How to Reach the Potential of Your Lats with Just Pull-ups [a simple guide]

| by Truth Seeker |

Purpose. This post contains a blueprint for building the biggest latissimus dorsi muscles [lats] achievable naturally through pull-ups.

Pull-ups – The Perfect Candidate

The following properties make pull-ups the logical choice when selecting a movement for lat construction:

1. Simplicity. The best muscle-building exercises are simple. The more complicated a movement is, the less suitable it is for hypertrophy training because of the greater number of skill-based variables [e.g., balance] involved in it.

When the goal is to hit a major muscle group for growth purposes, those are just distractions/noise.

2. Directness. When done properly, the pull-up unapologetically orders the lats to contract.

3. Infinite progression. The pull-up can be kept in the muscle-building rep ranges forever by adding weight. Moving to more advanced variations of the exercise is another option, but it’s inferior to adding weight because the switch disrupts the motion pattern and could potentially expose the joints to undue stress. For example, many people complain of elbow pain when doing front lever work.

4. Low barrier to entry. Pull-ups can be done almost everywhere, and you don’t have to be super flexible to perform the exercise with good form.

5. Coolness. Currently, the entire world is crazy about bodyweight training. The social status of the exercise encourages people to stay consistent.

How to Activate Your Lats During Pull-ups

via: pinterest.com

“Lat sleep” during pull-ups is a common complaint. Over the years, many scholars have recommended various crazy techniques to fix the problem including punches to the lats before pull-ups.

Thankfully, lat activation is a lot less complicated than the unenlightened anticipate.

One of the best methods to reawaken your lats are “scapular pull-ups” also known as 1/5 pull-ups. The execution is fairly simple:

Step 1. Grab a pull-up bar or a set of gymnastic rings and relax completely. Imagine that your arms are just chains/cables connecting you to the bar.

Step 2: Bring your shoulders down below your ears without bending your arms. This movement is called scapular depression or a “reverse shrug”. If you do it correctly, you will feel your shoulders sink below your ears, and your lats will “activate”.

Note: A proper pull-up starts from a complete dead hang and with a scapular pull-up.

What is The Best Pull-up Variation for Lats?

There are many contenders, but the winner is clear – close/narrow grip pull-ups on gymnastic rings.

The reasons are as follows:

1. Close-grip pull-ups work the lats the hardest.

The close-grip pull-up hits the lats harder than the wide grip versions regardless of what the movies say.

The wide grip pull-up shortens the range of motion and shifts a lot of the stress to the teres major – a small muscle under the shoulder known as “the lat little helper”. Building the teres major will result in extra width, but the lats have much greater potential for growth and domination. After all, they are the biggest muscles in the upper body.

Another downside of the wide-grip pull-up is the reduced range of motion. By widening your grip, you’re decreasing the distance between the torso and the bar. At the top of the movement, the elbows cannot come close to the body. This diminishes the range of motion and the involvement of the lats even further.

The teres major | via: wikipedia.com

In conclusion, wide grip pull-ups may be a decent teres major exercise, but they are inferior lat builders in comparison to the close/narrow grip variations due to the reduced travel and the angle from which the lat is pulling. It’s easier to activate the lats with a narrower grip.

2. Rings are joint-friendly.

The bar is like a barbell – it’s unforgiving and forces you to adapt to it whereas rings allow you to find a painless path.

The classic bar pull-up [palms facing away from you] rarely causes wrist pain, especially if you use a thumbless/monkey grip, but it can stress the outer part of the elbows as a result of over-flexion during narrow and close grip variations.

Another shortcoming is the limited biceps engagement. In the past, I wrongfully believed that engaging less arm mass in pull-ups is good and frowned at the idea of doing chin-ups. That assessment isn’t correct.

Your arms are heavily involved in every pull-up variation. When you limit the muscles helping elbow flexion, you’re instantly making the arms the weaker link.

In other words, chin-ups aren’t cheating. Of course, that’s true only when the movement is done with proper technique. Hunching over and muscling yourself up with your arms is bad form and won’t build your back.

The bar chin-up [palms facing towards you] could be a wrist killer if you don’t have the mobility for it.

