I have done thousands of pull-ups throughout the years. They are one of my favorite exercises.
A lot of people do struggle with them, and there can be many different reasons for that. And I have discovered that one of the main things that can affect how many pull-ups you can do is your body weight.
I will be sharing an interesting personal story about that later in this article, but for now, let’s answer the question.
Is it harder to do pull-ups if you weigh more? The more you weigh the harder the pull-ups will be. During a pull up you are lifting your own body weight; as a result, you can expect that the heavier you are, the harder the pull up will be. Losing the extra weight can make pull ups easier.
I will go through what exactly does extra weight mean, what makes pull-ups so surprisingly hard, and what you can do to increase the number of pull-ups you can do.
I will also provide further readings for the more curious.
So if you want to find out more, read on.
Table of Contents:
What Makes Pull-Ups so Hard?
Many different aspects can ultimately make pull-ups feel harder than they usually should be.
Don’t get me wrong, pull-ups are tough exercise and are not to be underestimated. However, I feel you will agree with me that we should try to give ourselves every advantage possible.
And the easiest way to do that is by finding out what makes them hard.
Which Muscles Are Engaged During a Pull-Up?
The main muscles used during a pull-up are:
- Latissimus Dorsi;
- Brachialis and Brachioradialis;
- Teres Major and Teres Minor;
- Posterior Deltoids;
- Lower and Middle Trapezius;
- Pectoralis Minor;
- Levator Scapulae; and
The Latissimus dorsi is the main mover during a pull-up, with the rest being used as synergists or stabilizers. (1)
A lot of people would consider the Latissimus Dorsi a very big, if not the biggest muscles in our body, right?
Well, not exactly.
As a matter of fact, the Latissimus Dorsi is not the biggest muscle in our body. In fact, your biceps are slightly bigger compared to the Latissimus Dorsi. (2)
Now that you know this, you may already be suspecting where we will be going with this.
How Much of Your Body Weight Do You Lift During a Pull-Up?
During a pull-up, you will be lifting close to 95% of your total body weight. (3)
Since we are talking about such a high percentage that needs to be lifted by a somewhat smaller muscle, you can see how every bit of extra weight will add up to the overall intensity of the pull-ups.
Of course, other muscles are involved during a pull-up, but this still doesn’t change the fact that pull-ups are going to be super hard for many people (even if they don’t weigh a lot).
Why Your Body Weight Makes Pull-Ups Harder?
Now that we have covered the important details, we can clearly see what makes pull-ups so hard when you weight more:
- The more you weight, the more strain you will place on an already very hard exercise;
- Pull-ups limit the use of the biceps (used in chin-ups), thus putting all the stress on an arguably smaller muscle.
- Extra weight in the form of a higher body fat percentage does not add to the overall strength.
In other words, every single pound or oz, you gain will add up and make pull-ups harder. I will get to that again in the article, but this is why you need to optimize your weight gain. What that means is that you want to gain weight, which will be making you stronger (think gaining muscle as opposed to fat or other types of weight).
Gaining muscle, although making you heavier, will also make you stronger. This will negate the effect of the weight on your pull-ups to a certain degree.
Can Overweight People Do Pull-Ups?
Overweight people can do pull-ups. Of course, weighing more will make pull-ups more challenging but certainly not impossible in the long run.
I have even seen people that are overweight and can do a muscle-up!
Any extra weight you have packed on means that you will need to pull more weight in order to do a proper pull-up. Think of it as adding an extra disc or two to your bench press.
The problem with pull-ups is that it is already such a difficult exercise that really even gaining one pound more may result in lower pull-up reps. I know because I have experienced it myself more than once.
This is why one of the two main ways to increase your pull-up reps is to drop your body fat percentage.
Are There Any Dangers of Doing Pull-Ups If You Are Overweight?
Throughout the years, I’ve been training with a lot of people. And there are some concerns that overweight people have when doing pull-ups. And rightfully so.
First, no matter how you are training, you need to be mindful of what you are doing.
If you are overweight and you want to start doing pull-ups, there is nothing bad about this. In fact, this can support your weight loss.
But there are also some dangers that you need to be aware of. These are not very different than what everybody doing pull-ups need to know. They are the same dangers anyone needs to be careful about.
- Do not do pull-ups, calisthenics, and physical training too often. Give yourself enough break between each specific muscle group’s training session. This will help you avoid overtraining.
- Avoid excessive swings and kips while doing pull-ups. Any kind of cheating during the exercise is not recommended. These, if done incorrectly, can lead to potential injuries.
- If pull-ups are too difficult, start with easier variations of the pull-up and add supplementary exercises, which will help you build more strength in the right areas of your body.
- Make sure to have plenty of rest, sleep, and avoid stressful situations to the best of your ability. Each one of these matters when it comes to recovery after working out.
The diet side is also a factor that should never be overlooked. Your performance is not only the result of your training but a proper diet as well.
- Make sure to eat nutrient-dense quality foods.
- If you want to lose weight, stay in a slight caloric deficit while consuming enough protein from a good source.
- Avoid, lower, and eventually eliminate from your diet any sugary drinks and foods, white carbs, vegetable oils, processed foods.
