Improving Your Pull-Up
Pull-ups are the legendary great grandmama of all exercises. Few exercises are as honest as the pull-up; you simply can’t fake your way through it. A crappy pull up really shows from across the gym, and you will feel the lack of success loudly in the lack of your lagging gains. Mostly, they are humbling….when I have taken a decent amount time off from the gym and I try (unsuccessfully) to hit my old pull up programming standards…well, nothing makes me bow down to the gravity gods with more earnestness!
On the other hand, there are few things more badass than competent strict pull ups, executed with proper form and at the right rhythm. And yes, that means no kipping! Which brings me to tip number one for getting better at pull-ups…don’t kip!
Getting Better at Pull-Ups Tip One: No Kipping!!
Thou shalt not kip, with a couple exceptions: if you’re a trained gymnast or highly competent in calisthenics, kip away all day and I will refrain from criticism. Kipping is required in order to perform many advanced gymnastics and calisthenics movements….and that’s great! But if you are simply looking to use pull ups to improve overall athleticism, back strength, and back muscle size and tone, avoid the kipping maneuver. Kipping should only be practiced by those who are ALREADY able to do several strict pull ups in a row.
At best, relying on the kip will rob you of any real gains pull-ups are meant to accomplish, and at worst, you will wreck your shoulder joints, which are not meant to sustain the forces encountered in kipping without significant preparation and coaching. I have seen the latter all too often in clients transitioning from Crossfit back to more traditional forms of fitness training.
If you don’t know, kipping refers to using the weight of your body to create momentum and swinging your way to to the top of the bar instead of using your back, arm, and core muscles properly. Kipping pull ups are popular in the Crossfit world, I think mostly to make pull ups more accessible to folks who want to look cool, but who have not yet achieved the level of strength required to accomplish actual strict pull ups.
Don’t cheat. Invest the time and energy required to learn true pull up form and develop the strength to knock out solid sets. Your shoulder joints will thank you!
Getting Better at Pull-Ups Tip 2: Focus on the Negative
If you’re struggling to get your first pull up or simply want to get more reps, here is a neat trick for you. It’s not that often in life that we get encouraged to focus on the negative, right? Well, in this case, focusing on the negative is a good thing. To do a negative pull up, get a boost up to the top position, hang for a second with flexed arms and fully engaged lats, then lower yourself down to the starting position as slowly as possible.
Our muscles are able to sustain higher loads on the negative portion of a lift, which is also known as the eccentric or lowering phase. By getting assistance with the harder (concentric or raising) part of the lift and completing the easier part under your own steam, you can introduce more overload to your muscles in a safer way and cause them to adapt more quickly.
There are a few different ways to do negative pull ups: (1) use the pull up assist machine to push you to the top position with whatever level of assistance you need, (2) use a monster band looped over the pull up handles, (3) have a buddy push your feet upward, (4) get a box or sturdy chair and climb to the top position, or (4), simply jump to the top position if the bar is low enough. Whatever boost you choose, just make sure that you lower yourself very slowly, taking at least three to four seconds to hit bottom. And never, ever, let your shoulder joints be lax in the bottom position. Keep the heads of your upper arm bones plugged into the shoulder sockets and your shoulders pressed down away from your ears at all times.
Getting Better at Pull-Ups Tip 3: Do Complementary Exercises
Specificity in your practice tends to be the number one key to getting better at any skill, and getting better at pull ups is no exception. However, there are several different complementary moves you can perform in addition to practicing pull ups themselves in order to round out the muscles and motor patterns required to perform pull ups.
To get good at pull ups, you need not only strong latissimus dorsi muscles, but strong biceps, core, grip, and even hips. Your core and hips need to be able to lock down and stabilize your trunk while your lats, biceps, and grip muscles do the heavy lifting. So functional movements that hammer on these areas will go a long way toward improving all the pieces that go into a solid pull up.
