Lebron may “wow” crowds pulling up for threes, and Migos by “pulling up in a ‘Rari” but for most of us, our best chance of impressing someone with our pull up skill is in the gym. Unfortunately finding someone with sick pull-ups skills is about as rare as finding someone that actually puts their weights up after using them.
Normally the best advice someone gets when looking for the best back exercises for better pull-ups is to simply “perform pull-ups more.” Or to just start by using an assisted pull up machine until they’re able to execute bodyweight pull-ups.
Although practice does make perfect, many considerations are left out that can greatly help gym goers bring up their pull up skills, even if they aren’t in a sports car at the club. Implementing the below considerations and strategies can help you improve aspects of your performance under the bar and out of the gym for better pull-ups and a stronger back.
Also, remember how crucial your diet is while consistently (and otherwise), a great place to start is with our macro calculator.
Determine Your Baseline
Before you get to work improving your pull-ups, it’s a good idea to first determine what exactly you’re working with. Few people walk onto a basketball court and immediately start draining shots and slam-dunking. In the gym, performing pull-ups can be compared to hitting three-pointers in basketball.
The shot itself may be incredibly similar to close-range shots, but you aren’t likely to succeed behind the arch until you’ve first mastered shots around the paint.
If you’re just getting into a regular weight training routine, don’t be disappointed if you can’t immediately rep out multiple pull-ups. It may be one of the best back exercises, but it’s also one of the hardest. Just like those three-point shots, it takes time to reach that level.
It may require some months of consistent, balanced weight training programming before you can properly execute a pull-up, and if that’s the case, that’s totally fine.
Once you’ve been weight training consistently for some time though, it can be helpful to test out your pull-up proficiency. Doing so can give an idea of where you’re currently at and better evaluate what the best back exercises are to begin helping you improve.
The best way to test yourself is to simply find a pull-up bar and attempt to execute one, or as many bodyweight pull-ups as you can execute. The not-so-simple part of this test is making sure you’re actually performing your pull-up properly.
A lot of people can swing, strain and struggle their way above the bar, but fewer people actually perform a pull up in the manner it’s intended. When looking to first test out your pull-up skills, consider the below pointers.
Place your hands in a pronated (overhand) grip, slightly outside of shoulder width. Feel free to use a small box or step if you happen to be shorter and need help getting up to the bar. It’s better to use a step and make sure your set up is correct than to jump up to the bar and eliminate that opportunity to start strong.
Once you are set up and hanging from the bar, work to fully retract your shoulder blades before beginning to pull. This can be difficult for those new to retracting their shoulder blades and is something we’ll cover later in this article.
However, think of it as the opposite of shrugging- push your shoulder blades down and back. Doing this will help you better engage your back muscles and not rely too heavily on your arms to do the work.
What to Do With Your Feet Placement and Movement
Either cross your feet at the ankles and allow them to fall slightly behind your body, or put your feet together, legs straight, and maintain a nearly straight line with your torso. Whichever feels more comfortable to you, the main focus is keeping your feet stable throughout the pull-up and prevent yourself from overarching your lower back which can place undue stress on your spine.
If we’re creatures of habits, our muscles are machines of patterns.
Although swinging your feet throughout the repetition can make it easier by providing body English to the movement, it removes a considerable amount of activation within your back muscles. Try to consistently keep your body stable throughout the movement for better muscle activation and long-term benefits from the exercise.
Test Results Explained
Once you have a hang on the proper execution of a standard pull up, you can now test yourself by seeing how many pull-ups you can properly perform before hitting muscular failure or proper form begins diminishing. The number of pull-ups, or lack thereof, can determine the direction to take training and the best back exercises to perform moving forward, this article will include progressions for two different categories of test results:
- Completed 1 or fewer pull-ups
- Completed 2 or more pull-ups
The following sections will cover considerations that can greatly help both categories of athletes looking to improve their pull-up performance. Later in this article, the training templates and suggestions will be given to both categories individually. Regardless of where your current pull-up progress is, we’ve got you covered!
