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.
Well after my wonderful outing with tons of toes to bars and rowing, I was met with a mild strain in my abdomen. Now it turns out this is the third time something like this has happened (the first time being really bad) and I am now officially aware that I need to make a certain number of changes in my programming to address the situation. First off, I need to snap out of the frustrating funk of needing to take three full days off in the middle of a very serious training schedule, crap happens and I need to just roll with it!
Ok, now that that;s over with, let's move on to how to fix the problem. I have very weak hips. SO weak n fact, that I rarely even use them while doing most movements. I overcompensate with my adductors (the inside of my legs, or my groin muscles) when flexing my hip (bringing my knee towards my chest) and I also tend to overuse my glutes when training or functioning where my lower body is involved. So, when I need to perform in a manner that acutely utilizes my hips, I tend to break down pretty quickly. And here is where my CrossFitting ends up biting me in the ass. If i were asked to do 10 strict toes to bar (hanging from a bar and bringing my feet up to touch the bar) I would probably not be able to do so. But is I was able to do kipping toes to bar, I could probably get 40 or so unbroken. How is this possible? Well, the strict movement calls for my hip flexors to be the primary movers; and, since they are damn weak, I am left failing the exercise. Kipping allows other muscle groups to engage and take over the movement, along with momentum. So what ends up happening is that i have an improper firing sequence of muscle and am left with imbalances in my gains. This also leads to a greater risk of injury because I have muscles NOT being used, along with muscles being used TOO MUCH. And there you have it, the over-strain on my stomach because of my lack of strength in my hips on this movement have led to a mild injury. I am just thankful it is not worse.
This leads to a huge discussion on the dangs of improper CrossFit training. While I could go into this forever (and LOVE doing so), I will through out one argument and leave the rest for another, longer, more detailed post on all this. I know of SO many CrossFit affiliates who teach the kipping pull up early and often. This is a pull up where you use all kinds of momentum to get your chin over the bar. While I utilize this move, and the crazier version of it, the Butterfly Kip, on a regular basis in my training, I am more and more hesitant to get people doing this. I say this because I know that if you can't do like 10 or more strict pull ups, under complete control, you'll do nothing but exacerbate existing imbalances and create new ones by kipping all the time. You are basically completely neglecting all the ACTUAL pull ups muscles when kipping. Proof of this is that i know a great deal of people who can bang out 10+ kipping pull ups but can't actually do a single strict one! This is insanity to me! Kipping is cool, i know, it looks cool, it feels cool and it makes you blast through "Fran" like nobodies business. But, to be brutally honest, if you are not a competitive CrossFitter, it's a pretty stupid move to do on a regular basis.
Don't get me wrong, kipping is a hugely important skill to understand in terms of over-all athleticism and health; but so is building all your muscles to fire, engage, activate and de-activate properly. So if you're like me (and I would comfortably assume that well over 90% of the world out there has some pretty serious imbalances), take it easy with going "balls to the wall" all the time. Remember to stabilize and CONTROL your body. If you can't use a portion of your body correctly, don't use it incorrectly.
Now all I can do, as a competitive CrossFitter, is work on healing enough to get after Open Sectionals Workout #3. Here's to a recovery-filled Friday!
Never Stop, GET FIT.
Get Discounts Below!