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It’s rare when it happens but it’s always something of a spectacle to see someone heaving around a quarter-ton of clanking iron on barbell rows. Big weight, bro. More common but in the same realm of performance are the stack-pulling cable rowers grunting through a set to failure, wrist straps and all. Good set. These feats of strength are impressive, to be sure, but strangely, you will find fewer of these alphas strutting their stuff at the pull-up bar.
Pull-ups are an equalizer – no matter how many plates you can row, you’re still likely to encounter some difficulty when pulling your bodyweight through space. Arnold certainly found that to be the case. But instead of being humbled by the pull-up, he attacked it with vigor and built the thick, here-to-there lats that made his waist appear smaller than it already was.
How did he do this, you ask?
Arnold was a fan of failure. And with pull-ups – for most of us – failure tends to come quickly. But that doesn’t mean that you have to sacrifice on volume.
Instead of locking himself into a cut-and-dry scheme of 4-5 sets of 8-10 reps, Arnold would instead pick a number – say 50 or 60 – and complete as many sets to failure as it took to reach that number. Usually, this meant starting off with a set of 10-12 quality reps, with the numbers quickly falling off after that. By his last set, it wasn’t uncommon to be trembling through 4-5 reps. But that didn’t matter. What did matter was that he put in the work it took to get his lats growing.
Anecdotally, lifters who commit to doing pull-ups regularly report quick gains in strength and stamina on the bar – more sets with more quality reps.
So take your own Arnold-like approach to pull-ups and watch your lats expand in no time flat. And it won’t hurt on your seismic sets of rows, either.
–Arnold would perform as many sets to failure as necessary to reach 50 reps. He would rest 1-2 minutes between sets.
For more on Arnold’s unique approach to training, pick up the October issue of M&F, on newsstands now.
Arnold famously suggested this in his prime and, with the way his back looked, no one was going to argue with him. And while it’s true that his wide-grip pull-ups – which he did behind-the-neck as well – targeted the upper, outer lats, you can further activate the lats with a slightly narrower grip because it increases the range of motion on those muscles.