Principle of Specificity
Although too often used as blanket advice by average gym goers, there is some merit to simply “perform more pull-ups” when looking to get better at them. This is true not because that’s all you need to do, but instead to highlight the principle of specificity within training performance.
If we’re creatures of habits, our muscles are machines of patterns. Attempt a movement for the first time, whether that is a dance move, an agility test or a resistance training exercise, and you’ll likely feel a bit unsteady and clumsy. Practice that same movement consistently for a few weeks, and it’ll soon begin feeling like second nature.
This is because our muscular and nervous systems are closely intertwined. Without our muscles, the signals received and sent through our nervous systems would never lead to actions. Likewise, without a nervous system firing properly, our muscles would just be a motionless pile of tissue.
Together, that’s when the magic happens. As we begin practicing a movement pattern, our nervous and muscular system becomes more and more proficient at working together (1, 2).
Consistency is Crucial
Our nervous system can more efficiently send out the correct signal, and our muscles can more accurately respond to execute that movement pattern more consistently and correctly. Essentially, sometimes the best back exercises for athletes are simply the ones you’re being consistent in executing.
Our bodies first learn how to efficiently execute a movement through improved neuromuscular activation, and then begin adapting to execute the movement more forcefully through muscle hypertrophy (3).
This said it can be easy to understand why it’s so important to regularly practice the best back exercises for our goals. Baseball players take batting practice constantly, basketball players throw up thousands of shots each off season, and competitive weightlifters perform hundreds of reps each month to become better at their primary lifts.
One of the best back exercises for better pull-ups is simply doing pull-ups more often. If you’re new to training (≤ 6 months) then training back once per week is a great starting point that can produce a lot of initial growth. However, for those training longer than 6 months, consider increasing frequency to 2x/week, spread evenly throughout the week.
This frequency can be great for better increasing specificity toward your goals and optimally building a better back, and better pull-up performance.
Training a body part 2-3/week is great for long-term muscle and strength progress due to increase motor pattern efficiency, but also through more optimized muscle protein synthesis (MPS). After a resistance training, MPS is elevated for around 36-48 hours post-workout.By hitting the best back exercises for our goals every 2-3 days, we maximize the spikes in MPS we promote between workouts for better total muscle growth. (4, 5)
Drop for a Better Pull
Snoop Dogg would surely endorse this section because anyone looking to improve their pull-up performance should assess their current body comp, and in most cases, drop it like it’s hot. Even though you’re looking for the best back exercises to improve our pull-ups, body comp evaluations can help you become more efficient at any exercise you perform.
This doesn’t mean crash dieting. On the contrary actually, gradual dieting approaches better retain muscle tissue and strength. Anyone looking to improve their pull-ups should assess their body fat levels. Then consider a mini cut or brief dieting phase as you continue your pull-up pursuit.
Having somebody fat is necessary and eating in a caloric surplus for extended periods of time is especially necessary for ensuring optimal muscle growth and strength improvements. However, there comes a point, which differs for each individual slightly, where too much body fat isn’t detrimental.
Excess fat can actually just make our movement patterns less efficient by decreasing relative strength. The force we can produce relative to our own body weight.
“Looking for help with your diet? IIFYM Macro Coaches are here to help you!”
It can be pretty obvious why this is especially important for pull-up performance. If your strength levels are the same in both scenarios, but in scenario ‘A’ you had 200lbs to pull up and scenario B you had 185lbs to pull up, then scenario ‘B’ is the clear preference for someone with the goal of improving their pull-up count.
Optimizing body composition essentially makes the best back exercises better by improving the efficiency we are able to perform them.
Slow but Sure Wins the Race
Dieting for an extended period of time can eventually negatively affect strength levels and training performance. However strategically performing a brief dieting phase, or “mini-cut” can allow athletes to reduce excess body fat and improve their training efficiency.
