I remember growing up, I hated it! When Presidential fitness testing came around to our P.E. class I just felt my hope sink. Like so many young people it took me awhile to grow into my body and of all the tests that made me feel inadequate, probably no better singular one did, as well as the pull-up. Especially watching friends knock out pull-ups like they were nothing, it was embarrassing to get under the bar knowing that a struggle of epic proportions was going to occur for me to come CLOSE to doing one.
As someone that ended up with a degree in physical education, it makes me sad that so many kids are left feeling that way because we don’t build people up in a smart way. Not even kids, but I can’t tell you how many clients told me there was NO WAY they would ever do a single pull-up. Not to my surprise, but they did. It wasn’t because we pounded pull-up after pull-up, but we served with proper progression.
What’s the secret?
Well, it isn’t much of a secret, it is simply how we think about movement to build success.
Yes, just like a squat, a hip hinge, etc. upper body pulling is a human movement that has more elements than just building a better upper back. Let’s go through some ways we can greatly enhance your success in building pull-ups.
1. Core is actually important!
Most would probably not think of the core when it comes to pull-ups. In fact, most people don’t use their core at all and that causes a big issue. That’s right, you typically see people leaning waaaaaay back trying with all their might to get their body to the bar. Why is that an issue though?
There is something known as muscle length-tension relationship. What that means is that when a muscle gets stretched beyond its normal length it actually weakens. Guess what happens when your trunk feels unstable and the upper body is trying to produce strength? It can work, but you are working unnecessarily hard and you are not building strength that works with your body outside of the gym.
One of my favorite drills to have people build their pull-ups is a body saw. At first glance it looks NOTHING like a pull-up until we delve deeper. We see we have a plank, but we have full body tension as we are teaching our body how to use the lats to move our body back and forth. This is a GREAT drill in helping people learn to keep their body stable while they are using their lats!
You want to be driving down into the forearms and the feet while creating this movement.
2. Pressing for pull-ups?!!!!
Why in the world would pressing help one’s pull-ups? When I had my first neck fusion about ten years ago I was left with my arm still very weak. The nerve damage and surgery left my connection to my lats almost non-existent. Building it back up to doing pull-ups again made me become very creative.
What ended up being one of my “go to” exercises was our Ultimate Sandbag Arc Press, but why? For one, the gripping action of trying to “rip” the Ultimate Sandbag apart started to make the connection of my upper body. More importantly, by driving into the ground with my feet and thinking about connecting my whole body, this drill became an awesome push/pull action that allowed me to feel my lats.
The hand position and the direction of the load really lights up the lats when done properly and when we focus on the intent of the drill we connect to our entire body. Using drills like the Arc Press made my neurosurgeon SHOCKED at how fast my strength came back. The key is being thoughtful of not just moving the weight, but HOW you move the weight.
One of my favorite ways of teaching these concepts is half kneeling and having lateral band tension. Both give you important feedback to engage the entire body and find your lats quickly!
3. Use Chairs, Not Bands!
This part will probably be the MOST shocking to people. When I started training back in the late 90’s I had lots of clients work on pull-ups via bands to help them up. It made sense and I thought what better way to help people feel like and actually improve their pull-ups.
Unfortunately, I found that even though we would perform our band assisted pull-ups on a regular basis, we didn’t get that much closer to actually doing pull-ups. After some thought, it made sense where my mistake was. Bands actually go in opposite of what we call a strength-curve. That is the natural point of an exercise when it gets heavier and lighter. For example, when you do a bench press, the bottom has the most resistance and as you press up the weight becomes “lighter”. This is why powerlifters often will apply bands against the press to work the full range and keep the force production at a higher level longer.
Pull-ups actually have pretty much a bell curve. Meaning they are toughest at the beginning AND the end of the movement. Bands therefore, help the beginning, but they do little for the mid-point to the top. That is where people really struggle and begin to compensate a great deal.
So, what do we do? A simple solution is what I call chair pull-ups. That is using a suspension trainer, racked barbell, etc. at a lower level so we can still use our legs. Between the grips that are available to us, playing with speed of movement, and the body positions we can use, there are TONS of ways to progress people to success!
Building a good pull-up that doesn’t cause shoulder issues because you are cheating the movement takes time. It takes thought about teaching proper movement and building incremental success that matters. Great pull-ups for most people take thinking bout the entire body and being smart and not just worried about training hard. Doing so makes you stronger, move better, and achieve your goals without suffering the injuries that plague so many that just try to bang their head against the wall!
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