Pull-ups are a great compound exercise that engage muscles to lift body weight, giving many joints a workout in the process. Although many people believe pull-ups are only upper-body exercises, important stabilizing muscles in the erector spinae and glutes are also called into action to complete a pull-up. They’re near-full-body exercises that have tons of benefits for overall athletic performance, posture, and cardiovascular function.
Whether you’ve hit a wall or are struggling to complete that first pull-up, you can use the suggestions in this article to target and build strength in the most important muscles. We’ve also included a guide to building grip strength that’ll help you execute all sorts of strength training exercises. Read on for the best exercises and tips for increasing your pull-up count fast.
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Muscle Groups Involved in a Pull-Up
Understanding the degree to which pull-ups engage your back muscles, core strength, glutes, and the muscle groups in your shoulders and arms should help understand why building pull-up strength and increasing your max rep number take such a wide variety of exercises.
Pull-ups are great for the latissimus dorsi, although they limit the degree to which the lats can be engaged. While that might not seem very important, the lats are the largest muscle in the upper body and not only provide stability to the spine but also give additional strength to the back and shoulders. Building strength in your lats will improve your posture and breathing, expand your range of motion, and prevent injury.
Since they limit the engagement of your lats, pull-ups allow your shoulder flexors to get some action. If you’re trying to build a broad back and huge shoulders, pull-ups are a great way to do it. You can also help protect your shoulder joint by building strength around it, although if you don’t do pull-ups with the proper form you could be risking shoulder injury.
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How to Increase Your Pull-Up Count Fast
Plateauing and not being able to make that first pull-up both stem from a lack of pull-up strength but there could be other factors as well. For example, you could be lacking the proper form and that’s what’s limiting you. A pull-up done with the proper form takes lots of effort from many muscle groups and doing one in an improper form could be restricting muscle recruitment so much that you can’t do a pull-up despite having the requisite muscle to do so.
Another common problem is constantly aiming for your max rep. While lifting a bit more weight than your muscles can handle will cause hypertrophy once they recover, workout routines that have complete muscle failure as a goal require much longer recovery periods and have a higher risk of injury. Professionals use them, but for almost everyone else they’re overkill. Try out some of these strategies to increase your pull-up count:
Build Pull-Up Strength Slowly
If you’ve been completely stuck at that 10th or 20th pull-up for a while, try to take it more slowly. Facilitate more muscle growth by doing more sets throughout the day but only doing a percentage of your max rep count each time. The more sets you do, the lower the percentage should be. For example, if you are going to do 3 sets a day, you can do anywhere from 30 – 50% of your max rep. But if you’re going to do 5 to 6 sets per day, stick around 20 – 30% of your max rep count.
Try to increase the number of pull-ups you do in each set as the day goes on. Don’t chug ahead by leaps and bounds. Rather, add one or even one-half of a push up to each set. Continue this process for a month and your pull-up strength will have greatly improved because your muscles were put under a more consistent strain, albeit a less intense one, and allowed plenty of time to recover and become stronger.
Increase Your Grip Strength
People use many grip styles in pull-ups, chin-ups, deadlifts, bench presses, and pretty much any other bodyweight or strength exercise that uses a bar. The overhand grip is the most common. That’s the one where you grip the bar with your palms facing toward your body. You might also try the underhand grip, where your palms are underneath the bar and facing away from your body.
According to some, the grip style is what separates a pull-up from a chin-up, with the overhand grip being used for pull-ups and the chin-up using the reverse grip, or underhand grip. In any case, if you want to do more of either exercise, you’ll have to build your grip strength.
There are some great exercises for improving your grip later in this article. Basically, anything that causes your hands to pinch, hold or crush is going to work out your grip muscles. Just make sure you work out all three types of grip.
Pull-Ups Aren’t Solely an Upper-Body Exercise
It’s common to neglect the importance of lower body muscle groups like the glutes when trying to increase your pull-up count. Although your lats, traps, delts, and biceps will be doing the heavy lifting during the full range of motion of a pull-up, activating your core will help to stabilize your spine and keep it from curving. Similarly, clenching your glutes and keeping your thighs together prevents your legs from swinging.
Preventing the legs from swinging is key because the momentum generated by such a movement can make executing a pull-up easier, which in turn means your other muscles aren’t getting as much of a workout as they could be. If you’re hitting a plateau on your max reps, it might be because your lower body isn’t supporting the rest of your muscles enough.
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5 Best Exercises for Improving Grip Strength
Our hands are capable of gripping things in a few different ways. We can crush things or we can hold them, squeeze them, or pinch them. Wrist strength will also be important since that’s how we transfer strength from the arms to the hand. For pull-ups, holding is the most central motion. But you can also build grip strength by practicing pinching, squeezing, and crushing with the exercises below.
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1. Dumbbell Head Grab
For this simple exercise, just lift either end of a weighted dumbbell off the ground. It’s a great way to practice a variety of holds. Keep the dumbbell raised for about thirty seconds each time.
2. Dead Hang
This move has the double benefit of improving grip strength and also priming the muscles that are used to execute a pull-up. You’ll need a pull-up bar or some other horizontal object you can hold onto without risk of it falling. Grab onto the bar with whichever grip you want to use for a pull-up and raise your feet up off the ground. Ideally, you should do this by bending your knees and not by lifting with your upper body.
3. Biceps Curls & Wrist Curls
Both of these exercises are great for building strength in the forearms, biceps, and wrists. The biceps curl is a sit-down exercise that can be done just about anywhere. Hold a dumbbell in one hand with the elbow of that arm resting on your thigh. Use an overhand grip. Slowly raise the dumbbell up to your shoulder and lower it back to the starting position.
