Earlier this week, I wrote a post about why you should ditch kipping pull ups in favor of dead hangs which sparked a lot of debate. Many coaches agreed with my sentiment that kipping pull ups are stressful on the shoulder joint (unless performed by someone with good shoulder stability and an ability to maintain proper positioning throughout all segments of the kip which is not most people) and much less effective at building strength than strict pull ups.
Others argued that kipping pull ups is a good way to maintain an elevated heart rate for a conditioning workout and pointed out that many athletes are unable to do dead hang pull ups when they are tired at the end of a WOD and/or simply lack the strength in the first place. Though I do understand that it is necessary for a competitive CrossFitter to know how to kip efficiently as they will need to perform kipping pull ups as a part of their sport, I disagree that the average gym-goer needs to use a kipping pull up to maintain intensity during a WOD. To this, I would argue that intensity can be maintained with the right modifications such as switching to ring rows or using heavier bands to allow an athlete to use a strict pull.
In any case, everyone can agree that achieving a first pull up is an exciting milestone for an athlete. For females, who are more likely to have developed leg strength than upper body strength through the sports they played in their early years, a pull up can seem that much more elusive. But the key to achieving a pull up is simply about building strength and with the right plan, everyone can do it and should do it. One of the greater exercises to build overall back strength is the pull up and having a stronger back will make you a better athlete in any sport. So, it’s time to work on those pull ups!
Pull, Pull, Pull
Two of the best ways to build strength for a dead hang pull up are ring rows and strict banded pull ups. Start with ring rows and work your way to the pull up bar.
For ring rows, it it is important to keep your body stiff so that you are using your back muscles to pull yourself upwards. When you allow your butt to drop, you lighten the load by using your legs to stabilize yourself and only pull the upper half of your body towards the rings. This is less effective. Another common error is leading yourself up with your hips, which is essentially the same error as doing a kipping pull up on the bar. When you lead with your hips, you are generating force with your hips to help propel you towards the rings. Stay tight, make your body a stiff board, and pull with just your arms while focusing on squeezing your back.
If it is too hard to do a ring row while maintaining a stiff body, walk your feet back before you begin. The further back you are from where the rings hang from the bar, the easier the ring row is as the angle has changed to a lesser degree. If this is too easy, start with your feet in front of where the rings hang. This increases the angle to make it closer to horizontal than it is vertical which means you have to work harder against gravity to pull your body up. Choose an angle that allows you to keep your body stiff and perform a few sets of 10 where the last few reps are significantly hard. Each week, you can increase the angle as you build strength.
When you are at the point of being able to do ring rows with your feet far in front of the rings, you are strong enough to add banded strict pull ups into the mix. Choose a band that allows you to keep your abs tight as you pull your chin fully over the bar. If you can’t get your chin over the bar, the band is not heavy enough. If you feel as though you are launching over the bar, it is too heavy. Find a band that will allow you to perform 3-5 sets of 5 that feel difficult but not impossible and start there. The only caveat I have to add is that if you are using the heaviest bands (black), than you are probably still not strong enough in your pull to be working on the pull up bar and should stick with just the rings.
Add in extra pulling accessory work about twice a week and continue to use ring rows even when you are able to do banded pull ups.
Work The Negative
This was the accessory movement that enabled me to get my first pull up. I stayed after class a few times a week for about a month working on negative pull ups (3-5 sets of 2-3) before I was able to do an unassisted strict pull up. However, it is important to note that negatives are an eccentric movement which means that they will make you sore. They shouldn’t be done in high volume for this reason.
To perform a negative, you must be ready to hold your body with your chin over the bar, so you’ll have had to work on pulls for a significant amount of time before adding in negatives. Begin by bringing a box or bench over to the pull up bar and standing on it. Gripping the bar, jump so that you are able to get your chin over the bar and hold your body there. Then, lower yourself back down as slowly and as controlled as possible. Repeat for 3-5 sets of 2-3 negatives twice a week.
Maintain The Hollow Hold
Like any exercises, the form used to perform a pull up is important. For this, you should be using a hollow hold which means that your rib cage is pulled down and your stomach is tight so that your body is curved in a “c” shape. This allows you engage your lat and back muscles to assist in the pull up.
You can practice the hollow hold by lying on your back with your arms overhead. Lift your legs and your arms off the ground and focusing on pulling your ribs down to your stomach. If your lower back arches, you are no longer in the hollow position. To learn what this feels like, have someone put their hand under your lower back and try to crush their hand which will force you to engage your abs. Hold for three sets of 10 seconds and build up to longer sets over time.
Add In Specific Exercises For The Back
One such exercise is the supinated grip barbell row which my weightlifting coach, Michael McKenna*, programs for me once a week or so.
He explains, “I like to do supinated (palms up) grip rows for my athletes with a weak mid-back or upper traps. We do them standing, and rest the bar on the thighs; our shoulders are behind the bar with our knees bent. WE then row the bar along the thighs into our hips, making sure to maintain contact 100% of the time. This movement helps to strengthen the middle of the back, between the shoulder blades; this strength is essential to stability in all the lifts and in finishing pull ups chest to bar.”
Consider adding in supinated grip rows once a week for 4 sets of 10.
As a final aside, if getting a pull up is the goal, considering losing some weight. Think of it this way, if you were to put on a 5lb vest and attempt a pull up, it would be significantly harder. It works the other way as well. Cutting excess fat will help lighten the load you need to pull in order to get your chin over the bar.
Add in any of this extra accessory work to build back strength and work towards a pull up. Take ten minutes at the end of class a few times a week and choose the above as accessory work. In no time, you should be strong enough to do a pull up, perhaps even multiple, and you’ll see this strength carry over into other elements of your sport.
*Michael McKenna is the owner of McKenna’s Gym and an instructor for USA-W Level 1 and Level 2 course. He is available for individual programming both in person at his gym and virtually (which is how I work with him). I have seen significant progress in overall strength as well as in my weightlifting technique since I began working with him over two years ago. All of his programming is individualized and done on a weekly basis based on your needs and he works with athletes of all levels. I highly recommend him if you are looking for a weightlifting coach. He can be contacted through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.