Pull-ups are the most powerful exercises for building upper body strength, big biceps, and a sculpted V-taper back. Besides this, they develop great functional strength, which is why pull-ups are used by martial artists, climbers, and professional athletes.
Bodybuilders and especially some of the calisthenics enthusiasts use pull-ups as well, with the purpose to increase muscle mass. But it is pointless to explain furthermore why pull-ups are so effective. Rather than that, I want to show you how to efficiently train with them to build some serious muscle.
1. Take a Closer Look to Bodybuilders!
Back in high-school when I was doing bodybuilding at a local gym, I remember that I was always surrounded by friends who also became my training partners. And as far as I know, there were some exercises like bench-press or overhead presses that required some assistance. With a bit of their help, I was able to control the motion a little bit better and eventually do 1-3 more repetitions for each set.
But I have seen a lot of other bodybuilders do this method too. It works especially for hypertrophy aka muscle building. So, if you want to do bodybuilding with calisthenics, then you must proceed in the same manner, and especially with pull-ups.
Pull-ups houses a lot of variations of different intensities. In order to build muscles with them, you must learn which ones are most effective and how to judge their intensity in order to be able to do a minimum volume that triggers muscle growth. In other words, you will have to assist yourself like bodybuilders do, but using other methods of which you will learn later on. Until then, let’s begin with the basics…
2. Do Basic Pull-Ups for Muscle Gain!
Before explaining how exactly you should train to build muscles, you should first know which bodyweight pull-up variations are best for it:
- Wide Grip, Regular, Narrow/Close Grip Pull-ups.
- Chinups and Close Grip Chinups
- Commando Pull-ups
- Horizontal Pull-ups and Aussie/Australian Pull-ups
There is a slight difference however between vertical pull-ups and horizontal [Aussie] pull-ups. The major one lies in the fact that depending on how your body alignment is [vertical or horizontal], the intensity will vary. From experience, I know that pulling vertically is usually harder. So, always begin your workout with the most difficult variations first and finish it with the easiest ones, like Aussie pull-ups for instance.
You should also know that pull-ups are compound exercises. Therefore, it is pointless to train your upper-body muscles from all the angles or by using machines. Only pull-ups are more than sufficient to activate them all, as the entire core and upper-body muscles are put to work as a unit.
So, why do I recommend these exercises over others?
The exercises I recommend you do are also the ones I did for years. They are not extremely hard, nor easy, which is perfect for this purpose. It is paramount for you to understand that the hardest exercises like the ones below are not the best when it comes to building muscles:
- Assisted One-Arm Pull-Ups
- Lever Pull-Ups
- Uneven Pull-Ups
- One-Arm Pull-Ups
The problem with them is their high intensity. There is an inverse relationship between volume and intensity. The harder the exercises are, the lower your volume will be, and vice-versa. Hypertrophy response is triggered when you do more volume, more sets, and reps. Therefore, you must pick exercises that are neither extremely easy nor the hardest. Something at medium intensity will allow you to add more volume which will ultimately stimulate muscle growth -like the ones I already recommended!
Don’t get me wrong. It is possible to work with those hard exercises too! But it requires a lot more time to master them, and they are more used for building maximal strength. For someone that struggles with basic pull-ups, those will be very hard. So, you should focus on the basics instead.
Now that you picked your variations, you must know how many of them are sufficient and how much work to put in…
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4. The Volume You Must Do to Trigger Hypertrophy
From experience I know that for hypertrophy you must respect these parameters:
- Pick 3-4 pull-up exercises for each workout
- Do 4-5 sets for each variation
- Use a rep range of 7-10
- Train pull-ups twice a week
- Rest around 60 seconds from a set to another.
The minimum volume per workout you can do by following my recommendations will then be of 84 pull-ups, and with a maximum of 200 pull-ups. Depending on your fitness level, you might end up being somewhere between. Nevertheless, a volume of more than 80 clean pull-ups will trigger hypertrophy! That is what I advocate. The second workout will usually be less in volume due to fatigue and muscle soreness. Though, it is expected to be like this. Don’t kill yourself on the second workout. Instead of that, focus on doing as much volume as possible, keeping a good form and tempo.
Don’t panic if you are not able to do more than 50 pull-ups at your workout. You haven’t read the last part of the article yet. I know that you struggle with pull-ups, but surpassing a certain minimum volume is important to achieve results.
My methods are not about progressing towards harder exercises or about doing advanced calisthenics. They are about training the muscles so you can gain both functional strength and aesthetics. It is not about being advanced or beginner. It is about finding the right approach to work out better. So, here is how you can smartly approach your workout…
5. Use Resistance Bands!
These elastic bands usually work on both sides: they can either increase difficulty, or they can reduce it!
Certain basic pull-ups might be too hard to master, like Wide Grip Pull-ups or Close Chinups. In this case, you must help yourself out somehow. For less than 30$ I bought 3 different elastic bands that creates different resistances, from light to hard. Depending on the situation, I will choose the appropriate one.
I attached this YouTube video where I explain absolutely everything about them. Herein I also show you how I use them and how you should as well:
To summarize all, I would say that these resistance bands will help you to:
- always keep good form
- control the motion better
- control the speed that is given by the time under tension
- increase your overall volume
- start training new harder pull-up variations.
6. How to Use These Resistance Bands
I always start doing purely bodyweight training. After several sets, as I get tired, I jump straight into my elastic band to keep on working.
My focus is always to do 10 reps for each set and each variation. If I am only able to do 5-6 of them, then I will rest briefly just to put my leg inside the band and then I complete the remaining reps. And as I said, I start gradually using Wide Pull-Ups because I consider them tougher. Seek your hardest variation and start with it! Then, progressively move forward to easiest exercises.
If everything is hard, then use these resistance bands right from the beginning. Then, if you move to lighter exercises, you can remove the assistance and go purely bodyweight. You will have to experiment for a while in order to understand exactly how to use them.
Nowadays, I work on mastering calisthenics and still use this technique once in a while. There is nothing bad with them. You can use them to either:
- master new pull-up variation, or
- to respect a certain volume. In other words, to be able to continue your workout
Some of my friends can’t do more than 50-60 pull-ups per workout. At the end of it, they start kicking and bouncing in order to help themselves pull for another rep. Bouncing or cheating on the form will compromise your hypertrophy goal. A good resistance band will eliminate that bounce and thus, your time under tension will increase. You will control the motion a lot better.
These two aspects are very important for muscle growth. It is not only about the volume!
Now, these friends of mine, use elastic bands and from 50 pull-ups per workout, they now do around 100. They even started to feel a lot of muscle soreness into their biceps and lats. These are all signs that they work efficiently. In the beginning, they rejected this method!
7. It Works for All Training Methods
There are different ways of describing intensity. The one of which I made reference until now, was about how difficult an exercise is to execute. But intensity is also given by how hard certain workouts can be. So far, I was discussing the most basic training approach, which is the classic sets & reps, more of a bodybuilding approach.
In calisthenics, however, there is also the one called circuit training. Here, you must do several exercises, one after another, with a minimum pause between them. After completing a cycle, you repeat for several times. This type of training is extremely intense even though it might consist of easy exercises such as Jump Squats, Incline Pushups, Jumping Jacks and/or Jump Rope.
Now, if you plan on doing this conditioning type of training with the purpose of shredding the muscles, then it is okay to incorporate resistance bands to help yourself here and there. You can include some Assisted Wide Pull-Ups among some other exercises. In the end, what matters it to execute with good form and accrue as much volume as possible.
When I do this type of workout, I don’t choose many variations, because it is too hard and it would take too long. I would pick a maximum of 2 different variations (regular pull-ups and chin-ups) and then I try to do the recommended volume (which for me would be around 100 pull-ups). Remember that this might be a full-body workout and hence, you must also do squat variations, pushup variations and maybe some other types of exercises.
Another method of training pull-ups is using the pyramid method. This method will also require a high number of repetitions, so you can help yourself with the bands.
In conclusion, it is not so important to do one method or another. The most important things are:
- to respect good form
- a relatively normal speed (or explosive on the concentric movements and slow on the eccentric one)
- do more repetitions (for which you might need to use these bands and the whole reason why I wrote this article)
As I said, you won’t be able to do many variations if you plan to add a lot of other exercises too. No matter of the type of pull-up, it will engage all of your muscles, and in another workout, you will have plenty of time to add the other variations that you missed.
Thank you for reading and don’t forget to watch my video, it compounds everything I said here and a lot more – you can actually see how it’s done the right way!