The neutral grip chin-up eliminates the joint problems created by the straight bar variations, but the rings are still a better option because they engage the biceps harder and enable you to perform more repetitions resulting in greater lat stimulation.

In short, the close/narrow ring pull-up provides the most work for the lats in the safest possible manner.

The Program

Phase 1: Get to 12-15 pull-ups in a row

The goal of this segment is to reach 12-15 pull-ups in a single set. Your last rep does not have to be as neat as your first one, but dangerous form breakdown should never be tolerated.

Many plans will get you to that point, but virtually all of them are based on volume accumulation.

The blueprint below is designed for lifters who can do at least 3 pull-us. If you are not there yet, consider doing horizontal bodyweight rows, rack pull-ups, lat pulldowns, bar hangs and scapular pull-ups. Before you know it, three pull-ups will be yours. If you’re fat, lose weight.

Starting point 3RM [the lifter can only do three repetitions in a row]

  Workout 1 Workout 2 Workout 3
Week 1 3,2,1,1,1,1,1 3,2,2,1,1,1,1 3,2,2,2,1,1,1
Week 2 3,2,2,2,2,1,1 3,2,2,2,2,2,1 3,2,2,2,2,2,2
Week 3 3,3,2,2,2,2,2 3,3,3,2,2,2,2 3,3,3,3,2,2,2
Week 4 3,3,3,3,2,2,2 3,3,3,3,3,2,2 3,3,3,3,3,3,2
Week 5 3,3,3,3,3,3,3 Rest Rest
Week 6 Test max    

 Explanation: The lifter starts with the hardest/longest sets and then begins cutting reps. Each consecutive set consists of one less rep. When that’s not possible, the set is kept at 1 rep.

The total number of sets is 7. Every workout, the lifter adds one repetition to the easiest sets. After a few weeks, the lifter retests their max and begins a new cycle.

If the lifter maxes out at 6, the following schedule is in order during the next wave.

  Workout 1 Workout 2 Workout 3
Week 1 6,5,4,3,2,1,1 6,5,4,3,2,2,1 6,5,4,3,2,2,2
Week 2 6,5,4,3,3,2,2 6,5,4,3,3,3,2 6,5,4,3,3,3,3
Week 3 6,5,4,4,3,3,3 6,5,4,4,4,3,3 6,5,4,4,4,4,3
Week 4 6,5,4,4,4,4,4 6,5,5,4,4,4,4 6,5,5,5,4,4,4
Week 5 6,5,5,5,5,4,4 6,5,5,5,5,5,4 6,5,5,5,5,5,5

[burnout]

Week 6 Rest Rest Rest
Week 7 Text Max    

If you find that three workouts in a week are too much, consider training every 4th day.

In that case, your monthly schedule will look like this:

Week 1 Workout Workout
Week 2 Workout
Week 3 Workout
Week 4 Workout Workout

Follow this routine, until you max out at 12-15 pull-ups. Don’t forget to rest for a few days before testing your max.

Note: The numbers in the tables are just examples. Nobody expects you to be a robot never missing a rep.

How long will it take to reach 12-15 pull-ups?

It depends on your starting strength. If you can’t do any pull-ups, you’ll probably need 4-8 months to get from 0 to 15 in a row.

Stay away from routines promising quick gains in a few weeks. While some of them may work, they have downsides detrimental to the goal of building the lats.

First, a lot of the gains are going to be neurological rather than muscular. Second, the chances of developing elbow tendonitis are high.

How long should I rest?

Keep the pause periods short in the beginning and add more time as you progress. How much? At least a few minutes.

Phase 2: Get Your Weighted Pull-up to a Respectable Number

The first phase of the program conditions the body and mind for the real work – weighted pull-ups.

While you can certainly develop your lats by just doing bodyweight pull-ups, the weighted version enhances the process by keeping you in the muscle-building rep range (5-15 reps).

What’s a respectable number? Around 40-50% of your bodyweight. If you weigh, 160lbs/72.72kg, this amounts to pull-ups with 64-80lbs/29-36kg. [Of course, this number is just a guideline.]

I like to program weighted pull-ups like any other basic lift – by starting a linear progression, deloading and building back up again.

Frequency

Weighted pull-ups do not tolerate high frequency because the stress on the elbow joint is high. Even if you don’t feel irritation right away, the stress accumulates quickly. That’s why I do weighted pull-ups only once a week.

The starting weight

Start light – 5-10kg/10-20lbs. The weight will climb up faster than you think anyway.

Weight jumps

Weighted pull-ups require small jumps. You will be stuck with 1-2kg/ 2-5lbs progressions. Therefore, you may need some micro weights.

When you are doing pull-ups with 25kg/55lbs, a 1kg/2.2lbs jump amounts to about 5-7% of the total weight. To put things into perspective, 5kg/11lbs are the same percentage of a 100kg/225lbs squat.

The first weighted pull-up workout could look like that:

Set 1: 5 bodyweight reps

Set 2: 5 bodyweight reps

Set 3: 3 reps with 5kg/10lbs

Set 4: work set – 5 reps with 10kg/20lbs

Set 5: 5 reps with 7.5kg [back-off set]

Rest between sets: 3-5 minutes

Note: If you prefer doing higher reps, just reduce the load.

Linear progression

Add weight each workout. Eventually, completing all five reps with good form will become difficult or impossible. When that happens, reduce the load and shoot for another PR.

Example

The table below shows only the work sets. You can add a back-off set with less weight too.

The weight is only in kilograms for simplicity and to illustrate the small jumps.

Week 1: 10kg x 5 [1 set of 5 with 10kg]

Week 2: 11.5 x 5

Week 3: 13 x 5

Week 4: 14.5 x 5

Week 5: 16 x 5

Week 6: 17.5 x 5 – completing 5 reps with good form was problematic. End of the block.

After this block, you can start another one aiming for a 1.5kg PR.

Week 1: 11.5kg x 5

Week 2: 13 x 5

Week 3: 14.5 x 5

Week 4: 16 x 5

Week 5: 17.5 x 5

Week 6: 19kg x 5 – Feeling solid. Let’s do another week.

Week 7: 20kg x 4 – This felt like a fridge. Let’s end it here.

The end. Start a new block.

Continue training in this fashion for as long as you are making progress. 

Q & A

Why deload?  

To prevent overuse injuries and build momentum.

How many times a week should I train?

Advanced lifters can do weighted pull-ups more frequently, but in general, once a week is sufficient.

If you want more volume, you can add another bodyweight-only pull-up day to practice speed and technique.

Is it obligatory to keep increasing the weight?

No. At one point, you can switch to classic volume training. This approach is equally as valid as adding weight.

If you want, you can alternate between volume and intensity segments.

Example:

Segment 1: Get from 10kg x 5 reps to 20kg x 5 reps [intensity focus]

Segment 2: Get from 20kg x 5 reps to 20kg x 10-12 reps [volume focus]

Segment 3: Revert to linear progression by adding weight.

…etc.

Should I do my pull-ups in the so-called hollow position?

If you’re doing pull-ups strictly for back development, the answer is no. Gymnasts perform hollow pull-ups because many advanced elements (e.g., iron cross) are done in a hollow position.

But for muscle-building purposes, the “hollow” only complicates the movement and makes the activation of the lats harder for regular people.

Moreover, the hollow pull-up robs the upper back of work as the shoulder blades are not fully retracted at the top.

I don’t have rings. Any suggestions?

You don’t need special gymnastic rings. I have a homemade version. It’s been with me for 10 years.

But if you don’t want to do ring-pull-ups, you don’t have to. Below is a list of pull-up variations that work the lats the hardest while placing the least possible stress on the joints.

  1. Close, neutral grip pull-ups.
  2. Close grip chin-ups [palms facing you]
  3. Shoulder width or slightly wider grip pull-ups [palms facing away].

Could I substitute ring pull-ups for towel or rope pull-ups?

Those are great variations for building grip strength, but by making the forearms the weak link, you’re reducing your ability to accumulate volume and stimulate back growth.

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23 comments

  1. Zagor

    A person’s body weigth is a huge factor in number of chinups that person can do. If you’re a 60kg twig, it a lot easier to crank out 10 bw chinups than it is to a 100 kg person to do so. You would need to add 40 kg additional weigth to a 60kg twig to have a same workout effect of a 100kg person doing 10 bw chinups.

    That’s why a number of bodyweigth chins you can do means nothing. The real number is how much weigth you can chin. As a 93 kg person myself, a can chin at least one clean rep with 35 kg added weigth making my chinup max 128 kg. That’s the number we should look for.

    1. Truth Seeker Post author

      Bodyweight matters, of course.

      1. The number is a guideline. Lighter men have a better strength to weight ratio than bigger individuals.

      2. Whether someone is a “twig” at 60kg is decided by his height and body structure.

      3. A lighter guy does not have to match “the workout effect” of a bigger dude as the lighter guy has smaller muscles.

      Your 100kg bodyweight chin-ups are not the equivalent to 40kg weighted chin-ups done by a 60kg man.

      The two lifts are very different as a lot of your extra bodyweight is lean mass directly helping the exercise whereas the 40kgs lifted by the “twig” are iron that do not help the lift in any way.

      4. When calculating your chin-up max, you have to remove the weight of your forearms from the equation as they’re not lifted during chin-ups, pull-ups, handstand push-ups, push-ups, dips…etc. In other words, you’re not lifting your entire bodyweight.

      1. Zagor

        A lot of nitpicking points by your part. I’ll conciede that most of it is correctly said, but they are such a minor points that in no significant way refute what I’ve said. Yeah your not lifring your forearms, but that’s the kind of nitpicking comment suggesting probably you got somewhat triggered.

        1. Sam

          @Zagor, these are definitely not small things that Truth Seeker quotes here, but solid points.

        2. Truth Seeker Post author

          I don’t think we disagree as much as you think.

        3. Rickley

          Hey Zagor from the looks of it youre the one triggered. Did a twig steal your girl?

  2. MB

    Can I do other exercises too or only pull ups?
    (pul up as first exercise of coarse)

    1. Truth Seeker Post author

      Yes. This is not one of those routines set in stone. The back needs more than pull-ups for total development. Pull-ups don’t do much for the spinal erectors.

      1. mattsk1

        Push ups to some extent works the spinal erectors due to the plank position and keeping total body tension. It is a great complement to pullups for the upperbody when one is only considering bodyweight movements.

  3. sArms

    Hi Mate . Can you make something simillar about Arms. Thansk.

  4. Tony C.

    Hello again, Truth. I do agree with number 5 about coolness. Since we live in an image-based world, having to look cool while working to gain muscle and/or lose fat is required. If I don’t look good working out, I might as well not train. That being said, I imagine that people will turn heads when they see others flawlessly perform dance moves based off of martial arts. In other words, breakdancers. Try not to take this the wrong way, but fingers crossed for you, Truth, to perform tornado kicks easily. As a fellow thin man and underdog myself, Truth, you deserve to learn how to use force and look Instagram-worthy while using force.

    I’ll remember to do pull-ups again at some point … with safe padding, hopefully.

  5. James

    Interesting!

    Why 7 sets?

    I’ve dome the same thing with 3 sets and it was really good for strength.

    1. Truth Seeker Post author

      To accumulate volume. You can reduce the sets if you want.

  6. MB

    If you use rings for pull ups, doesn’t that change it more into a parallel bar pull up?
    And don’t it target other muscles then?

    1. Truth Seeker Post author

      The lats still have to work hard.

      1. MB

        Oh. ok. Thank you.
        Great and informative article b.t.w.

  7. MB

    In workout 3 from week 5 it says ‘burnout’.
    What does this stand for or what does this mean?

    1. Truth Seeker Post author

      It means that you may be getting tired and missing reps.

  8. Chitown Willie

    Hi Truthseeker,

    Can you expand on the 3RM program to include other bodyweight stuff (e.g., handstand pushups, dips, etc.)?

  9. Mandeep

    You need to revise your opinion of Westside barbell method. I post this before and you don’t publish the commant. Instead, you waste our time with this bar stretch and posing guide. Study the conjugate method in more detail. You don’t have the time to analyze Westside methodology because it is always evolving.

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