I have found the pull up to be a very intriguing exercise constantly on the minds of the people who come through the door of my gym. Generally speaking, as new trainees most cannot do them and if they can maybe they only muster up 1-2 full repetitions with an attempt to get their chin past the bar. Most of the time I see trainees resembling a flaying fish or furious pedaling air in a bicycle competition while trying a pull up.
Even with the initial limited success, I would say that most of the clients I train actually want to do them and get better at them. When I construct new programs the pull up is probably the most requested exercise variation to add. I believe this to be because most standardize testing from grade school to the law enforcement training has some sort of strength standard based on the pull up.
At the local middle school the Gold Standard for the pull up test are as follows:
Boys Pull Ups: Girls Flexed Arm Hang:
6th Grade; 2 reps 6th Grade; 17 sec.
7th Grade; 3 reps 7th Grade; 18 sec.
8th Grade; 5 reps 8th Grade; 19 sec.
Ye s I am a little disappointed to see the girls only have to do a flexed arm hang so I train the girls to work their way to pull ups figuring a few reps are better than a flexed arm hang any day and the testing allows pull ups to trump the flex arm hang.
For the Military standards for male recruits in boot camp the minimum requirement for pull ups is three repetitions and doing 20 reps earns you a top score during the testing phase.
Whether it is the need to get better for upcoming physical tests or an understandable measure of success to go from one repetition to five, the desire for trainees to perform pull ups is there and I will encourage this type of drive and add a pull up exercise variation within people’s programs. For many pull ups do not come easily at first and there needs to be a few stepping stones to get to the real deal. In this article I will go into the remedial exercises to get you to doing those perfect pull ups.
Activate the Correct Muscles
One of the most common movement mistakes I see with people who are not successful at pull ups is not activating the proper muscle groups to make their movement more successful. I tend to initially see a lot of hunching at the shoulders and pulling with the arms. The focus on the vertical pulling movement required for the pull up requires emphasis on the posterior muscles of the upper body.
When you elevate your shoulders you are basically turning off the functionality of the back muscles requiring you to rely on your arm to take over the movement. The back muscles are much more equipped to perform the movement successfully we just have to get them activated.
One of my favorite ways to activate the back also turns out to be the simplest; the band pull apart. Simply get a small elastic band and grab with the straightest wrists possible. With your shoulders down and elbows locked out, pull the band apart, towards the chest, by thinking about pulling your shoulder blades together. Make sure to control the band back to the start and reset the body position, if needed, and perform the next rep.
You can also simulate a pull up in the vertical plane with the band by starting overhead with the band and pulling to the chest.
Inverted Row Variations
This is one of my favorite movements towards pull up success because you can involve the correct pull up muscles and move your body weight through the range of motion while at an angle that can be manipulated to make the movement harder or easier.
Now the big difference in that inverted rows are more of a horizontal pull rather than a vertical pull, like the pull up, however the back muscles are generally much stronger pulling horizontally so you can easily perform more repetitions to train the muscles to get stronger for your pull ups.
The bar variation is a good place to start and the nice thing is that it is fully adjustable according to your current pulling condition. If you are beginning this movement, have the bar a bit higher and as you get stronger move it down.
As with any horizontal pulling movement it is important to have an even grip, keep the shoulders down and moderately retracted with your head neutral with the rest of the spine. Proper execution comes from moving the body as one unit, focusing on the muscles of the back (Lats, Rhomboids etc) to initiate and move the body during the pull. You want to feel the shoulder blades moving freely and gliding along your rib cage until they meet together in the middle of your back. Control the eccentric (downward motion) and always try to achieve full range of motion (ROM).
Grip is a huge factor when it comes to pull up success. Make sure to squeeze the bar tight when you are working through the ROM and you can slightly relax the grip momentarily in between repetitions.
Another variation of the inverted body row involves using a suspension type system like the Blast Straps or TRX. These suspension systems act much like the bar by making the movement harder or easier depending on the body position however they also train any imbalances between sides because of the independent handles. The technique is the same as the bar just pay close attention not to pull too far and have to manipulate your body to increase your ROM. This can primarily be seen in the flexing of the wrists or dropping of the shoulders forward to get further.
Suspension trainers also offer the added benefit of performing the motion with a single arm which can train the strength and stability difference between the two sides of the body. The trick when doing the single side is to keep proper mechanics of the inverted row in mind. Shoulders down, body aligned properly and as you pull your body weight up the strap remains stable; you do not want to use any momentum to propel you upward.
For any of these inverted row variations, as you become better, you can add weight to your body to make the movement harder. A weighted vest or chains that can be wrapped around the body work best.
Band Assisted Pull Ups
The other exercises mentioned above will all help to get your muscles stronger for pull up success however you have to train in the vertical plane to truly get the pull up down. Even if you can’t do a body weight pull up there is a way to train this movement with assistance.
Using bands for assistance is a good way to train the vertical motion of the pull up and to progress towards your body weight goal. Bands come in various sizes each having their own assistance/resistance level; the bigger the band the more help you will get.
Set up the band in the middle of the pull up bar ideally splitting your body right down the middle. Depending on the tension of the band and how much assistance you need you can place the band on your foot (more assistance) or on your knee. If you train solo it will be easier to set up the band around your knee especially if it is a larger one.
Keep your form strict and work up to a desired number of repetitions and gradually work your way to using small bands that offer less assistance until you are performing body weight pull ups.
Pull ups are achievable with the right progressive programming and dedication to the movement. Now go get them done.
For further explanation of the progressions above check out the video below: