How to do Weighted Pull-ups & Chin-ups: Everything You Need To Know About Heavy Pull-up Training

By | May 8, 2015

Build Upper Body Muscle Mass And Get Stronger With This Guide On Heavy, Weighted Pull-ups And Chin-ups: Including What Strength Coaches, Bodybuilders, Scientists, And Athletes Have To Say About Them, Strength Standards, Training Tips, The Latest World Records, And More (Plus, Several Weighted Pull-up Workouts To Get You Started)

weighted pull ups

What you need to know:

  • The weighted pull-up is a phenomenal exercise for strengthening the upper body and building muscle mass in the arms, back, and core.
  • Your pull-up form (i.e. your breathing, movement, and structure during the exercise) becomes much more important whenever you add additional load to your body.
  • Heavy, weighted pull-ups can be used to break through a plateau and increase your max pull-ups performance (i.e. your reps).
  • Weighted pull-ups are an advanced exercise that should be integrated cautiously, used conservatively, and progressed with gradually.

If you’re an intermediate to advanced trainee who is ready to take your pull-up training to the next level, then weighted pull-ups and chin-ups may be a great addition to your strength and conditioning routine. They can be used to greatly increase your strength, grow your back and arm musculature, and improve your grip strength, among other things. In fact, weighted pull-ups are largely considered the best exercise for strengthening the back and biceps, and one of the best for the upper body, in general. It’s also considered a great complement to the bench press.

Bodybuilder and scientist, Dr. Layne Norton, is a big fan of weighted pull-ups and says that heavy, low-rep sets in the 1-5 reps range activate all types of muscle fibers, leading to greater strength gains (Source). And in my interview with Jeff Kuhland (CSCS), he explained how weighted pull-ups are a very effective tool for increasing your max pull-up reps. So, if you want to do a lot of pull-ups (e.g. 20-50+ reps range), eventually, you’re going to have to increase your max pull-up strength. Naturally, weighted pull-ups are invaluable and sometimes, even essential for this.

Now, weighted pull-ups are a very strenuous exercise that should only be attempted by those who have a basic foundation of strength. Most coaches recommend waiting until after you can do at least 12-15 standard pull-ups or chin-ups with excellent technique (I think 20+ reps is ideal) before you begin any weighted pull-up training.

Also, don’t attempt weighted pull-ups unless you’ve already mastered optimal pull-up form. That’s a great way to wreck yourself. As soon as you add extra load to your body, the key components of the pull-up exercise become much more important for optimizing strength and avoiding injury. So, you’ll want to make sure that you’re keeping your shoulders stabilized and contracting your core properly to protect your spine, among other things. If you’re not 100% sure of your pull-up technique (even if you can already do a lot of pull-ups), check out Lesson Two in my free 5-day Pull-up Training Crash Course.

But if you can do 12-20+ pull-ups with great form, and you’re willing to work safely and gradually, then you’re probably ready to start experimenting with weighted pull-ups. Here’s a video where I show you five different ways to do weighted pull-ups (or chin-ups).

5 Ways to do Weighted Pull-ups & Chin-ups

Summary of the Best Tools for Doing Weighted Pull-ups

Weight vest – This is probably the best all-around tool for low-moderate weighted pull-ups because they distribute the weight better than any other tool and allow you to perform the reps with optimal technique (e.g. proper spinal alignment, core activation, etc.).

Note: Make sure you get a vest that has a high weight capacity. The more weight it can hold, the better. You can always take weight out. I’ve used and recommend the X-Vest, but they are hard to come by. This looks like another good one: Adjustable Weighted Vest

Weight belt (aka dip belt) – This is the best tool for heavy weighted pull-ups because they can hold a lot of weight, weights can be changed quickly and easily, and the weight is in line with your center of gravity.

Note: make sure you get a quality belt, preferably one made from heavy-duty strap material or a single piece of leather. Trust me. It’s worth it. I own and recommend the one from Spud Inc.

Backpack (preferably a hiking-style backpack with hip and/or chest straps) – This would be a good substitute for those who don’t have access to a weight vest or belt, making them a great choice for a home gym trainee. You can fill them with heavy books, water bottles, or weight equipment wrapped in a blanket/towel/etc.

weighted pull ups with a backpack

Resistance bands – These are a great option for both gym-goers and home gym trainees. Simply anchor a band at floor level and wrap the band around your shoulders so that it stretches as you pull yourself up to the bar.

