Building muscles through bodyweight exercise is always questionable for most people especially if you are still stuck in the belief that you need to carry iron bars and plates for your muscles to grow. Though doing pull-ups on carrying your body weight, it is actually quite effective to build muscles as long as you know how to tweak your program to achieve your muscle-building goals.
To build muscles, you need to do between 8 to 15 reps for 3 to 5 sets of pull-ups done 2 to 3x per week. Building muscles through bodyweight movement will be dependent on the intensity of the exercises you are doing. You need to learn how to control the intensity of the work by tweaking either the load, reps, tempo, and rest time.
Intensity is the key to stimulate muscle growth
First, we need to understand that the main ingredient to building muscles is intensity. You need to make sure that you load the muscles with enough intensity to cause microscopic damage to the individual muscle fibers.
By the time you recover by taking enough protein and having a good night’s sleep, your body will repair the damaged muscle fibers and make them bigger so they will not tear the next time you load them. If you want to understand more about the mechanism of Muscle Hypertrophy, you can read this article from The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
If you continuously do the cycle of loading, microtears, and repair, you will see a visible increase in the size of your muscles after a few months of training.
Here is an article where I cover deeper how Calisthenics exercises can build muscles.
Why is the recommended rep range so wide?
Actually, you can achieve muscle hypertrophy by even doing more repetitions. You can see the physique of manual labor workers in the construction areas where they are lifting stuff daily for hours every day; they are doing very repetitive movements in a relatively low intensity but for very high repetitions. Hundreds of them daily, and you can see from the size of their forearms.
Now let’s go back to the pull-up exercise. The repetition is not the key here, but the intensity of the set. What the repetition does is to make sure that you finish the set with the right intensity. And what is the right intensity of the set? When your last rep is failing.
So it is not really the number of repetitions that influence the muscle growth stimulation; thus there is a wide rep range that is generally recommended. If you lock in your session with a number of reps, you may end up shortchanging yourself for that workout as you did not really reach the intensity of stimulating muscle hypertrophy.
A word of caution here is that even though you fail the rep, it is still understood that your form is not compromised. It can cause injuries if you push through a very awkward movement just to log in one more rep. In our Calisthenics classes, learning the movement correctly always comes first before pushing it to a harder intensity.
How do you increase and decrease the load of pull-ups?
When you are strong enough to do 20 pull-ups, it is easy to load it so you can be on the ideal recommended rep range. You can either do a weighted pull-up variation in a Calisthenics gym where you have access to use a weight belt and plates or an asymmetrical pull-up that loads more to one side and then alternate to the other side the next rep.
But it is a big question if you cannot do a pull-up yet. The best way to do this is to do a band-assisted pull-up or a leg-assisted pull-up where you use your leg to assist you in doing your pull-ups. You will need a stool underneath your pull-up bar to do this version. Here is an article about how to modify your pull-up exercise if you cannot do one yet.
Once you know how to modify the load of your pull-up, you can find a load that you can do around 8 reps for a set to failure. You want to start on the lower end of the range so you will have room to increase the intensity by adding reps rather than changing the variation of your pull-up.
How to do pull ups to get the right intensity without too many reps?
This question is applicable if you can do many pull-ups and don’t have access to weight belts and plates. Or you don’t want to do the asymmetrical progression of the exercise.
There are 3 ways you can modify the way you do your pull-up to achieve this:
1. Pause reps
You can pause on 2 to 3 points in your pull-up movement. This will dramatically increase the intensity of every rep, and you don’t have to do too many pull-ups to achieve the same results. For example, you start your pull-up in a passive hang. Instead of pulling all the way up, you pause where your elbows are at 90 degrees, then continue to pull to the highest point of your pull and pause, go back down, and pause again at the 90-degree angle.
2. Slower tempo
Slowing down the tempo or the speed of your movement will increase the intensity of the exercise. But where you slow down matters as well. The phase where you are lowering down in your pull-up (eccentric phase) is the best part to slow down as you can recruit more muscles at this part of the exercise.
According to this article, “a majority of studies seem to show that eccentric actions have the greatest effect on muscle development.”
3. Pulses on the last rep
If you plan to only do eight reps for whatever reason, you can do a few pulses on the last rep on the 2nd half of the pull-up movement to really drain the muscles. This will stimulate the muscles to grow further.
Why is tempo important to stimulate muscles growth?
Tempo is the speed of how you do your pull-up. It is important as you can control the intensity of the exercise by controlling the tempo, and in addition to that, doing it at a specific tempo will require you to pay more attention to your movement and do it with better form.
A good tempo for doing pull-ups will be a fast speed going up and a slower speed going down of around 3 to 4 seconds. The fast speed on the upward phase of the pull-up will recruit more muscle fibers to do the same job and a slower speed going down will expose your muscles longer in the eccentric phase. This is an optimal way for muscle growth.
How does rest time affect your muscle hypertrophy goals?
When you do a set of pull-ups to failure, you know that you are going to feel the burn on your forearms, biceps, and maybe your lats. This is called metabolic stress, where the lactic acid is building up, which is a reaction of the body after it has undergone a series of high-intensity repetitions.
The higher the metabolic stress, the more muscle growth effect it is for the body. But if you rest only for 30 seconds, your subsequent sets will be compromised, which will reduce the intensity of the exercise. A good recommended rest is between 60-90 seconds.
On the other hand, when you rest too long, you will lose the metabolic stress benefit induced by your previous set. This is ideal if you are using Calisthenics to train for strength but you don’t want to build more muscles.