Pull Up Or Shut Up!
You did pull-ups and, well … you did more pull-ups. That was it.
And you know what? That was all you needed to do to develop an unbelievable backside.
For proof, just take a look at the pictures of old- time fighters who were famous for pumping out pullups as part of their training regimens. Rocky Marciano, for instance, would routinely perform 30 pull-ups at a time. By no coincidence, “The Rock” sported a granite-hard upper back with which he used to generate bone-crushing power in his punches.
Similarly, according to old training logs, Jack Dempsey would grind out hundreds of pull- ups a day. He, too, had a chiseled, heavily muscled back and packed one helluva wallop.
Unfortunately, however, some- where in the evolution of resistance training, pull-ups fell out of favor. Thanks in part to the marketing efforts of enterprising exercise equipment manufactures and the sissy excuses from lifters who say they weigh too much, it’s rare to see anyone performing the time-honored pull-up these days. And it shows, particularly in the pathetic back development of today’s typical weight trainer.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind throwing in the occasional cable pulldown for the sake of variety. What I do have a problem with, however, is focusing a back-training program around exercises other than pull-ups. Why? Three reasons come to mind …
First, studies show pull-ups involve more motor units in your lats and rear delts than do pull-downs. For any given number of reps, pull-ups will always create more demand on the muscle fibers of your upper back because, unlike with pulldowns, you cannot “cheat” and use your lower back to move the load.
Second, the strength gains achieved from performing pull-ups are functional. They spill over into certain real-life tasks, such as pulling yourself over a fence or up a steep rock face.
Third, there’s something to be said for “pulling your own weight.” It’s strength displayed in its purest form. It’s the mark of a real man or woman. After all, U.S. Marines aren’t required to perform pull- downs or one-arm iso high rows as part of their PFTs (Physical Fitness Tests). They’re to do pull-ups from a “dead hang.”
With that in mind, isn’t it a good idea to pay a little more attention to pull-ups? I think so, and here’s how to use ’em to build a great back.
A few words need to be said before you begin pumping out pull-ups—up and down, up and down—like some mindless human piston. First of all, you need to get clear on your reason(s) for performing pull-ups and training your back with renewed vigor.
Very often people don’t have a compelling reason for training their backs—or training at all, for that matter—and after a few weeks, without having that reason to fuel their fire, they fall back into their old patterns of action, e.g., opting for easier exercises such as pulldowns (or opting to say to hell with working out altogether).
To be successful at building a strong, chiseled back, you need to identify your reasons for doing so. If you can’t think of any good ones, let me help you out …
• Ignoring your back leaves this huge muscle group weak and open to injury. Most “average” people just don’t train their backs like they should. Consequently, it’s no wonder that 6 million individuals will see a doctor this year because of back-related conditions.
• Your back muscles come into play whenever you swing a golf club, throw a football or swim a lap. Building these muscles will improve performance in every sport you can imagine. And it’s not hard to develop these muscles; just start doing pull-ups.
• As weight trainers, we work on our bodies constantly, but we rarely get to show anyone the fruits of our labor. After all, you can’t go around shirtless all the time, hitting poses for anybody who’ll look. However, the one body part which shows through our clothes, the body part that’s a testament to our hard work, regardless of what we’re wearing, is a strong, V-shaped back. It’s like a big, “extra-wide” sign which says, “I push iron.”
Once you’ve identified your reasons for disassociating yourself from the “average” folk who would rather coast through their workouts (and life) than challenge themselves with something as physically and mentally taxing as performing pull-ups, write those reasons down and put them in a place where you’ll see them every day. They’ll be a constant reminder of why you’re doing what you’re doing. A decision to change can only be as strong as the reasons for making it.
OK, I think we’ve prefaced this enough. Let’s get down to business of building a strong, V– shaped back. I’m going to present you with a whole bunch of pull-up exercises, each targeting different muscles of your back. If, for some reason, you decide to do working sets of all the exercises I’ve listed in one workout, you might as well plan on wearing your sweaty training T-shirt for a few days because the soreness of your back won’t allow you to lift your arms to take the damn thing off.
Instead, I recommend choosing a select number of exercises from the “menu” I’ve provided and doing them until your body adjusts to them. In other words, you’ll need to change the workout periodically if you want to keep on growing. How many pull-up exercises you do will depend on your conditioning, your goals and how many sets and reps you do of each. I’ll suggest a few workouts later, but let’s talk about some specific pull-up exercises first,starting with the basics.
Starting position: Before you have at it, let’s establish your proper grip; this grip will ensure biomechanical efficiency. First, stand upright and stretch out your arms so they’re at a 90-degree angle from your body and parallel with your shoulders. In other words, you’re making a “T.” Now, while keeping your upper arms in the same position, bend your lower arms at the elbow at a 90-degree angle so you’re imitating a goal post. This is the grip you should use for basic pull-ups.
Contrary to popular belief, a wider grip doesn’t necessarily equate to a “wider” back. (You should, however, vary your grip to activate different muscle fibers. We’ll go over some of these different grips later.)
Using the grip we’ve just established, reach up and grab the bar in a pronated or palms-forward position. Try to start the exercise with your upper body angled slightly back so your shoulders allow your body to move up and down without any kind of impediment.
