How to Optimize your Pull ups for Bigger Biceps (5 tips)
Pull ups are the best calisthenics exercise to target biceps. However, not all pull ups are created equal. Some variations tend to place more emphasis on the back whilst you can hone others focus on bicep size and strength.
There are a few important factors you need to know for targeting the biceps for muscle and strength gains.
The top 5 tips for biceps are:
How you grip the bar (underhand chin up grip is better for concentrating tension on the bicep).
How far apart your hands shoulder be (for optimal bicep activation- around 6-8 inches apart).
The importance of time under tension during pull ups and being in the optimal rep range for muscle mass.
Stressing the eccentric phase of the exercise (Don’t shortchange your gains by only focusing on the concentric/lifting phase of the pull up).
Add weight to your pull ups with a dip belt or weight vest to increase the intensity of each rep so you can maintain a progressive overload to maximise your bicep building potential.
Lets look at what this all means and how to implement each tip…
#1 The Best Pull up Grip for Biceps and #2 The Optimal Width of your Hands on the Bar
First thing we have to consider is the grip. There are two main factors that really have a huge influence on which muscles are emphasised during pull ups. These are:
Whether the grip is pronated or suprinated (overhand or underhand)
How far your hands are apart on the bar (e.g whether your grip is shoulder width or close grip)
If you adopt a pronated grip then the wider your hands are apart, the more emphasis there is on the latismusi dorsi, trapezius, deltoid (back and shoulder muscles) as the primary movers.
Wide grip pull ups do work the biceps but the wider grip (shoulder width or more) really accentuates the tension on the muscles in your back and shoulders.
Wide grip pull ups are an excellent compound exercise in itself but if you really want to target the biceps for increased strength and muscle then we need to use close grip chin ups.
If you adopt a suprinated grip (chin up, or palms facing towards you) and have your hands closer together on the bar then this will place more tension on our target muscle, the biceps.
When doing wide grip pull ups your arms and elbows will be out the to the side of your body. Whereas close grip chin ups will make sure that you’re arms and elbows are positioned in front of you.
Its this arm position that puts the biceps at a mechanical advantage to contribute to the pulling motion more then if your arms were out to the side of your body where the lats take most of the tension.
The width of the grip for biceps is with your hands around 6-8 inches apart.
This perfectly targets the arms and ensures a comfortable arm positioning. If your hands are too close then your arms can get in the way of the motion of your body.
Capitalise on the best body weight exercise for biceps with close grip chin ups.
#3 Spend More Time Under Tension for Bigger Biceps
Time under tension is a key component of muscle building. It not just how many reps you do in a set that matter but at what pace you do them.
Time under tension refers to how long your muscle spends under stress during an exercise and is a key way to stimulate hypertrophy.
In terms of building bigger biceps you need to be slowing down the tempo of your pull ups so that your set lasts around 45-70 seconds. This is the optimal time under tension of a set for stimulating muscle growth.
For a set of 12 pull ups that means each individual pull up should take 5 seconds. In practical terms this means spending around:
2 seconds in the pulling phase (contracting the muscle)
1 second isometric hold at the top (chin over the bar)
2 seconds lowering in the eccentric phase of the motion (muscle lengthening)
What this means in practical terms is that you should control your reps. Focus on:
Good form- getting your chin full over the bar
Full range of motion- start each rep from a dead hang to get most out of the contraction
If you are doing 8-12 reps with the correct focus then you will hit the 45-70 seconds ball park no problem.
You don’t need to get the stop watch out or focus on counting during your reps in your head, as this will be a distraction from the task at hand. Focus on the bicep contraction and the corresponding muscle groups and the rest will take care of itself.
The easiest way to ensure sufficient time under tension is to emphasis the eccentric phase…
#4 Emphasis the Eccentric Phase for Bigger Biceps
Eccentric phase of a movement is often overlooked particularly with an over head pulling motion.
An eccentric contraction is the motion of the muscle lengthening whilst under stress. So in this case it is the bicep lengthening as you lower yourself down from having you chin over the bar, back down to a bottom dead hang position.
Its all too tempting to grab the bar and concentrate on the contracting phase of a pull up and then to just drop back down with less effort so you can preserve energy and hit your desired number of reps for that set.
Most of the time you don’t even realise you are doing it. The focus on a specific rep or set count is prioritised over the quality of the movement.
Yet if you are practically skipping the eccentric phase, you are missing out on massive bicep building potential.
Emphasising the eccentric phase of the movement as much as the concentric will help you achieve the optimal time under tension for your workout by pulling and lowering at an even pace.
The reason why eccentric is so important is because research shows that eccentric movements increase protein synthesis more then concentric contractions. You can also tolerate more tension during the eccentric phase of the movement which has its advantages when it comes to strength building.
