Pull-ups are one of the most basic exercises for training general upper body strength for climbing. As you train them, you’ll notice an increase in your ability to perform a higher number of reps and sets. However, once you get comfortable with these bodyweight pulls, your maximum strength will not improve over time. You must expose your muscles to higher and higher resistance over time to increase maximum strength—a pillar of training known as progressive overload. Building max strength for climbing is important. It allows you to pull harder moves and improves your power output and endurance, if trained properly.
An easy tool that many climbers could be using to increase their max pull strength is weighted pull-ups. This exercise is often underused, perhaps due to a lack of knowledge or a feeling of not being ready for extra weight. Surprisingly, top climbing coaches like Eric Hörst say that once you can do eight pull-ups in a row with good form, you’re likely ready to start adding weight.
Below, we go over correct pull-up form, how to add weight properly, and a simple training routine for adding this exercise into your training cycle. There are lots of different pull-up variations, but in this article, we’ll focus on the conventional pull-up.
Before adding weight to your pull-ups, you must ensure that you are using proper form. It can be a good idea to film yourself from multiple angles to ensure that your technique looks good. If you experience pain in the shoulders or elbows regularly when performing pull-ups, consult a coach, physiotherapist, and/or doctor to diagnose what’s wrong.
Start your pull-up by standing under the bar. The bar should ideally be a height that you can reach without jumping up. Grab the bar with your palms facing away, arms slightly wider than shoulder width. From a relaxed hang, engage your upper back, pulling your scapulas down and reducing the distance between your ears and arms. To then pull your body upwards, use primarily your lats. Keep your core engaged and your elbows in line with your body—they should not wing out. A helpful tip to prevent winging is to think of bending the bar or driving through your pinky fingers.
The goal should be to clear your chin above the bar without stretching your neck and face upwards. Rather than focusing on your chin, it can be helpful to think about bringing your chest to the bar. Also, do not buck your hips or legs (known as “kipping”) to give you momentum to clear the bar.
After holding the pull-up at the top for a second, you should lower your body slowly, taking care not to shock load the elbows or shoulders. For a demo of a conventional pull-up see the video below by Movement for Climbing:
If you can perform eight to ten conventional pull-ups with the proper form described above, it’s time to start exploring weighted pull-ups to continue making max strength gains. To add weight, simply secure weight plates or dumbbells with webbing to a carabiner and then clip that carabiner into your belay loop or top tie in point of your harness. As you increase your weight over time it can be helpful to use a lifting pin such as this one by Lattice Training. Climbers using high weights should swap their climbing harness for a dipping belt for more comfort.
You’ll be surprised by how much more difficult your pull-ups will feel just adding five, 10, or 20 pounds. Don’t be discouraged though. You’ll see significant strength gains in just a few weeks time using the training protocol discussed below.
Some safety considerations are extra important when doing weighted pull-ups:
- Warm-up thoroughly beforehand using assisted or unweighted pulls (in addition to the other mobility and stability exercises you typically use in your warm-up).
- Use a bar that is the appropriate height for you. You should not be jumping to catch the bar to start the exercise. If the bar is too high, use a stable structure to stand on to reach the bar comfortably. You don’t want to trip and fall off a wobbly stool or box.
- Lower down with control. You don’t want the additional weight to shockload your elbows or shoulders. To help prevent this, don’t go into a straight arm position at the bottom of the pull-up—keep a slight bend in your arm.
Here’s a good example of a DIY weighted pull-up set-up:
This weighted pull-up workout by pro-climber Cameron Hörst is an excellent one for increasing your max pull strength over time. The workout involves five sets of five reps of weighted pull-ups. Rest time between sets is three to five minutes. Before you add this exercise to your routine, you’ll need to experiment to find out how much added weight is right for you. For this 5×5 workout, you’ll want to use the maximum amount of weight you can add and still do seven to eight pull-ups with proper form.
To warm up for the 5×5, do two sets of bodyweight pull-ups followed by one set using 50% of the weight you’ll use in the 5×5. Then take a five minute rest before starting the full workout. Your first three sets will likely not feel that hard to complete. But by the fourth and fifth sets, your fatigue should be building and you should be fighting to complete your last reps. If sets four and five do not feel difficult, add five pounds to your next 5×5 workout. Do this workout twice a week and you’re guaranteed to see strength gains.