Do the assisted pull-up to add back and biceps muscle size and strength
The assisted pull-up machine is found in most decent gyms. It’s one of the best bits of kit for adding serious back and biceps size, strength and definition. But only if you use it correctly. The problem is that most people don’t. Here’s how to use the assisted pull-up machine properly to pack on lean muscle mass across your upper body, says New Body Plan creator and Men’s Fitness cover model Jon Lipsey
Everyone would love to jump on a bar and bash out a dozen perfect pull-ups. The reality, however, is that most people simply aren’t strong enough to do that. And that’s where the assisted pull-up machine comes in.
It makes the classic pull-up movement easier. How? Because the machine off-sets some of your bodyweight so you can lift a more manageable load. That helps you, over time, build the upper-body strength needed to perform full and proper pull-ups.
The machine also allows you to build a broader back and bigger biceps. How? Because it enables you to perform the higher-rep sets needed to unlock serious muscle-size gains. With unassisted pull-ups, unless you’re a professional gymnast, it’s almost impossible to do enough reps to start the muscle-building process.
Here’s what you need to know to do the move perfectly to get the better-body results you want!
What is an assisted pull-up?
An assisted pull-up is where you perform a pull-up on a machine that makes the movement easier by allowing you to offset some of your bodyweight. Most machines have an internal weight-plate stack and you select the level of assistance with a pin. You then grip the handles with both hands, rest your knees on the padded platform (or feet on a bar), then start the set.
The level of assistance you require will vary based on your current strength levels and current training goals. If you don’t have access to a dedicated assisted pull-up machine you can use a regular pull-up bar then offset some of your bodyweight with resistance bands.
How is an assisted pull-up different to a normal pull-up?
From a movement point of view, it’s not different. It’s just easier. They’re essentially most useful if you lack the strength to do a single pull-up. And they’re useful to anyone who generally struggles with pull-ups. Let’s say you can only do one or two pull-ups and muscle growth is your aim. You can’t get a significant muscle-growth benefit with 1-2 reps. You’ll get a strength gain, but not a muscle gain.
Assisted pull-ups allow you to work in a hypertrophy (muscle growth) rep range (which is usually around 8-12 reps). You should still work on your strength though. The more you do that, the more pull-ups you’ll be able to do. And eventually you’ll be able to do normal pull-ups in a hypertrophy rep range.
What muscles does the assisted pull-up work?
It works your big back muscles, which are also known as the latissimus dorsi. You’ll also target your biceps, and your forearms, because it’s a test of grip strength. If you’re using bands you’ll get some abs and core activation to prevent yourself from swinging. Because you kneel on a pad when using a machine, it doesn’t offer the same core benefits.
What are the benefits of using an assisted pull-up machine?
Assisted pull-up machines are very easy to operate. If they have a weight-plate stack it’s very easy to control how much assistance you’re using. If you’re very new to lifting weights or coming back after a long time out of the gym, you might want to use a heavy load to offset most of your bodyweight.
This will allow you to master the movement pattern with good form, grow in confidence, and start to build greater upper-body strength. Another significant advantage of this machine is that they keep the assistance level constant throughout each rep (unlike with resistance bands, see below).
Is the assisted pull-up machine just for beginners?
Many people think of the assisted pull-up machine as most suitable for beginners, but that’s not the case. You might want to boost your personal best for pull-ups in one go. So selecting just a few kilos of assistance is a smart strategy to build up your muscular strength and endurance to do more full bodyweight reps.
You can also do advanced muscle-building training protocols, such as drop sets. To do that do a set of assisted pull-ups, then adjust the assistance to make it easier, then do another set. Then increase the assistance again and do another set. This three drop-set strategy is very challenging. But there are few better ways to overload your working muscles than drop sets to spur them into growing bigger and stronger.
What are the advantages of doing assisted pull-ups with resistance bands?
The most obvious benefit of doing assisted pull-ups with bands is that you don’t need access to a gym machine to do the move. You could do it at home or in an outdoor gym with your own bands. All you need to do is loop the bend over the top of the bar and put your knee through it at the bottom.
What’s the difference between a machine and bands?
The strength challenge with a band is different to a machine. How? Because the more the bands are stretched, the more assistance they offer. So you get more assistance at the start of the rep and less at the top. That’s not necessarily a problem – it’s just something you should be aware of. You could use different bands or even multiple bands to vary the level of assistance in line with your training objectives.
How many sets and reps should I do?
That depends on what you’re trying to achieve by doing an assisted pull-up. If you’re purely trying to add strength, work in the 1-5 rep range. For functional hypertrophy (strength and size) use 5-8 reps. For pure hypertrophy use 8-12. As a general rule, the fewer reps you do, the more sets you should do. You might do 5 sets of 5 reps but only 3 sets of 10 reps, for example.
How often should I do assisted pull-ups?
You don’t have to include them in every plan. But assisted pull-ups are a useful exercise to have in your training locker. If they’re in your plan, you could do them once a week. If you’re specifically trying to build pull-up strength then you could do them two or three times a week to accelerate progress.
When should I do assisted pull-ups?
It makes most sense to use assisted pull-ups towards the beginning of your workout. It’s a compound (multi-joint) exercise so you would typically do them before isolation (single-joint) moves. As a rule, the lower your rep range the earlier in your workout you should do them.
What should I do if I don’t have a machine or bands?
Let’s think about what you’re trying to do when you do an assisted pull-up. You’re basically trying to make the pull-up movement easier. If you don’t have any equipment, the next best thing is to focus on the phase of the movement where you’re strongest. In this case, it’s the eccentric (lowering) phase. So, what you can do is jump up to the top of the move and then lower yourself as slowly as possible. Work up to being able to lower yourself for 30 seconds. If you can do multiple reps of that, you’ll soon be able to do a full pull-up.
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