Weighted Pull Ups: How to Test Your Athletic Fitness
A strong and athletic upper body means jumping onto a pull-up bar at a local park and banging out an easy set of 10-15 reps.
Across all areas of fitness, whether it is sports performance, bodybuilding, powerlifting, crossfit, or calisthenics, pull ups are favored in workouts for a reason. Doing pull ups, or even just doing A pull up, is a standard test of strength in the back and arms. The military also uses pull ups as a test of physical fitness.
If you want to increase the number of pull ups you can do, there’s no better movement than the WEIGHTED pull up.
SO…keep it simple. You don't have to do hundreds of reps of curls, lat pull down, or bent over rows to increase the amount of bodyweight pull ups you can do. Of course those help, but why not just add more weight to your pull ups?
In this article we take a specific look at how weighted pull ups can improve your athletic fitness, different variations we pulled from Peak Strength, and the benefits for your daily life.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
How Pull Ups Test Your Fitness
When you perform a pull up, the primary muscles you're engaging are located in your back. Specifically, the latissimus dorsi (commonly known as the 'lats'), rhomboids, and trapezius work in unison to move your body upwards.
These muscles contribute to a multitude of everyday activities, from simple tasks like lifting grocery bags to more demanding ones like moving furniture. But how does a pull-up test your athletic fitness?
As you ascend, the weight of your body (plus any additional weight you've introduced) acts as resistance, challenging your back muscles. Each repetition requires these muscles to contract and work hard, thereby strengthening them over time. Because of the lengthening and contraction of these muscles, your body’s upper body strength and pulling power are tested to see if you are strong enough to pull your own body weight to a target.
Grip strength has become a pretty big focus in fitness recently, and pull ups are a great way to test grip strength and the endurance of your grip.
Your grip is essential for tasks that involve manual dexterity, like opening jars, and it can also enhance performance in sports and activities that require hand strength, such as rock climbing or playing tennis.
When you perform bodyweight pull ups, your hands are your connection to the bar. You need to grip the bar firmly enough to support and lift your body weight, which can be a strenuous task if you've added extra weight. This tests your grip strength in a significant way, and over time, the repeated effort can lead to improved hand and forearm strength.
If you’re a sweaty guy like me, you will probably start to lose your grip as you go higher in reps and volume. Don’t be afraid to use chalk when you do pull ups because this won’t take away from working your grip, it will only help stabilize it.
Finally, pull ups are an excellent test of upper body endurance. Unlike strength, which refers to the amount of force a muscle can exert, endurance is about a muscle's ability to sustain effort over time.
In a standard pull up, your upper body muscles — including your back, arms, and shoulders — must maintain the effort to lift and lower your body over multiple repetitions. As you add weight, these muscles must work even harder to sustain this effort. Thus, the act of performing pull-ups, particularly weighted pull ups, challenges and builds your upper body endurance.
This endurance can translate to better performance in other areas of your life, from sports to everyday tasks that require sustained physical effort. The amount of pull ups you can do is a great benchmark to determining your pulling overall endurance.
Different Ways to Perform Weighted Pull Ups
While the standard pull up is a killer workout in itself, various grip variations, ways to add resistance, and different pull up bar options can help target different muscle groups and prevent workout monotony.
Each one of these variations and more can be found inside the Peak Strength app, but let’s look at some of the different ways you can do pull ups to target specific adaptations.
This is your standard pull up.
The normal grip pull up is perhaps what most people visualize when they think of a pull-up. With your hands shoulder-width apart and palms facing away from you in the starting position, this variant primarily targets the latissimus dorsi muscles in your back.
The normal grip pull up also engages your biceps, brachialis (the muscle underneath the bicep), brachioradialis (a muscle of the forearm), and the infraspinatus (one of the four rotator cuff muscles in the shoulder). Introducing weights in this form can drastically enhance your upper body strength, size, and endurance.
The neutral grip pull up, done with palms facing each other, requires a special type of bar or gym equipment with parallel handles. We use monkey bars in this case.
