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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.

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Overhead pressing is a polarizing movement. You have some that will try to perform this movement no matter how well their upper body moves and others are terrified of the impact of such a movement can have on the shoulders. Both are right but for different reasons. ➡️ When I look at overhead pressing I look at a more advanced #plank where our body has to resist extension of the trunk as well as the health of the movement of the upper body. If we can’t get our arms over our head safely, I consider that a health, not a fitness issue. However, is it about #stretching the shoulders more or doing way more thoracic #mobilitytraining ? Those things COULD be helpful, but as I show in these 3 #DVRT movements there could be a MUCH more efficient and effective way. ➡️ Having SEVERE cervical and lumbar issues I find that I can transform my #shouldermobility and strength by just making better connections in my body. Knowing that #corestrength and lower body stability plays a BIG role in our shoulders allows me to create smarter exercises that make these connections to instantly transform how my shoulders look and perform. ➡️ Using the @perform_better band pulldown helps stabilize my core with the integration of the lats. Being half kneeling forces me to engage my core from the bottom up with my feet creating stability in the ground. The #kettlebell allows me to create tension with my hands to help connect to my shoulder and develop a much stronger press with great range of motion. ➡️ I can work on more loading but still apply #stabilitytraining concepts by going to our sprinter stance which forces me to use my feet more. Incorporating the Perform Better lever bell allows me to create a dynamic plank which creates a stable foundation for me to press more weight. ➡️ The fall out with Ultimate #Sandbag and Infinity Trainer helps show whether if I really have the shoulder #mobility or true restriction of the joint. Integrating the feet, #glutes , core, and grip (by pulling apart the Ultimate Sandbag) you can see I can go overhead well if I keep my whole body connected. Since #functionalfitness is about “linking” the body, we need exercises that teach these concepts.

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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!

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When people struggle doing pull-ups we immediately just default to banded pull-ups. While that may help some, bands actually have a different strength curve than pull-ups themselves (gives less assistance when the exercise is getting harder). So, while some may benefit from banded pull-ups there are plenty of strategies that can actually help make one achieve pull-ups faster through making connections that people may miss. . Chair pull-ups are one of my favorite as there are so many levels we can use manipulating body and hand positions. Using the @perform_better Infinity Straps I’m able to use a neutral, supinate, pronates, or mixed grip for this series. Having my legs on the ground allows progression from using the feet and heels to create stability and integrate with #corestrength to slowly removing that assistance. Most importantly one learns to do #pullups without the cheating of shrugging or rounding of the shoulders that happens when people perform pull-ups. . Half kneeling we can work on building pulling strength while integrating the core and #glutes . Since there is a direct link to lats, core, and glutes, this can be a great exercise to build those specific connections to help greater performance. Going single arm and using a #kettlebell to create #corestability actually can help those that also attack pull-ups but find they have shoulder issues from compensating. . Body saws with @valslide , bands, and Ultimate #Sandbag is not only a great #coreworkout but if we place the right intent we teach the rigid body and whole body tension we want in the pull-up. “Pulling apart” the Ultimate Sandbag connects the grip, shoulder, lats, and core. The band helps accentuate pulling with the lats while driving into the feet. . Half kneeling eccentric focused Ultimate Sandbag presses allows us to really build great pulling as well as pressing strength. The neutral grip while pressing helps keep the pattern of the lats in place to learn to stabilize the shoulder and the instability of the weight reinforces stability of the hips and trunk! . Coaches have way more options to make people successful than they typically realize👊🏻

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