Perfection. Shoulders back and down, chest up, legs back, chest to bar. Can you do this?
The pull up is one of those exercises that is both gratifying and impressive. The ability to move your entire body through space with nothing but your own strength is a pretty impressive feat and something that I think all people in the gym either want to do or get better at. It shows impressive (re: ideal) upper body strength along with control of using all the muscles in the upper body in the right sequence (this means using main movers to move, and stabilizers to stabilize).
I generally like to have a goal in my gym be that all men can get between 5-10, and all women can get between 3-6 (for anyone who might be confused, I am talking about STRICT pull ups here). Those numbers show a generally good balance of strength for the average person (I have goals for lower body strength and other upper body exercises as well to show complete balance). As my clients and athletes approach the pull up we always assess their ability to move safely and properly, recruit muscles in the proper sequence, and build up accessory exercises if there are excess imbalances. Here are five good, solid things to focus on when training for your first pull up, or building on the number you already have:
1. Strengthen Your Grip
This is probably the most under-trained aspect of most pulling exercises, but the entire base of the pull starts in being able to hold onto the bar (or whatever you're pulling up on) comfortably. It is common amongst good coaches to know that building grip strength increases a persons ability to properly utilize all the muscles in the arms, shoulders and torso for a stronger pull. I have had many clients who have the strength in their upper body to get a few pull ups, but their grip is so weak they can not even hold onto the bar. Go get yourself some grippers (check THESE
out for some serious grip building) or incorporate farmers walks on the regular (hold onto progressively heavier dumbbells and walk).
2. Understand Scapular Control
Most people pull with their biceps; this is a weaker action as you end up neglecting the larger, stronger muscles in your back that are designed for pulling. Setting your shoulders and even incorporating a slight scapular retraction (bringing your shoulder blades together) allows for more activation of all those big ol' muscles back there and consequently, a stronger pull. Grow these by using bands to pull, then assisted pulling, inverted rows, TRX and such. All of these modifications allow you to take less weight into the pull so you can focus on the proper function of those bigger muscles.
3. Learn How To Stabilize Your Shoulders
One of the most common things I see the second someone hangs on a bar is their shoulders slide right up to their ears. In line with point number 2, this one is about allowing the stabilizers in your shoulder do their job so that the big muscles on your shoulders and back can focus only on the pulling. If your shoulders are not stabilized, the big muscles have to focus on stabilizing your shoulders and can not focus on doing the pull up. Light cable and DB exercises are great for this, as well as performing a plank on your hands, or other isometric holds where your shoulders are unitized. The main focus should always be keeping your shoulders in the correct position while performing the lighter and isometric exercises.
4. Modify The Pull Up
Unlike utilizing other styles of pulling exercises to get your muscles stronger, this one is all about performing "replica pull ups". You do this by using bands or a low bar (with your feet on the ground or box) to decrease the amount of weight you are pulling. And as you progress, utilizing negatives and other modified time and rep schemes of the pull up to get your muscles properly trained. The idea, as always, is to modify as little as possible while making sure your shoulders do not come out of their stabilized position, and that your muscles are all able to function properly. Using a too thin band and doing pull ups with your shoulders in your ears will not help you all that much.
5. Don't Kip
Unless you are a competitive CrossFitter, kipping pull ups serve absolutely no purpose in strength training. I know way too many people who can perform kipping pull ups but can not perform a single strict one. This is just depressing! If you want to utilize hip drive to produce power into your extremities, learn to throw a med ball, learn to Olympic lift, learn to jump, etc. The kip forces your shoulders out of their stabilized position, then relies on the hips to move you, rather than your upper body. While it is one of the most efficient ways to do pull ups really fast, it is one of the least efficient ways to build pulling strength.
So, if your goal is to be able to perform a real pull up, learn to build strength and stability properly and I bet you'll be surprised at how quickly you can get that chin over the bar in complete control!
Never Stop, GET FIT.
My favorite picture of us
Feeling a little bad that for the first time in a good while I passed over my moms birthday without writing a little post. So, perhaps it’s a bit late, but I wanted to pay a little respect to the woman to inspired so much in me, and continues to do so.
For those of you newer readers who don’t know about my mom, she was one of the greatest fighters I have ever met (and I do know a few elite level MMA crazies, so…). What I mean by that is that when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she fought through an incredible number of years going the natural route. She stayed active, she committed to overall health both inwardly and outwardly. She worked on healing relationships and making new and lasting ones with the idea that all of this would allow her body to naturally fight this horrible sickness. What blew my mind about my mother the most was that when she was seemingly at her worst, and I mean stage-4 cancer, disintegrated spine, major osteoporosis, rapid weight loss and probably a whole list of things I am forgetting, she still lived. With all these problems, she still cooked almost every single meal. And a meal for her would easily average an hour or two because it was 100% real food. She consumed nothing processed, nothing fake at all. She would walk twice a day, sometime for over an hour. Put this into perspective people, so many of us seemingly “healthy” people make excuses to not workout, be active, and make our own food every single day. Our country is fatter and sicker than ever before. And yet there was this frail, horrendously falling apart woman who chose to pursue what she believed and loved every single day. She made no excuses, she smiled every day, and she hoped to leave us all with the feeling of deep love in the end. And I would argue that her ultimate goal in life was achieved. She proved that living a life that you can respect and smile about is way better than choosing excuses, prescription drugs, tons of surgeries and a long, painful death.