Note: I like the Superbands from Perform Better.

Dumbbells – These aren’t the best option, but if they’re all you have available, you can make a dumbbell work by holding it between your ankles or legs.

Kettlebells – A kettlebell can also be used by inserting your feet into the handle – assuming you have a tall enough pull-up bar that allows you to hang with your legs straight.

Note: There are plenty of other ways to do weighted pull-ups (e.g. with a partner pulling your ankles or waist down for resistance, a sandbag or medicine ball held between your legs, etc.). So, you can get creative!

And there’s always this…

weighted pull ups - partner-assisted pull ups

Weighted Pull-ups Training Tips

Your first few weighted pull-up workouts should be very conservative. Start with very light weights, even if it seems too easy. An additional 3-5 pounds would probably be enough for most people. No more than 10 pounds is necessary for the first few sessions. See how your body adapts to this load first. And remember it takes longer for your joints and connective tissues to recover than your muscles.

The advanced version of the popular Armstrong Pull-up Program actually advises that you start weighted pull-ups with 5 pounds or less and do no more than 9 weighted pull-up sets per week spread over three different workouts.

Warm up like you would with any weightlifting exercise. You have to work your way up to a heavy load one set at a time. So, start with a moderate set of just bodyweight reps as a base warmup. Then add 5-10 pounds at a time until you get up to your working weight.

Progress gradually and increase your pull-up weight and training volume slowly (baby steps). This is good advice for any training program, but especially so for an exercise that’s as strenuous as weighted pull-ups, which can take a toll on your shoulders, elbows, and wrists.

Strength and conditioning specialist, Eric Cressey, posted a great article that covers some of the risks of performing (and specializing in) pull-ups (and particularly, heavy/weighted pull-ups) that is worth a read. The take-home point: go easy on weighted pull-ups, listen to your body, and back off if they start giving you trouble.

Weighted Pull-up Strength Standards

Unfortunately, there are no commonly accepted strength standards for weighted pull-ups. So, we’ve got to do the best we can with various anecdotes here and there. I’ll start off by saying that most trained men can and should aspire to doing at least 3 pull-ups with an additional 45 pounds (women w/ 25 lbs). That’s a good general standard that practically anyone involved in ongoing fitness training can achieve. Of course, general standards aren’t all that exciting. So, let’s talk about some ambitious standards.

For instance, Russian strength coach, Pavel Tsatsouline who is best known for bringing kettlebell training to “the West” says that a weighted pull-up with 50% of your bodyweight added is “respectable and very achievable.” I agree. And strength coach, Charles Poliquin says that “anyone who can do three dead-hang pull-ups with an additional load equivalent to 66% of their body weight is pretty d*** impressive.”

Now, we’re talking!

Some other coaches say that your pull-up strength should roughly match your bench press strength. In fact, a recent study (referenced below) showed that max pull-up strength correlates very closely with max bench press strength. So, if you can bench press 200 pounds, you should be able to do a pull-up with 200 pounds total (i.e. your bodyweight + however much added weight equals 200 pounds total). And I think that’s a good rule of thumb for most non-crazy people.

I also found this chart on Bodybuilding.com that classifies your max pull-up strength according to your weight class:

BODYWEIGHT FAIR GOOD EXCELLENT
Bantamweight
Up to 123 Lbs.
30 45 60
Featherweight
Up to 132 Lbs.
25 50 65
Lightweight
Up to 148 Lbs.
37 50 75
Middleweight
Up to 165 Lbs.
40 60 80
Light-heavy
Up to 181 Lbs.
50 70 90
Middle-heavy
Up to 198 Lbs.
50 75 100
Heavyweight
Unlimited
60 90 120

Note: the excellent range seems to fall in line with Pavel’s +50% of bodyweight rule.

But I still think that’s a little conservative and just “meh.” Plus, I know several people, personally, who can blow these stats out of the water (e.g. Steven Proto anyone?), including yours truly. So, let me introduce you to my own weighted pull-up standards.

