When it comes to training back, lifters are quick to brag about repping the entire stack at the pulldown station or rowing a bar full of clanging plates. But how many pull-ups can you do? Five? Ten? It's not a surprise that few people run around telling tales of how many they can do -- but maybe they should.
The pull-up is a compound exercise that should be a part of any well-rounded back-training routine. Though it primarily hits the lats, the entire upper back is worked with each grueling rep and the emphasis can be shifted with a simple flip of the grip or a change in hand spacing. The pull-up puts a great stretch on the lats, while also calling into play a host of stabilizer muscles within the shoulder girdle. It's a challenge, to be sure, but one rife with back-widening benefits.
Arnold Schwarzenegger used to do pull-ups regularly, hoisting his Mr. Olympia-sized frame against the tug of gravity to the tune of 50 controlled reps or more per workout and it's tough to deny that this practice paid off.
Set a number.
If you can't do 10 complete pull-ups, no worries. That doesn't mean that you can't make the pull-up work for you. For many people, starting with a target number is a smart tactic. Arnold, for example, would set his 50-rep mark and attack it -- taking as many sets to failure as it required to reach 50. He may get 15 in the first set, 12 in a second, 9 in the third, then two final sets of seven to reach 50. Rest 60-90 seconds between sets.
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Vary your hand spacing.
Using a wide, overhand grip targets the upper outer lats. Moving your hands in from there will do that as well but your biceps and forearms begin to assist more in the move and your lower lats are engaged to a greater degree. By going underhand, you get significantly more biceps work but your lats still receive a long, productive range of motion on each rep. A good mix of grips and hand spacings allows you to target various areas of your back differently.
While doing 20 or more pull-ups is commendable, doing fewer to failure may be a better bet for adding size to your lats. If you can do 12 reps of any type of pull-up, you should try adding weight in 10 pound increments to keep failure within the muscle building, 8-12 rep range. This can be done using a weight belt, or if you're a budget trainer, you can try adding weight plates in to a sturdy backpack.
Holds and negatives.
To further boost your pull-up acumen, try adding the occasional isometric hold in the top position or slow negatives. For the holds, try doing 3-5 holds the top position for 5-10 seconds at the start of your back routine. More advanced lifters can try adding negatives, fighting gravity for 5-10 seconds, 3-5 times either at the start of your workout or at the end as a finishing technique.