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5 Best Exercises to Blow Up Pull-up Strength

Pull-ups. We all wish we could do one right. You may feel stuck or not know where to start with learning pull-ups. If you don't have a lifting program yet, I recommend you make one or find one you like. Also, check out this excellent guide to pull-up progression.

A pull-up uses muscles like the upper back, lats and biceps. It requires forearm and upper back strength. Therefore, the best exercises to increase pull ups are grip exercises like the dead hang or scapula pull, and lat strength exercises like lat pull-downs and snatch grip deadlift.

Vertical Push Vs. Pulls

A vertical push is a movement where you press a weight mostly in the vertical plane, whether it's away and down from you (dip), or above and away from you (handstand push up/overhead press). Vertical push movements recruit pushing muscles such as the chest, anterior deltoids, and triceps. Such movements factor in some kind of elbow extension. A vertical push opposes the vertical pull.

Man Doing Overhead Press

A vertical pull is a pull in the vertical axes, whether pulling up to something (chin-up, neutral pull-up, pull-up) or pulling something down (pull down). Vertical pull exercises work the "pull" muscles of the body, like the lats, upper back, and biceps. 

Woman Doing a Pull-up

Neither movement is better. Many people use an upper/lower or lower/upper split and for those splits you would simply start with 1 horizontal push, then 1 horizontal pull, then 1 vertical push, then 1 vertical pull, two upper accessories and two elbow extension/flexion movements, but there are many other ways to program these movements. 

For instance, you can place vertical presses first instead of horizontal pushes. Or, you can have a day where one comes first and then switch it. It all comes down to experience. Below, I outline some other split setups.

If you run a full body split 3-4x a week, superset 1-2 pairs of vertical push/pull main exercises back to back in a week on an upper oriented day.

If you run a PPL split 6 days a week, structure your push days to go in this order: 1 horizontal press supersetted with 1 vertical press like a dip. Then another superset of a horizontal push, like a push-up with a pushdown. Optionally, end the workout with a chest fly supersetted with a lateral raise.

For the other push day, switch the vertical presses up. For instance, change the dip to a pike push up or overhead press. Correspondingly, change the tricep pushdown to an overhead tricep extension.

For your pull days, start with a horizontal pull like an inverted row or barbell bent over row. Superset that with a chin/pull-up. Then superset a cable row or DB row with a cable pull-over or face pull. Optionally add in a bicep curl with a forearm curl.

Will Vertical Presses Increase Pull Ups?

First, there are two kinds of vertical push/presses.

The first kind pushes "from" an object. Exercises like this are dip and dip variations. Technically tricep pushdowns also fall into this, but most people categorize them as elbow extensions.

Man Doing Tricep Dip

The second kind is where you push weight over and away from you (overhead). The weight typically starts at the bottom of the movement. Exercises of this sort are like the barbell overhead press (standing or seated) and the dumbbell variation.

A pull counteracts a push, including the muscles used. Since they don't use the same muscles, a push will rarely have carryover to a pull, including a vertical push. The only time it will is if you neglect a pull. Since every pull counteracts a push, both movements should be in balance, creating a synergy of muscles (while not perfect, having the same amount of sets of opposing muscle groups/movements is an excellent protector of muscle symmetry and joint safety).

As a side note, don't feel it's necessary to include both pushdowns and overhead presses. If you want more specificity or practice in one movement (say a dip) just do that for both days and keep the corresponding tricep pushdowns. Same for any other push or pull. There's no major difference whether you choose to do dips and overhead pushes or just one; the same muscles are used. I just recommend including tricep pushdowns and overhead extensions for full muscle development.

Pull Ups Muscles Worked

The three common variations of pull-ups are the chin up (supinated grip) pull-up (pronated grip) and the neutral grip pull-up (neutral grip with palms facing each other). All pull-ups work about the same muscles, the biceps, lats, upper back (rhomboids, lower traps) and rear delts.

The chin-up especially works the biceps and may be easier than other variations because it uses more bicep strength.


The pull-up is typically the hardest out of the three, because there is less bicep involvement and more back strength and technique is required.


The neutral grip balances ease and technique. It is slightly trickier than the chin-up, but it recruits more of the brachialis, which makes the bicep thicker. 


I recommend using the movement that agrees with you the most. Now that we know what muscles pull-ups works, we can find exercises to increase our capacity for strength (hypertrophy).

Best Exercises to Increase Pull-Ups

While pullup progressions and practicing consistently, near failure, and progressing in the specific movement pattern of a pull up will mainly help you progress (obviously) there are some exercises that will increase your pulling power and grip, therefore carrying over to your ability to perform a pull-up strongly and confidently.

