Originally this was going to be a single post, just like any other (originally titled “Hangin Around: Pull Up Workouts”). However, as I began to delve into the topic of pull ups, it became obvious that the wide range of challenges and abilities athletes face regarding pull ups warranted a three part series. This article will focus on the benefits of pull ups and a workout progression towards doing your first pull up. The second article will focus on adding weight to your pull up for the second phase of your workout program–the maximal strength phase. The third article will focus on doing a lot of pull ups–which is primarily a goal for the third–metabolic–phase of your training program.
Why Pull Ups Matter
So if pull ups are such a difficult, time consuming task, why focus on them? What makes the pull up worth your time?
You Need a Strong Back
Contrary to the so called “mirror muscles” that many misguided gym rats focus on, you need a strong back to be a capable, powerful athlete. Muscles in the back are where stability for the rest of your body’s motions originate. In particular, the muscles surrounding the scapula (prime movers in the pull up) need to be stable for strong shoulders and neck, and the lumbar spine (which receives surprisingly high levels of muscle contraction during a pull up) need to be stable for powerful hip and trunk motions.
You Need a Strong Grip
A strong grip will be critical when you start developing your maximal strength exercises. This isn’t just to hold the weight–if it were, cross grips, straps, and a variety of other solutions could overcome the problem. There is actually something far more interesting, and far more nerdy at work here.
It turns out, your brain really likes having hands. Consequently your brain has come up with a rule to protect your hands: “I am not going to give you maximal muscle contraction, unless I know that I have strong grip.” Presumably, this is intended to prevent hand injury in primal instances, such as a striking fist.
Give it a try with a bicep curl if you don’t believe it. Try a curl with a firm, tight grip near your 1RM max. Then try the same curl with a lose grip, balancing the weight between your thumb and index finger. Your hand will either reflexively clench up, or–if you have poor reflexes, like me– you simply find your bicep is lacking the strength to move the weight. (It’s an unscientific demonstration, but it gets the point across, for more details on the science check this out)
Pull ups build grip strength for the simple fact the you are constantly hanging on the bar, both at work and at rest. Strong pull ups=strong grip. Strong grip=strong body.
Developing Your First Pull Up
Not being able to do a single pull up is a problem of :
1) maximal strength across your upper body and
2) an undeveloped muscle memory for the pull up, which prevents your muscles from firing in the proper sequence to get your chin over the bar.
For a two-fold problem, you will need a two-fold solution:
These exercises are designed to target the critical muscles that function throughout the pull up’s range of motion.
Bent Over Rows
These target the trapezius muscles which engage at the beginning of the pull up–use these if you are having trouble getting started at the bottom of the pull.
Overhead Banded Pull Aparts
These work both the trapezius muscles AND the latissimus dorsi (aka the pull up muscle). This exercise works the muscles engaged from the dead hang to approximately half way up on the pull up.
In any other context, this is not a really stupid exercise. However, being able to adequately engage your biceps can make the difference between making it to the bar and getting stuck at the half way point.
These go back to the original discussion about the importance of grip strength. Once you develop your pull up, you’ll find you’ll actually improve with a relaxed grip, but when you’re working towards your first repetition, you need your link to the bar to be solid.
Muscle Memory Solutions**
These are methods for performing the pull up motion at a reduced (less then body weight) load to build the movement pattern for the pull up.
Locked off at halfway down for “negative frenchies”
These are performed starting from a position with your chin already over the bar (you get there by standing on a chair, or something) and slowly lowering yourself down to to the dead hang position. Once you’re able to perform 5-7 repetitions of these, you can further improve the exercise by performing negative “frenchies.”
These are done by stopping or “locking off” your arms for 5 seconds at the top of the bar, at the halfway point down, and 1/3 of the way from the bottom. By doing frenchies, you’ll simultaneously build the muscle memory with the eccentric (negative) motion and greatly improve strength at the three key sticking points of the pull up. Once you can do 2-3 negative frenchies, you’re ready to do a proper pull up (after sufficient rest, of course).
There are many, many ways to “assist” your pullups–basically reducing the difficulty to the point that you are able to perform the motion, Here’s a short list:
- Elastic bands
- Feet on a chair
- Feet on a Friend
- Barbell assisted pull up
- Assisted pull up machine (available in many gyms)
Your first pull up and beyond…
Using the exercises above, you WILL get that first pull up. Then, only a few short days later, you’ll get that second pull up. Then within a couple weeks, you’ll be up to five. Then…you’ve got some options.
Part two and three of this series will delve into the next steps of improving you’re pull up strength in two categories: intensity and quantity.
**DO NOT resort to kipping pull ups if you cannot do a single proper pull up. Kipping pull ups have their place in a strong metabolic program, but will quickly result in injury if your shoulder is not strong enough to perform strict pull ups.