This grip is a fantastic way to emphasize different muscles and add diversity to your workout routine. Neutral grip pull ups distribute the load more evenly across your back, biceps, and forearms.
Similar to chin ups, neutral grip pull ups are going to recruit more from your actual arms rather than isolate your lats and back. They are often recommended for beginners or those with shoulder issues, as the parallel grip typically reduces shoulder strain.
In a close grip pull up, your hands are placed closer together on the bar than in the standard version. This variation targets your lower lats more intensely and also engages your biceps and forearms significantly.
One thing to note is that the close grip pull up can be more challenging than the normal grip pull up due to the increased demand on your arm muscles. That’s why if I give my athletes close grip pull ups, they will most likely be chin ups rather than pull ups so that they can get a fat bicep pump.
The last variation I'll mention is one that I have already partially mentioned. Here we have the underhand grip, or just call it a chin up.
This variant differs from others due to the palms facing towards you during the exercise. The underhand grip emphasizes the biceps more than other pull up variations, making it an excellent exercise for those aiming to boost arm strength and size. While the back muscles are still heavily involved, the bicep emphasis can make chin ups slightly more manageable for beginners than the standard pull up.
A weight belt, or dip belt, is a popular choice for adding weight to pull ups, known for its effectiveness and convenience. The belt wraps around your waist, and additional weights (like weight plates) can be attached to it through a chain.
This piece of equipment allows you to add substantial weight in a manner that's evenly distributed around your body's center of gravity. Therefore, it minimally affects your form, helping maintain the effectiveness and safety of the exercise. Remember to start with lighter weights, gradually increasing the load as your strength improves.
Another approach to adding weight to your pull ups involves holding a dumbbell between your feet. This method is beneficial for those who may not have access to a weight belt.
The process is straightforward: you grip a dumbbell between your ankles or feet and perform your pull up as usual. However, this technique may limit the amount of weight you can add, as it requires you to squeeze your adductors to keep the weight in place.
Be sure to keep your core engaged as well to stabilize your body and prevent any swinging motion.
Chains are not found in most gyms, but are still an effective way of adding weight to pull ups.
You wrap the chain around your neck, so that it sits on your shoulders, and the added weight challenges your muscles as you pull yourself up. Chains have the advantage of increasing resistance more at the top of the pull up, where you're typically strongest due to the nature of the chain's weight distribution.
This can provide a unique and challenging stimulus for your muscles. However, be cautious of the potential strain on your neck and always ensure the chain is securely fastened. Don’t tilt your head down while the chain is in place, just look forward or slightly up.
Finally, we have the method of using a resistance band. Connect one end of the band to a heavy object (dumbbell or kettlebell) on the floor or have a partner stand on the bottom of it, and loop the other end around your waist or foot.
As you pull yourself up, the tension in the band increases, adding resistance to the exercise. This method is excellent for those who want to progressively overload their muscles without using traditional weights. However, be aware that the resistance curve with bands is different: it will be easiest at the bottom of the pull up and hardest at the top.
This variation is perfect for people that struggle with finishing their pull ups as they get higher in volume so this will work on the final few inches of the movement.
Pull Up Bar Variations
Aside from the standard pull up bar, there are variations that you can do to target different areas of improving your pulling power or improving your stability in your pull ups. Here are my favorite three:
Pull Up Rings
Pull up rings, or gymnastics rings, offer an excellent alternative to the traditional pull up bar.
Known primarily from gymnastics, these rings are suspended from a high point, offering 360 degrees of movement. The instability of the rings presents an additional challenge, recruiting stabilizing muscles in your arms, shoulders, and core that might not engage as much with a fixed bar.
Pull ups on rings have the advantage of allowing your arms to move more naturally, potentially reducing strain on the shoulders. You can also easily adjust your grip (underhand, overhand, or neutral) on the fly, enabling you to shift the emphasis on different muscles within a single set.
For those looking to incorporate neutral grip pull ups into their workouts, monkey bars provide an excellent solution. Found in many gyms and playgrounds, these bars are perfect for varying your pull up routine.