A “mini cut” or longer fat loss phase can be a success with a Macro Blueprint.
A very effective strategy is to find a local facility that offers BODPOD of DXA body composition scanning. If unavailable, even assessing your body composition through progress photos compared to previous, leaner body weights can help you get an idea on where your current body composition is.
For anyone interested in learning more about how to determine whether it’s a good time to diet, or continue with your off-season, another article of mine, “THE TRANSITION: TO START CUTTING FAT OR BULKING?” is a great resource to check out here on IIFYM.com.
Also, be sure to check out the free IIFYM Macro Calculator if just getting started with managing your diet.
Our bodies are basically like Apple products. Our mind is the MacBook and muscles the iPhone. Not only does performing a specific movement consistently improve our ability to efficiently execute that movement, so too does it improve our ability to sync up our mind-muscle connection.
Much like syncing up our iPhones without laptops for better productivity. A phrase used often in fitness magazines but rarely explained in detail- our mind-muscle connection is essentially our ability to mentally “tune in” to our bodies.
Watch a young, aspiring bodybuilder try to fully flex their back muscles for the first time and you’re almost sure to see them struggle. This isn’t because they’re clumsy, but instead due to the lack of familiarity in how to actually activate their back muscles on command.
Give that athlete a few weeks of consistently focusing on flexing their back muscles and perform movements that help them improve that ability and they’ll soon be hitting full lat spread poses every time they walk past a mirror.
The Mind Games Continue
Once again, this is because our minds and muscles are closely connected. As we gain experience weight training, flexing for poses and stabilizing our core- we gain a better ability to use our muscles more effectively, and physically execute the movement patterns we are thinking about.
With many athletes, performing pull-ups early on entails using almost entirely arm muscles and very little, if any, back muscles.
This ultimately limits their ability to execute pull-ups since the back muscles are much more complex, larger and able to produce much more force compared to the biceps. Without completely incorporating the muscles within the back, athletes are greatly limiting their pull-up potential. They instead transform one of the best back exercises into an inefficient arm exercise.
Not only will balanced back training improve your pull-up performance, but it will also allow for better overall symmetry and proportion in your physique.
If you are able to do a few pull-ups, but afterward barely feel any fatigue in your back, this may apply to you. Luckily, if that is the case, there are some exercises and strategies you include to help better incorporate your back muscles. Enabling you to get the absolute most out of the best back exercises and greatly reduce frustration along the way.
Tips for a Better Mind-Muscle Connection
When working on improving the mind-muscle connection with your back, it’s helpful to incorporate a few basics exercises into your warm-up routine before back days. Although progressively lifting heavier weight is important for muscle growth, it can be tempting to neglect muscle activation for the sake of just moving a lot of weight.
After a general warm-up, below are some of the best back exercises to help you further warm up and begin each workout with activation in mind. With each, the main goal isn’t to lift a lot of weight but to simply focus on maximizing the involvement of your back muscles with each rep.
Execute these movements with a slow rep speed, full contraction, and a 1-2 second squeeze with each rep. Focusing on the squeeze can help athletes gain a better feel for what it’s like to fully incorporate the various, major back muscles and lead to better activation during the actual working sets of the workout.
Really feel your back working with each set. The result is better muscle recruitment and greater long-term progress.
When approaching the best back exercise form, treat it like “elbowing” someone standing behind you when performing rowing movements. Think more about using your back, and your arms as simply attachments to hold the weight, and not actually to move the weight.
During back exercises, your back muscles are doing the majority of the work, your arms just happen to be there so your hands can hold the handle.
The Best Back Exercises for Improved Muscle Activation
|Kneeling Cable Face Pulls||2||12-15|
|Standing Rope Lat “Pullovers”||2||12-15|
With training experience and muscle activation sets, you can improve your ability to activate your back muscles more effectively. In turn, applying that to your pull-up sets can help you incorporate the muscles capable of producing the most force, and stimulate the back muscles that pull-ups are designed to strengthen and grow in the first place.
