5 Ways to Build Gorilla Strength with the Pull-up

by Marcus Martinez

If I was stranded on a desert island and could only have one piece of equipment to train a fighter at any level (who would apparently only be fighting me) it would have to be a good ‘ol fashioned pull-up bar.

The ground can give you a fantastic strength and conditioning session with calisthenics, plyometrics, body flows, and more, but the pull-up bar will help you build a powerful upper body, grip and core; all crucial for a fighter that needs to grab, control and submit his opponent.

There are many reasons you should be doing (a lot) of pull-ups and variations if you’re a fighter or grappler

Reason #1 - It hits a lot of muscles at once

Let’s get the obvious reason out of the way that the pull-up and it’s friends are compound movements that will give you the most bang for your buck. With each pull you hit many of the muscles in your back, biceps, shoulders, forearms, grip, and core. Time efficiency for the win.

Reason #2 - There are always ways to progress

No matter what level you’re at there are a multitude of movements and combinations that will turn you into a freaky strong gorilla. In this article I’ll show you my 5 favorite ways to make the pull-up harder.

Reason #3 - You will build tons of pulling strength

This translates into easier submissions and will allow you to defend against your opponent much more handily.

Show me a fighter who can do a pull-up carrying his bodyweight as well as knock off 20+ pulls with just his own and I’ll show you a fighter who has incredible pulling power, grip and upper body strength.

Alright so let’s get into it. Here are 5 of my favorite ways to make the standard pull-up harder...

#1: Change the Grip

This is one of the easiest ways to make your pull-ups more effective if you’re a fighter. By adding a pair of Fat Gripz (if you don’t have access to those a simple towel or gi will do just as well) will be wildly beneficial.

This is going to help build finger and grip strength to help you when you grab onto your opponent. The more open the hand is or the softer the handle is the harder you have to squeeze to keep yourself from plummeting to the ground.

You won’t be able to go heavier on this at first, but when you can build to a heavy weighted thick grip/towel pull-up you’re going to have bone-crushing grip strength in your corner.

#2: Change the Tempo

Two ways that I make pull-ups more difficult for my fighters is by changing the tempo forcing them to go excessively slow as well as incorporating static holds at different points in the movement.

The next time you try a pull-up try breaking it down into five points.

1. Starting position is a dead hang

2. 1/4 up (elbows slightly bent)

3. 1/2 way up (elbows at 90 degrees)

3. 3/4 up (chin almost at bar)

4. Finish position is chin above bar

Hold each section for 15 seconds on the way up and on the way down. Aim for three reps. You will be unpleasantly surprised at how terrible this it, but it will help build strength in various arm positions which will carry over into your grappling sessions.

#3: Partner Pulls

This one is more of a core workout and incorporates a static hold, but the difference here is you’re going to need a partner for it. The downside of having a partner pull you is that you can’t exactly gauge how much pressure is being applied. The plus side, however, of having someone to motivate and push you (literally, as well) makes this extremely beneficial.

Try this:

Partner A, you’re going to get into a 1/2 pull-up position with your elbows at 90 degrees. At this point you’re going to bring your legs up bending your knees.

Partner B, here’s where you come in. You’re going to (gently, at first) push down on Partner A’s knees trying to bring them straight to the ground.

Partner A, mind your back on this to make sure you don’t excessively strain to keep your legs up. Be prepared to suffer (in a good way) and if Partner B is pushing hard just politely remind them that payback’s a bitch.

Hold for rounds of 20-30 seconds.

#4: Use Your Bottom Half

Combining knee raises with pull-ups/chin ups is a surefire way to activate the core at a greater level and make the pull that much harder.

Try performing a series of pull-ups with your legs at different heights and positions (straight in front, slightly out to the side, knees bent, etc).

Only one word will come to mind when you bust out sets of 5-10 reps like this: brutal.

#5: Use Uneven Grips

This is probably my favorite because it’s the one I do the most often and see the highest return. By incorporating uneven grips/levels/movements you build strength from different angles.

Your first assignment is to find as many different places to do a pull-up (in other words wherever there’s something high enough and strong enough to hold your weight). Any park, trees, low overhangs; pretty much anything will do.

Because I don’t expect most of you to run out and start testing the strength of every tree branch in your neighborhood an easier way to incorporate this is to use different grips on the squat rack at your local gym.

Try using the sides, the upper cage, one hand on the bar and one hand on the cage, etc. This is going to build your grip, too, but it will do wonders for building your overall pulling strength from different angles which will definitely carry over into your grappling.

One of my favorites is the Lateral Pull-up. I like to grab the handle of a power rack and put my other hand on the rack. If you don’t have access to a rack then a typical pull-up bar will do. As you pull-up pull yourself one side only (transfer all your weight to your right side as you pull-up and then come back down).

Repeat on the other side with the same amount of reps.

Just like strength, pull-ups are a skill, which means you need to practice them constantly. Try incorporating one the above methods on three separate training sessions.

I don’t like to go to failure with my pull-up training, but I like to combine high volume and high intensity.

  • Monday: Thick grip weighted pullups (1-5 rep range)
  • Wednesday: Static Holds (15-30 seconds per hold)
  • Friday: Multiple Angle Pull-ups (5-12 rep range)

There are literally hundreds of different ways to do a pull-up, but try focusing on these five variations (even within these there are multiple variations). I’m not even including, muscle ups, one arm pull-ups, climbing, swinging, shimmying from bar to bar, etc.

We’ll save those for another article.

My goal with this article is to inspire you to get creative and think outside the box when it comes to your pull-up training. Do the same as everyone else to look and perform the same as everyone else. Challenge yourself in all areas of your training and watch your performance in your competitions take off.

Get out there, grab a bar and start taking your strength to another level!

Marcus Martinez is the owner of MBody Strength in Brea, CA. His unorthodox training methods have helped guys like Cisco Rivera, Jack May and other UFC athletes thrive.