Pull-ups. I must admit these are not one of my favorite movements. However, they are one of the CrossFit accomplishments I’m most proud of. I remember back in my high school days when I couldn’t even do one pull-up. We were having a lifting session for soccer in the weight room and I distinctly remember trying so hard to get my chin above the bar but failing miserably and instead using my feet against the wall to help me up. Now, at the time, I didn’t really care that much. I played soccer, why would I care about how many pull-ups I could do? I felt super strong in other ways so to me, it didn’t matter much.
Fast forward to my CrossFit days and suddenly I wanted a pull-up more than anything. I still couldn’t do a strict pull-up and during WODs I had to use either a green band or do jumping pull-ups while others next to made kipping look effortless. Now before I get comments on here telling me how people shouldn’t use bands for pull-ups, etc, let me stop you. I know there is a lot of debate about how to do a pull-up if you can’t do X amt of them strict/if you can’t do a strict pull-up at all/etc. I believe that you should not be doing a high volume of kipping pull-ups if you can’t do a number of strict pull-ups. Your shoulders just aren’t ready for that load. To learn more about this, click HERE.
I personally did not follow this method but after learning from my own experiences and helping others, I wish I would have gone about it a different way. I learned how to kip first and soon after my strict pull-ups got better. I credit this to getting stronger overall, not to kipping. So whether you have a strict pull-up, don’t have one, can only do strict and struggle with the kip, I am going to give you some tips to improve your pull-ups, no matter what kind you are doing.
- Practice body positions
Now I am no gymnastics expert but I do know from experience that learning where your body is in space/in relation to the bar has been so helpful in improving my pull-ups (as muscle-ups for that matter). When you do a pull-up, your body goes through two positions; hollow and arch (pics below). As with lifting, the more tired you get, the more your form tends to breakdown. I know everyone is probably guilty of this at some point during a long grinding WOD/run/cardio sesh/lifting sesh/etc.
For me, I know I start to slack off in pull-ups and instead of focusing on hitting my positions, I focus my energy instead on flinging my hips up towards to bar so that I can squeak my chin up past the bar or make sure my chest barely touches the bar. Soon following this, my coach comes over and reminds me to hit my positions. As soon as I focus on hitting the arch and pushing away from the bar at the top of the pull-up, they instantly feel better. Now my body is still fatigued and it takes a greater concentration than it did in the beginning of the WOD but it totally pays off.
While I used kipping pull-ups as an example, the same is true for strict pull-ups. If your body is in a broken position, you’re going to have a harder than if you were in a good hollow position. The best way to make this more of a habit is to practice these positions on and off the bar. By practicing these situations outside of a WOD, your body is going to be more apt to remember these positions during a WOD. A few examples of ways to practice are
- Tabata arch and hollow holds For 4:00, 00:20 on arch hold/00:10 off. Repeat for same amount of time in hollow hold.
- Arch and hollow swings on the bar (IF ALREADY PROFICIENT AT STRICT PULLUPS): 3 sets of 5 swings, concentrating on keeping tight positions through the swing, making sure center of mass stays below the bar
Top: Arch Bottom: Hollow
2. Incorporate holds and negatives aka build strength
Most of the time, the reason you haven’t achieved your first pull-up is due to lack of strength. This is why I generally don’t like jumping pull-up or banded pull-ups because they don’t build up the proper muscles. While I think ring rows/inverted rows do help in developing those muscles more, I think more practice outside of the WOD needs to be done. You want to incorporate stuff that will help build your pulling strength and improve shoulder and scapular stability. A few examples of these include static holds, isometric holds and static negatives.
- Static holds: Use a box/bench/partner to get to the bar so you can hold yourself with your chin above the bar, arms flexed, focusing on the tight body position.
- Isometric holds: Pull yourself up to bar, trying to squeeze your shoulder blades together. Hold at the top of the bar then lower and come back up to hold again.
- Negatives: Pull yourself up to bar or use box/bench/partner to get to the top of the bar then slowly lower yourself down. Try to lower yourself at a 3-5 second count.
3. Improve your grip strength
If it hasn’t become clear yet, shoulder strength is an important part of making your pull-ups better. Another important part is your grip strength. Your pulling strength may be great but that’s not going to matter if your grip fails you after 2 pull-ups. The holds and negatives will definitely help this but there are a few other movements that can help too.
1. Hangs from the bar: Hang from the pull-up bar, full extended, for 30 seconds. Rest 30 seconds and repeat. Advanced: After hanging from bar for 30 seconds, perform a strict pull-up, hang for 30 seconds more and try to do another pull-up. Repeat this until failure
2. Farmer’s Carry: These can be done with specialty bars as seen below or with kettlebells. Pick a weight and carry it a measured distance. You can do sets of a) one distance for time or b) do sets of max distance. Don’t start too heavy, do something you know you can do and go for long distance then progressively get heavier.
Farmer’s Carry bar
3. Bar Holds: Use a weightlifting bar, lift up like you would a deadlift or clean and try to hold for a) a certain amount of time or b) max time. Again, don’t start too heavy.
If you guys have any questions, feel free to reach out to us! If you put any of these tips to use, make sure to let us know how it goes! You can comment below, reach out to us on Facebook, Instagram or send us an e-mail! Whether you have your pull-ups or not, I hope these help you guys reach your goals!