Who Needs Weighted Pull-Ups?

by Corey Howard on March 11, 2014

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Back in late October I started experiencing pain in my right shoulder. Like most of us that place a large priority on our fitness, I ignored it. Dumb move!

As the next few weeks progressed, the pain expanded to my right trap, lat, pec, entire shoulder complex, bicep, plus numbness in my fingers. I’m not sure about the rest of you, but when I’m experiencing pain throughout that much real estate I get concerned and the workouts become kind of nonexistent.

After many doctor appointments over the last couple of months, I’m disappointed to report they still don’t have any idea what’s going on. However, after sitting around hurting, feeling sorry for myself, and not moving, I knew something had to change. My life is fitness. I tell people all the time how important it is to move. When something hurts, there are always ways to keep moving forward. And move forward I have, except this time it’s been exclusively with calisthenics.

As I returned to the gym after a 2 week layoff, I was forced to deepen my calisthenics knowledge. The basic movements were thankfully still easy for me, but I could no longer do weighted pull-ups, which had previously been a big part of my routine. I needed to find a way to keep getting stronger in pull-ups without hanging any weight off my body.

One of the first modifications I used was the “L-Sit Pull-Up”. This movement shifts the body’s balance just enough to make a regular pull-up harder. Not to mention it’s awesome for teaching ab tension throughout the motion!

The L-Sit Pull-Up is done by holding the top of a hanging leg raise, then doing your pull-ups while maintaining the L-sit position the entire time. I must warn you there are a few things you need to keep in mind while performing these. It’s imperative you begin by pulling your shoulders tight into the sockets to create the necessary stability so you don’t swing on your leg raise. Second, keep your legs straight and raise them up under control so you don’t create any upward momentum when you begin your pull. Remember Coach Wade likes slow controlled movements. Third, as you pull yourself up; pull your elbows in toward the midline so your arms aren’t flaired out. This does a couple of things; first, it mirrors the handstand push-up groove and second, it engages the pecs with the lats and creates a solid stable shoulder complex. I’ve seen many clients go from 20 dead hang pull-ups to only 5 on this one. Fire it up!

Corey Howard Performs an L-Sit Pull Up

The next change I made was to toss in some Archer Pull-Ups. We’ve all seen Al Kavadlo do these on his YouTube channel. The Archer Pull-Up is where you pull yourself up to one side then the other. Besides, we all are trying to achieve the one arm pull-up, and this is an amazing progression towards that!

When starting with these I strongly suggest alternating your grip. Turn your palm towards your face on the side you will be pulling towards and your palm away from you on the arm you plan on keeping straight. Next as you begin your pull, think about pulling your elbow to your opposite hip. This is where that L-Sit Pull-Up foundation will come in handy. In other words, if you’re pulling yourself to the right side, pull your right elbow to your left hip. Try and use your straight arm as a guide to keep you moving sideways. I’ve found a false grip or muscle-up hand position works best. Once you can comfortably knock out 7 quality reps or more per side without resting then you’re ready for the final pull-up challenge.

Corey Howard, PCC and RKC Instructor Performs an Archer Pull Up

The last tweak I used to make pull-ups evil is by modifying the grip heights. Paul Wade suggested you use a towel in the Convict Conditioning book, but I like to grab the pull-up bar with one hand and the vertical support structure of the pull-up rig with the other hand. This is similar to an Archer Pull-Up except with a lower non-dominant hand position. You have a few options here to make it harder as you progress. You can either move your hand lower on the pull-up rig, or… If you think this is just simply too easy for you, feel free to hang a stretchy band from the pull-up bar and grab that with your non-dominant hand! The stretchy band will refuse to provide you much for assistance and will scoff as you pull harder against it seeking help. Once you master these I promise you will have the upper body pulling strength of Samson!

Corey Howard, PCC and RKC Instructor Performs a Pull Up with Varying Grip Heights

There you have it. The 3 pull-up variations I switched over to so I could keep building pulling strength. The best part–not a single one of these pull-ups seem to aggravate my shoulder or arm. I’m just like you, and really at the end of the day we all like to get stronger. Grabbing a pull-up bar and pulling your body up with two arms is unfortunately something that many people still can’t do. However there are a few of us crazy dreamers out there that want to defy “normal.” We need to push the envelope and make pull-ups look insanely easy and maybe even knock out a few one arm pull-ups if possible. So go fire up some L-Sit, Archer, or Mixed Grip Pull-Ups. I guarantee you’ll get stronger, and you won’t have to hang weights off your body while doing it!

