Whenever I get asked about a good exercise for the back, the first one I always suggest is the pull up. This is one of my favourite ‘go to’ exercises. Pull ups are great because, not only do they help you develop a muscular, strong and V-shaped back but they also hit your rear deltoids, blast your biceps and help your forearm and grip strength. They’re also brilliant because, providing you have a decent pull up bar, you don’t even need to go to the gym.
However, despite how awesome pull ups are for building upper body muscle and strength, I very rarely see people include them in their workouts. Now, if you are seriously heavy you’d be forgiven for using the excuse that your body weight is too much for you to lift. But even then, I don’t think body weight is really an excuse that most people should use. I’ve seen Olympic hammer throwers crank out 10 plus pull ups with added weights hanging around their waist. These are guys whose bodyweight alone is around 120kgs!
A lot of people obsess about how much they can bench press or bicep curl but many neglect the need to develop a strong back. A lot of guys will just do a few sets of half baked lat pull downs with a weight that is a fraction of their body weight. This isn’t going to help to build a strong back and arms.
But I can’t do pull ups, you say?
More often than not, when I suggest doing pull ups to build the back, the responses I get are “but pull ups are hard” or “I can’t do any pull ups” or “I can only do 3 pull ups”. Well, so what if they are hard or you can’t currently do any. That’s all the more reason to do them! Think about it, if you can’t do any now, but in a few weeks or even months have worked up to being able to do 10 or even more bodyweight or weighted pull ups, you’ll be much stronger and will have a strong muscular back and arms to show for it!
How to increase the number of pull ups you can
I’m pretty sure most of you know what a pull up is but just for clarity, I’m talking about the kind where you hang off a bar and pull your self up so that your chin is above the bar and your chest almost touches the bar. Use complete range of motion i.e. a complete rep is one where you start with your arms straight at the bottom postion and pull your self up so that your chin is above the bar and then back down again. The best way to increase the amount of pull ups you can do, and the technique I used is to do the following:
1) Set your self a target such as 20 reps
2) Start your first set and do as many pull ups as you can
3) Rest for a minute
4) Let’s say you performed 3 reps on the first set. You have 17 reps to go
5) Continue to do more sets of pull ups until you have completed a total of 20 reps. Note down how many sets it took you to do 20 reps and how many reps in each set. For example you may do 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1 which is 10 sets.
6) The next time you perform pull ups, your target is to do the 20 reps in less sets than last time. You also want try and do more reps in the first few sets. So you might do 7, 3, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1. As you can see, while the sets have remained the same, you managed 7 reps in the first set so it’s still an improvement
7) Keep doing this at least twice a week until you can 20 reps in 2 sets of 10 reps or even better. Once you get to that point you can start thinking about using a belt to add weight for increased difficulty.
Band assisted pull ups
If you currently can’t do any pull ups and have really tried to do one, I mean really tried, then you can start by doing band assisted pull ups. These are a bit difficult to describe and are best illustrated by the video below. That isn’t me in the video by the way, its just one that I found on YouTube and demonstrates assisted pull ups well.
No more excuses
So now you have no excuse not to do pull ups. Include them in your workout and say hello to a bigger and stronger back coupled with bigger biceps, forearms and improved grip strength.