Pulldowns

How to Do a Pull-Down

You often hear people calling pull-ups superior to pull-downs, just because of the strength needed to pull your own bodyweight up to a bar. While this is true, a pull-down will mimic the movement pattern and reinforce it. See, to pull effectively, you need to "push" the bar down, as if breaking it apart. To perform a lat pull-down:
  1. Set up weight and handle.
  2. Sit on a bench or chair and grab with either a pronated (facing away from you) or supinated grip.
  3. Retract scapula, squeeze pinky.
  4. Tighten grip, loosen biceps, pull bar to chest and push chest to bar.
  5. squeeze core, exhale, hold for a second and return the movement, stretching the lats.
  6. Repeat.

Muscles Worked

  • Lats
  • Biceps
  • Rhomboids
  • Lower traps
  • Forearms

Farmer's Carry

How to Do a Farmer's Carry

This exercise will increase your grip strength. Perform with a pronated grip by holding a trap bar/dumbbells/kettlebells. Retract your shoulder blades and walk for 40 steps. If you have a home gym, you may need to drop the weight and turn around or just turn around with the weight. This comes out to about 20 reps per leg. To perform a farmer's carry:
  1. Set up a trap bar/dumbbell/kettlebell with adequate weight to perform 4 steps from failure.
  2. Deadlift it up, squeeze shoulder blades.
  3. Take a medium stride (1 rep).
  4. Step until you reach 10-20 strides per leg. 
  5. Keep a tight grip and exhale every step, inhale as you pick up leg.

Muscles Worked

  • Trapezius muscles
  • Glutes
  • Core stabilizers
  • Quads
  • Forearms
  • Lats

Scapula Pulls

How to Do a Scapula Pull

You can implement scapula pulls as a pull-up warm up. I recommend doing 1-3 sets of 5-10 reps before your pull-up working sets. To perform, hold on to a bar with a pronated grip, and pinch your shoulder blades together by "bending the bar apart". Return to the original hang and repeat. This will ingrain the pattern of retracting your scapula, a critical step to performing a pain-free pull-up. To perform a scapula pull:
  1. Set up a bar and grab onto it.
  2. Squeeze the bar apart with your pinkies.
  3. "Push" bar to your chest until your shoulder blades pinch together. Exhale.
  4. Inhale and return to stretch.
  5. Repeat.

Muscles Worked

  • Rhomboids
  • Lower Traps
  • Rear delt
  • Lats
  • Forearms

Dead Hangs

How to Dead Hang

I usually do 1-2 sets of dead hangs at the end of every workout. You don't have to count these as sets since they function more as a cooldown, but you can also count them as work sets if you go to failure on them. To do them, hang pronated and loosen your spinal column, releasing all tension. Hang for 15-30 seconds. To perform a dead hang:
  1. Grab onto the bar, lift your feet from the ground.
  2. Loosen your spinal column, neck, and arms. Hang tight.
  3. Let your lats stretch for 15-30 seconds.
  4. Repeat.

Muscles Worked

  • Forearms
  • Lower Back

Snatch Grip Deadlift

How to Snatch Grip Deadlift

This lift might seem weird, but a snatch grip deadlift is one of the most effective movements for increasing grip and lat strength. This is because you can move the most amount for eight at a high amount of reps. Unlike the original deadlift variation, this one is best performed at a 6-15 rep range, and with about 65-75% of the load. To perform set up with a wide grip, your thumb to the right of the knurling (the grey ring on a standard barbell). Have the barbell run over the middle of your foot to start. Lower and get your grip. Next, lower your shins to the bar. You should angle your feet 15-30 degrees out. Your hips will probably be lower than the usual deadlift. Next, turn your triceps tight, as if bending the bar, brace, push the slack out with your chest and drive the floor away from you explosively, dragging the bar up your body. To perform a snatch grip deadlift:
  1. Set up a barbell with weight. Snatch grip deadlift is approx. 65-75% of 1RM deadlift.
  2. Stand with the middle of your foot under the bar.
  3. Bend down and grab the bar outside the ring.
  4. Bring your shins to the bar without lowering your hips.
  5. Triceps back, lats glued to the floor. Brace and lock your glottis.
  6. "Push" slack out of bar with chest, keep neck neutral
  7. Drag bar up your legs by driving floor away (all toes on ground, picture a triangle).
  8. Breathe out and brace at the top.
  9. Reverse the movement by hinging at the hips and lowering the glutes and knees.
  10. Straight bar path. Repeat.

Muscles Worked

  • Trapezius muscles
  • Glutes
  • Hamstrings
  • Forearms
  • Lower back
  • Lats

Conclusion

I hope you got something from this guide. I tried to give some tips on how to program this stuff in, and now it's up to you if you want to implement any. If you have a movement goal, keep it specific. perform pullups earlier in your workouts, replace deadlift variations with a snatch grip, replace a chest accessory with a back accessory like a pull-down. implement farmers carry instead of shrugs. Add some dead hangs to the end of your session, as well. Happy pulling!