Focusing on the eccentric phase of the motion is always the best way to learn and develop the strength for a new calisthenics technique.
This means there is significant potential for stimulating muscle growth for your biceps at each stage of the pull up by remaining in peak contraction for longer.
Stressing the eccentric phase of you pull ups also:
Prevents strength imbalance between lifting and lowing phases
Prevents injury to your joints and connective tissue as you lower yourself down slowly from having your chin over the bar, rather then dropping down and having your tendons and ligaments absorb the impact of your falling body weight at the bottom of the pull up.
Leveraging the eccentric phase of the motion will lead to more gains and bigger biceps.
#5 Increase Bicep Size with Weighted Pull ups
Okay, so you have got the perfect underhand grip with your hands optimally spaced apart, you’re doing the right number of sets and reps and your time under tension is on point.
Next step is to maintain a progressive overload by adding weight to your pull ups. If you are looking to build muscle you need to make sure that each rep is at a high enough intensity.
This means placing the muscle under enough tension to elicit an adaptive response to the stimulus. The adaptive response being muscle growth.
Once you have reached a certain level of strength, body-weight reps do not provide enough resistance to put enough stress your muscle to keep gaining size.
Think of it this way…You wouldn’t use the same weight on the barbell when doing bicep curls and expect to continue making progress. The same is true for pull ups, they will be a time when you need to add weight in order to keep progressing.
If you are at the point where you are doing more then 12 reps per set, then it is likely your muscle building potential for that exercise will have plateaued, particularly for that target muscle- the biceps.
After a certain point, if the number of reps are too high per set, then the emphasis of your training will have shifted from gaining muscle to developing endurance strength.
We need to increase the intensity of the exercise to make it sufficiently challenging again to bring the number of reps per set back down into the ideal rep range for hypertrophy so that your biceps can keep growing.
The consensus for the optimal rep range for building muscle is 8-12 reps for 3-5 sets.
So in order to stay within this rep range we need to add weight to your pull ups and bring the reps back down into the optimally range so you can continue effectively building your biceps.
Adding weight will overload the muscles and force them to adapt (by adding muscle fibres) to a level of tension they are not currently accustomed to.
So to consistently gain muscle we need to consistently maintain a progressive overload, by increasing the intensity of each rep.
The best best options to add weight to your pull ups are with either a…
or a weighted vest.
Both are an effective way to continuously add weight to your pull ups as you progress and get stronger.
Whilst both are effective, I personally prefer to add weight with a dipping belt. The belt sits around your hips and is therefore more comfortable when doing upper body exercises such as pull ups.
Some weight vests can be uncomfortable, particularly if its loaded up with a lot of weight.
You can add an unlimited amount of weight with a dipping belt whereas you tend to be restricted with the weight you can add to the weight vest.
Also the dipping belt is far easier to put on and take off in between sets.
When adding weight to pull ups, always start with a lighter weight of around 5 KG (11 lbs).
They will be an inverse correlation between the amount of weight you add and the amount of reps you can do.
You need to find that sweet spot where you’re adding enough weight to get down into that 8-12 rep range.
Once you’ve eased yourself in with a lower weight you will probably be ready to increase the weight increment for the next work out.
To proactively avoid injury I always recommend to increase in increments of around 5 KG (11 lbs) even if you think you can handle a higher load. Proactively avoid injury by increasing the weight slowly overtime.
Once you have found a suitable weight that brings the number of reps you can do to failure, down to around 8-12 then this is the perfect training wait.
I personally recommend to leave a week between workouts when training weighted pull ups to ensure optimally bicep growth. Rest is a crucial factor in muscle growth. However every individuals capacity for recovery is different and based on a range of factors so you should listen to your body to avoid over-training
If you still have excessive delayed onset muscle soreness (doms) or your performance has dropped significantly then you should rest and wait for any soreness to subside before anymore specific bicep training.
So what does the optimal pull up for biceps look like?
Adopt an underhand chin up grip with your fists close together. This will mean your elbows are in front of your body and puts the bicep at a mechanical advantage to be the primary mover for the exercise.
With your biceps now emphasised make sure you do your pull ups nice and slow using pull range of motion with a 1 seconds pause at the top of the movement.
If you use good form, you will naturally spend more time on the eccentric or lowering phase of the exercise which helps unlock more muscle building potential.
The most important point of all is when you are able to exceed 12 body weight pull ups, it is time to start adding external weight to the exercise so that you remain in the optimal rep range for muscle growth (8-12 reps).
Adding weight means you can maintain a progressive overload and place the biceps under enough tension so that they have to adaptively respond by growing bigger and stronger.
Using a dipping belt or a weight vest will help you combine the benefits of calisthenics and weight training so that your biceps can keep on growing.