It’s no wonder the pull-up is used as a litmus test for strength in countless physical fitness and ability programs. The movement tests your hands, forearms, biceps and your back strength, including major emphasis on the upper lats and lower lats and secondary help from the rhomboids, middle traps and erectors.
But why are pull-ups so difficult? Even for those with incredible back development and strength, the pull-up can sometimes be next to impossible. Why? Simply stated, if you don’t practice the pull-up, you won’t improve at it because of something called the specificity principle.
Specificity simply means training in a manner to produce a specific outcome. For instance, if your immediate goal is to increase your one-rep max (1RM) strength in a particular lift, then training that particular lift (of course with the appropriate range of repetitions, proper rest periods and frequency to optimize strength gains) is necessary. If the principle of specificity is not being met, athletes can’t expect their performance to improve.
In other words, just because someone improves his or her performance on the leg press, it doesn’t automatically translate to his or her performance in the squat. Same thing holds true with bodyweight moves like the pull-up. Just because you can do barbell rows and deadlifts doesn’t automatically make you a pull-up expert. (Although, to be fair, rows and deadlifts will ultimately enhance the muscles responsible for the pull-up).
That makes the first order of business including the pull-up in your weekly routine. Every time you work your back, make sure you do the pull-up. If you’re a long way from being able to complete multiple pull-ups, start at the assisted pull-up station, which allows you to increase the help you get throughout the move. This serves as an excellent progression tool, and from one workout to the next, you can decrease the amount of assistance you need, putting more and more of the burden on your arms and back.
Also, because the pull-up stresses the upper lats with supreme accuracy, it’s helpful to include moves that target the same muscles from the same angle. This doesn’t contradict the specificity principle, but it does put the target muscles in their best position possible to tackle the more difficult bodyweight move.
Once you include the pull-up in your weekly repertoire, a few critical components need to be addressed, the first being grip strength. While we’re not opposed to the use of pulling straps, your goal is to be able to perform the pull-up without such aids. For that reason, you need to begin strengthening your hands and forearms. Doing various forearm exercises will be helpful in enhancing the muscles responsible for supporting your body during the pull-up, but it’s when your hands are attached to the bar and holding your entire bodyweight that’s important.
Because your hands need to adapt to holding your entire bodyweight, the simple timed hang is your best bet for improving your grip on the bar. At the end of your back workout, grasp the overhead bar, take your normal pull-up width grip and hang for as long as you can. Time yourself on each set and, from week to week, work to beat your hang time.
Finally — and this is important — always take your pull-up sets to failure. You might have a goal number in mind, but if you can continue doing reps with just your bodyweight, don’t stop. Because the resistance is constant from week to week, it doesn’t make sense to stop a set of bodyweight moves short of failure. It’s only when you can beat your previous rep performance that you will continuously improve in form and function.