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Something like 6 months ago, I could do 10 pull-ups rather easily. Now, I'm much stronger than I was then but struggle doing just 6 pull-ups. Could this possibly be related to the width of the pull-up bar? The one I was using 6 months ago was probably half the width of the one I am using now. The new bar is probably two inches in diameter. It just seems strange that I've gotten so much stronger but can do fewer pull-ups.

I've gained probably 5 pounds of muscle but at the same time have lost around the same in fat, so I've had no net weight gain. I've been eating well and am lifting more weight in than I was before.

UPDATE: In case anyone's wondering, I got back to school and could do as many or more pull-ups than I could 6 months ago. It seems as though my small hands did indeed detriment my pull-up ability with a thicker bar.

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Are you referring to the diameter of the bar? Also, with your strength gains, have you gained any weight? –  michael Aug 3 '12 at 14:14
    
Yes, the diameter. I've gained probably 5 pounds of muscle but at the same time have lost around the same in fat, so no net weight gain. –  radcliffejh Aug 3 '12 at 14:16
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I'm distinctly bigger (in terms of muscle), I can lift much more weight, I've been eating really well, my arm veins are more often visible, and I've lost a good amount a fat. –  radcliffejh Aug 3 '12 at 14:27
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At the risk of sounding demeaning or dismissing, I have to point out that the fact that you have gotten stronger in one way doesn't necessarily mean that you are stronger in all muscle groups in your body. Maybe the core muscles have been neglected or something like that. Are you doing the pullups the same way (arms as wide as before) ? –  posdef Aug 3 '12 at 14:37
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@DaveLiepmann I can do more for bicep curls, back exercises, chest exercises, and triceps exercises. The new bar is probably two inches in diameter. And going off of what posdef said, it could be my core. I haven't been working it out nearly as much as I have been my arms and back. –  radcliffejh Aug 3 '12 at 15:00
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4 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

SAID principle

In most scenarios, our bodies respond to training stimulus very specifically. This is called specific adaptation to imposed demand, which tells us:

specific skills or training may not easily generalize or transfer to distinct activities.

You might be lifting more in the bicep curl, but curl strength doesn't necessarily translate to pull-up strength. (Of the two, I'd say that pull-ups, being a compound exercise more applicable to real-life tasks, would be the better metric of strength overall. My understanding is that they use more of the back, abs, and shoulder girdle.)

In light of your update, this also means that it's likely that you adapted to pull-ups with a specific grip.

It's not the bar. It's you.

Henry Rollins brings the truth in this domain with his essay, Iron and the Soul:

The Iron never lies to you. You can walk outside and listen to all kinds of talk, get told that you're a god or a total bastard. The Iron will always kick you the real deal. The Iron is the great reference point, the all-knowing perspective giver. Always there like a beacon in the pitch black. I have found the Iron to be my greatest friend. It never freaks out on me, never runs. Friends may come and go. But two hundred pounds is always two hundred pounds.

You might be able to do more tricep cable push-downs than before. You might have look better, feel better, and have better body composition than when you were doing ten pull-ups. But two hundred pounds is two hundred pounds. If you can't do 'em, you can't do 'em. Don't blame the equipment, blame yourself.

But it should be a good blame--a heartening aiming of responsibility at oneself. Because as those who train know, we can tell our bodies to do things, and our bodies will respond. If you do more pull-ups instead of isolation exercises like curls, you'll be able to do more pull-ups. I'd suspect you'd be able to do heavier curls, too.

Mitigating factors

That being said, if it's your grip that's failing, then yes, it could be the thickness of the bar that's affecting your pull-up numbers. Thicker bars are much harder to hold on to, and so provide excellent tests of (or training for) grip strength and endurance. (NB: the OP's update suggests this to be the case.)

Or perhaps when you were cheating more on your pull-ups before. Not extending your arms fully, not getting all the way to the top, and kipping up to the top could all explain a difference of several reps. But I'd hope you're doing dead-hang strict pull-ups both then and now, which would allow you to legitimately track your progress (or regress).

If the goal is strength or ability (rather than appearance), it's important to pick exercises carefully so that they have maximum carryover to other exercises. This is what leads us to squats rather than leg presses, or pull-ups rather than curls, or deadlifts rather than machine exercises for the back. These are highly demanding compound exercises that carry over well to general strength and sport. The question is, what is your goal? If it's more chins, then do more chins. If it's heavier curls, then do more curls. But if it's general strength, then I'd advise the chins over the curls.

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This was very enlightening to me. I haven't been doing as many pull-ups because I figured that if I gained strength in curls that it would translate to more pull-ups. Thank you very much. –  radcliffejh Aug 3 '12 at 15:31
    
@JackRadcliffe Awesome! I hope I'm right. Good luck in training. –  Dave Liepmann Aug 3 '12 at 15:35
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Bar thickness is well known for making it more difficult to do deadlifts, there's no reason why this wouldn't apply to doing pull ups as well. Particularly if your hands are on the smaller size, increasing thickness will have a significant effect.

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+1 I'd like to note that while my answer mostly takes the opposite tack to this one, this is absolutely a strong possibility. I am normally able to tell when the issue is grip rather than strength when I do chins, but it's possible one wouldn't notice. –  Dave Liepmann Aug 3 '12 at 18:39
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I do have small hands compared to most. I suppose I'll find out if this is the case when I go back to school (where the other bar is) in a month. –  radcliffejh Aug 3 '12 at 19:04
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Here's an interesting article on Thick Bar Training - http://tnation.t-nation.com/free_online_forum/sports_body_training_performance_bodybuilding/the_benefits_of_thick_bar_training

It sounds as if you should be able to lift more/pull up more based on more muscles being activated...so, the thickness may not be why you're seeing issues with your pullups. The easy way to tell is to do some pullups on the pullup bar you were originally using...

The fact that you replaced fat with muscle and seem to have reduced overall bodyfat (seeing your veins) may mean that you might have gained overall strength BUT lost muscle endurance...depending on your goals, you may want to decrease the weight being lifted and increase the volume.

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I read that same article, and the grip is worked harder, so they advise lowering weight first. While I agree that over time the OP should be able to do more, initially they will see some reduction in ability. –  Berin Loritsch Aug 3 '12 at 15:17
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Bar diameter can make a significant difference in performance at pull ups, muscle ups, etc. I have a 2" bar at home and I often struggle to get a muscle up done but at my crossfit gym where the bar is 1.25" I can fly up with no problem. The argument for using a wider bar is building greater forearm strength but, at least for me, I'm extremely confident that it lessens what I can do, at least for now.

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People really don't do signature blocks here. –  Sean Duggan Jul 2 at 11:44
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