It’s more common than ever to see people with exercise specific goals. While I am not the biggest fan of exercise based goals, what it has done is opened up the world of fitness to an entirely new demographic – the disempowered.
Yes, you read that right, DISEMPOWERED.
Pull ups have become one of the most common goals out there for fitness enthusiasts and it can be for a number of reasons. First off, it’s a bodyweight exercise which makes it easy to do regardless of owning a posh gym membership. This means (for the most part) you just need to have yourself available and you can hammer out some pull-ups before a day’s work.
Secondly, it’s an upper body exercise which recruits all of the big players and aesthetic muscles most people are looking to build upon. Doubling down aesthetic development with badassery is a great combination to get someone involved with training.
Finally, it’s a move most of us were disempowered to do at a younger age.
**ELEMENTARY SCHOOL FLASHBACK**
Competition has always been a driving force in my life. Whether it was athletic events or math problems in class, I always wanted to WIN. Outside of field day -which was our Olympics – the Presidential Physical Fitness Test was my NFL Combine. You know – Chalkboard eraser shuttle run, push-ups, sit ups, mile run, and the last one can not be forgotten.
One of the keystone moves of this was the PULL-UP TEST!
Only one issue: for boys it was as many pull ups as possible and for girls (or boys that couldn’t) it was the “flexed arm hang”. Notice how I didn’t say girls had the outright option to hammer out pull-ups and beat the boys. Most girls were told they couldn’t do a pull-up and believed it.
A childhood of discouragement of what you “can” and “can’t” do shapes your brain to attempt certain feats or file them in the folder of not possible. We need to do a better job of getting people to achieve great things by allowing them the opportunity to succeed. Girls are STRONG!
If you want to do Pull-ups, there are a few things you need to take into consideration when developing the necessary strength and resilience. It’s not as easy as hammering out a bunch of Lat Pull Downs and voila – Pull-Up excellence! There are some checkboxes you need to hit to ensure you are making the necessary steps to a strong body and a smoothly functioning shoulder girdle. Let’s break it down.
Don’t get it confused, in order to complete a Pull-Up you must have the pre-requisite strength to perform the move. This isn’t a quick fix from no reps to vertical pull proficiency. You MUST build the strength necessary to pull in order to get in a position to complete a Pull-Up. There are a list of accessory areas that need to be buttoned up as well but right now we are discussing straight forward strength.
Can you extend the humerus with force? Humeral extension is the name of the game when pulling either horizontally or vertically. Developing strength in muscle groups such as Latissimus Dorsi, Teres Major, Rhomboids, and Rear Deltoid all assist in pulling motions from the posterior side of the torso. Once we translate into the arm, we see muscles such as Biceps Brachii, Brachioradialis, and Digit Flexor muscles fatigue out because once the weight gets too high – the smallest muscles give out.
Wait, why the hell do I care about my digit muscles or in basic terms – why do my fingies matter?
The ability to do Pull-Ups needs to be upgraded with strength to pull the arm back but when you look at the basic limiting factor of Pull-Ups, you can only do as many as you can hold on to the bar for! So getting abundantly strong in the grip and pull muscles above will make all of the difference!
Building on vertical pulling is the quick option to build strength in the Pull-Up. Can you pull your arms down through space. This move fixes your position where you don’t have to engage the abs as much and can focus on simply limb movement. Pull directly down to the collar bone and allow for the bar to travel all the way up.
Stay with higher volume in the movement from 10-20 repetitions to easy stress at the shoulder complex
SEATED CABLE ROW
Horizontal rows are going to in fact assist when it comes to the Pull-Up. Why? Well, muscles just simply pull. Muscles are not multi-directional but have fibers that run in only on direction. Building strength in the Lats will build strength in the Lats. Do more strength based movements to get more from your back.
Have a 2:1 ratio in your Horizontal Pulls to Vertical Pulls for more appropriate shoulder positioning. Keep the rep ranges for this move between 6-15 repetitions.
As mentioned previously, grip strength is going to make all the difference in the Pull-Up. If you don’t want to practice with Dead Hangs, you can do Farmers Carry’s and get the hands, forearms, and upper arms in a stronger position. This is a slow and controlled walk where the focus is maintaining a tall posture and holding onto the weight with CONTROL.
The goal is to complete 30 seconds of the carry with 100% of bodyweight.
