Updated: Feb 20, 2019
The pull up is a great exercise displaying strength to weight ratio. It’s a homage to dedication and long hours clocked in the gym over months. It’s that guy or girl lifting themselves up repeatedly with seemingly zero effort. Its an indication that if you were caught dangling off a cliff you could pull yourself off dust off your jeans and walk off into the sunset.
But pull ups are hard. Or are they?
Why are pull ups hard? Well for one you are having to lift your body mass and it’s a weight that doesn’t change. You either adapt to it, lose a few pounds or you still need to build strength.
To tackle them you will need a systematic approach and plan. Not only will this keep you motivated but you will see progress weekly.
Here are some common mistakes and pitfalls you may be making on your road to performing a pull up.
1. You are spending way too much time on the pull-down machine or seated row machine!
Being able to do a pull up is a specific skill that needs a specific step by step procedure.
Performing numerous high rep sets to failure is only going to make you better at the pull-down machine or seated row. Sure, you may build some muscle, but it cannot be carried over to the specifies needed for the pull up.
2. You need to build your core strength!
You will need to train your core intelligently and not lay on a mat performing crunches.
Something that lets many gym goers down is that they have not got the core bracing strength to be able to support their body. The pull up is a closed chain movement which means the body moves and the limb stays fixed. Therefore, you fail to overcome the resistance, so your whole body moves instead. This creates an environment that is integral to core strength.
Dependant on your current strength will mean you may have a longer journey to performing the pull up. Not to worry, the journey for strength is not a one-way street and you will find other exercises becoming easier along the way as a by-product.
Get stronger in anti-extension and rotation movements, specifically isometric holds which keep constant tension. Have a look at the videos below for suggestions
3. You lack scapula control or mobility!
Having a healthy thoracic spine and good scapula control will contribute to the quality of your progression and ensure you do not pick up any nasty shoulder injuries on the way.
Here is a quick simple test to see you are at a good place with your scapula control.
Hang on a bar in an over hand grip and let your body drop to your ears. From there pull your scapula down without bending at the elbow. This is the first part of the pull up well done! You may need to watch my video below on how to get better at this.
Once you have addressed these three issues its time to start practising your Pull ups programme!
1. Start with the Eccentric.
Whenever you are given a puzzle the first thing you do is look at all the pieces then you look for the pieces with the strongest features. Here is your first piece, start at the top and work your way down. Okay, okay enough with being cryptic. Basically, your body is always stronger on the lowering portion of any movement. That’s why it is easier to put your child down than it is to lift them up. Begin by jumping up to the bar holding for as long as you can then lower for as long you can.
2. Less reps more Frequency.
Keep your reps between 3 - 5 of 4 - 5 sets and aim to train them 3 to 4 times a week. This added frequency of low volume spread out throughout the week will keep you from becoming too fatigued in one bout. This is strength training in its purest, give yourself adequate rest between sets, 3 minutes minimum and 5 max. You will not feel puffed out, but you will need neurological recovery.
3. Keep everything the same.
Get used to having the same set up and routine. You don’t want any variations whilst you are learning. Adopt a grip width and style and stick with it. If you are going underhand, keep it shoulder width or just inside. If overhand - wider than shoulder width.
4. Start to practice the inverted row or TRX row.
This is the horizontal version of a pull up. Aim for slightly higher reps of 6-8. This lift is a great carry over as you need to use your core to keep your hips up. It works similar muscles but in a different plane of motion so use the same grip and width as your pull ups.
5. Use Bands over the Assisted Pull up Machine.
Although the assisted pull up machine looks great in all its glory, the truth is it’s a bit clunky and forces you to work kneeling which eradicates any core bracing you have been working so hard on. Stick to bands – Firstly they help you at the bottom where you are your weakest and the resistance decreases forcing you to work harder at the top of the movement. I would only start to use bands once you feel comfortable with step one.
Give this a go and feel free to email or leave comment below. We would also love to see pictures of you performing them. Here is one of our super strong client Kate.