I have a firm belief that in the world of bodyweight fitness pull-ups are a big deal! They develop and strengthen an iron forged upper body, be it in the application of new calisthenics [tricks and gimmicks] or old calisthenics [basics only]. Both of these styles require you to work with pullups religiously if quality results are what you seek.
Whether you want to train for strength in your arms or for gaining muscle mass in your biceps and back, you will have to do pull-ups with consistency, week after week, month after month to achieve your goals. Honestly speaking, I have changed my physique and strength levels quite a lot with pull-ups. However, one thing has remained the same and that is my workout structure. I have always kept my routines very simple and centered on the basics.
I began my calisthenics journey by doing a couple of sets of pullups based on my fitness levels back then, and even now, after years of consistent work, I still do workouts similar to my routines back then. What changed is the total volume, execution, and speed of the exercise. With consistency, discipline and lots of time, I have mastered them in such a manner that to an outsider they appear to be so easy. But then the question you may like to ask is how do I progress with them?
For me, there were no progression steps in terms of learning new exercises. This comes in the field of progressive calisthenics and maybe new-school calisthenics. I kept everything basic and occasionally I tested myself with harder variations and maybe added weight as well. However, all of my pulling strength comes from doing bodyweight pull-ups and not vice versa.
After one year of bodyweight training, I was able to lift a lot more than before. When I added some weight to my pull-ups, I realized how strong I had gotten. By doing compound movements you become stronger regardless of the type of resistance used. It can be bodyweight pull-ups or weighted pull-ups. It doesn’t matter, because you will progress with either method as long as you work your way through them.
My only progression was in terms of volume. And from here started the whole idea with Old School Calisthenics and high-volume workouts. Increasing the amount of repetitions allowed me to create more time under tension and more resistance, and consequently, I progressed. Pretty soon after this, I realized that I can also do Muscle-Ups, which require a solid strength base when done without technique.
However, before anything else, you must know that you can’t get shredded muscles and build clean mass without getting stronger first. When you get stronger and stronger, the body adapts by reshaping itself in order to keep up the pace with your mindset. It is a fair trade after all, but it does take some time!
You can progress following this strategy:
- Gradually increase 1-2 reps per set.
- Increase the number of total sets done in a workout. This will increase your overall volume.
- Integrate the second pull-up routine. Strength is a skill and it needs to be trained often for it to grow faster. With this, you can double the volume of repetitions per week.
- Slowly reduce the pause between sets down to 1 minute.
- Add some harder variations, such as close grip pull-ups or wide pull-ups.
- Then, after your muscular endurance is better, you can integrate some light exercises like Australian Pull-Ups at the end of the workout.
This was the way I used to make progress and it worked big time. I built a lot of muscle and strength with this sort of training, which can be termed as high-volume. Now, I want to give you the exercises that I have been using since the beginning of my fitness journey to this present day. They should be like gospel for you:
1. Wide Grip Pull-Ups
This is one of toughest basic variation. It will engage your whole back muscles, but the lats and shoulders predominantly. I usually put it at the beginning of my training and then I gradually move to an easier pull-up exercise. At the start, this variation might be very hard or almost impossible for some people. In this case, place the hands a bit closer and do them with a regular grip. In time, try to perform as many reps as possible of this great variation.
Anything from 3 to 5 sets is sufficient. I do the maximum amount of reps, but I had started with 5-6 per set.
I only made reference to back muscles, but in reality, this exercise works the forearms, biceps, trapezes and believe it or not, abs too.
2. Close Grip Chin-Ups
With your hands closer to each other, you must do this exercise in order to get bigger forearms, shoulders, and biceps. This is tough and requires some time to master it, but once you can do a couple of reps, try to integrate it every week.
3. Regular Pull-Ups
The most common variation is definitely the regular pull-up. This exercise covers absolutely everything. In fact, all the vertical pull-ups work the same muscle groups, big or small. The only difference between them is that one variation may engage one muscle group a little bit more than another exercise which might emphasize yet another one. They complement one other if you do them all.
When I do pushups and pull-ups in the same workout, I may not do all of these exercises because then it would be too much. In such a case I choose to do one or two variations at most. These are usually Chinups and regular pull-ups. The grip has to be the same distance, but the palms are oriented differently and owing to this, they attack the biceps and forearms a bit differently.
So when I am more into pushup workouts, I try to go over 4-5 sets of regular pull-ups and even to 10. And if I do 5 sets of regulars, then I come with another 4-5 of Chinups.
It is the best exercise you can do for your biceps. It also taxes the wrist tendons because of the grip, but if that is not a problem, then I recommend it to you.
5. Horizontal Pull-Ups
Go underneath a low bar, or use some straps like TRX. Regardless of how you choose to do them, this type of pulling is not vertical, and therefore it will attack the muscles differently. What I felt from them were definitely my biceps, shoulders, forearms, lats and the lower back.
I also found that this particular exercise is a great progression towards advanced static calisthenics like the Front Lever. Basically, with time, all these exercises will complete you as an athlete. They will give you functional strength to learn the Muscle-Up, and they will transform your body entirely. To spice-up everything I thought I should give you one specific routine with which you can stick for very long:
- Wide Pull-Ups: 4 sets x 5-10 reps
- Close Chinups: 4 sets x 5-10 reps
- Pull-Ups: 3 sets x 5-7 reps
- Chinups: 3 sets x max reps
- Horizontal Pull-Ups: 3 sets x max reps
The training methods you can use are endless. This is a classic example, but you can also use circuits, ladders or pyramids. As long as you use these exercises, then your fitness goal of achieving a great body is secured.
I also recorded the following video, which comes as a vlog where I show you basically what I have said in the article. You can follow it as a pull-up workout example: