5 Exercises to Increase Your Pull-Up Strength and Back Size
The pull-up is an exceptional compound vertical pull exercise for building back width and upper body strength. Best of all, pull-ups require little to no set-up and can be performed almost anywhere there is a sturdy horizontal bar.
A strong and developed back has substantial carryover to every athletic activity. Powerlifters know that beefy traps and lats are crucial for increasing stability in the deadlift, squat, and bench press. Olympic lifts engage their lats during the pulling portion of both the snatch and clean as well as during the pressing motion of the jerk.
CrossFit athletes incorporate strict and kipping pull-ups during many of their timed workouts. When performed appropriately the pull-up can pack some serious mass on to the lats of bodybuilders looking to build an X-frame physique. Broad and wide shoulders, a v-taper of the lats, and a narrow waist are key requirements for having an X-frame.
The pull-up targets the latissimus dorsi or lat muscles. The latissimus dorsi assists in shoulder abduction, extension, internal rotation, and transverse extension. The muscle also assists in scapula depression, downward rotation, and adduction. 
A strong and broad latissimus dorsi will contribute to an aesthetic X-frame physique by creating the appearance of a smaller waist, protect your spine, and improve your athletic performance. The brachialis (lower biceps), brachioradialis (forearm), biceps brachii (short & long heads), teres major and minor (outer back), posterior/rear deltoid, infraspinatus (rotator cuff), rhomboids (middle back), levator scapulae (rear neck), trapezius (middle and lower), and pectoralis minor are the supporting muscle groups assisting the target muscle during the movement.
The long head of the triceps act as stabilizers during this exercise.  Stabilizer muscles help maintain a posture or fixate a joint by contracting without significantly moving.  The pull-up is most commonly performed using a trainee’s own bodyweight. Decrease the load and intensity by using bands, machines, and spotter assistance. Increase the load and intensity by using weighted belts, vests, and chains.
The five exercises below are going to increase your pull-up strength, back width, as well as the size and strength of the muscles used to execute the movement.
MTS Nutrition CEO Marc Lobliner discusses the difference between the pull-up and the chin-up.
The 5 Best Exercises for Increasing Your Pull-up
#1 – Pull-up Variations
Pull-up variations are without a doubt the most effective method for improving pull-up form and strength. Three of the most effective variations are negatives, iso-holds, and assisted pull-ups. Of these three variations, negatives will have the most profound carry-over to full range-of-motion pull-ups.
Negative reps increase time under tension, improve central nervous system activation, and overload the active muscle groups in the back and arms. Instead of starting your pull-up rep from the bottom position with your arms fully extended, jump up or use a high box to position yourself at the top of the movement. Slowly descend from the top position, keeping your glutes squeezed, lats flexed, and shoulders down and away from your ears.
Negative reps can be extremely taxing on the central nervous system and muscles so use with caution, program the movement according, and use straps when your grip gives out. If you struggle to perform one full pull-up repetition then program three to five sets of three to five negative reps at the beginning of your workout.
If you are able to perform a few full range-of-motion (ROM) pull-ups then add on 2 or 3 negative reps to the end of each working set. The later in the workout you perform negative reps the fewer you will be able to perform in a set.
Iso-holds train the grip, improves mind-back muscle connection, and facilitates heighten central nervous system activation. Similar to the negative rep jump up or step on to a high box to begin from the top position of the movement. Hold at the top of middle of the rep for as long as possible.
In the beginning this duration may only be a second or two but with practice you will be able to hold the position for 15-30+ seconds. Throughout the iso-holds focus on flexing the lats, squeezing the shoulder blades down and back, and minimizing downward movement. Perform iso-holds after full range-of-motion or negative pull-up repetitions.
Assisted pull-up variations are extremely effective at training a full ROM repetition after you have reached technical failure, the point at which you cannot perform a full pull-up repetition with good form. If you have a workout buddy then partner-assisted pull-ups are a great way to adjust the amount of help you receive during a pull-up rep. Your spotter can support or hold your legs during the movement to ensure you blast through sticking points and maintain proper form.
Alternatively, you can wrap a band around both sides of the pull-up bar and rest your knees on the band. Band-assisted pull-ups maximize muscle recruitment at the top of the movement and decreases the intensity as you descend in to the bottom position. Machine-assisted pull-ups provide a constant support throughout the entire movement.
Perform the pull-up movement using a full range of motion and strive to decrease the support weight or increase the number of reps you perform every workout. Incorporating negative reps, iso-holds, and assisted pull-up variations will fast track your pull-up progress and back strength.
#2 – Lat Pulldown
The lat pulldown machine is a must-have in your workout routine when you want to isolate the lats and upper body musculature used in the pull-up. Incorporate this exercise as a warm-up before your pull-up sets, immediately after you reach muscular failure on pull-ups, or as a high-rep finisher on back or pull day.
Unlike most pulling movements you can generally perform this exercise to muscular failure in a safe manner. While it is no replacement for the pull-up, it is an excellent tool for blasting the lat muscles as well as reinforcing the scapular retraction and depression movement pattern.
During this movement, focus on keeping the abdominals braced and chest up while you pull the elbows down towards the ground and retract the shoulder blades. Taking a false grip (fingers and thumbs on both sides of the cable attachment) will ensure the muscle engagement is on the back rather than the arms. At the bottom of the movement, which for most will be when the cable attachment is at or touching the upper chest, hold for increased intensity.
Ensure you pull and raise the cable attachment in a controlled motion; do not use excessive momentum and let your ego get in the way. If you feel your grip failing before your back then use high quality straps like Versa Gripps; after all this is an exercise meant to train your back and not your grip.
If your progress stalls using the traditional wide-grip lat pulldown attachment then vary your grip. Switching cable attachments and taking a neutral grip (palms facing each other) or supinated grip (palms facing you) may be exactly what you need to blast through that pull-up plateau.
#3 – Hammer Strength Seated High Row
The Hammer Strength seated high row is a plate-loaded machine that isolates the upper body, builds the lats and supporting muscle groups, as well as trains scapular depression. This movement is a combination of both a vertical and horizontal pull. The handle(s) will be at or above head height at the top of the movement and at upper or mid abdominal height the bottom of the movement.
Set up for the movement by loading both handles with an equal amount of weight and setting the seat height so that the top of the chest support pad is in-line with your nipples or lower chest. Sit on the seat, place your feet flat on the ground, ensure your chest is in contact with the support pad, and take a pronated (palms facing away from you) grip. Take a deep breath, brace your abdominals for impact, flex your lats, and pull your elbows down and back towards the ground.
Your elbows should remain in-line with your wrists throughout the pulling motion. Your wrists should be slightly in front of your chest, elbows behind your torso, and lats tightly squeezed at the bottom of the movement. Imagine are squeezing a pencil between your shoulder blades. Hold in the bottom for one to five seconds before slowly returning the handles to the starting position. Ensure your chest remains on the support pad throughout the entire movement.
You can pull both handles simultaneously or in an alternate manner. Do not be afraid to strap up during this movement; you want to overload your back musculature, minimize pulling with the upper arm, and avoid failure due to grip fatigue.
If you are looking to increase your pull-up capacity then perform this movement using an overhand grip. Use an underhand (palms facing you) grip for a movement that more closely mimics the chin-up. Perform 3 to 4 sets of 10 to 15 reps which each hand after pull-ups.
#4 – Straight-Arm Pulldown
The straight-arm pulldown may not be the most glamorous exercise but it is extremely effective at isolating and pumping blood the latissimus dorsi muscle. If you struggle engaging the lats during pull-ups movements then incorporate this exercise in your warm-up for three sets of 15-20+ repetitions. This exercise is relatively easy to set-up, load, and recover from, so feel free to perform it multiple times per week.
Focus on activating and engorging the lats with blood with this exercise rather than piling on the weight and going heavy. Set up for this movement by moving the cable tower pulley to the highest possible setting that you can reach and attached a horizontal straight bar attachment. Take a few steps away from the pulley, extend your arms and grasp the straight bar attachment with a pronated grip (palms facing the ground).
Initiate the movement by squeezing your glutes, bracing your abdominals, and flexing your lats to push down the bar. During the pushing down your arms should stay extended and rigid and your torso should remain upright. Push down until the bar almost reaches your thighs. Hold the squeeze in your lats in the bottom position for 1 to 5 seconds before slowly allowing the bar to return to the starting position.
#5 – Farmer’s Walk
The farmer’s walk is an excellent exercise for building grip strength, upper back size, conditioning, and work capacity. Commonly seen in Strongman competitions, many world-renowned athletic coaches consider loaded carries to be a quintessential movement pattern to regularly train. The concept is relatively simply – pick up two dumbbells or kettlebells of equal weight in each hand and walk as far as you can before needing to place them down due to grip and/or back fatigue.
Now do not just grab the 10-pound dumbbells and walk on the treadmill for hours. Go to the end of the rack and choose weights in the mid or high double digits. With time, consistency and progression, you will be walking with the 100+ pound bells. Loading an equal amount of weight plates on either side of a trap bar is an acceptable alternative once you have maxed out the available dumbbell weights.
After selecting your working weight, pick a time or distance goal. For example, you may try to walk with the dumbbells for 30 seconds or 100 meters before setting them down. Regardless of which progression technique you select, ensure you record these values in you gym log and strive to beat them every time.
Throughout the movement ensure you keep your chest up, arms extended (flexing while carrying heavy loads may lead to bicep strains), and glutes squeezed. Take short, controlled steps and avoid using excessively long strides or momentum during this exercise. Proper form will reinforce correct posture and scapular retraction. The retraction of the scapula is paramount for performing proper pull-ups.
Unlike the other movements outlined above, you should NOT wear lifting straps for this exercise. The farmer’s walk is a grip-building movement that also has significantly recruits the muscle fibers in the back. Incorporate farmer’s walks at the end of your back, pull, or upper body workout.
Alternatively, you can include this exercise as a component of your cardio or conditioning workouts. Carrying heavy weights for moderate and long distances will quickly increase your heart rate, torch fat, and leave you drenched with sweat.
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