John Sifferman’s Totally Unofficial Weighted Pull-up Strength Standards

Beginner: Body weight + 10% of BW in added weight
Intermediate: Body weight + 25%
Advanced: Body weight + 50%
Expert: Body weight + 75%
Master: Body weight + 100%
Superhuman: Body weight + 125+%
Jasper Benincasa Reincarnated: Body weight + 200+%

What’s that? You want specific numbers? I got numbers. A single weighted pull-up with…

+50 pounds is impressive and will get you more than a few glances at the gym.
+100 pounds is incredible and will earn you respect among your fitness peers.
+150 pounds is beastly and will likely scare people away.
+200 pounds is insane and few people on Earth will ever be able to do this.

There. You happy?

Weighted Pull-up World Records

Steven Proto - world's heaviest weighted pull-up record holder

Steven Proto – holder of two Guinness World Records for weighted pull-ups

According to Guinness World Records, the heaviest weighted pull up weighed 206.2 lb (93.53 kg) and was achieved by Steven Proto (USA) at a personal gym in Edmond, Oklahoma, USA, on 9 July 2011. (Source)

According to Guinness World Records, the most pull-ups in one minute with a 40 lb pack is 25 and was achieved by Ron Cooper (USA) in Marblehead, Massachusetts, USA, on 9 July 2014. (Source)

According to Guinness World Records, the most pull ups in one minute with a 100-lb pack is 14 and was achieved by Steven Proto (USA) in Edmond, Oklahoma, USA, on 15 October 2014. (Source)

I also dug up this interesting record: in 1940, Jasper Benincasa performed a weighted chin-up with 265 pounds of added weight. He was 5 feet, 7.5 inches tall and 130 pounds at the time. Yes, that means he did a chin-up with over 200% of his bodyweight in added weight (i.e. for a total of 395 pounds!). Interestingly enough, Jasper also purportedly completed a one-arm chin-up with 49% of his bodyweight added, too. Talk about a beast! (Source)

Weighted Pull-up & Chin-up Workouts

I’ve posted a number of weighted pull-up workouts in the archives for those with the right blend of character flaws traits to try them out. Here are a few of them…

Also, keep in mind that any pull-up workout can be made harder simply by adding some additional weight – even if it’s just 5-10 pounds. So, you can do pull-up ladder workouts (aka pull-up pyramid workouts), pull-up drop set workouts, or any of the workouts from these pull-up workout programs, among others. The only thing that’s really different about a weighted pull-up versus a standard pull-up is that the load (i.e. the resistance) is greater. So, feel free to try adding a little bit of weight during your next pull-up workout and see how your body responds. I think you’ll like the results.

The Bottom Line

The experts agree: pull-ups are awesome. And weighted pull-ups are even more awesome. But like any advanced exercise, they need to be used carefully to minimize the risks. And the heavier you go, the greater the risks. But with proper training, weighted pull-ups can be a phenomenal tool to increase your total body strength, pack muscle on your upper body, and help you do more pull-ups. Use them wisely!

Related Posts

Low Reps VS High Reps: Which is better for increasing pull-ups and chin-ups?
Meet Steven Proto: Holder of Two Guinness World Records for Weighted Pull-ups
Man Does TWENTY-SIX Weighted Pull-ups With 88 Pounds (VIDEO)
He Was Doing 100+ Pull-ups a Day and STILL No Gains
How to Train Beyond Muscle Failure Safely
Can I Do Weighted Pull-ups Every Day?
Do Weighted Pull-ups Increase Reps?
Are Weighted Pull-ups Safe?


About The Author

John SiffermanJohn Sifferman is a health-first fitness coach who has been teaching, coaching, and training people in various capacities since 2006. John is the author of The Pull-up Solution, the complete pull-up and chin-up training system that helps people rapidly increase their pull-up numbers in three months or less.

You can get a free copy of John’s 3-month pull-up training program and download more of his premium pull-up training resource as part of his free 5-day Pull-up Training Crash Course.

You can also learn more about John’s professional background and experience on the About Page.

Photo credit: 1, 2.

References:

Baker, D. & Newton, R. U. “An analysis of the ratio and relationship between upper body pressing and pulling strength.” J. Strength Cond. Res., 18(3):594 – 598. 2004. (Link)

Youdas, J. “Surface electromyographic activation patterns and elbow joint motion during a pull-up, chin-up, or perfect-pullup™ rotational exercise.” J Strength Cond. Res., 2010 Dec; 24(12):3404-14. (Link)

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