The exercise: Slowly pull your body up to the bar so that your chin just “clears” the bar. As you move upward, focus on pulling your elbows down at an angle toward your rib cage. Once your lats have completely contracted at the top, slowly lower yourself to the starting position.
For starters, try doing three or four sets to failure—with a one-minute rest in between—in place of pulldowns. When performing pull-ups, take two seconds to raise your body and then, without pausing, take three seconds to lower your body.
In the beginning, doing pull-ups with just your body weight should suffice, but as you progress, you may want to hang additional weight between your legs with a weight lifting belt and a chain. As a guideline, if you can do more than 10 to 12 reps, it’s time to add some weight.
TIP: If you have trouble getting 10 pull-ups by yourself, don’t use that as an excuse to revert back to pull- downs. Instead, ask someone for a spot. When hanging from the bar, keep your knees bent. During the ascent, the spotter should support you by holding your ankles. Don’t be afraid to employ the help of a spotter until you’re able to grind out pull-ups unassisted. Keep after it; you’ll progress quickly.
TIP: When performing pull-ups, try to keep your lower body still. Some guys swing their legs in order to make the exercise easier. You don’t have to follow their lead. This is resistance training, not gymnastics.
A favorite of the legendary fighter Jack Dempsey, this compound exercise is sure to chisel your lats without delayed gratification. For this back blaster, your hands may either face you or face away from you, and you may vary your grip from narrow to shoulder width. Beginning with your arms fully extended, pull yourself to the bar, extend your head back as far away from the bar as possible, and arch your spine. Your back will be at a 45-degree angle to the floor. Keep pulling until your collarbone passes the bar and your sternum touches the bar. This, along with the classic pull-up, should be a staple in your back routine.
TIP: To really fry your subscapularis muscles, which are located under your shoulder blades, try this not-so-pleasant variation: At the top of the movement, after your sternum has made contact with the bar, push yourself away from the bar and lower yourself under control. This is definitely not for sissies or those who have a low threshold for pain.
With your palms facing away from you, grip the bar at least two to three inches wider than shoulder width. This extra-wide grip will stretch your back, allowing you to work on the entire shoulder girdle, with a primary focus on the upper and outer regions of your lats. At the start position, your arms should be straight and your shoulder blades elevated. Start with your lower back slightly arched, keeping your chest held high. Try to pull your chest to the bar. Once your lats have completely contracted at the top of the exercise, slowly lower your body to the start position.
TIP: Once you’ve pulled yourself up until your chin is over the bar, lower your body as slowly as you can, focusing on giving your lats a good stretch on the way down.
TIP: If you can, try doing wide-grip pull-ups using a chinning bar with the ends bent down slightly, which gives you a different pull on your lats.
As Arnold Schwarzenegger notes in his autobiography, this is probably the only exercise you can do without gym equipment to build impressive biceps, not to mention chiseled rear delts and an all-around eye-popping upper back. To start, grab a chinning bar using a narrow, pronated (palms facing away from you) grip with your hands spaced about 6 inches apart. Starting with your arms straight, pull up until your chin clears the bar and your biceps are fully contracted. Lower your body slowly until your arms are straight. When you reach the bottom, hang there for a few seconds, ensuring a full stretch, then crank out another one (or 12) of these bad boys.
TIP: To really overload your upper arms and tie them into your back, you might try occasionally switching to a supinated grip, where your palms are facing toward you.
For your back and every other body part, I recommend that you write down exactly which exercises and how many reps of each one you’re going to do before you set foot in the gym. Careful planning is what separates people who go to the gym three times a week for years and never look any different from those who devote the same amount of time and make continual progress.
For you Team ANR–LIFERS out there, I’ve put together a sample 12-week pull-up workout for you, to be used in place of your usual sophisticated back exercises, e.g., pulldowns, high rows, leverage machines, yadda, yadda, yadda.
Perform two pull-up exercises a week over a four week period, switch to another two pull-up exercises and then switch once again. During each sequence, rest for one minute between the first four sets, then complete the final two sets with no rest in between.
*NOTE: You need to get the feel of your own intensity levels. Generally speaking, think of level 5 as your warm-up and level 10 as the point when you’re performing all out and can’t give another ounce of energy (but can still maintain proper form). To increase intensity levels from set to set, I recommend using additional resistance by either holding a dumbbell between your ankles or wearing a chin/dip belt with weights attached to it.
Now, some of you may wish to completely “blow me off” here and go about doing what you’ve always done when it comes to training your back. You may also try to come up with excuses for why you shouldn’t focus your back workout around pull-ups, such as,
“I weigh too much” …
“My grip isn’t strong enough” …
“Pulldowns are just as good.”
If you want to talk yourself into believing that, then go right ahead. That’s your prerogative.
But you won’t get the same results.
The fact is, the pull-up is probably … no, make that it is the best all around exercise there is. It conditions the latissimus dorsi, teres major, posterior deltoid, rhomboids, the trapezius, biceps, tricep — in other words, most of your upper body.
Regardless of what specific pull-up exercises you choose, the most important thing is you actually do them, often. And don’t ignore your back simply because you can’t see it without using at least two carefully angled mirrors. It may not be as glamorous a body part as your biceps or chest, but your back is the one body part that will go the furthest in improving the overall look of your physique.
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