- You don’t necessarily need to take any supplements. You can achieve your goals with regular food and proper planning. For more info about protein powders and calisthenics, you can check my article here.
And last but not least, your emotional condition matters as well. The place you are psychologically and emotionally will help or hinder your progress too.
- Understand that this is a long journey. Even Rome was not built in a day. You will not see results immediately, but every little step you do gets you closer. Nothing stands between you and the results you desire except yourself.
- Know that you can do, and you will do pull-ups — plenty of them. Not today, perhaps, but soon enough.
Is It Easier to Do a Pull up If You Weigh Less?
If you have been training for a while and been able to do pull-ups, losing the extra weight can effectively increase the number of pull-ups.
Losing weight means that you will be lifting less weight during the pull-up. It is like switching to lighter dumbbells in the gym.
In my experience, I’ve seen an increase in pull-up numbers by 1 to 3, even after dropping as little as 2 lbs of weight.
However, this does not mean you have to lose weight by any means necessary. Not all kinds of weight loss are going to be beneficial.
Let’s take a look at two examples:
- If you lower your body fat percentage but keep your muscles mass you will end up weighing less while still having comparable strength levels as before thanks to keeping the muscles intact;
- But say you decide to go on a starvation diet. As a result, you drop some fat but also lose some of your muscle mass too. This is not just unhealthy but also will adversely impact your strength levels.
Weight loss is definitely going to help. But there are important little caveats here as it is not just about the numbers on the bathroom scale.
The context matters. Here’s what I mean.
What you want is to lose the excess fat you may have gained last winter. But you want to keep your muscles. You don’t want to starve your body. Being overweight is dangerous to your health, but so is starving your body.
So the low down is that you don’t want just any weight loss. You want to lose the weight that is not supporting you in your journey of becoming a better version of yourself.
How Many Pull-Ups You Should Do If You Weigh More?
This is a difficult question without having all the details.
But this doesn’t mean I cannot give you some calisthenics and training principles.
We all know that the standard, and what many people do, is the 4 x 8. Or four sets of eight reps per exercise. This is like the golden means of training.
I understand that eight reps may seem like a lot. So you don’t have to try and do as many this is too much anyways, at least for now.
Four to five sets are more than plenty.
About the reps do as many as you can while making sure you can do them with perfect form. You should never compromise with your form. If this means you can do only one pull-up. Then do one pull-up.
Try to increase the numbers gradually, but never compromise with the form.
Have at least 90 to 120 seconds of rest time between each set, and make sure to stay hydrated. Don’t train more than three times a week doing pull-ups like this.
What to Do If I Cannot Do a Single Pull-Up?
There is a high chance that you may struggle a lot with the pull-ups.
If that is the case, don’t worry. Even people that are not overweight struggle with pull-ups and often cannot do even a single one.
What you need to do in this case is just train smarter.
Easier Pull-Up Variations and Supplementary Exercises
Start with easier variations of the pull-ups. This can be (starting from the hardest to the easiest):
- Neutral grip pull-ups
- Assisted pull-ups;
- Inverted body rows;
- Door frame rows;
- Dumbbell (or barbell) rows;
Even if you can pump out a few pull-ups, adding some of these to your training routine can further supplement and potentially improve your progress.
Dumbbells, in my opinion, are one of the most versatile training equipment, and I have talked about them a lot. If you want to train from the comfort of your home, they are must-have training equipment.
Assisted pull-ups can be done by using a resistance band, having a training buddy help you, or using a rock or chair to push off of with your legs. However, try to gradually reduce the assistance you use in order to make sure you progress.
Chin-ups, although looking very similar, can be noticeably easier for many and can be used as an excellent method to move on to pull-ups. To find out more check out my article on why chin-ups are easier than pull-ups.
You can also check my article about whether or not chin-ups are safer than pull-ups.
Another great way to build your strength is by doing isometric training. This is basically you staying in one position while resisting a certain weight.
These are called negative pull-ups. What you do is jump on the pull-up bar and hold yourself at the top position for as long as you can while slowly lowering yourself down as you get more tired.
I have done probably thousands of negative pull-ups and still use them today to supplement my training. If you are struggling with negative pull-ups, can’t do them, or want to learn how to start doing them, check out my article where I discuss why you can’t do negative pull-ups.
How to Make Pull-Ups Easier If You Weight More?
Generally speaking, there are two main ways you can make pull-ups easier, read do more pull-ups.
- Become stronger;
- Make pull-ups easier (assisted pull-ups or easier variations); and
- Lose any extra weight.
And this is the reason why I have explored with you all three sides of the spectrum. Of course, all of these are very broad topics about which whole textbooks have been written.
There are a number of different studies and techniques that can help you achieve each goal.
But here I’ve given you the basics. The knowledge that will get you on your journey. The knowledge that you need and can learn without having to study hundreds of books or courses.
This is how many people, including myself, have started training. Of course, you need to be curious and continue to expand on your knowledge.
If you have any concerns, questions, or previous injuries and ailments, make sure to always consult with your medical practitioner and a certified trainer.