Neutral grip pull ups on monkey bars target your muscles slightly differently than traditional pull ups. The parallel position of the hands means you'll recruit your lats, biceps, and forearm muscles more evenly.
This can lead to well-rounded strength and muscle development. Plus, alternating your grip between sets can help prevent overuse injuries and enhance muscular balance.
Finally, let's explore something we like to experiment with here at Garage Strength: towels hung from pull up bars.
This method involves draping one or two sturdy towels over a pull up bar and gripping the ends to perform your pull ups. Towel pull ups add a significant challenge to your grip strength, as the material is harder to hold onto than a solid bar. This extra demand on your forearms can boost your grip strength over time.
Moreover, the slightly unstable nature of the towels forces your core and upper body muscles to work harder to stabilize your movements, making the exercise more challenging and rewarding. Note that this method requires a strong grip, so it might be more suitable for those who have already mastered the traditional pull up and are looking to add an extra layer of difficulty.
Benefits of the Weighted Pull Up
What are the benefits of adding weight to the standard pull-up exercise? You can expect to see specific advantages in your strength, muscular endurance, and core stability.
Inside the Athletic Fitness Program in the Peak Strength App, the pull-up rep test measures absolute strength and endurance every few months. By incorporating weighted pull-ups into your strength program, you will notice that the number of unweighted reps you can perform in the rep test will improve within the first few months. How? ...
More Load Means More Strength
By adding external load to your pull ups, you're challenging your muscles to lift a heavier load than they're accustomed to. This increased demand prompts your body to adapt, resulting in stronger muscles over time. Adding more resistance to any lift is going to help break down muscle and lead to greater strength gains.
To recap, weighted pull ups primarily target the muscles in your back, shoulders, and arms. The lats, traps, rhomboids, biceps, and forearm muscles all work in unison during this exercise. By strengthening these areas, you enhance your overall physical performance, and improve your proficiency in the exercise.
Increases Muscular Endurance
Endurance pertains to how long your muscles can sustain a given activity. Weighted pull up sets provide a potent test and booster for your muscular endurance, especially in your upper body.
The act of repeatedly lifting and lowering your body—plus the added weight—over multiple repetitions and sets pushes your muscles to their limits. This sustained effort stimulates your muscles to adapt and improve, boosting their ability to perform under strain for longer periods.
As you add weight to your pull ups and perform higher volumes with the weight, you will ultimately be able to do more pull ups with less weight. So if you are testing for a PT test or testing in Athletic Fitness, do weighted pull ups to increase your overall number of reps over time.
Better Core Stability
Though pull ups are primarily an upper-body exercise, they also offer significant benefits for your core. Adding weight to your pull ups compounds these benefits even further. How so?
When you perform a pull up, your core muscles—including your abs, obliques, and lower back—work hard to stabilize your body, keeping it straight and preventing unnecessary swinging. As you add weight, these muscles must work even harder to maintain proper form and control during the movement. This consistent engagement strengthens your core muscles, enhancing your balance, stability, and overall body coordination.
Strong core muscles are essential for virtually every movement you make, from picking up a heavy box to swinging a baseball bat. Plus, a strong core helps protect your spine and prevent injuries, making it a crucial component of overall fitness.
The standard pull-up can be performed as an athletic fitness test almost anywhere. Adding weights to your pull-up routine with a weight belt or chain provides added strength benefits and increases the level of difficulty.
If you are struggling to find ways to add load, get a little creative! Grab a dumbbell and hold it between your feet, or ask your child to hold onto your waist.
Use the pull-up variations like neutral grip, towel pull-ups, and ring pull-ups to diversify your routine and avoid injury.
To get individualized programming specific to your sport or fitness goals, check out the Peak Strength app for one week of free training. Try these weighted pull-up exercises and more inside the app!
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Welcome to the Garage Strength Blog, where it is my goal to provide you with the experience and knowledge I've gained in the strength and conditioning world over many years of learning from both successes and failures. I train elite-level athletes in a multitude of sports from the high school to professional levels, already producing 5 Olympics and 30+ National Champions. If you want to be the next champion I train, check out my strength programs below!
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