Friday, October 23, 2009

Using Pull-ups to Get Big Arms

I read about a guy on a forum not too long ago who set a goal of bringing his arm measurement from 17" up to 18". I'm pretty sure that I know this guy and if memory serves me correctly, he has only a pull-up bar to work with. Now, I'd comment on on the forum but I got banned (for reasons that are unclear and unexplained to me). So, I thought it would make a great topic here. Plus, I have experience throwing on size to my own arms (a little over an inch, if memory serves me).

All pull-ups and chin-ups work the biceps to varying degrees. What you want to look for when using pulls and chins which bring your arms closer together, near the centerline of your body. This arrangement forces your arms to work harder and doesn't allow the back to help out as much.
for close-grip pulls and chins.

A common mistake when training with pull-ups is dropping out the grip work in the exercise. For most people, the weakest part of their pull&chin game is their grip. So, they use straps or they use a "meat hook" grip when doing the exercise. I don't recommend doing this unless you have to. The trouble is that the biceps tie into some of the muscles in the grip via fascia. The biceps also serve to supinate the forearm. So, you lose bicep work when you seek to mitigate the grip work. A good way to work around this is to mix your grip. That is, have one palm facing towards you and the other palm facing away. I used this grip quite a bit after hyperextending my right thumb.

If you haven't guessed what my favorite pull-up for bicep work is, then you haven't been paying attention. I really like my version of the towel pull-up. If you're new to the Bodyweight Files, here's my video:

There are other approaches. You could use some of the progressions for one-arm chin-up work. Such options includes spreading out the arms to shoulder-width apart and bringing your chin over to one hand and then the other. Another, harder way is to do pulls&chins with one hand holding onto a towel, below the hand holding onto the bar. As they get easier, you simply lower the hand on the towel.

The beauty of pulls&chins is that it'll probably take a long time before you get to the point where it ceases to build muscle and becomes a strength endurance exercise. My experience concurs with Clarence Bass on the topic of reps: you can build up as much muscle size by doing exercises that require 20 reps as you can by doing exercises that require only 5 reps to reach fatigue. The only difference is that the latter builds more max strength than the former. Both build about the roughly the same amount of muscle size though. So, you can stick with most all of the exercises that I've just described. Variety reigns supreme. don't stick to just one of these flavors. Experiment, change it up, and enjoy bigger arms!


Matt said...

Good stuff, I've left towel pullups out of my routine for awhile now. One question though, in the video I notice you did not go all the way down during your ten towel pullups. I was doing ball pull ups recently (yes, you baseball idea, I love it) and the hardest part of this pullup is getting started from full extension. Same goes for towel pullups. Other than you were just banging out ten pulls, any reason you did not go to full extension?

Justin_PS said...

Hi Matt,

There are a few things I'll mention about not going all the way down on that pull-up video...

1. Remember that I said that I had just done a bunch of pull-ups on the video? Well, I was exhausted. Call it error. I wanted to re-do it but that was my 7th or 8th take. Plus, my explanation came out so good that I felt that it wasn't worth the re-do.

2. That ceiling is really low. I only have a 6'7" from floor to ceiling. If I go full extension, my knees hit the floor. It's an adaptation to the surroundings.

3. Even so, I don't go full extension anyway on any pull-ups I do. I go until the natural bend of my elbow. Think about this: when your arms are just haninging at your sides, are they fully extended? They naturally bend just a little. IMO, that's as far down as you need to go when doing pulls and chins. Most often, when I hear of people hurting themselves with pulls&chins, it's trying to flex their biceps at the bottom, trying to get back up after fully extending.

Besides, I think that it's far more important to try to get the chest to the bar with the shoulders pinched at the top of a pull-up than trying to get the arms fully extended at the bottom.

Have a good one & Train hard!

Matt said...

thanks for the feedback Justin. I'm glad you did not take my question as a criticism, as it was not meant in that way. I've been working toward increasing my pullup numbers, and have gotten a pain in my left bicep near my elbow while doing pullups. I've been doing dead hang pullups for a few weeks now, as opposed to slightly bent armed ones. After I watched your video, I wondered if gong dead hang is contributing to this pain. I figured you had a good reason for doing what you were doing, so I asked. I think I'll switch to this method for a bit to see if it helps. Fortunately I can still do chins and neutral grip with no pain, as well as the ball and towel pullups.

thanks for providing this blog, I've learned lots over the past few months I have been reading!

Gman said...

Matt becareful that your not getting tendonitis(spelling)
Take a rest for a week and see if the pain goes away.

Hey Justin, When the warrior t's first came out, a few guys on "the forum"that shall not be named said that the t's helped there grip strength in pulls/chin ups.
Have you noticed this ?
i can do around 40-50 T push ups at the moment, but i cant say if they have helped or not. or havent noticed a dramatic increase.

But the T's do kick arse. although i prefer ring push ups.

Cheers G

Justin_PS said...


The question of the T's improving pull-up strength is a little prickly. To answer the question directly, the answer is, no. It's a completely different load. When you're working with pull&chins, your grip has to HOLD your weight.

With T's, your hands are working to STABILIZE your weight. So, you're working the muscles differently, as well as working different muscles.

When it comes to the rings, I think that it depends on what kind of training you want. Rings are superior to T's for working the chest and shoulder muscles. If you want to hammer the arms, then the T's are dramatically better for the job than rings.

I don't want to turn this into a pissing contest so this is the last time I'll comment on this again: I recommend against taking information from "the forum that shall not be named". There are a lot of people there that should be listening rather than talking.

Train hard guys!

Marcus said...

Do you happen to know how he got on? Did he have a workout log or anything. If he had 17" arms I assume he's been working out hard for a while, and to put an inch on your arms at that level with just a pullup bar would be very impressive, and I would love to know if he succeeded.

Justin_PS said...

I couldn't tell you. I haven't heard from him in a while. I certainly don't think that it's outside of the realm of possiblity, provided his diet is right.

Marcus said...

I agree, more support for the argument that you don't need weights to put on muscle

lee jackson said...

Well Justin lad

Only just found your class wee blog there now, wish I had have found it sooner - you talk exceptional sense - I especially loved your 'letter to younger self' but the archives are awash with gem blogs. Hope all is well and you're still writing, all the best - Lee!/lee.jackson.96?fref=ts