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Building Better Pull-ups without Pull-ups

ultimate sandbag

I like to think that the purpose that I have in dealing with a serious spinal disease is so that I can better help and understand others. I’ll be honest, we all as fitness coaches sometimes lose perspective on what our clients are going through in trying to improve their own fitness. They probably don’t live and breathe training like many of us do, but they want to achieve great success and do things they maybe didn’t think possible. A great examples how we tend to throw people the goal of improving their pull-ups and we really get so focused on trying to achieve pull-ups we forget about the person and the movement.

What do I mean?

For one, I am super happy people value pull-ups again (you use to be able to dust them off in almost any gym) and I have to give a lot of credit to Crossfit to making people feel like pull-ups are in important goal. Upper body pulling is one of our 7 foundational human movements and we need to train it with great purpose and intent like we do squats, deadlifts, etc.

We know that in upper body pulling we can pull horizontally (like a bent row) or vertically (as in pull-ups). While we have had a lot of discussions on using DVRT to improve horizontal pulling, we haven’t done as much to when it comes to building vertical pulling.

Like most things, we tend to overcomplicate pull-ups in fitness. We worry about things like, should we depress the shoulders before we pull ourselves up? There is a lot of minutia to get caught up with in pull-ups but the key is if we teach the proper intent of the overall movement, things like the scapular movement will take care of themselves.

Now, this is where I think I have a bit of a unique perspective. First, I am a taller guy (6’3, 6’4 on a good day;) and I have weight to my body (around 230-235). I’ve always been this way, so pull-ups have been tough for me. However, I got to the point where performing double digit sets of pull-ups wasn’t too big of a deal. That is until life started to hit me.

As my spinal disease started to progress in a more impactful way about 10 years ago, I started to lose my right arm from nerve compression. Following that with my first neck fusion caused a lot of issues in my right arm and re-educating my body. It would prove to be a blessing because I couldn’t just live off my years of training, I started to relate better to what clients were going through.

I like to think one reason we have people that have been reading our blogs for over a decade is because we are pretty honest with you. If you are a coach like me, you probably rarely had someone come to you because they were too strong, too lean, moving too well. More than likely you had people that didn’t feel well, didn’t move well, had weight issues that made exercises like pull-ups daunting. My quest and what I though made a good coach was could I help THESE people. Those that were really coming to me for help to impact positively their lives.

So, what is it do we need to teach people about pull-ups to make them more successful?

Maybe Don’t Do Pull-ups

Listen, I know the S.A.I.D. principle (specific adaptations to imposed demands) as much as anyone else. So, it would make sense that  doing pull-ups would help people get better at pull-ups. However, if you don’t have the strength and body control to do so well (which few do) we create compensatory patterns in pull-ups. I can’t tell you HOW many fitness coaches I run into that tell me how many pull-ups they can do, but when it comes to doing them well, I have to drop the number by almost 1/3rd!

Just like any movement, there are levels. In the past I would have told you that if you wanted to get good at pull-ups you can’t do exercises like pulldowns. Well, that is right and wrong advice at the same time. I don’t mind, but don’t love the classic pulldown to help people build up the strength to do pull-ups. A BIG reason is that you are so supported and can leverage your body in such ways we don’t build the patterns on strength to build upon our pull-ups.

Yes, the patterning of pulling something to you and you pulling yourself up is a bit different, but we also need to teach more than that. We need people to know how to control their core, use their shoulders correctly, and pull with the lats, core, and lower body, not the pecs and upper traps!

That is why I much more prefer drills like those below that put us in positions and environments where we can learn these foundational principles.

This doesn’t begin to exhaust not just the variations, but progressions we can use to teach people the concepts of pull-ups without putting them in environments that don’t set them up for success! A good coach knows how to use other tools (meaning exercises) to teach people the qualities of a movement that may be too difficult in JUST doing the movement. One of my favorites that I use are “chair pull-ups” you will see in the suspension unit pull-ups but you will also see how we build better connection of the WHOLE body so you don’t get more pull-ups, you get better ones!

Find out how we help people build better movements like pull-ups through our DVRT education. We cover these concepts and much more in our L.I.F.T. certification. Save 30% HERE and save that big on our Ultimate Sandbags too with code “fall” for only a few more days!