There are a handful of exercises that I do every day. The swing, the get-up, push-ups and pull-ups. Chief among them is the pull-up: the quintessential bodyweight exercise. The pull-up is the great equalizer of upper-body strength. It utilizes the Latissimus Dorsi mainly, but they are assisted by the brachialis, brachioradialis, biceps brachii , teres major, posterior deltoid, infraspinatus, teres minor, rhomboids, levator scapulae, middle and lower trapezius and pectoralis muscles. And because you are hanging from the bar and gravity is a bitch, all these muscles have to be pulling their weight for your chin to crest metal. Tall, short, skinny or fat, pull-ups bedevil all men (and women) who do not train for them.
When I talk about pull-ups, I am talking about military grade, United States Marine Corps, drill instructor approved, no-kipping, chin-over-the-bar, damn-frikkin' pull-ups. I prefer palms outboard, but the form is the same for palms inboard as well (chin-up). Palms out just means you use your big back muscles more and your little arm muscles less. A USMC pull-up starts with a dead hang (locked elbows). The Marine pulls his or her chin over the bar without lifting the legs or swinging his or her body to gain momentum ("kipping") then lowers him or herself to the dead hang position with elbows again locking out. That is one complete pull-up to the USMC and to Coach Stevo.
Some tips on form that I recommend are wrapping the thumb under the bar. This allows you to squeeze the bar and creates more tension in your core, which is actually very important to the power in this exercise. When going for a max set, it is also important to lower yourself as fast as possible. Well actually, it's not so much lowering as dropping like a dead fish. This violent drop will not only rest your pulling muscles, but also initiate the myostatic reflex which will cause those muscles to pull harder and faster for the next rep.
Training for Max Reps
The thing about pull-ups is, if you can do one, you have the strength to do 20. That is because doing 20 or more pull-ups is about training the muscular endurance, not their strength. And the key to doing a lot of pull-ups is doing a lot of pull-ups. A whole whole lot. As in, 100 per day. Complex, full body exercises like pull-ups, push-ups and swings can be done every day because there are so many muscles at play in the motion. Also, since this kind of "strength" is more about developing the central nervous system's effeciency in utilizing the existing fibers, you need to practice, practice, practice. Here is what I recommend for someone who's singular goal is to do more pull-ups, like anyone wanting to be a Marine or officer of Marines.
Do 1 pull-up. Now do 10 push-ups. Do 2 pull-ups. 10 push-ups. Repeat this cycle with as little rest as possible until you are really struggling on the last pull-up. I find this number to be between 7-10. Now go back down the pyramid with 10 push-ups between sets. Your pull-up counts should look like this: 1-2-3…x…3-2-1 where x is the most pretty pull-ups you can muster.
Do at least 10 sets of 10 pull-ups spaced throughout the day.
Cycle through these workouts and make sure to take a day off every week (I take Sunday off) to ensure proper muscle repair. Also, take 48-72 hours off before attempting another max rep test. You want to make sure the muscles are 100% repaired and have all the necessary phasophogen and glycogen to go the distance on test day.
But Coach, I Can't Even Do One!
Usually the first thing I tell people who can't do one pull-up is to lose weight. Fat is the killer of pull-ups. But while you're doing that, start with negatives. These are basically the second half of a standard pull-up, the part where you lower yourself down. So get a box, put it under your pull-up bar, and jump up to the top of the pull-up position. Now lower yourself down as slowly as you possibly can. Repeat this until you are just dropping off the bar. Do this every other day until you can do a pull-up. Believe it or not, it won't take long! After you do one, just do as many as you can every time you walk past the bar and before long you'll be doing the workouts above.
Integrating Pull-Ups With Your Fitness Goals
If you don't want to do pull-ups every day, you should at least try to do them every time you do resistance training. And there are other ways to do pull-ups other than for max reps that will help you meet alternative fitness goals. If you are interested in developing bigger muscles, or stronger muscles in your back, then I suggest weighted pull-ups. Get a weight belt with a chain and hook a few pounds around your waist. If you want more explosive power, then I suggest Coach Stevo's patented "Stevo-plosion!" pull-up workout. This simple routine consists of pulling yourself over the bar in the most explosive way possible and changing your grip during your hang time. Repeat and cycle through all the possible grips you can before you run out of steam.
Even if your goal is fat-loss, pull-ups represent a very quick way to utilize all the pulling muscles of your back and arms and prevent tissue loss. You can do a quick push-pull workout in a caloric deficit and be almost guaranteed you haven't left any muscles in your torso out of the awesome.