The pull up. A move that daunts even the fittest of amongst us. They’re scary when you first try them, right? How on earth do we convince our back and arms that they’re able to hoist our full bodyweight up against the force of gravity?
I remember drilling exercises to increase my strength for years before I could do them properly, and still now a few years on I practice as often as I can to keep up that strength, and attempt to get stronger. Essentially the more practice you do, the stronger you’ll get, the closer you’ll get to nailing your pull ups (like with almost anything, there’s no way around it).
Here are some exercises that I practiced a few times a week when I was working towards my first ever pull ups. Even if you’ve already got your pull ups nailed, these will help you string more together and increase your strength for things like muscle ups and levers, which are the next step up. I’ve also put together a little video with examples of the following exercises, which I hope will help,
1. Scapular pull ups: hanging from the bars, keeping your arms straight, pull your shoulder blades down and back, feel your lats engage, and slowly relax back down again (all of this without bending your arms). You want to feel as though you’re shrugging your shoulders up and slowly coming back down to full hang. This is a great way to get your lats working and practice initiating a pull up.
Once you’ve got that move down, try drawing little circles forwards and backwards with your shoulders, keeping your legs straight and together as well as your core really nice and tight. Remember you want to maintain a dish shape with your body when you’re practicing these.
You can also try bring your chest as far up towards the ceiling as you can, again without bending your arms (sounds like it shouldn’t be possible right? Give it a try. This is great practice for moves like leavers).
2. Negatives: grab a bench and put it underneath the pull up bars. Stand up on the bench, grab the handles and jump up to the top of the pull up position. Once you’re there, lower down slowly (to a count of 5) until your arms are straight. Pop your feet back on the bench jump up and repeat. The point of this is to take all of the effort out of the initial ‘pulling-up’ motion (technical term, ’concentric’) and put all of the effort into the ‘lowering-down’ motion (or ‘eccentric’).
Try these in sets of 4 or 5, if you’re up for an extra challenge try to really make sure that you’re spending equal amounts of time in each stage of the eccentric motion (ie. make it as smooth as you possibly can).
3. Banded pull ups: they may or may not have these at your gym, but you’re looking for the stretchy hoops that are a different colour depending on how thick they are. Put one of them over the pull up handles, put both feet (or knees, see how both feel and assess what works best for you. Knees will be slightly harder) in the other end, and perform your pull up. The thicker the bad, the easier it will be to pull yourself up.
I’ve done both sets of 6 in a very light band and sets of 15-20 in a very heavy band in my training before. Both ways are great, there is a difference in effects of these training techniques but for the sake of just generally wanting to get better at pull ups I would do both (perhaps in different sessions).
A note about form; remember to set your shoulders back before you pull up. That means retracting your shoulder blades to engage your back rather than relying on your traps and biceps. Squeeze your abs nice and tight and make sure you use your full range of motion - straight arms at the bottom and chin over the bar at the top (read: don’t cheat. Here’s a video for you to see what I mean).
Finally, be patient with this. If pull ups came easy everyone would be able to do them, then showing them off at the gym would be far less fun, right?
Good luck team!
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