Pull-ups are to workout routines like vegetables are to nutrition. We all know we should eat lots of fresh vegetables, but how many of us actually do? The same goes for pull-ups. It's an exercise that should be in most of the training programs, regardless of whether the goal is strength or physique oriented. This is one of the best exercise to test your strength, and getting strong at pull-ups will have carryover to all other major lifts. They'll also add serious muscle to your lats, traps, rhomboids, biceps, forearms and if you control your lower body, even your core.
I'm going to assume that most of the males reading this can do at least 10 body weight pull-ups, with whatever grip you prefer. If you can't, and have been training for more than a few years, take this as a wake-up call that you seriously need to reconsider your training, nutrition, or both.
Here is 4 effective ways to get more out of your pull-ups and build some big time strength and muscle to take your training to the next level.
I put these first because they lay the foundation for the progressions to come. Pull yourself up until your upper chest is level with the bar. Keep your chest puffed out, elbows pulled down and back, and focus on squeezing the shoulder blades together hard. Now hold it right there. Feel those muscles burning in your upper back? Those are the ones you should be using on every rep of pull-ups. For now though, just squeeze harder. Try adding a 30-45 second hold at the end of your regular pull-ups workout. Once you reach 45 seconds, add weight.
Weighted pull-ups are the first step, but most lifters will quickly reach plateau. Here's where ”speed work“ can come into play. The goal is to improve rate of force development, so instead of going heavy you should use a lighter load and move it fast. Taking this concept and applying it to pull-ups, we get the band-resisted pull-up. Attach one end of a band to a heavy dumbbell on the floor directly beneath the pull-up bar. Affix the other end to a belt attached to your waist. The band should be taught at the bottom, but not overly tight. Do pull-ups as normal, trying to do each rep explosively. Speed is the key here.
Here we literally take the arms out of the pull up. You'll need a pair of abs straps, typically used for hanging leg raises. Go into the same starting position as you would do leg raises, with your upper arms in the straps and your legs hanging straight down. Puff out the chest and arch the back slightly. Now pull-up as high as possible and hold for a second. If done correctly, you should get a similar sensation in your upper back that you felt during the iso holds, and the body position should be essentially the same: chest up, elbows back, shoulders pinched together. Now lower as far down as you can and repeat for reps. The range of motion will be slightly shorter than a normal pull-up, but the basic movement pattern is the same. These aren't meant to replace pull-ups, but can serve as a teaching tool to help you learn to use the right muscles to get more out of pull-ups. Try doing a set of these before your regular routine to help activate the right muscles and give you a sense for how it should feel.
Strap onto the bar a heavy weight, wide-grip pull-up hang for 90-120 seconds at the conclusion of a back workout to hep stretch the fascia and induce hypertrophy in the lats. This is to increase task-specific grip strength and to get the body acquainted with heavier loads than you'd otherwise use for pull-ups, so when it comes time to perform the weights don't feel as heavy. It's important to note that isn't a passive hang -you still want to keep the chest puffed out, lats flared, and scapulae depressed to keep the tension on the muscles and off the joints. Another way to think of it is to keep your shoulders pulled down as far away from your ears as you can.
Pull ups - summary
Now that you're armed with four new tools for your pull-up arsenal, it's time to figure out how to put them to use in your current program. While I suggested general guidelines for how to use each exercise, I avoided exact sets and reps recommendations as that must be based on your current strength levels and the program you're following. Figure out where your weaknesses are, and see if you can apply the right tools to help shore them up.