By Geoff Rand
If I had to pick one exercise that I felt the largest number of people struggle with or outright cannot do, but wish they could, it would be the pull up. Some seem to be forever trapped in ring pull up or jumping pull up purgatory. Getting off the rings or going from jumping to a real, dead hang pull up, is a huge step, and it’s not easy to make that jump, which I think is why many people choose to stick with what they are comfortable with.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can get your pull ups. You just need to train and put in some effort to get there.
Before we get started with some training tips, know that in this article I’m speaking of strict pull ups, not kipping pull ups. If you can’t do at least a few strict pull ups in a row, you shouldn’t be kipping. Develop the strength for strict pull ups before moving to a more dynamic movement. It will pay off in the long run.
And even if you already can do some strict pull ups, you may want to read on. You might discover, like I did, that you’ve been doing them wrong or you may find some of the training tips useful for improving your technique.
Tip #1. Overcome that mental block.
Stop saying “I can’t do pull ups because I’m _____." Your gender, age, body type or whatever excuse you’re telling yourself is BS. Everyone is capable of doing pull ups if they train the right muscles and do them in proper form. So shake that negativity out of your head right now.
Tip #2. Having less weight to pull will make your pull ups easier.
I’m not going to linger on the obvious, but it goes without saying that if you have less resistance to overcome, your pull ups will be easier. So if you needed a reason to convert some of that extra dead weight we all have to muscle, here you go. Enough said on that.
Let’s look at what a pull up should and shouldn’t look like.
From the hang position, the pull up is initiated by pulling and rotating the shoulders downward and squeezing them together. You don’t start the pull from your elbows. Your back and lats should be doing the bulk of the work.
Another key aspect of the pull up or chin up is the up position. You should be striving for chest to bar and your shoulders should be down and away from your ears, not scrunched up towards them. And don’t try to reach and stretch your chin up to the bar. This can mess up your cervical spine and cause long-term issues. Pull yourself up and over the bar. If you don’t have the strength yet to get all the way over the bar with your head in a neutral position, that’s ok. Go as high as you can in proper form.
Tip # 3. Do These Training Exercises to Work on Your Pull Ups
Not a lot of people walk up to the pull up bar and start cranking them out when they are just starting out. You’re going to need to scale them and do some alternate exercises to progress up to strict pull ups. We all know ring rows, so I’m not going to cover them here, except to say that if you’ve been on the rings for a while, make them harder. Hold for a beat at the top, or put your feet up on a box to increase the difficulty. Really concentrate on squeezing those shoulder blades together.
You can also do jumping or band-assisted pull ups. I’m not a huge fan of band assisted pull ups as I think a lot of people let the band sling shot them up to the bar instead of using it to take a little of the load off. And, the band offers the greatest assistance at the bottom of the pull up, but rapidly decreases in the amount of help it offers as you take tension off of it towards the top of the pull. Plus, if you don’t hold everything tight, your feet tend to kick out and you end up in more of a ring row position.
Jumping pull ups are ok, but we don't have a lot of height options with boxes and bar heights, and I think people are often on boxes too high for the height of the bar they are on for jumping pull ups to be really be useful to develop pull up strength.
So while these typical scaling methods are still useful, here are some alternates to incorporate into your workouts.
The Hang and Pack
This is the start position of your pull and is great for getting that muscle memory down while engaging the shoulders and contracting that scapula. You’re not pulling very high, so this is a great first progression off the rings and onto the bar.
Negative Pull Ups
Jump up and hang, or step off from a box to a good chin over bar position and slowly lower yourself to a dead hang in a controlled and deliberate manner. Keep that box off to the side so you can get full range of motion.
While not a direct substitute for a pull up, this exercise will help you get used to engaging your lats. To do it, tie a band to a vertical post and then slide the other end of the band over an empty bar. Then, load the bar up with some light weights until you get used to the movement. Step back to put some tension on the band and do your deadlifts as you normally would. It feels weird at first, but you will quickly figure out how to stabilize the bar by pulling with your lats. Remember this feeling and use it the next time you get on that pull up bar.
Partner Assisted Pull Ups
The best way to get good at pull ups is to do pull ups. Nothing mimics a strict solo pull up like a partner assisted pull up. Start with the person on the bar at a dead hang with their ankles crossed. The partner braces those ankles by interlacing their fingers under the ankles and propping them up on their knee. The person pulling then pulls as they normally would and pushes off against their partner’s knee as needed to complete the pull. If you are assisting, position yourself so your partner stays vertical. If you are on the bar, let your partner know when you are going to drop down.
Vary Your Grip
You can change up your grip while working on your pull ups or even incorporate a grip change in the middle of a WOD. Push your hands out wider, or switch your grip to a chin up grip or even a mixed grip. Change it up to work on new muscle areas or to give tired ones a break.
Pull a box up to the bar, keeping it off to the side so you can get full range of motion, and start at the top, chin over the bar. Lower yourself halfway or to whatever point you are able to lower and pull yourself back up over the bar. Do 3-5 reps.
Then, from the dead hang, pull yourself up as high up as you can. Keep yourself under control while lowering down to the hang. Don't drop like a sack of potatoes. Repeat for max reps.
You'll find that over time you'll be able to go lower from the top and higher from the bottom and do more reps.
Break Them Up
Start the WOD on the bar and do what you can and switch to a different grip or go to rings when you get too fatigued to continue. Each rep you can do on the bar is going to help get you stronger and better at doing strict pull ups.
So keep these exercises handy and resolve to put in the time and do them. Come in a few minutes early, warm up with some shoulder dislocates, jumping jacks, or anything to loosen up those shoulders and take 5 or 10 minutes and do some of these. Track what you have done and compare it to the next time. Try to get some more reps in from what you did last time. Just make sure you are not sacrificing form for number of reps. Do them right.
Talk to one of our coaches. They can help tailor a program to get you to progress to unassisted pull ups. Some of the biggest smiles I've seen in the Box were on the faces of people getting their first pull up. This could be your year to finally get your pull ups. So get in the Box and do some work. You can do this.