DYNAMIC SCAPULAR STABILITY
You can’t have the conversation about strength and ability with regards to the shoulder complex without highlighting the importance of scapular stability. Not just stability, but dynamic stability. While you can certainly look up the fancy definition for that term – simply put – it’s the ability to maintain control through a moving pattern. As you may know, the scapula is a critical component to proper shoulder movement because it houses the Glenoid Fossa, the concave home for the head of the humerus.
Too often we see people collapse at the bottom position of the pull up because they simply lack the strength to control their shoulder blades. The necessary stability needed allows a controlled orientation of downward rotation as you pull yourself up and steady upward rotation as you descend to the extended arm position.
The healthy movement of the arm is reliant on the fundamental duties of the scapula. Because without a structurally controlled piece, the arm would burden the tendons and ligaments surrounding the shoulder capsule to pick up the slack. This resulting in the cringeworthy view of someone going fully lax at the bottom position of the pull up in an uncomfortably high shrug position.
HOW WE CAN FIX THIS
SUSPENSION TRAINER ASSISTED ROW
The Suspension Trainer Assisted Row gives you access to the horizontal pull while using full body irradiation. As you can see Tim in the video driving his heels into the ground to create tension from the backside of his heels all the way to his finger tips. This type of tension is what we are looking to see in the Pull-Up as well.
Stay with higher volume ranges from 10-20 repetitions as strength and ability to sustain brace are key.
BANDED STRAIGHT ARM PULLDOWNS
Banded Straight Arm Pulldowns are a strong exercise to get twitchy. We want to provide the ability for the limbs to move explosively while maintaining a strong spinal position. The goal is not to use the heaviest band on the planet but to focus on speed and force production. High anchor the band pulling to a low position for exercise execution.
Stay in a lower repetition range of 6-12 repetitions as this is a move based on proficiency and speed.
The top priority for almost every exercise we look to do should be pillar stability. Pillar stability is the postural strength between the shoulders, hips, and core that allows us to protect our spine. Lets be real, the spine’s job is to protect the spinal cord and how we move (whether carefully or recklessly) will make a huge difference in our long term health of that region.
Poor positioning of the torso can not only be a limiting factor when we look at spinal protection but also muscular recruitment. Adjusting postures means we see differences in muscular length and positioning relative to the move. For example, Latissimus dorsi which is our primary extender of the arm originates between T7 and L5 with T12 being the center point of this origin. Hyperflexion of the back will put further strain on the muscle while extension brings the attachment point at the bicipital groove of the humerus closer in proximity.
This is when we start to see people pulling themselves as horizontally as possible because the vertical pull is simply outside of their movement capacity or outside of their strength capacity. The natural inclination of the body is to pull into a more horizontal position alleviating the required emphasis on some of the rear deltoid musculature and assisters to the lat’s (teres major, rhomboids, teres minor).
HOW WE CAN FIX THIS
Hardstyle Planks take planking to a whole new level. This uptick in recruitment to different parts of the body from toes to fingertips allows the body to get tight and get tense quickly. Spinal position is such an important part of the Pull-Up whether we know it or not so we want to practice this as much as we can.
Top end range of the Hardstyle Plank should be 30 seconds. If you can easily complete 30 seconds you may not be driving the elbows back towards the midsection or toes into the ground as much as you need to. This is an effort based move! That means 30 seconds of ALL OUT EFFORT.
OVERHEAD RESISTED LEG RAISE OR HOLLOW HOLD
This move mimics what we see in the pull up where we need to brace the core while having a vertical stimulus above us. This type of core training isn’t a bunch of bending but static positioning for long term core stability. The limbs extended from the midline position upregulate the level of intensity we feel in our midsection.
This should be treated similar to the Hardstyle Plank where you want to top off at 30 seconds. The band shouldn’t be trying to set a PR but simply assist in forcing you to stabilize the shoulder complex while extending the legs.
Grip position becomes one of the most unnecessarily disputed pieces of the pull up. And honestly, not for any good reason. Hand position is one of the least important pieces of the movement for me with regards to pronated or supinated grip. Hand WIDTH position matters, a lot. Width should be just about the shoulders up to 1.5x biacromial width – or for a more simple adjustment – about thumbs width from the outside of the shoulder on the bar.
Grip position shouldn’t be a point of contention but a point of preference. I would recommend going with a more traditional Chin Up grip from the supinated position. The goal of a pull up is to pull up, right? That means using the muscles available to us to get up to the bar. The supinated hand grip opens up access to Biceps Brachii in the anterior side of the arm which normally becomes lax in the pronated hand position. While its neighbor Brachialis (the deep muscle to Biceps Brachii) is still active, there is no prize in using less muscles to accomplish an almost similar task.