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About Corey Howard, PCC, RKC, CK-FMS: Corey Howard strives to constantly become stronger, and to help others to achieve their fitness goals. He is the owner of Results Personal Training, and can be reached at www.resultsptonline.com or www.coreyhoward.com.

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  • Aleks Salkin

    Corey, this is a fantastic article! I’ve long felt that movements like these should be a staple in anyone’s training regimen to help round out the standard pullup as they all just add so much “in between” strength that doing without them is really like leaving a lot of money on the table. Great work, man. See you in Sioux Falls in April!

  • Matt Schifferle

    You’re so right about those L-sit pull ups. I had a buddy who was a stuntman and he did those as a staple. I tried them and could hardly manage 3! Thank you so much for the reminder of this killer exercise. Great article Corey!

  • BodyweightReallyIsBetter

    I’ll keep this in mind for down the road. Right now I’m only at 1 pull up and 3 chin ups. Looking forward to trying these in the future though!

  • Edward Grigoryan CSCS

    Hi Corey, thanks for the article. Not sure if this has been ruled out by any health professionals you have seen, but it sounds like you have thoracic outlet syndrome or some sort of nerve compression problem. Good luck with your recovery and training.

  • Great article Corey, and a cool-as-hell selection of post-pullup PCC techniques. Thanks for sharing!

    Hope that shoulder heals up soon, man. For what it’s worth, I’ve always found that horizontal pull-style work helps with shoulder rehab. Again, there are a million and one ways to make them progressive. Just keep em in double figures for healing!

    • healthiswealth

      It’s really good to see you on here Coach can’t wait for CC3 to come out just wanted to know will there be any videos for CC2 or CC3? also do you still offer to coach students if you do I would definitely be interested!!

      • Thanks my man.

        As for further videos, that’s up to the Boss man–John Du Cane. But I know if you want em, he’ll put em out!

        I still have a roll call of personal students my man–and I never stop learning from em. The schedule is crazy full right now but if a gap happens I will holler at ya buddy!

        • healthiswealth

          That’s what’s up Coach! you should really holler at me I know that I would be your best student ever!··no disrespect to anybody.

        • Owsky

          Coach! Any news on the Calisthenics Mass ebook you mentioned earlier? The anticipation is killing me! P.s. Thank you for everything 🙂

  • Great Article, although I would like to share my experience with weighted chin ups. I had been able to do one arm chin ups for a long time when I attempted my first weighted chin up. I decided to try one, just for kicks to see what they were like. I attempted one with a 70lb dumbbell between my legs (the place I was at didn’t have a weight belt) and to my surprise I was able to do 4 reps. I tried them a few more times over the next week and noticed they had a lot of carry over to the front lever and even to my one arm chin ups. I feel that weighted chin ups only become useful once you can already do advanced pulling exercises, even then they’re not something to build a routine around.

    I then spent 2-3 weeks doing regular weighted chin ups with a goal to do a chin up with another person on my back. During this process I didn’t experience any shoulder problems (although I’m sure I would have if I kept it up long enough).

    I am curious about other people’s experiences with weighted chin ups, how much weight did you do them with (relative to your bodyweight), how often, what grip, etc?

    • Jonathan F.V.

      I’ve done weighted pull-ups for extended periods of time in the past, and they have always been beneficial to me. When I was a bit younger and training in gymnastics, I would do multiples sets of them using multiple types of grips, and I could do sets of 10 with 90lb. The most I’ve ever lifted in a pull-up was 135 lb, at a weight of 150 lb. I didn’t do them for a few years, but at some point I had to do a pull-up test for an audition, and because I didn’t want to do sets of 30 reps or more (takes too long, and it feels dreadful every time), I settled to add weight and manage 20 reps before adding more weight. Right now I’m working to adding reps with 60 lb, on my road to 20, and then I’ll use 80 lb. No shoulder problems.

      Might depend on people’s shoulder flexibility and conditioning. Also, I don’t think that weighted pull-ups necessarily cause shoulder problems, but if you have shoulder problems, a lot of things can make it worst if you keep doing them. So people better be smart with their training, and be careful when they start hurting and carefully monitor their recovery.

      • Jonathan F.V.

        Oh, and I still use bodyweight pull-ups variations. On pulling days, I start with one arm chin-ups, followed by front lever pull-ups, elevators (reverse muscle-ups) and finally weighted pull-ups, that I use mostly for volume after doing all the other exercises for strength.

  • Asatar Bair

    Bodyweight pullups on the bar hurt my elbows now (after doing a lot of them)… switched to pullups on rings — no pain at all! I was amazed.

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