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.
I have discovered that one of the main things that can affect how many pull-ups you can do is your body weight.
Is it harder to do pull-ups if you weigh more? Yes, it is harder to do pull-ups if you weigh more. The reason why pull-ups are harder for people that weigh more is that they have to pull more weight in order to reach the bar. Lowering your body weight by losing fat can make pull-ups easier.
For more information, continue reading below.
I will go through what exactly extra weight means, what makes pull-ups so surprisingly hard, and what you can do to increase the number of pull-ups you can do.
What Makes Pull-Ups so Hard?
Different things can make pull-ups significantly harder than what they should be.
Don’t get me wrong; pull-ups are a tough exercise and should not 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 primary mover during a pull-up, with the rest being used as synergists or stabilizers.
A lot of people would consider the Latissimus Dorsi a very big, if not the biggest muscles in our body, but it is not.
As a matter of fact, the biceps are slightly bigger compared to the Latissimus Dorsi.
Now that you know this, you may already be suspecting I am going with this. Continue reading. I will get to that in a bit.
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.
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 the pull-up too, but this still doesn’t change the fact that pull-ups are going to be very hard on your back muscles.
Why Does Your Body Weight Make 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 weigh, the more difficult you will make an exercise, which is already very challenging.
- Pull-ups limit the use of the biceps (which is used in chin-ups) and put more stress on your back muscles and forearms.
- Extra weight in the form of a higher body fat percentage does not add to the overall strength.
In other words, every single pound you gain will make pull-ups harder. What that means is that you want to gain only weight, which will make you stronger (think gaining muscle as opposed to fat).
Gaining muscle, although making you heavier, will also make you stronger.
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 still able to do muscle-ups.
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 plate or two to your bench press.
The problem with pull-ups is that it is already such a difficult exercise that even gaining one pound may have an impact on your pull-up count. 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 it comes to pull-ups.
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 help your weightloss journey.
But there are also some dangers that you need to be aware of. These apply to everyone doing pull-ups (not just the people that are overweight).
- Do not do pull-ups too often. Give yourself enough day-offs 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. Pull-ups, if done incorrectly, can lead to potential injuries.
- If pull-ups are too difficult, start with an easier variation 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 the rate of your recovery after each workout.
The diet is also a factor that should never be overlooked. Your performance is not only the result of proper training but a proper diet, too.
- Make sure to eat nutrient-dense, high-quality foods.
- If you want to lose weight, stay in a slight caloric deficit (no more than 10%) while consuming enough high-quality protein.
- Lower and eventually eliminate from your diet any sugary drinks and foods, white carbs, vegetable oils, processed foods, sweets.
- You don’t necessarily need to take any supplements. You can achieve your goals with regular food and proper planning.
And last but not least, your emotional condition matters as well. The place you are psychologically and emotionally will help or hinder your progress.
- 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 you.
- Know that you can achieve your goal of doing pull-ups. Believe it. Breathe it. Go to bed and wake up with that idea.
Is It Easier to Do Pull-Ups If You Weigh Less?
We have already established that weighing more will make pull-ups harder.
So weighing less will make them easier since you will be pulling less weight. It is like switching to lighter dumbbells in the gym.
In my experience, I’ve seen an increase in my pull-up numbers by 1 to 3, 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 lose 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; there is no doubt about that. But it is not all about the numbers on the bathroom scale.
The context matters.
Here’s what I mean.
You want to lose the fat while keeping as much of your muscle mass as possible.
You don’t want to starve your body.
Being overweight is dangerous to your health, but so is starving your body.
In other words, you want to lose the weight that is not supporting you in your journey of becoming a stronger version of yourself.
How Many Pull-Ups Should You Do If You Are Overweight?
This is a difficult question without having all the details.
But this doesn’t mean I cannot give you some basic principles of training.
In the beginning, four to five sets of as many pull-ups as you can do is going to be more than plenty.
Make sure you do the pull-ups 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 and try to increase the numbers gradually.
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.
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 speed up your progress.
Dumbbells, in my opinion, are one of the most versatile pieces of 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.
Assisted pull-ups can be done by using a resistance band. Alternatively, you can use a training buddy to help you, or just push off of a rock, or a chair. However, try to gradually reduce the assistance you use.
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.
Another great way to build your strength is by doing isometric training. The best way to do that is by doing 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.