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So you want a pull-up…

By March 4, 2019Blog Entry, Skill

Ahhh, the elusive strict pull-up. A feat of strength that looks so easy to do, but is so humbling the moment you attempt it.

So how does one gain strength in order to perform a strict pull-up? First, let’s define a “strict pull-up”. A strict pull-up starts with you handing from the bar, with a pronated grip (that would be palms down on the bar), in a dead-hang position – both arms fully extended from the bar, feet off the ground. You then pull your body upward to the point where your chin passes over the bar. There is no “craning of the neck” to get your chin over the bar!!

Many CrossFitters use bands to perform pull-ups in the WODs. While this is an acceptable scaling option, it’s not really working toward building your strength in a pull-up. Why? There are a couple of reasons. First, bands take off nearly the entire load from the bottom portion of the pull-up (from extended arms to half-way up). The bottom half is the most difficult part of the pull-up, therefore using bands all the time will never strengthen this portion of the repetition.

Also, bands are elastic, and accelerate your body throughout the lift. There is very little resistance from the bottom half of the rep, but momentum is generated as you move up from the bottom. The end result is a very low amount of force production done by the muscles, so very little “strengthening” is actually happening.

Lastly, bands often lead to weird banded kipping pull-ups. They aren’t exactly kipping pull-ups, but some sort of hybrid child of the kipping pull-up that works. While this may be acceptable in the WODs, it isn’t doing much to help you achieve a strict pull-up.

In order to get your pull-up you must work on gaining strength outside of the WODs. Specifically, working on movements that will strengthen your back and shoulders.

Here’s a simple plan you can do to help develop your pull-up.

Day 1:
The Eccentric Pull-up
Perform 5 sets of 4 repetitions. Start with your chin over the bar and take 3-5 seconds to descend to a dead hang. Rest 90-120 seconds between sets. Remember, we’re working on strength here, so there’s no need to rush. And make sure you rest between sets!

Day 2:
The Barbell Assisted Pull-up
3 sets of 6 repetitions. Rest 90-120 seconds between sets.
*watch this video to see how to set-up and perform this movement.

Day 3:
Ring Rows
4 sets of 8 repetitions. Rest 90 seconds between sets.
*make sure you are using the same “intensity” for each set – feet in the same spot!

Dead Hang
3 sets to failure. Just when you think you can’t hold on any longer, count to 15! Rest as needed.
*yes, this is you, just hanging from the bar!

Day 4:
The Eccentric Pull-up
5 sets of 3 repetitions. Take 5 seconds to descend to a dead hang. Rest 90-120 seconds between sets.
*note – you are trying to increase the time under tension by increasing the time it takes you to lower to a dead hang.

Day 5:
The Barbell Assisted Pull-up
3 sets of 5 repetitions. Rest 90-120 seconds between sets. Then perform 1 set to absolute failure.

Keep cycling through these movements until you are able to perform a strict pull-up.

A few things to note:

1. you must increase the intensity of the exercise as you make progress – ask a coach how you can best do this.
2. LOG YOUR EXERCISES!! Just like you log your WOD results, keep a log for each movement performed. You need to keep track of your progress!
3. Eccentric pull-ups are VERY taxing, so use discretion when performing this movement.

One last thought – Pavel Tsatsouline coined the phrase “grease the groove”.  Essentially, it’s a way to describe what you’re doing when you consistently practice a specific strength skill. The more you practice, the more of a pathway forms between your muscles and your nervous system.

Now, go grease that groove!