chin above the bar. Now do only the lowering portion of the pull-up. Go slow. Take 6 to 8 seconds from top to bottom.
  • Once you’ve lowered yourself all the way down, remove your hands from the bar and step back up to the top of the bench or box.
  • Do 2-3 reps for 3-4 sets. Rest 3 minutes between sets.
References

References

  1. Johnson D et al. Relationship of one repetition maximum lat-pull and pull-up performances to relative muscular endurance and body composition. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 May;23(3):1022-8. PubMed.
  2. Vanderburgh PM et al. The effect of experimental alterations in excess mass on pull-up performance in fit young men. J Strength Cond Res. 1997 Nov;11(4):230-233.
  3. Ricci B et al. Comparison of male and female functional capacity in pull-ups. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 1988 Jun;28(2):168-75. PubMed.
  4. Ball TE. The predictability of muscular strength and endurance from calisthenics. Res Q Exerc Sport 1993;64:A-39.
  5. Chandler T et al. Relationship of lat-pull repetitions and pull-ups to 1-RM lat-pull strength in male athletes. J Human Mov Studies 2001;41(1):25-37.
  6. Ball TE et al. The relationship of relative muscular endurance to maximal lifting capacity in college men and women. J Strength Cond Res 1995;9:277.
  7. Kuramoto A et al. Predicting muscular strength in women: A preliminary study. Res Q Exerc Sport. 1995 Jun;66(2):168-72. PubMed.
  8. Halet KA et al. Relationship of 1 repetition maximum lat-pull to pull-up and lat-pull repetitions in elite collegiate women swimmers. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Aug;23(5):1496-502. PubMed.
  9. Hewit JK et al. A Comparison of Muscle Activation during the Pull-up and Three Alternative Pulling Exercises. Journal of Physical Fitness, Medicine & Treatment in Sports. 2018 Nov;5(4).
  10. Doan BK et al. Effects of increased eccentric loading on bench press 1RM. J Strength Cond Res. 2002 Feb;16(1):9-13. PubMed.
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Good article. A few years ago I once read Jim Wendler mention there are 3 reasons people don’t do pull ups. 1. Your fat 2. Your weak 3. Your injured. I was all 3 and like most people I never trained them because I sucked at them. No exercise has done more for my shoulder pain, pressing strength, posture or filling out a T-shirt than the pull/chin up.

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Pull-ups and Chin-ups have always been funny for me. I like doing them but have never been good at the “big numbers” in terms of reps. I have never been able to get over 15 (strict reps).
Even when doing them with 35lbs or even 50 lbs of added weight ( for lower rep work), I could never get over the 15 rep mark with only BW.
Meh.

Is it fair to say that everything is relative then? My bench press lags, but is it just because my body comp is longer/leaner than ideal? Am I still relatively “strong” if I cant bench much more than bw but can easily rep out 25 good form pullups?

Sensing a little bias in the article, but if pullup strength is relative - and I do not disagree - so is every other lift. Ecto-lifters do not squat well, endo-lifters bench great, etc. Ed Coan used to do wide grip pullups for reps with 75 pounds hanging from his waist. As 200-pounder, I did 20 pullups twice a year for 30 years as a Marine and 7 years later dropped to only 15 at 60 years old. Maybe Brian Shaw just doesn’t work HARD at pullups. If he did, how would he not get better. This theory is how he got good at strongman.

Brian Shaw weight is 440 lbs. I am not sure if he is a good example. Also I am pretty sure, that it was never his goal to do a lot of pull-ups. Everybody can improve pull-ups, but obviously not to the same degree. Anyway being able to do them can be life saving in some situations, so I think it is still very beneficial exercise.

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Weighted pullups are certainly a decent measure of strength. If 400lbs+ brian shaw can even do one pullup he’s VERY strong.

Pullups are a decent measure of relative strength. Guys who can do a lot of pullups are generally quite strong relative to their BW.

The heavier you are, the harder pullups are so the barrier for someone to say “wow that guy is strong” is lower

Say I weigh 160lbs and can do 50 pullups consecutively and 5 with 135lbs attached to my waist, I’m strong. This isn’t me, though when I weighed 170 I was capable of something like this.

But someone who weighs over 400lbs and can do 4 pullups is arguably ‘stronger’.

There are also different facets of strength. Some movements require extensive refining of fine motor skills, agility and explosive power. A muscle up is a good example

Heavy guys like Brian Shaw are very strong, but it’s a different type of strength relative to what a good boxer might have.

The boxer is agile, explosive and powerful. He knows how to move his body in a manner that can generate maximum torque. The boxer can likely perform endless pullups, weighted pullups, weighted dips, weighted situps… but can’t bench 225lbs

Doesn’t mean he isn’t strong. We need to stop thinking of strong as only meaning “squat, bench and deadlift”

If a guy can easily knock out a gym bro who is 30lbs+ heavier than he is with a few quick hits in rapid succession how could we not say “wow, that’s a powerful guy!”

With a judoka… if a judoka can throw someone onto concrete who weighs 30lbs+ more than they do. How can we not say that guy is strong?

If a greco roman wrestler can lift up and throw or take down a heavier guy with relative ease, ONLY using his upper body in the process

How can we not consider this guy strong? There’s a video on youtube of a 135lb greco roman wrestler throwing someone who weighs almost 2x what he weighs.

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Props to Brian…he got approx. one pull up in there. Thor…0.

Being tall and heavy aint fun for pull ups.

