Last updated on September 7th, 2023 at 11:49 am
I’m never quite sure why many trainees wait so long to add weight to their pull ups.
I guess this comes down to a lot of the advice given on this subject.
In fact, you’ll usually hear that you need to be performing a certain number of perfectly executed bodyweight pull ups before you should even think about adding weight.
Well, I’m here to tell you that this advice is completely wrong.
You should add weight as soon as you’re strong enough for your target programming. Therefore, if you’re able to perform 7 reps of bodyweight pull ups, but your “target program” is 5 sets of 5 reps, then you should add weight, even if it’s only 2.5lbs. Treat pull ups the same as the big barbell exercises. You wouldn’t wait to perform X number of reps before you add weight to the bar, but rather add weight to fit in with the reps, sets, and intensity you wish to perform.
Table of Contents
Don’t Add Weight Until You Can Perform X Number of Pull Ups (Incorrect!)
Have you noticed that most advice about adding weight to pull ups focuses on you being able to do a certain number of reps first?
In fact, something that I commonly see a lot of trainers say is that you shouldn’t be doing weighted pull ups until you can hit 10-12 reps of “normal” bodyweight pull ups.
Initially, this may seem like great advice, but it goes completely against the grain when talking about training in general.
I mean, you’ve never heard anyone say that you shouldn’t add weight to a barbell exercise until you can perform X number of reps.
As an example, let’s say that you weigh 180lbs, would you only barbell back squat 180lbs until you can achieve 10-12 reps?
Then again, would you only perform deadlifts or bench press with 180lbs until you hit the “magical” number of 10-12 reps?
Of course not, you would typically choose a certain number of reps and sets to perform, and from here you would determine the weight that you would use.
So, let’s say that as a 180lbs person you wish to perform 5 reps of 5 sets of barbell back squats.
The likelihood is that you would increase the weight incrementally until you reach your working weight or 5-rep max.
Therefore, if your 10-rep max is 170lbs, so less than your current bodyweight, does this mean that you shouldn’t perform 5 reps with a weight heavier than yourself?
Of course it doesn’t, as it’s likely that you’ll be able to do 5 reps with 200lbs or perhaps even 225lbs.
So, in my mind pull ups are no different.
Yes, of course, you should be able to perform some strict pull ups first, but just because your max bodyweight pull ups are 6-8 reps, this doesn’t mean you have to hold off in order to add weight.
“Adding Weight” Doesn’t Have to Be Massive
I think a lot of this talk around being able to perform X number of reps comes down to the weight that people believe they need to add.
It’s almost as though most trainees think that “adding weight” means that you need to use an additional 25, 45, or even 90lbs.
But, this isn’t true, adding weight simply means progression.
In fact, going back to the barbell exercises, you’ll typically look to progress on most lifts regularly.
But, this often means that you’re only adding 5-10lbs to a lift.
Perhaps, you only add 1lb or 2.5lbs, as this is all you can manage, but you still wish to progress.
This way, you still feel good that you have progressed and managed to lift heavier than the week before.
So, why should it be any different when it comes to pull ups?
Realistically, you should have a target weight, target intensity, and a target volume for each exercise you perform.
Once again, you automatically do this with the big barbell exercises, but for some reason this type of thinking doesn’t seem to translate to weighted pull ups.
But, going back to my 5×5 example, if you can do 6 reps of standard pull ups then clearly to hit intensity and volume you will need slightly more weight.
So, this could mean that your first week of 5×5 includes an additional 2.5lbs.
Perhaps, week two you progress slightly more and now add 5lbs to your pull ups.
The point being, you’re still adding weight and progressing with the movement.
If you simply waited until you could add 45lbs to your pull ups, well you could be waiting for a long, long time.
Don’t Worry About What Other People Think
I honestly believe there is a psychological effect at play here.
What I mean by this is that you probably have no problem adding a 2.5lb plate either side of the bar for the bench press.
But, for some reason you feel silly, slightly embarrassed, to wear a belt, only add a 2.5lb plate, and start performing pull ups.
And yet, the principle is exactly the same.
It’s almost as though you don’t want others to see you performing weighted pull ups until you’re able to add at least a 45lb plate.
However, do you only ever increase the squat, bench press deadlift, overhead press, barbell row, etc. in 45lb (or 90lbs) increments?
Realistically, if you were to wait until you could add 45lbs to your pull ups, I would guess that you’d end up cheating on the exercise.
In fact, this is something that you’ll often see with weighted pull ups, especially when it comes to hitting a full range of motion.
