Ahh the good old pull up, an epic, old school exercise that needs bringing back with a vengeance. Not only are pull ups essential for building an awesome back, they are also a great measure of upper body strength. If you’re struggling to improve your reps, range or technique then check out our guide to perfecting your pull ups.
Pull ups rock and everyone wants to master them. Whether you are still training towards your first PROPER pull up or looking to simply upgrade your current pull up abilities, these simple 7 steps will get you there. When I refer to PROPER pull ups I would just like to confirm there is no kipping or use of momentum to get the desired range, just strict pull ups, simple.
I used to suck at pull ups and avoided doing them. Why? Because they were tough and I was rubbish at them, managing 1-2 sloppy reps was as good as it got. However, I met a dude who could rep out pull ups effortlessly, it was impressive and inspiring and made me realise I needed to man-up and master this awesome feat of strength. The following steps helped me progress to 19 strict reps with full range on every repetition. I weight just shy of 100kg, so that’s a good bit of progress in my opinion though my target is 30 – I’m working on it….
1) Hang Time
A huge aspect of a good pull up is your grip strength and a great way to improve it is to test it.
Simply hanging from a bar for a long as possible will put your grip strength to the test. It’s also a great opportunity to focus on another aspect of the pull up than many fail on; shoulder retraction.
This is where we pull the shoulders back and down, packing them into their sockets. This protects the shoulder joint whilst allowing us to engage the lat muscles in the back and stimulate the smaller muscles surrounding the shoulder joint, for a more efficient lift. It will also place you in the perfect start position for a PROPER pull up.
Try this – Hang from a bar for as long as you can, rest 1 minute and repeat for 2-3 sets. Log each time in your notebook with a view to increasing the duration as often as possible.
Once you get the hang of it (get it!) you can then play around and start adding in the shoulder retractions or ‘shoulder packing movement’ as it’s sometimes called. Pack the shoulders and hold for 10 secs before hanging loose for 10 seconds, repeat until you can hang for 60 seconds. Then gradually increase the time on the retractions until eventually you can hold 60 seconds or more in the retracted position.
Of course an obvious way to progress here is to add some weight. Simply hold a dumbbell between your feet or add some weight to a dip belt.
2) Use Bands Effectively
Some trainers will tell you not to use bands to improve your pull ups, however, I disagree. If used effectively they are a great tool to help you create more tension in the muscles, train pull ups at a higher volume and if you cannot yet perform a full pull up, they allow you to get a feel for the movement that’s more natural than a pull up assistance machine.
The key is to use them properly and not to rely on them too much, they should just give you the little push you need. If you can already do pull ups they will enable you to do more reps, create more time under tension as well as increasing the length of your negative reps which is great to activate your lats.
Its good to get a range of band strengths so you can experiment with different rep ranges and if you are not capable of doing any pull ups, then of course as a beginner they will prove invaluable. I would recommend these bands and often use them in a drop set style method, this is where I do pull ups to failure then put my feet in the band to complete those extra few precious reps out.
3) Be Negative
I don’t mean whine and moan here, I’m still referring to your pull up training! Specifically I mean the lowering or ‘eccentric’ phase, often called the negative phase of the lift as you lower the body or weight back down to the start position.
A great way to increase your pull up abilities is to pay more attention to this aspect of the lift. When I perform pull ups, I take 3-4 seconds to lower myself back to the start position whilst doing sets of 6-10 reps. Sometimes I decrease the rep range and do sets of 3 but I allow 10 seconds to lower myself to the start position. Whichever you choose, just make sure the negative phase is slow and controlled and you don’t simply relax your body and drop to the bottom. This works well if using bands too.
A progression would be to add extra weight or a pause in the movement; for example; pull up, hold at the top with a solid squeeze on the lats for around 3 seconds then allow 4-5 seconds to lower yourself down. A word of warning; this is brutal!
4) Build Pulling Strength Elsewhere
Whilst pull ups are awesome it’s important you mix up your back workouts to compliment them. Exercises such as barbell rows, supinated grip rows, lateral pull downs, deadlifts and cable face pulls are some of the most effective back exercises.
5) Repeat Frequently
Sounds obvious yet often overlooked or ignored! One of the greatest things that will speed-up your progress is simply doing them more often. Pull ups feature in my workouts 3-4 times a week.
I do not always perform to failure, sometimes they simply complement my pressing or I might rep out a few pull ups on whilst walking Hamish. Sometimes I go for high reps, other times just 1 rep with added weight, sometimes it’s close grip, other times it’s wide. The key here is simply repeat them often with the view of increasing your total number of reps in one go, be sure to test this from time to time.
6) Open Up The Chest
This is very important because it improves the contraction of the lat muscles and will increase the power you generate. Too often I see people performing pull ups or lateral pulls or rows when they clearly have tight pectoral muscles. This is also evident when you see someone who has the strength to perform a pull up, however, as they near the top of the movement the shoulders roll forward in order to make the range. This makes the lift less efficient and will prevent the lats from fully engaging. To avoid this, stretch out your chest before you start your pull ups and when performing a pull up, lateral pull, or row really present the chest to the bar and retract the shoulders. Resist the urge for them to role forwards.
7) Vary Your Grip
A great tip to progress your pull ups is to vary your grip and not just use a pronated grip. Add a supinated grip to your pull ups, rows and lateral pull downs. Even exercises with a neutral grip such as single arm cable or dumbbell rows, T bar rows and trap bar deadlifts are great for this.
So there you have some really simple tips to add to your training arsenal to improve or start your journey to mastering PROPER pull ups. Give it a try and let me know how you get on.
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