Why Weightlifters Should Do More Pull-Ups

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past 50 years, you may already know all about the power of pulls-ups. Back strength and endurance can improve your posture, muscular development, and help you move more weight safely.

A photo posted by @boleslaw on

Back training, more specifically pull-ups, should be a common staple for most athletes, however even more so for Olympic Weightlifters (and yes, other strength, power, and fitness athletes). The inherent demands and stresses of training and the competitive lifts make pull-ups a vital training exercise for every weightlifter.

In this article, we will discuss the primary benefits of doing pull-ups, and make the case why nearly every weightlifter could benefit from doing more of them right now.

The Pull Up (STRICT)

The pull-up is a fundamental upper body strength and muscular hypertrophy movement. This vertical pulling exercise targets the latissimus dorsi and lower traps. Unlike the chin-up (underhand grip), the pull-up uses a double overhand grip under strict form (no kipping or swing) to promote strength throughout the full range of motion.

Upper Body Strength and Mass

Weightlifting is highly dependent on strength (especially as you become more advanced with technique). The stronger your back is, the heavier loads you can potentially handle in the squat, deadlift, pulls, hang position, and even overhead. Increased pulling strength in the back and arms from pull ups can improve your capacity to stabilize the spine and scapulae under high loads and velocities, ultimately increasing the potential for greater performance.

Engagement for Heavier Lifts

Pull-ups can develop the overall amount of muscle units in the back, as well as increase our ability to engage and recruit more fibers (faster activation + greater synchronization = increased force output). Increased lat engagement can significantly allow a lifter to:

  • Secure the barbell on the upper back during heavier squats (or high volume sets).
  • Perform bent over exercises more effectively (like RDLs and Pendlay Rows)
  • Assist in stabilization of the spine and torso in overhead exercises and front squats.

The latissimus dorsi (lats/back muscles) are involved in nearly every pulling, pushing, and squatting movement in weightlifting, making the pull-up a priority in nearly every training plan.

Overhead Mobility

Due to the double overhand grip used during pull-ups, athletes can assume a nearly identical shoulder and spinal alignment to that of overhead pressing and jerking. Pull-ups throughout the full range of motion can develop scapular control and strength, which is needed for overhead pressing and injury prevention during more ballistic lifts like the clean and jerk and snatch. The additional benefit of pull-ups (when performed under control) is that lifters can eccentrically load the muscles and connective tissues in the opposite direction as most of their training to balance out overhead pressing movements.

Upper Back and Shoulder Health

Weightlifting requires a lifter to snatch and jerk heavy loads, both in the overhead position. Pull-ups have the ability to strengthen a lifter in the opposite direction to most of their training (push presses, jerks, snatch variations, overhead squats, etc), which can positively impact a lifter’s shoulder health if trained properly. Increasing back strength and control may also allow for heavier loads to be moved more often and explosively.

Grip Strength

While heavy pulls, complexes, and assistance work can highlight grip training, pull-ups have a great application to the specific widths of the clean and jerk (you can adapt you pull up and use a wider grip to better diversify your pulling and grip strength). Improved grip strength and endurance will allow lifters to train heavier (relative to their maxes), increase training volume, and recover faster between sessions (in regards to increase grip strength and health).

Final Word

Pull-ups, not the kipping variation, are more than basic exercise for weightlifters. In this article, we broke down the specific benefits that Olympic weightlifters can expect when increasing pull-up performance. Generally speaking, performing moderate sets and reps, for example five sets of five to ten repetitions (either with weight or bodyweight) regularly (weekly, every couple of days, etc) can allow for greatest muscular development and strength.

Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Featured Image: @boleslaw on Instagram

Mike Dewar

Mike Dewar

Mike holds a Master's in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor's in Exercise Science. Currently, Mike has been with BarBend since 2016, where he covers Olympic weightlifting, sports performance training, and functional fitness. He's a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and is the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at New York University, in which he works primarily with baseball, softball, track and field, cross country. Mike is also the Founder of J2FIT, a strength and conditioning brand in New York City that offers personal training, online programs for sports performance, and has an established USAW Olympic Weightlifting club.

In his first two years writing with BarBend, Mike has published over 500+ articles related to strength and conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, strength development, and fitness. Mike’s passion for fitness, strength training, and athletics was inspired by his athletic career in both football and baseball, in which he developed a deep respect for the barbell, speed training, and the acquisition on muscle.

Mike has extensive education and real-world experience in the realms of strength development, advanced sports conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, and human movement. He has a deep passion for Olympic weightlifting as well as functional fitness, old-school bodybuilding, and strength sports.

Outside of the gym, Mike is an avid outdoorsman and traveller, who takes annual hunting and fishing trips to Canada and other parts of the Midwest, and has made it a personal goal of his to travel to one new country, every year (he has made it to 10 in the past 3 years). Lastly, Mike runs Rugged Self, which is dedicated to enjoying the finer things in life; like a nice glass of whiskey (and a medium to full-bodied cigar) after a hard day of squatting with great conversations with his close friends and family.

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