Opinion: Never* Start Your Back Workouts With Pull-Ups

Back day is the best day of the week. If you disagree, take a number and form an orderly line. Almost nothing hits better than inflating your lats, traps, and yoke with a skin-tearing pump and crab-walking sideways out of the weight room. Heck, blast your lats hard enough and you could probably fly home.

But a back workout is only as good as the movements within. When it comes to the best back exercises, pull-ups (and chin-ups) often rank quite high, and rightfully so. But I’ve got a bone to pick with the pull-up, especially as the first exercise in a back workout.

Credit: Improvisor / Shutterstock

They’re an awesome exercise, but if you’re trying to beef up your back hypertrophy, stop doing pull-ups at the start of your workouts. I promise you’ll fly higher. 

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Why You Shouldn’t Start Back Workouts With Pull-Ups

When you look at the technical factors that characterize the pull-up — what you need your body to physically do — you’ll notice that the case for pull-ups on back day isn’t rock solid. In fact, the humble pull-up is hanging on by a thread.

1. Pull-Ups Are Unstable

Pull-ups rely almost exclusively on your upper back, but they destabilize your lower half. If you don’t constantly squeeze your abdominal muscles and contract your lower body, it’s easy to start swaying back and forth on a pull-up bar like you’re at a CrossFit class. 

One study from 2013 regarded chin-ups as “more functional” than the lat pulldown exercise, measured by global muscle activation. (1) “A little bit of muscle activation everywhere” isn’t what you want if you’re training for hypertrophy. 

You can remedy this by developing exceptional pull-up technique. Yet the fact remains that worrying about your core, hips, and legs during a back exercise is a muscle-building liability, not an asset. 

For a quick fix, try using the assisted pull-up machine without inserting the pin into the plate stack. It’ll give your legs something to rest on so you can focus harder on contracting your back, but won’t offset your weight. 

2. Pull-Ups Have a Poor Resistance Profile

This is perhaps the area in which pull-ups are least defensible. The pull-up’s resistance profile, to be frank, sucks. During a bodybuilding workout and unless you’re intentionally pre-exhausting a muscle, you want to apply tension broadly across the muscles you’re training. Save the isolation work or partial range of motion moves for the end. 

An exercise’s “resistance profile” refers to how the resistance you’re working with is dispersed across that movement’s range of motion. Human muscles tend to be weakest when they’re fully contracted, which is why pull-ups are easy to start but hard to finish. 

For most people, the first half of the range of motion is too easy, while the second half is exponentially harder. High-effort pull-ups demand too much upper back extension too early into the workout if you perform them first, limiting your ability to execute other pulling exercises properly. 

[Read More: The Best Upper Body Exercises and Workouts]

You’d better serve your muscle-building goals by starting back day with something more consistent like a lat pulldown or even dumbbell row.

3. Pull-Ups Fry Your Grip

The purpose of a back workout is to grow (and strengthen) your back. Regrettably, your back muscles attach to your scapula and humerus, which attaches to your radius and ulna, which attach to your scaphoid and lunate … you get the idea. You need to hold the weights.

This has incorrectly led to a common ego-driven misconception; if you can’t hold onto the bar, the weight is too heavy for you. While that idea is more false than true, you can’t deny that pull-ups are a damn-good forearm exercise, especially for heavy-set folks or anyone with the gusto to hang a weight plate from a chained belt. But a forearm workout isn’t what you want on back day

Credit: Prostock-studio / Shutterstock

The last thing you want to do is start your workout with an exercise that torches your grip strength. Is it the biggest deal in the world, or a problem unique to the pull-up? Not necessarily, but it’s worth mentioning. 

You can easily work around this issue by doing pull-ups with lifting straps, but not everyone enjoys using straps. 

4. Pull-Ups Are Too Easy for Some, and Too Hard for Others

Bodyweight exercises play by different “rules” than free weight lifting, mostly due to the physics involved. When you perform cable exercises or work with machines, you probably find yourself fatiguing gradually over the course of multiple sets, even if you’re working at pretty high intensities. 

That’s not the case for the pull-up. One set of true RPE-10 pull-ups will demolish most people and diminish their ability to perform well on subsequent sets. Moreover, big-bodied folk or anyone on a bulk might find the pull-up frustrating to apply progressive overload to. 

A 210-pound athlete will also burn through much more of their grip endurance doing pull-ups than a 140-pound athlete.

The Case for Pull-Ups

There’s plenty of PubMed-inspired justification for not putting pull-ups at the start of a workout, but on the other hand, there’s a bodybuilder out there with a much bigger back than I’ve got who has begun his workouts with pull-ups for the last decade. Case closed. 

Luckily, that’s not how it works. Heck, there’s probably an even bigger guy out there who never does pull-ups of any kind. There’s always a bigger guy. So, when should you begin your back workouts with pull-ups? Well, if you’re trying to…

Get better at pull-ups: The first thing you do in the gym should directly serve your primary goal. If that goal is to improve your pull-up game, that’s what you should do when you’re fresh and energized. 

Develop work capacity: Like most bodyweight exercises, pull-ups respond well to high-volume, relatively short-rest cluster training. You don’t want to do that sort of work in a fatigued state. 

Warm up your shoulders: Pull-ups are a fantastic upper back exercise and one that can be surprisingly effective at improving shoulder mobility. If you don’t believe me, try a few sets of RPE-whatever pull-ups before doing any shoulder press variation. 

Work around limited equipment: Lat pulldowns are more stable and have a better resistance profile than pull-ups, but gymgoers love idling on the lat pulldown machine. You can usually find an open pull-up bar at the gym or, better yet, easily install one in your garage for a home gym back workout

Train as a beginner: Pulling is a fundamental movement pattern, and pull-ups are a functional skill as much as they are a back exercise. Beginners would do well to develop at least a casual competence at pull-ups before moving on to more specialized or niche back-training movements. 

[Read More: Best Shoulder Exercises and Full Shoulder Workouts for Strength]

Stop Starting With Pull-Ups, or Else…?

Bodybuilding exists in an odd place; it’s science-based but not as empirical as spreadsheet-driven powerlifting training. Golden-era bodybuilders would call their sport an intuitive, artistic pursuit, even though muscle-makers must obey human physiology. 

On paper, starting a back workout with pull-ups has more cons than pros. In the real world, plenty of people have built some damned-impressive backs by heading to the pull-up bar as soon as they set foot in the gym.

If you’re frustrated with the quality of your back workouts — or your back, which looks more like a salt flat than a mountain range — those pull-ups you’ve begun every session with might be partially responsible. Try putting them at the end of your lift as a workout finisher instead, or even go for some long-length partial reps, since that technique suits the pull-up pretty well. 

Ultimately, if you’re a bodybuilder, remember that there’s no must-do exercise, and plenty of movements fail to live up to their own reputation (I’m looking at you, deadlift) when it comes to packing on mass. 

Editor’s Note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of BarBend or Pillar4 Media. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

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Doma, K., Deakin, G. B., & Ness, K. F. (2013). Kinematic and electromyographic comparisons between chin-ups and lat-pull down exercises. Sports biomechanics, 12(3), 302–313.

Featured Image: Improvisor / Shutterstock

The post Opinion: Never* Start Your Back Workouts With Pull-Ups appeared first on BarBend.


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