The more you can connect with your back muscles and less you emphasize your arm involvement, the greater the potential for improvement in perfecting your pull-ups.
After all, we can perform the best back exercises in the world, but if we aren’t performing them optimally, we risk leaving a lot of results on the table, or in this case- the pull-up bar.
Build Your Back Base
Before we get into some pull-up progression strategies, it should be noted that a key to successful pull-up progress is first having a solid based of overall strength- namely bicep, latisimus dorsi, rhomboids, teres major and teres minor.
Along with practicing pull-ups, it’s a good idea to include a variety of other back exercises in your training routine to help set and continue building your strength base. Not only will balanced back training improve your pull-up performance, but it will also allow for better overall symmetry and proportion in your physique.
Using our list of some of the best back exercises in each movement pattern, try to include at least one exercise from each category in your weekly back training.
The Best Back Exercises and Movement Patterns
- 1 Arm Dumbbell Rows
- Machine Back Rows
- Seated Cable Rows
- Pendlay Rows
- T Bar Rows
Vertical Pulling Variations
- Seated Close Grip Pull Down
- Seated Pronated Pull Down
- 1 Arm Cable Pull Down
- Pull-Up Variations
Shoulder Abduction & Elevation Variations
- Kneeling Cable Face Pulls
- Reverse Pec Dec Fly
- Band Pull-Aparts
- Chest Supported or Bent Over Dumbbell Reverse Fly
- Dumbbell & Barbell Shrugs
Major Compound Movements
- Barbell Deadlifts
- Rack Deadlifts
- Deficit Deadlifts
Workout Strategy – Category 1: (Completed 1 or fewer pull-ups.)
We all start somewhere, and especially with pull-ups, not being amazing at repping them out is certainly understandable. After incorporating the best back exercises and considerations from above, there are some category-specific workout strategies that can help as you continue complimenting your pull-up pursuits.
For this example, we will assume you are training back, in some capacity, twice each week. Let’s say Tuesday and Friday are training sessions you’re normally including some back work. Including pull-up, specific work early in both sessions, and focusing on variations best suited to prime you for better, complete pull-ups can go a long way in pointing you in the right direction.
Having your pull-up exercises early in your sessions can also help you put the most attention and energy toward your pull-up priority.
Note on Eccentric Training
When unable to perform many or any, pull-ups a typically suggested antidote is to begin by performing eccentric pull-ups. That is, using a small step to get into the “up” position and simply lowering yourself slowly back down.
Eccentric exercise can be a great step in improving pull-up performance but isn’t likely the best first option. Although it can induce solid muscle growth and improve motor patterns, eccentric exercise is also likely to produce significant muscle damage to new trainees.
The main point is to be patient and operate at your own pace.
Although they make the list of best back exercises for better pull-ups, it’s important to make sure not to overuse them early on to allow for sufficient recovery from each workout. (6,7)
Assisted Pull-Up Machine
Day 1: 3 Sets x 8-10 Reps
Day 2: 3 Sets x 4-6 Reps
*Gradually reducing assistance each workout
Day 1: Banded Pull-Ups
4 Sets x 6-8 Reps
Day 2: Eccentric Pull-Ups
2-3 Sets x 4-6 Reps (4 second eccentric)
Day 1: Standard Pull-Up Singles
6-8 Sets x 1 Rep
Day 2: Banded Pull-Ups
3-4 Sets x 6-8 Reps
Week 7 – As Needed
Day 1 & 2: Standard Pull-Ups + Banded Pull Up Complex
2-4 Sets x 2-8 Reps
*Perform each set by first completing as many standards, unassisted pull-ups as possible, then transition immediately into banded pull-ups to finish each sets’ rep scheme
Once capable of completing approximately 2 sets of 4+ repetitions
Standard Pull-Ups, 2-4 Sets x 4-8+ Reps
This isn’t just some of the best back exercises to improve pull-up performance. The program is also laid out in a way that each exercise builds upon the previous one.
