Pull ups are a powerful functional movement that when programmed right, will give you unprecedented muscle and strength gains.
Since the dawn of time, humans have repeated the same two movement patterns; pulling themselves up to something, and picking things up from the floor. If we want to translate those movement patterns directly into training, we would get the deadlift, and pull ups.
Those are arguably the best two pulling exercises you could ever do, for practically any type of training.
In this article though, we will omit the deadlift to go into detail about pull ups, and the best pull up workouts you can do to develop mass and strength and your upper body.
When you walk into a gym, many are those who are ready to prove themselves on how much they can bench press, or maybe how much weight they are using on the leg press. But relatively few, are prepared to grab the pull up bar and rep out several quality reps weightted or bodyweight, to match the strength they have aquired on the bench press.
The truth is that the pull up can be a humbling exercise to a lot of people; it’s the king of back exercises for a reason.
Instead of running away from it, we should strive to master the pull up in it’s most basic form, and always implement them in our training in some way or another.
Even the most advanced of calisthenics practitioners, gymnasts, bodybuilders, or powerlifters, need to hone the basics from time to time.
The ultimate test of strength
Many jobs have strict demands when it comes to upper body and grip strength; military, police, firemen and more, as doing pull ups have an important carry over to skills that will be need on the field such as dragging an injured person to safety, and climbing ladders or ropes.
Special forces all around the world are known for emphasizing a strong pull up game as a main entry requirement. Pavel Tsatsouline is know for popularizing the 18 rep pull up test with an added 10kg (22lbs) as a requirement for the Russian special forces. The added 10kg was to mimic the weight of their body armor in combat.
The Best Pull up Workout – The exercises
To engage a maximal amount of muscle fibers and hit them from all angles, we will be focusing primarily on different pull up grips, whilst also going over some other, perhaps more challenging pull up progressions that will be part of the workout, depending on your level.
The workouts are split into 3 separate categories as follows:
Be honest with yourself and pick the progression that will challenge you but that you can finish. As you get stronger, you can shift to the harder workouts.
The exercises are illustrated with videos further down the article.
For optimal muscle and strength gains, rest times between sets should be no longer than 90 seconds, and 3 minutes between exercises.
Level 1 – Beginner
This is for you if you can’t yet complete a set of at least 3 clean pull ups. Find a low pull up bar, or maybe just set the bar down low on a squat rack or smith machine. You can also use gymnastics rings.
Exercise 1: band assisted wide grip pull ups – 3 sets of 5 reps
Exercise 2: Australian pull ups – overhand grip – 3 sets of 6 reps
Exercise 3: Australian pull ups – underhand grip – 3 sets of 6 reps
You can replace the band assisted pull ups with weighted negatives if you can already perform 2 to 3 clean pull ups.
Level 2 – Intermediate
If you can already sets of over 10 clean pull ups in a row, this workout should be better suited for you.
Exercise 1: 1 arm assisted Towel pull ups – 4 sets of 6 (each side)
Exercise 2: L sit/regular wide grip pull ups – 3 sets of 10reps
Exercise 3: L sit/regular close grip chin ups – 3 sets of 10 reps
Exercise 4: Ice cream makers – 4 sets of 8 reps
For the 1 arm assisted towel pull ups, gradually lower you arm further down on the towel to increase the difficulty, or decrease it if you can’t yet do 6 reps.
Level 3 – Advanced
Seriously hard pull up based routine. If this is too easy for you, then you are absurdly strong.
Exercise 1: 1 arm chin up – 5 sets of 3 (each side)
Exercise 2: Muscle ups – 3 sets of 10 reps
Exercise 3: Front lever row – 3 sets if 6 reps
Exercise 4: Archer/Weighted pull ups – 3 sets of 10 reps (each side)
For the weighted pull ups, work with percentages varying from 75% to 85% of your 1 rep max, changing up the repetition ranges from workout to workout to work both the lower and higher strength/hypertrophy range.
For weighted pull ups, you can use a dip belt as well as a weighted vest. Choice between weighted pull ups or archers is up to your personal preferences.
In case you are confused as to what some of the exercises are, you can look at what they are here and how to perform them properly with the following videos.
Ice cream makers
A form of dynamic front lever exercise, Ice cream makers have a strange name, but a serious purpose and when done with correct form, will allow you to build both strength and mass. If you are interested in working up to certain skills like the front lever, this is a great movement.
During the movement, your body is completely straight and your toes are pointed outwards. To initiate the exercise; pull up, and proceed to extend your body into a horizontal line whilst locking out your elbows on every repetition.
Archer pull ups
Pull up one arm at a time whilst keeping the other arm fully extended and locked out. Lower yourself, and start again whilst extending your other arm. This progression is meant for those who have already mastered the standard pull up and should not be rushed into as it can be hard on the joint if the elbows and shoulders are not properly conditioned.
Similarly to the one arm assisted pull ups, this exercise will allow you to build unilateral strength in each arm and condition your body for the one arm pull up/chin up.
One arm assisted Towel pull ups
Working one arm at a time, throw a towel around your pull up bar and grab it firmly whilst pulling up as hard as you can with the other arm. The towel will force you to develop a stronger grip and provide your forearms with additional work, without mentioning the unilateral strength you will be building in each arm.
Best pull up workouts – Conclusion
Pull ups are a foundation movement that is used as the ultimate test of strength in many jobs and disciplines. They should always be worked on even for the most advanced athletes. Use one of the Workout routines above that fit your level of training, and put your own strength to the test.
If you have any questions, comments, or feedback, comment below!