One of the things that we have yet to discuss here at Well Built Style is bodyweight exercise. In my opinion, bodyweight exercise is a highly underrated and underutilized form of training. Although we will discuss the merits of bodyweight exercise in future articles, I want to take the time in this article to go over a very effective bodyweight movement for the upper body: the pull-up.
I’m sure everyone is familiar with this exercise. Next to the push-up and sit-up, the pull-up is a very popular bodyweight movement performed by countless men in gyms all around the world. For those of you who are not familiar with the exercise, a pull-up involves pulling your chin up over a horizontal bar utilizing your arms.
I should mention that pull-ups are not the same thing as chin-ups. With chin-ups, you utilize an underhand (supinated) grip, whereas pull-ups are done with an overhand (pronated) grip. I’m sure you’re wondering, “So, what’s the big deal?” Well, with an underhand grip your biceps are put into a better line of pull, making the chin-up much easier to do. The pull-up, on the other hand, is comparatively more difficult to perform because the biceps are in a weaker line of pull and therefore cannot generate as much force to help you complete the movement.
What about grip width?
Bro-scientists everywhere will state that a wider grip on pull-ups and chin-ups will equate to a wider back. This is nonsense. A wider grip will do nothing more than reduce the range of motion of the exercise and put your shoulders at risk of injury. That’s why I recommend a grip only slightly wider than shoulder width for pull-ups, while for chin-ups I don’t recommend you take a grip beyond shoulder width.
Which movement is better?
Well, it depends.
Both movements primarily target the back (lats) and biceps, albeit to slightly different degrees. More specifically, because chin-ups put your biceps in a better line of pull, they’ll hit your biceps harder than pull-ups will. Conversely, pull-ups will hit your lats harder than chin-ups because the biceps are in a weaker line of pull.
In our program we utilize chin-ups, but you could just as easily substitute them for pull-ups. It’s entirely up to you. Although there are slight differences between the exercises and the muscle groups they hit, it is not significant enough to make a huge difference. Remember, don’t sweat the small stuff. Personally, I like to switch between chin-ups and pull-ups from time to time just to avoid any overuse injuries and to keep things somewhat fresh.
What’s the best way to progress?
I have found that the best way to improve your bodyweight pull-ups or chin-ups is to really ramp up the volume while staying as fresh as possible. In other words, by doing a lot of reps while staying away from failure, I noticed that I got better and better at doing bodyweight pull-ups. I didn’t really appreciate why it worked, it just did. Eventually I discovered the underlying principle to my success: greasing the groove (GTG).
I first came across the principle of GTG when reading Pavel Tsatsouline’s excellent book, Power to the People. The idea behind this concept is to perform a desired exercise (e.g. pull-ups) several times a day every day for several weeks. The key being that every rep you perform is crisp and clean and you do not even come remotely close to muscular failure, hence “greasing the groove”. So for example, if you can manage to do 10 bodyweight pull-ups, you would start off by doing sets of 5 or 6. You’d do these mini-sets throughout the course of the day, 7 days a week. After several weeks of this you should be able to do more bodyweight pull-ups in a single set than you could before. I know of guys that started off the program being able to do only 10 pull-ups in a row, but after a few weeks of GTG they were able to crank out 20 in a single set.
What is the best way to incorporate GTG pull-ups?
The beauty of the GTG program is that there really is no precise structure that you need to follow. The only two things you need to remember are to do a lot of reps and stay far, far away from muscular failure. That’s it. How you go about structuring that is entirely up to you. I know a lot of guys have pull-up bars in their homes. This is perfect for a GTG type program. With a pull-up bar at home you can crank out reps whenever you get the chance. You can do them early in the morning before work, during commercial breaks while watching television, or while making dinner. Essentially, whenever you get a chance to squeeze a few reps in go for it. No need to complicate things. Just do as many as you can in a day while staying as fresh as possible.
In terms of length, this type of program is great to run from anywhere between 2-4 weeks. I would start off by testing how many bodyweight pull-ups you can do. After running the program for 2-4 weeks, take a retest. If you followed the principles correctly you should notice a significant improvement. It’s that simple, gentlemen.
Bodyweight exercises are a highly underrated form of training. The fact that they don’t require any equipment and are generally very safe and easy to perform make them an excellent form of low-tech, high effect training.
The pull-up is chief among the many different effective bodyweight movements out there. A properly executed pull-up is not only an excellent exercise targeting the back, but is also a good indicator of general upper body strength. Although there are numerous ways in which you can program pull-ups, the most effect method usually involves some kind of high volume approach while maintaining freshness (e.g. Grease The Groove). The GTG is an excellent program that acknowledges the importance of specificity and avoiding failure. For those men who are seeking to do more pull-ups, I can’t recommend the GTG program enough.