WELL MUSCLE ACTIVATION….
Nope, our goal is to be strong, not strong in self limiting tasks.
If you want to do the traditional hands pronated pull up, go for it. If you want to focus on the Chin Up so you can use more muscles, do it. People don’t get points in completing the bench press with their feet elevated off of the ground. Why? Well, because you are choosing to adjust the movement vs. using all sources of energy available (not including joint specific modifications).
Become stronger everywhere, not just some places.
SUBSET – THE KNEE DRIVE
What is the first thing you see someone struggling for a Pull Up do to get that extra drive? The knees start popping up to the front of the body. This can be considered for three reasons:
- Lack of Pillar Stability
- Muscular Compensation
Lets begin at the top. The quick knee drive up for momentum could be the one piece getting you through that dead spot in your pull up. The dead spot is where the arm reaches its highest torque angle at the 90° point creating the most difficult portion of the movement from a strength standpoint. The knee drive up could be like a spotter nudging the bar up to allow you the ability to plow through the sticking point. That’s one way to look at it and a very reasonable one at that.
Second, you don’t have the necessary core strength to truly stabilize throughout that position. Most people go from doing assisted pull ups on the machine straight to attempting their first sets on the bar. This is a major miss in judgement because whether we know it or not, the core is so heavily involved in the Pull Up.
Beginning the Pull-Up by jumping to the bar is one of the most common flaws I see out there. Like many things we see in the gym, it’s just a matter of not taking a critical look at how we truly want to set up. You would never jump under a barbell for bench press and just jam the bar up without any setup. In the same note, you would never set up your squat by getting 3-4 inches below the bar and aggressively jam your upper back against the bar to initiate the liftoff.
So why is that appropriate with the Pull-Up?
Its inappropriate to discount the exercise by simply jumping to the bar because it is too high to reach. Here are a couple ways to look deeper at it and critically think about it:
GRIP WIDTH – Where we place our hands is important to the implications of a specific movement. We understand and apply this to many other exercises so it makes sense we prioritize it when looking through the lens of the Pull-Up as well. Hand position dictates humeral position through the pull altering muscular demands.
ABRUPT SHOULDER IMPACT – Jumping to the bar and catching yourself is going to set in a certain level of shock to the joint. Is that a bad thing in the grand scheme of things – not necessarily based on your goals. Is it a good idea when starting to complete a set of Pull-Ups – yes. If you can’t reach the Pull-Up bar as most people shouldn’t be able to just grab a box to set up.
HALF REP HARRY
The Pull-Up is the pinnacle of vertical pulling patterns. The mesh of mechanics, muscular recruitment, joint capabilities, and full body demand make it one of the rare exercises that transcend many categories. As indicated in any exercise, quality of movement is more important than quantity of repetitions. Especially with the Pull-Up, lets face it, the challenge of the move is based on how much you work on it and how much weight you carry around.
Getting caught into the world of being a “Half-Rep Harry” is simply an ego response to the exercise. Wanted to still be able to hit 10 reps without really hitting 10 solid reps.
What gets overlooked is the rigidity it creates with overhead mechanics. Pulling to a 90 degree angle at the arms forcing the Latissimus Dorsi and Teres Major to collaboratively dominate the pattern. A one sided approach that creates tight shoulders in line with all of the mass building techniques we already apply to ruining our shoulder mobility. This oversight isn’t just a muscle mistake but a scapulohumeral nightmare.
Tension should remain in the entire
WHAT TO TAKE AWAY
There are more pieces to focus on when building a resilient Pull-Up but anyone is capable of performing this exercise. Start reshaping the mindset for yourself and clients to “I can do this” from “this just isn’t for me”. Get on the fast track to your Pull-Up by focusing on the following:
- BUILD PRE-REQUISITE STRENGTH
- UPGRADE YOUR ABILITY TO DYNAMICALLY STABILIZE THE SCAPULAS
- REINFORCE PILLAR STABILITY
- THE KNEE DRIVE – DON’T LET MOMENTUM AND HIP FLEXORS DOMINATE YOUR PULL UP
- JUMPING TO THE BAR – FIND A BOX OR BENCH TO STEP UP AND SET UP PROPERLY FOR HAND POSITION AND JOINT HEALTH
- HALF REP HARRY – FULL RANGE OF MOTION IS PINNACLE TO THE TASK AND PROPER JOINT MECHANICS
Taking these steps will get you to the point of the ultimate exercise metaphor of the Pull-Up. Picking yourself up when the world is trying to pull you down!