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I think the blanket statement ‘pull ups are overrated’, in general, is a pretty silly statement. I agree with much of what was said after that in terms of using it as a way to measure absolute strength. Of course it’s not good for that, no bodyweight exercise would be. I also don’t see any real value in chasing an arbitrary number with pull ups as a measure of success. BUT, pull ups are an excellent TOOL for building a big, strong back. I’ve said this in many places, pull ups have been an absolute staple for back development for me for my entire lifting career. I’ve never relied on rows to build my back. Before I began my strongman career and was only invested in powerlifting, pull ups and deadlifts were really all I did for back. With strongman, I added in a variety of heavy carries. But make no mistake, I owe 90% of my back development to pull ups, and my back is quite strong. There is absolutely nothing ‘overrated’ about the exercise for building strength and size, as long as you can actually do them. Is it the ONLY thing that works? Of course not. There are substitutions and options for any lift. I personally feel the bench press is waaaaaay more overrated for overall strength development. But it’s a better measure of absolute strength.

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I saw Wesley Clayborn knocking out strict pull ups on his Instagram recently. He’s not as big as shaw or hafthor, but at just shy of 400 lbs, he’s still a very large human. Very impressive.

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Weighted chins for biceps too!

But yes, I felt exactly the same way as you reading it.

I also hate the term “functional strength” for the most part, but I feel like being able to pull your bodyweight up is pretty useful. I don’t think anybody who’s not an enormous competitive strongman should be happy with their level of fitness if they can’t do one pullup.

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Feel like this post is fitting to the discussion:

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I miss three essential strategies to boost Your pull-up performance or even for Your way to Your first clean one.

First, I recommend to train the scapular control:
the first move towards a pull- or chin-up should always be to contract Your shoulderblades back and downwards together, as You would like to squeeze an orange between them. If done correctly, You should feel a small upper body “lift-up” while contracting, even with straight arms. You can regress the exercise while kneeling or even in the australian pull-up position.

Second, improve Your grip strength.
Strong forearms pay back in any upper body exercise which involves a grip, but there is no better benefit from it than with pull- or chinups. Just improve it by hanging straight from a bar a.l.a.p every day.

Third and last tip: “Grease the groove”

  • to cite strength coach Pavel Tsatsouline that strength is a skill, may fit nowhere better than with pull-up strength, as any calisthenics or gymnast athlete may confirm. Just do some sets of pull-ups every day, always submaximal in numbers to avoid extra needs for recovery (e.g. if You’re able to bang out 10 pullups in a row, just do a set of 5, one-two-three times every day, for a while, and see Your pull-ups total numbers going to Your roof).

After years of heavy lifting which ruined my shoulder joints I started with some calisthenics exercises at 50, going to full bodyweight routines with 53 - and now, with 55 I’m totally painfree and able to bang out 13 clean pull-ups. That may not sound very much, but before I started I couldn’t even hang straight down without burning shoulder pain, despite doing any strength movement above my head.

So a pull-up driven training regimen saved my health and training capacities for my silver ager years, and I strongly recommend anyone to try to include pull-ups into their workouts for upper back strength, shoulder health and total body control.

Masters competitor here. Best advice I ever got regarding pullups was to stop focusing on numbers and consider them a stretching exercise. I usually do 3-4 slow reps with long hangs in between, just for shoulder health and the scapular stuff others have mentioned, and because it feels good. For strength, though, I stick with horizontal pulling accessories (after DL/snatch/C&J.)

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Do you consider pull ups better for back size than lat pulldowns?

Not necessarily. They’re different in terms of how you can control the load, and in terms of isolation of muscle groups. You can find plenty of bodybuilders who build their size primarily, or even exclusively, through lat pulldowns and rows. Bodybuilders, in general, aren’t going to rely on the pull up for building a lot of size.

I’m a competitive athlete in a lower weight class, so pull ups have more value to me than someone who’s not concerned with the ability to move athletically. As a strongman competitor, I’m not doing a whole lot of isolation work to build weak points, necessarily. I’m choosing lifts/exercises that engage as many muscles as possible, without limiting my range of motion or forcing me into specific movement patterns. I actually do pretty much all of my pull ups on rings, as well, because the freedom of motion benefits me. Bodybuilders don’t have to worry about such things. They are only concerned with modifying loads to accommodate set and rep ranges for the purpose of hypertrophy.

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I hardly ever hear about people using rings for pull-ups, but it really does seem like a good option. Do you keep it more Pullup style or do you supinate your wrist likes a chin up?

I would venture to guess this is because most commercial gyms don’t have a ring pull-up setup available. Bars are easier, you have to hang rings from the ceiling.

I rotate throughout the movement, basically just doing what comes naturally. It’s not a ton of rotation, just enough to put my joints through a more natural range of motion.

Here’s a video I took of it a few years ago for demonstration, let me know if it doesn’t come up for you. pullups - YouTube

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Video worked perfect, thanks! ive got a set of rings in my garage just hanging from a pullup bar, my wife likes to use them for inverted rows, but now im thinking about trying to hang em from the ceiling and try my hand at some ring chins.

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Get long, adjustable straps for the rings if you don’t already have them, so it’s easy to use for both of you.

I’ve rotated between pull-ups on straight, neutral grip, thick bars, and rings for years and it helps keep my joints happy.

A few months ago, I started doing inverted rows and used the rings. When attempting to use perfect technique, they are surprisingly difficult.

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