Assisted pull-ups with a machine help trainees add just enough assistance to gain better motor pattern improvement and gradually decrease assistance until ultimately needing very little assistance to execute the exercise. This point does not only improve strength but a better feeling for the movement in general.
At this point, banded pull-ups feel more natural, and confidence has grown as you approach a traditional pull-up bar. Moving forward, each successive step helps to build on that initial progress, inching closer and closer to full, traditional pull-ups.
“The best back exercises, to begin with, are those that best fit your current training status”
The key point to remember is that each level of progression may require more or less time than this outline suggests. For some, it may require a few more weeks in each level to really get the skill down and gain sufficient strength. For others, already able to perform 1 pull up successfully, it may be somewhat easier to reach the point of traditional + banded pull-up sets.
The main point is to be patient and operate at your own pace. Progress doesn’t happen overnight, but with each successful workout, you’re that much closer to your goals.
This is also true with your diet, being patient is key. Follow a sustainable program with your Macro Blueprint.
Workout Strategy – Category 2: (Completed 2 or more pull-ups.)
The progression strategy from category 1 won’t drastically change for category 2. What will change will be where you can begin in the outline, and our list of the best back exercises to perform as you advance later in your progression.
If you’re already capable of performing at least 2 traditional pull-ups, it can be helpful, to begin with, pull-up singles to increase total pull-up working volume, then progress toward a variety of pull-up variations that can complement your overall strength progress.
These variations will stimulate a different proportion of overall back musculature and simply keep your workouts interesting, as you become a pull-up pro.
Week 1 & 2
Day 1 & 2: Standard Pull Up Singles
6-8 Sets x 1 Rep
Week 3 & 4
Day 1 & 2: Standard Pull Up Singles & Doubles
6-8 Sets x 1-2 Reps
Week 5 – 8 (or as needed)
Day 1 & 2: Standard Pull-Ups + Banded Pull Up Complex
2-4 Sets x 2-8 Reps
*Perform each set by first completing as many standard, unassisted pull-ups as possible, then transition immediately into banded pull-ups to finish each sets’ rep scheme
Once capable of completing approximately 2 sets of 6-8 repetitions
Day 1: Standard Pull-Ups, 2-6 Sets of 6-8+ Reps
Day 2: Advanced Pull-Up Variation, 2-6 Sets of 6-8+ Reps
At this point, it’s safe to say you’re standard pull up foundation is pretty strong. Once you become confident in completing multiple sets (6+ reps each) of traditional pull-ups, it can be a great idea to periodically program variations of traditional pull-ups to compliment your training. Some effective variations include:
The Best Back Exercise for Advanced Pull-Up Progression
- Neutral Grip Pull-Ups
- V Bar Pull-ups (V Bar attachment placed over a straight pull-up bar)
- Pull-Ups with Static Holds at the Top of Each Rep
- Chin Ups
- Weighted Pull-ups & Chin-Ups (weight belt for added resistance)
- Olympic Ring Pull-Ups (increase your focus on stabilization)
Pulling (up) all the Stops
There is a multitude of paths you can take to reach pull-up proficiency. The distance, enjoyment and relative ease of the journey may differ.
Ultimately as long as you are progressively getting stronger in an organized training routine based around the best back exercises for your goals, keeping pull-up variations as a major training focus, and properly adjusting your diet to meet your body composition goals, pull-up performance is certain to improve.
Regardless of your exact routine, using the above considerations and progression schemes can help you get where you’re going quicker through adequate building blocks and the best back exercises shown to facilitate muscle growth and strength in a balanced way. Lebron can keep his pull-up threes; you’ve got pull-ups at your gym covered now!