Essentially, when someone is performing pull ups with too much weight they won’t fully extend at the bottom.
There is always a slight angle in the elbow simply to make the exercise “easier”.
But, of course, by doing this you won’t get the full benefit of performing the exercise.
The point being, progression is progression, so if this means that you want to do 5×5 pull ups with an additional 2.5lbs, then go for it.
Add Weight to Pull Ups When it Fits Your Programming
This is something that I have already alluded to.
You’ll typically enter the gym with a plan.
So, you’ll have a list of exercises you wish to perform, plus an idea of reps, sets, and the weights you’re going to use.
And once again, the exact same can be said for pull ups.
Just because pull ups are a calisthenics exercise doesn’t mean that you somehow have to achieve a set number of reps before adding weight.
Realistically, if you can perform 2 perfect, fully-extended, chest-to-bar pull ups, you can add some weight.
So, as I’ve mentioned numerous times now, determine what your training program is going to be, in terms of reps, sets, and intensity, and then decide whether it’s right to add weight or not.
Frequently Asked Questions
What follows are questions that are typically asked in conjunction with when you should add to pull ups.
What is a Good Weight For Weighted Pull Ups?
As you are probably now aware, I’m going to say that there is no “perfect” amount of weight to add for pull ups.
So, if you can only add 1lb that’s fine, and if you have the physical strength to add 200lbs, then so be it.
Once more, a “good” weight to add to pull ups is one that fits in with your specific programming.
Now, I could say that adding 45, 90, 100lbs, etc. is “good weight” to aim for.
However, by doing so, this may give some trainees unrealistic expectations.
Worse still, it may involve performing poor reps simply to achieve a goal.
So, for me, a good weight will always be one that allows you to hit your specific training program with good form and high intensity.
Adding too much weight usually means that you’ll use momentum rather than muscle to pull yourself up.
And doing so will simply rob you of your full potential for strength and hypertrophy gains.
How to Add Weight to Pull Ups?
There are various ways to add weight to your pull ups. These include:
- Weighted Vest
- Dip Belt
- Dumbbell between crossed legs/feet
- Kettlebell hooked onto the end of your foot
- Small weight plates placed flat onto the top of the feet
Personally, I would always prefer to use a weighted vest or a dip belt, as I have found that the other ways seem to activate certain unrelated muscles.
A prime example of this is whenever I have performed pull ups with a dumbbell between my crossed feet I typically really feel my hamstrings working.
Admittedly, this could be because I’ve tried using too much weight, and therefore subconsciously I’ve used momentum.
Furthermore, I’m no longer a fan of crossed-legged pull ups, as this isn’t really the way they should be performed.
Pull ups are much more of a core exercise than you’d believe, and therefore to activate your core even more it makes sense to have your feet in front of you, similar to a hollow hold position.
Finally, hooking a kettlebell onto your feet, or trying to balance small weight plates on your feet, requires extremely strict form.
On one hand this is great, but I can guarantee that you’ll be more focused on not dropping the weight rather than adhering to form.
Are Weighted Pull Ups Necessary?
When it comes to training there are certain “rules” which should be followed, typically in terms of form and technique.
However, there are also various areas of training that come down to personal opinion.
That being said, when one of the greatest bodybuilders who ever lived gives advice, you tend to sit up and listen.
Interestingly, Franco Columbu has said that he never added to weight pull ups, and it definitely wasn’t necessary.
Franco’s reasoning was simply that you should be performing pull ups with a wide grip, ensuring your chest touches the bar, and then extending to the full range of motion at the bottom of the movement.
Furthermore, you should be able to perform 10-20 perfect reps per set in this manner.
The point being is that there are potentially very few trainees who could perform this “perfect pull up” for 20 “perfect” reps.
Franco certainly has a very valid point.
As I say, it is a matter of personal opinion, but weighted pull ups definitely aren’t necessary.
And even without heeding Franco’s advice, this could once more come down to the specific training program you’re following.
Key Takeaway Points
- Don’t wait until you can perform X number of pull ups before adding weight.
- Add weight (or not) to fit in with the specific training program you’re following, e.g. you can do 8 strict bodyweight pull ups, your program requires 5×5, so add weight.
- You don’t have to add massive amounts of weight and even 1-2.5lbs is still progression.
- Don’t feel embarrassed about adding tiny increments of weight, treat progression the same way you would with the big barbell lifts.
- The best way to add weights to your pull ups is by using a weighted vest or dip belt.
- Former pro-bodybuilder Frank Columbu claims that he never added weight to pull ups, as few people can manage 20 reps of very strict pull ups.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.