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!
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