Wrist curls also have a reverse variation that is done behind the back. In both exercises, you hold a dumbbell and slowly let it roll tonto your fingers and then close your hand to bring it back to your palm. Your wrist should be moving toward your body and back again.
4. Kettlebell Shrugs
Get an overhand grip on a kettlebell in each hand. Stand completely straight with your chest out and face forward. Slowly make a shrugging movement by raising your shoulders and traps toward the ceiling. Hold that position for several seconds before lowering again. Since this is such a simple exercise, we recommend 15 reps per set. Can also be done with a barbell or dumbbells.
5. Towel Pull-Ups
If you’re already capable of doing bodyweight pull-ups, you can use them to increase your grip by throwing a towel over the pull-up bar and using that to lift yourself up. It’s much more difficult to get a grip on the towel but if you can manage it your grip strength will increase twofold in no time.
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Best Exercises to Increase Your Pull-Up Count Fast
1. Lat Pulldowns
Sit down at a cable pulley machine with your thighs underneath the pads. Your feet should be flat on the floor. Take a grip that’s a bit wider than shoulder-width on the overhead bar. Pull the bar down until it’s level with your chin and then return to the starting position. When you execute the pulldown, make sure you’re squeezing your shoulder blades together to facilitate the movement.
2. Inverted Row
For this exercise, you have to find a horizontal bar that’s low to the ground but still high enough for you to lie underneath it. You’ll be sitting with the bar a little lower down on your body than you would for a bench press. With a shoulder-width overhand grip on the bar, lift yourself up by pulling the bar down toward you. Make sure your legs, back, and neck are completely straight on the way up. Return to the starting position and try to do whatever number of reps leaves you feeling tired but not completely exhausted.
3. Assisted Pull-Ups
You can do assisted pull-ups with a specific machine or you can use a resistance band to give you some extra support. This exercise especially helps if you’re trying to work your way up to that first pull-up and need a way to build the same kind of upper body strength that will help you do full pull-ups in the future. If you’re using a resistance band, loop it around the pull-up bar so that you can stand in it or put your knees in it without them touching the ground.
If you’re using the assisted pull-up machine, all you need to do is set the weight and then step up to or kneel on the platform. Then, you can take your overhand grip on the machine’s overhead bars and continue with a pull-up routine.
4. Kipping Pull-Ups
Many people argue about kipping and whether or not they should count as full pull-ups. Since they use the momentum of the legs, they’re actually quite different from pull-ups but they still provide similar strength training.
To do this move, get into a dead hang position. Then, push your chest out to bring your body forward and then push your shoulders backward to make your body swing. Let your body swing back and forth a few times before going into the full pull-up position. Make sure your muscles stay engaged to prevent injury during this transition. Lower yourself back to the starting position and initiate another swing to start the next kipping pull-up.
5. Negative Pull-Ups
Since the top of the pull-up can be the most difficult part, negative pull-ups are one of the best ways to build pull-up strength. You’ll need a bench or a platform that will allow you to jump up and get into what would normally be the top position of a pull-up. Your chin should be above the bar and your arms bent. Slowly lower yourself down into a dead hang, or into the starting position of a normal pull up. Then, you can let go and jump up to start the process again.
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Pull-ups are a great way to build upper body strength and get that rippled back and muscular shoulders you’ve always wanted. They’re also a compound exercise that will work other parts of the body and help promote better posture, cardiovascular function, and overall wellness.
Generally speaking, there are two times people really want to focus on improving their pull-up count. The most critical time is when their max rep count is low, or even earlier when they can’t successfully do one pull-up. Others are able to do 10 – 20 pull-ups or more but they hit a plateau where they just can’t seem to get that number any higher. In both situations, the same tactics can be used to increase the number of pull-ups you can do.
Some of these strategies might seem a little obvious, but many people do manage to implement them improperly. Practicing pull-ups is a no-brainer but it won’t have any impact if the pull-ups are done without the proper form. Another common mistake is to constantly try to hit your max rep every time you do pull-ups. Exhausting all the muscles you should be trying to build up won’t help condition them to do more push-ups in the future.
The full range of motion of one regular pull-up promotes muscle building in important upper back muscles like the rhomboid, which is between the shoulder blades, and the trapezius muscles, which stretch from the neck to the outside of the shoulder and as low as the shoulder blades near the rhomboid muscles. It also works out muscles in the mid- to lower back like the latissimus dorsi.
If you want to increase the number of pull-ups you can do, you need to build muscular endurance in these and other important muscles and muscle groups. Many bodybuilders can bench press or deadlift in the 300s but they can’t do a single pull-up. That’s because they aren’t preparing other muscles outside of their strength training or bodybuilding workout routines. It’s vital to build your pull-up strength in tandem with a workout routine that includes strength training and cardio sessions throughout the week.
Naturally, the most effective way to build your pull-up strength is through exercise. Luckily, there are tons of bodyweight exercises and strength training exercises that can help build pull-up strength. There are also some pseudo-pull-up moves and pull-up variations that can prepare you for your first pull-up or get you over a hurdle when you hit a plateau.
While your active and stability muscles are both integral to completing the full range of motion of a pull-up, you should also work on improving your grip strength. This is especially important if you’re trying to bulk up because that extra muscle mass will put your grip strength to the test.
Whether you’re still chasing that first pull-up or you’re trying to break through your max rep record, the exercises in this guide will help you improve your grip strength or target the most important muscles so that you can do more reps more frequently. You’ll improve your upper-body range of motion and greatly increase your muscle endurance and joint strength as well.
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