Now I don’t want to paint a completely positive picture of her, while she inspired so much good, there was plenty she did that caused pain in our family. But this is also something she taught me; to be straightforward about how you feel and to face those feeling with honesty and a clear mind. She strived to be the best woman she could be to all of us, and to everyone in her life. And while she slipped up here and there, she clearly found success in the pursuit of what she wanted out of life.
I am especially aware of her missing in my life around this time of year because we used to go see the Cherry Blossoms together in Kenwood, MD. We would stroll around, talking, silent, laughing, thinking, and just soaking in the power of the beauty of those flowers. One of the most vivid memories I have of her was her spinning and spinning around with her arms out when a gust of wind blew and covered us in a snow-fall of pick flower pedals. It doesn’t matter who you are, there was something so touching about the joy and freedom she clearly felt in those moments. It was impossible not to smile.
I miss her. I hope to remember every day that the best way to live life is to do what you feel deep down to be right. It doesn’t matter if people disagree with you, try to hold you back, argue with you, or even fight you. If you believe in it with all your heart, good things will happen in your life. And when the end comes, you can look back on everything you did, everything you stood for, and be proud. My mother was proud of all of us, and I am so proud to have had her as a driving force in my life for so long.
Happy belated Birthday, Mom!
Never Stop, GET FIT.
I haven't really chatted about my own personal stuff for a few days so I figured I'd throw up a little update on how it's been going. This week begins the last week, a deload, of the strength program I was on for two months and I was able to see some pretty impressive gains throughout. With a solid 3 reps at 385# on the back squat, a real good 505# on the deadlift and a comfortable 3 reps at 155# on the strict press, along with a perfect combo of supplemental work, I feel so much stronger. All this combined with some insanely rapid fat loss (15 pounds of legit weight lost in 1 month) and I am feeling like I am on the right track.I have yet to decide exactly what program I am going on starting next week, but I have been researching both the Wendler 5/3/1 program (I did this for about 4 months or so last year) and the crazy looking West Side Barbell program. Not sold on either one yet, and I may just go ahead and take aspect of them and fit them into a program that fits me, not totally sure just yet. All I know is that I want to get a whole hell of a lot stronger over the next three months so, whatever program will help me do that is what I'll be following. Running more, CrossFit style metcons here and there but not really a main focus, swimming will start up more, and mobility and gymnastics will begin a bit more as well starting next week. I'll be eating exactly the way I have been, it's been working wonders for me and I don't see a reason why I would switch that up at all. So, really not too much to talk about in terms of nutrition. Turns out the whole Paleo concept is working for me this time around (although i didn't even realize I was eating Paleo until about two days ago, and maybe that's why it's been working!) and I really don;t have any sort of good reason to stop. One point to make about the food though is today. I felt really groggy all day and I quickly realized that besides breakfast yesterday, I had all my meals from a store (Sweet Green salad, Chicken Out turkey and veggies, Whole Foods fish and veggies). While I ate super clean from all those places, I am totally aware of the sodium, sugars and potential other additives that I would not have had if I had made the food myself. A note was made to avoid eating out. No matter how clean the food is, it's never as clean as when you make it yourself.So, what you will see with my physical training starting next week: a new strength training regimen that will really kick my strength to a whole new level, continued runs, 1-2 swims a week, mobility practice probably each and every day, more gymnastics work. Another bit of interesting happenings today was a strange sort of culmination of a few things that really messed with me emotionally. At first I got depressed, then I got super motivated, it was interesting to experience. With the CrossFit Games coming up this coming weekend, information and videos have been popping up like crazy, and I have been catching so many of my friends and old training partners, now celebritized through the internet with their impressive growth in the sport. While I am so happy for all them, there is a piece of me that is so envious that they are there while I am at home; I was able to get so close. This was compounded by a really nice lunch and catch-up couple hours with my good friend and Washington Nationals pitcher John Lannon. As always with baseball, it was so great to be around him and talk about the game and such, but it brought back memories of how close I was able to get to "making it" as a baseball player. The depression hit me that I am always just so close to getting there, but not quite. I am really good at so much, just not good enough. Then the motivation hit that I know, deep down, that if I can commit to something, with the abilities that I have, I can really make something happen for myself. Focus and determination will take you far, and I if this whole CrossFit thing is something I am seriously considering giving a shot, I certain I can make it happen (it's eye opening to me to see how far i made it with the training and nutrition plan I was on leading up to it all!). I have a plan, it's being prepared, I am excited.Never Stop, GET FIT.Josh Courage