When was the last time someone asked you how much weight you use on Pull-Ups? Probably never. Most of the time, we focus on how many reps we can perform on Pull-Ups and its many variations.
But why? Maybe it's because Pull-Ups are easiest with just your body weight. Or perhaps because military training popularized ripping out a ridiculous number of them. Even CrossFit workouts call for performing Pull-Up variations for high reps.
Unfortunately, this singular approach seriously limits the long-term effectiveness of the exercise.
Before diving into why this is an issue, let's review why Pull-Ups are such a fantastic exercise.
Why Pull-Ups Are Important
The Pull-Up is one the most important exercises for athletes. It's amazing for building upper-body strength, and a variation of the move should be part of every training programs.
The Pull-Up is a vertical pulling exercise, meaning you perform a pulling motion vertically rather than horizontally, as with a Dumbbell Row. The exercise primarily develops the lats, those large muscles on the sides of your back below your armpits. It also works many other muscles in your back, arms and grip.
The Pull-Up has many variations, but the two most common ones are Chin-Ups and Neutral-Grip Pull-Ups. Chin-Ups use the biceps a bit more,while Neutral-Grip Pull-Ups are bit easier on the shoulders.
In essence, these are bodyweight exercises. And like other bodyweight moves, like Push-Ups, we tend to assess them in terms of how many reps can be completed.
And herein lies the problem.
Where Pull-Up Training Goes Wrong
Let's say you prioritize performing a ridiculous number of Pull-Up reps, and you can knock out 20 or so with clean form. If your goal is muscular endurance, mission accomplished. But if you want to build strength—which is probably your goal—you're missing out on a serious opportunity.
Think about every weightlifting exercise you perform and what you do to get stronger. You add weight, right? For example, when building a stronger Bench Press, you might start with 10 or more reps per set to build a base. But you eventually drop the number of reps and load the bar with heavier weight. Progress is judged by improvements in the amount of weight you can lift.
This comes down to the concept of progressive overload. To get stronger, you need to put increasing amounts of stress on your muscles to force them to adapt, and, you guessed it, get stronger.
With Pull-Ups, "if you don't have progressive overload, the lats are really not going to work," says Ben Boudro, owner of Xceleration Sports (Auburn Hills, Michigan). "It gets to the point where you're only using 70 percent of your lat to get up there because your body is used to it. You can get some endurance and cardio out of it, but you're not building strength."
We apply progressive overload to virtually every strength training exercise. Why should Pull-Ups be exempt?
How to Increase Your Pull-Up Strength
Boudro recommends treating Pull-Ups like any other strength exercise. To change your perception, write the weight used next to your number of reps on your workout chart, just like you would with any other move.
If you weigh 185 pounds and perform 3 sets of 10 reps, your chart should show: 3x10 @ 185 pounds.
Boudro recommend switching to weighted Pull-Ups once you're able to perform a single set of 12 strict reps. It's the exact same concept as adding weight to a barbell, but you're making yourself heavier. You can add weight to Pull-Ups in a few different ways:
- Wear a weight vest
- Use a weight belt and plates
- Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell with your feet
Once you start adding weight, lower the number of reps you perform. Start with sets of 8 reps and work your way down to as few as 3. Always use a weight that's challenging to complete the last rep.
We're not saying you should never do higher reps. Variation is important, and you should occasionally change things up—again, like with any other exercise. We are simply encouraging you to think differently about how you approach this awesome exercise.
Ultimately, performing Pull-Ups with the full spectrum of methods will help you do more Pull-Ups and use more weight. It's the best of both worlds.
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock