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Build Big Forearms: A Quick Guide
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Pull-ups: A Quick Guide

by Jeremey DuVall on August 31, 2012
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Ever watched another dude hop up on a bat to do pull-ups and rip out 20 strict reps like it was no problem? Knocking out a solid set of pull-ups is good for impressing friends, but it also helps to develop a chiseled back. Not many exercises are able to target the same amount of muscles as the pull-up. With one exercise, you’re targeting all of the muscles in your arms and back including the big boys – your lats –  and even your abdominals. Build up your pull-up strength to build the chiseled physique you want.

Bust Out Some Pull-ups – Getting Started

Getting your chin over the bar requires more than just brute strength. Flexibility is also a key component. Most guys lack the ability to get their arms overhead because of a tight chest due to tons and tons of bench press. As a result, they aren’t able to get into the proper position when hanging from a bar. In order to get the most out of your pull-up, you’ll need to open up your chest. Start including some chest stretches after your routines and throughout the day, especially when you’ve been sitting at work for awhile. Also, add in some foam rolling on the lats to increase your upper body flexibility.

Now that we’ve built some flexibility, form comes into play. The old mantra of “grip it and rip it” doesn’t really align with proper pull-up technique. First, select the proper grip. In general, the narrower the grip, the more bicep concentration. Wider grips tend to focus most of the attention on the lats. Immediately upon grabbing the pull-up bar, the first motion should be to drive your shoulder blades down. This will help you engage your lower traps and protect your shoulders. Throughout the rest of the movement, focus on pulling straight up. Most guys at the gym move in a circular motion where their chest moves away from the bar then back towards it at the end of the movement putting extra stress on their joints. Be better than that – focus on driving your elbows down and pulling straight up. Lastly, make sure you keep your knees straight rather than bent. Bent knees force you to overarch your back rather than staying tight.

Need some assistance? There are a variety of ways to give yourself a boost when struggling through a set. Pull-up assistance machines where you kneel or stand on a platform that helps you on the way up is a decent option since they are available at most gyms, but bands that help assist you up are even better. Hook a band around a pull-up bar and step in it with one foot. Extend that leg and hang from the bar. Because they band shortens as you pull up, you’ll get less assistance near the top where you’re the strongest.

Build Your Back – Your Routine

Building strength to knock out a few consecutive pull-ups requires the right amount of strength and volume in training. If you really want to increase your strength, incorporate pull-ups three times per week. Those days should be a mix of different rep ranges and intensity. Prioritize them at the front of your workout when you’re fresh.

For each day, if you can’t do all of the prescribed reps of bodyweight pull-ups, use some light assistance. Make sure the last rep is still tough. If the reps are easy at bodyweight, add some resistance by either holding a dumbbell between your legs/feet or by using a weight belt. Once you can do all of the sets and reps (i.e. all sets of five reps), either use a lighter assistance or heavier resistance for the following week.

Day 1 – Strength

Perform five sets of five reps. Rest about 120 seconds between sets.

Day 2 – Volume

Perform four sets of eight reps. Rest about 90 seconds between sets.

Day 3 – Ladder 

Perform five reps. Hop down and rest for 60 seconds. Grab the bar again and perform four reps then rest. Repeat until you get down to one rep, then try to go back up the pyramid to five reps. Once you can perform this pyramid easily at bodyweight, start adding reps by beginning the pyramid at six or seven reps. If you can start the pyramid at 10 reps and make it all the way through (you’re a champ), start back at five using resistance.

In general, you’re going to get better at whichever grip you practice the most. Vary your grip to prevent boredom but stay relatively consistent to see the most gains.

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Jeremey DuVall
Deliverer of happiness at @Automattic. Awesome high-fiver. Outdoor enthusiast. Lover of coffee and craft beer.
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