If only I could do a strict pull up…
This is the most common thing I hear from trainers and trainees alike. When I talk with fellow trainers to learn what goals their clients set for themselves or when I talk with my clients to ask what they want to learn or improve, the pull up constantly comes up.
The pull up is done with your palms facing away from you and uses mostly the muscles of your back. The chin up is done with your palms facing you and uses primarily the biceps
When my physical fitness test changed at work, I became determined to perform 3 strict pull ups. I even hired a personal trainer to work with me to build up the strength I needed and help me pull my face over the bar. I worked HARD, like three times a week with progressive strength training for a few months, and yet, 2 weeks before the test date, I couldn’t get even one pull up. What was I doing wrong? I was incredibly frustrated; I knew I gained a tremendous amount of strength and skill development. It wasn’t until I talked with another trainer that I discovered the part I never received any training on: mindset. Though mindset, I learned how to connect the way my muscles need to move in order to pull me over the bar. Once that connection was made, boom: the magic happened.
To achieve my pull ups, I focused on developing upper body strength. More specifically, I really developed the muscles of my back. The three key exercises I found to help build pull up strength were: rows (barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell and inverted); isometric holds (using a chair or box to get up over the bar and hold the position for as long as I could); and grip work.
Rolling and muscle activation as part of the warm up is imperative; it helps the body perform movement with greater coordination, but more importantly, it prevents injury. Take about 5 minutes to roll out any tight spots. You can use either a foam roller or a small ball such as a lacrosse ball or a tennis ball. Complete about 6-10 activation exercises, then move on to primary and secondary exercises, and conclude with core work.
Here is a sample workout:
Roll tight spots
- band pull aparts (10 reps)
- band straight arm pull down (10 reps)
- hollow body hold/rockers while laying on the ground (hold/rock for 45-60 seconds)
- kneeling lat stretch (10 reps)
- lat pull down (either with a band or weight stack, 12-15 reps)
- push ups (15-20)
- inverted body weight rows (either with a barbell or a suspension trainer, 12-15 reps)
- squat to shoulder press (using challenging weight, 12-15 reps)
- pallof press (either with a band or weight stack, 12-15 reps each side)
Repeat the exercise circuit 3x.
Cool down by rolling out anything that feels tight, followed by static stretching.
This workout is an example of a starting point in developing upper body strength. In addition to strength exercises for your upper body and core, you’ll want to move to the pull up bar. If you want to do pull ups, you have to do them. 🙂 You can add isometric holds by grabbing a pull up bar and hanging for as long as you can. Time it, because once you can hang for 45-60 seconds, you can progress to holding at the middle, as well as holding at the top (chin over the bar). Another way to develop a mind-muscle connection is to do “mini pull ups”. This is a great way to feel your lats at work and is key for continuing to understand how involved your lats are in pulling you up and over the bar. Negatives are when you start from the top of the bar and lower yourself down with control in at least a 4 second count and up to 8 seconds. You can start with a range of 4-10 reps of these, with a maximum of 3 sets. Remember, form is more important than your rep or set count; your goal is to build controlled strength so you can continue to progress with good muscle memory. Another key form point is to avoid shrugging your shoulders – keep your shoulders down and away from your ears.
Once you have worked at the negatives and you feel like you can maintain a controlled 8 count descent with good form, give a pull up a try. You won’t know if you can do one until you try; you just may surprise yourself by doing one or two! When I got my first one, I thought I was going to cry tears of joy. I had been working so hard and couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t get over the bar. When I finally put it all together, it was the most liberating and empowering feeling and I won’t soon forget it.
If you have any questions or need suggestions on how to add pull ups into your work out, please don’t hesitate to send me a message. I’d love to see you nail the pull up!