For lats, biceps, grip, core, hips, and overall pulling strength (OK, all the areas I just mentioned) add a few sets of 10 supine rows into your fitness plan. Working on your horizontal bodyweight pulling skills (rows) translates well over to your vertical pulling skills (pull ups). Barbell and dumbbell bent over rows are also helpful for building raw strength and stability.
For core and hips stability make sure you do your planks. If you can hold a plank for 60 seconds with no problems, introduce plank variations such as one arm planks, stability ball planks, etc., as well as more advanced core exercises such as stability ball pike crunches.
For biceps you can do biceps curl variations such supinating curls and hammer curls, but I don’t recommend spending much if any time on biceps isolations unless you also have the specific goal of building your biceps for aesthetic reasons. If you’re doing plenty of pull ups, rows, and other compound exercises like deadlifts, your biceps will pretty much take care of themselves.
Speaking of deadlifts, this might sound weird since they seem so lower-body dominant, but deadlifts will help your pull ups. Think about it: even though they are not moving much during the if your lats were not contracting like mad during your deadlifts, your shoulders would be yanked right out of their sockets and the bar would never leave the ground. Your lats develop a lot of strength and stability during deadlifts, as do the many stabilizing muscles of your shoulder complex. The only possible downside to the relationship between deadlifts and pull ups is that deadlifts will add a good deal of muscle to your lower back, glutes, and thighs, meaning you will have a heavier resistance to work against during your pull ups since you are required to pull your bodyweight.
For grip and core, try the farmer’s walk. Just grab a heavy dumbbell or kettlebell in one or both hands and walk around like a farmer carrying slop to the hogs. Yes, this is a real thing. Try it with a heavy enough weight and you will really feel it!
Getting Better at Pull-Ups Tip 4: Mix Up Your Grip
Strict pull ups are performed with an overhand grip. End of story. Chin ups utilize an underhand grip which allows a lot more bicep action, and tend to be a lot easier. So if you are going to brag about how many pull ups you can do, count your strict reps, not your chin up reps.
That being said, chin ups and neutral grip pull ups are still great for developing your vertical pulling strength and these types of pulling skills do transfer over to strict pull ups. I recommend doing multiple sets of pull ups using different grips. It works best to start your session with strict pull ups, though, because they are the most taxing.
On days that I’m going to train multiple sets of pull ups, I like to do at least a few sets of strict pull ups to failure, and then move on to a few sets of neutral grip pull ups and/or chin ups depending on my mood. Any given day, though, you’ll find me grabbing onto things (rails, tree branches, playground equipment) and doing a couple pull ups using whatever grip the object demands.
Versatility in your pulling skills is a good thing; it all adds up to better functional strength. And if your main goal is functional strength, mixing grips is essential; it’s very rare in your daily life or chosen sport that you will be called upon to scale an object using only overhand grip strict pull ups.
You should also mix up the width of your grip to give yourself some additional variety. Do overhand wide grip, medium grip and narrow grip. Your default grip for a strict pull up should be slightly wider than shoulder width but not super wide. Wide grip strict pull ups are the most difficult of all the variations, while shoulder-width grip chin ups tend to be the easiest for most people.
Getting Better at Pull-Ups…The Bottom Line: Just Do More Pull Ups
To improve muscular strength and stamina for any exercise or movement pattern, you must provide your body with progressive overload; that is, increased challenge over time. You need to do pull ups frequently and once you reach a baseline of strength, say one to three perfect pull ups, you can employ a couple of easy strategies for sneaking more pull ups into your day rather than just doing them on days you’re specifically training your back.
The first strategy is called greasing the groove. Determine how many pull ups are fairly easy for you to complete without fatigue. That’s your groove. Random times throughout the day, grease the groove by performing just that many pull ups, no more, no less. Another strategy is paying the toll. Install a portable pull up bar in a doorway in your house or office and every time you go through that doorway, you have to pay the toll to pass by performing at least one pull up. Using either or both of these tricks will add up to a lot more reps over time and will go a long way toward helping you get better at pull ups.
Enjoy your pull up progress and be sure to share any success stories or favorite pull up tips in the comments below!