By Joe Black
With the pull-up challenge in full-swing at CrossFit Prototype, this two-part series will break down the movement, provide recommended dos and don’ts, exercises to strengthen parts of your pull-up, and give you an example plan that you can put into action to get your first pull-up. Part one will break down the pull-up and provide recommendations that you can start right now to get on the path towards your first pull-up!
Pull-ups are tough. You start from a hang and have to pull almost your entire body weight the length of your arms and bring your chin over a bar. Just thinking about moving all that weight all that distance is enough to make you exhausted!
Having the strength for a pull-up is not only important for CrossFit and functional fitness, it is also a fundamental movement of a capable human body. Having the ability to pick your child off the ground, get up if you fall down, or carrying a heavy bag of groceries are obstacles that are easily overcome if you have the requisite strength.
The good news is this: pull-ups are a skill that can be learned through a structured, specific strength training plan, and our fitness instructors can get you there. With a little bit of hard work, commitment and patience, you can earn that first pull-up…and many more!
SEGMENTS OF THE PULL-UP
Let’s start by breaking down the segments of the pull-up so that you can easily identify the areas that you need to work on:
The bottom position is an active hang, which means that you maintain tension in the shoulders in order to have better control and stability. This is opposed to a passive (or dead) hang, where there is no tension and you are simply hanging from the bar.
You achieve the active hang by lifting your chest up and squeezing your shoulder blades down and back.
The bottom position needs to be an active hang because this controlled position is going to help improve shoulder health, decrease soft tissue stress during advanced pull-up variations (kipping movements) and lead to a sustainable training practice with lower risk for injury.
Make sure you can achieve an active hang on the bar for at least 30 seconds. A minute-plus is ideal.
Pulling To The Bar
Pulling to the bar starts in the bottom position and ends with your chin over the bar. To initiate the pulling movement, think about pulling down with your arms, as opposed to pulling your body up. This will help to activate muscles in your back needed to achieve a pull-up.
Pulling to the bar is a concentric movement, which means that the muscles involved in the movement are shortening in length as it acts against a resistive force (in the case of a pull-up, your body weight).
This movement should be swift, but in control. This is typically where many of the sticking points in the pull-up can be found such as trouble initiating the pull, trouble finishing the pull or stalling out at various points along the way.
Chin Over The Bar
This is the portion of the pull-up where an isometric hold may be necessary to achieve the top-end range of motion. Isometric actions are when your muscles are activated but there is no change in muscle length. Simply put, this is when you hold a position for a certain amount of time (like a plank).
This portion of the movement happens very quickly, before descending into a controlled lowering to the bottom position. However, working on activating your muscles in an isometric hold with your chin, ideally for 5-10 seconds, will help develop the strength during the finishing portion of the pull and beginning of the lowering phase.
Lowering to Bottom Position
The pull-up ends once you lower yourself from having your chin over the bar and back down to your active bottom position. The lowering portion of the pull-up is an eccentric movement, which means that the muscles involved in the movement are now lengthening while producing force. You may have heard this called a “negative.”
The eccentric portion of the pull-up is super important, especially if you do not have a pull-up yet. Training eccentric strength can lead to concentric strength gains! – this means that you can work on slowly lowering yourself from the top of the bar and it will translate into increased pulling strength!
PULL-UP DOs AND DON’Ts
On your journey to get your first pull-up in our fitness gym (and hopefully multiple pull-ups after that), here are some recommendations personal fitness instructors recommend to implement right now:
- Prioritize your pull-up strength and train it often. Work on this prior to class when you are your freshest. Follow a plan until you are successful.
- Stay patient and focused on getting your first pull-up. Focus on the process and your pull-up will come!
- Think about all the movements in class that can help you on your journey, such as carries and deadlifts (double overhand) for grip strength or planks and hollow holds for core stability.
- Work on your pull-up exercises with virtuosity – do the common uncommonly well.
- Use bands or jumping pull-ups in place of pull-ups in a WOD. Instead, substitute row variations, like ring rows, barbell rows or dumbbell rows.
- Bend your knees, hips or “pump” your way up as this recruits your hip flexors and momentum to help you achieve the movement, which will not improve your pulling strength.
- Start kipping pull-ups until you have at least 5 strict pull-ups because it put a tremendous amount of stress on your shoulder girdle. 10 strict pull-ups would be ideal.
Part-two of this post is going to break down the exercises that you can do to strengthen the various segments of the pull-up. It will also include an example program with exercise demos that you can follow whether you’re at home or in our fitness gym working with one of our personal trainers.