Back Building: Building a strong, muscular back with the pull up

Back Building: The Body Weight Pull Up Programme

Pull Ups

When it comes to building muscle, there’s nothing more potent than the iron. If you want to build a strong, commanding frame then squats, deadlifts and presses are an excellent way to go about it. However, for some people, circumstances and a busy lifestyle can mean getting to the gym isn’t realistic or possible. This article will inform you on how to sculpt an impressive back with one simple piece of equipment.

The Pull Up: The king of the upper body exercises

When you think of upper body builders there’s no disputing that bench and overhead pressing are very effective. The down side to these movements is that they require equipment which isn’t readily available at home. The reason why a pull ups are so great is that they build the muscles that pull the spine backwards and so works on posture. Pressing movements, when done excessively, can lead to the shoulders rounding forward.

In the past, I’ve worked on outdoor bootcamps where equipment is limited and the majority of work is body weight based. These types of workout’s are fantastic for overall conditioning, but one of their drawbacks is that it’s difficult to do retraction and back work outside.

From a body composition perspective, the lats, rhomboids and traps are big muscles. Whenever you work large muscle groups for high volume, you’ll get a bigger amount of energy expenditure. Therefore, working the back with help you build muscle improve your posture and stay lean.

Overload: Thinking outside the box

So, how would you normally work a muscle? 3 sets of 10 with 60 seconds rest?

For pull ups, this method isn’t ideal and here’s why. Just like any exercise, the quality in which you perform a movement with dictate the return you get for your efforts. If the last 3-4 reps of your set of 10 resemble a salmon leaping out of a stream and your chin barely reaches the bar, you’re not really having an “anabolic” effect.

Method 1: Greasing the groove

The term “greasing the groove” is something I got from Pavel Tsatsouline. It basically means doing something properly for a medium to low intensity for a high amount of sets. Here’s what I would do to decipher your ideal reps and sets regime.

Do as many pull ups as you can with a wide grip and 3-0-1-0 tempo. This means pulling up for 1, no pause at the top and then lowering yourself for 3 seconds on the way down. This must be done until technical failure, so when your chin no longer touches the bar or you can’t stick to the tempo. Once you have your number of max reps, divide it in half. If it is an odd number, round it down to the lowest number. i.e. 5 / 2 = 2.5 = 2

This number will now be your rep number for the next 5 days. For your pull up workout’s, I’d like you to perform anywhere between 5 to 10 sets of this number every day. Take 90 seconds rest in between sets and make sure you religiously stick to the 3-0-1-0 tempo. When I say 5 to 10 sets, I mean do as many sets as possible until your performance starts to deteriorate. When this happens, your session is over.

On day 6 after 5 days of continuously doing this programme, rest and make sure you eat about 200-300 extra calories to help your body recover. Then on day 7, repeat the initial test of body weight pull ups for max reps. All going well, you should get more than the previous week and so therefore giving you a greater number of reps to repeat the cycle with.

Method 2: Density Training

I like this one because you get a really great pump from it.

There are two ways to do density training; you can either have a time goal or a rep goal. I’ve done both and both work equally well.

A rep goal is when you set out to do as many reps in a certain amount of time. So for example, I used to aim to do 50 pull ups in 10 minutes. Once I achieved this, I’d aim for 55 pull ups and so on. The idea is to be able to do as many quality reps as possible in the shortest amount of time. A time goal is very similar, you just use the duration, not the reps, as the stimulus. So for example, allot a time of 20 minutes to do pull ups and see how many you do in that time. The two methods are very similar, however you may find that one approach works better for you.

Method 3: Descending Ladder

As previously mentioned, the biggest thing with pull ups is the reduction in form as you get fatigued. This is why doing a fixed amount of reps (3 x 10) may not be optimal. What I like about a descending rep approach is that it accounts for fatigue and reduction is technique.

I’ve written about descending ladder rep ranges before in my article Plateau Busting Methods. As stated in that article, I feel it works best when you pair this movement with an opposing muscle group. In this case, a simple press up would work well. This is what the workout would look like:

A1) Pull Up (10 seconds rest)

A2) Press Up (10 seconds rest)

The rep range would be 10-8-6-4-2. Once you have done the last set of 2, rest for 2 minutes. I would look to repeat this for 3-5 sets, depending on your current strength levels.


Pull ups are excellent for strength and muscle development. I believe that every man should be able to do at least 10 reps of body weight pull ups, whilst women should aim from between 2-5 reps at an intermediate stage.

The methods above are just some simple workout templates that you can do at home. When you consider you can change small variables such as grip, hand position and tempo, you’ll start to see that there’s an extremely large amount of different workouts you can do.

If you’ve enjoyed this article and would like to learn more about what not to do when looking to build strength and muscle, check out my free guides section to download your own copy of the eBook.