Pull Ups can save your life. Get practicing.

Pull Ups are hard

Anyone that’s into rock climbing will tell you, you need to be able to do pull ups.  Well 7 years ago I couldn’t do a single pull up.  I got started with resistance training and after 3 years I could barely put two together.  It continued like this until I learned how I was screwing up my pull ups.  In this article I’m going to outline the lessons I learned that enabled me to rip out set after set of pull ups.  Pull ups are, in my opinion, one of the most hardest body weight exercises you can do in most gyms.  Why is this?

Well essentially you’re lifting the majority of your body weight which is difficult enough but then we have the added complication of “you’re probably doing it wrong.”  A proper pull up requires intense activation of the back muscles, primarily the Latissimus Dorsi, and even if you’re aware of this fact it can be mentally difficult to activate these muscles instead of just trying to “muscle” your way through the movement with your arms. Essentially we can narrow the most common problems with pull ups down to a few categories:

  1. Bad Positioning
  2. Inability to activate back muscles
  3. Deficient muscle strength

And of course these categories aren’t exclusive of one another but by starting at problem 1 and working up to problem 3 we have the best chance of making multiple pull ups a staple in your routine.

1. Bad Positioning

Think of trying to do a pull up and answer this: “What are your feet doing?”

If they’re crossed, behind you, flailing around, or kicking then you have a problem.  When performing a strict pull up your feet should be slightly out in front of you and your legs should be stiff.  If you laid on your back in this position you’d resemble a banana.  This is called the “Hollow body” position, I like to call it the “Banana” position. This is the position we want to ingrain into the beginning of our pull up movement pattern.  This position will make activation of the back muscles much easier.

As you get better at pull ups you can start playing with variations on foot position, but to establish the ability we must start i

n this position.

2. Inability to activate back muscles

The mind-muscle connection is hard to establish.  It is especially difficult to establish with the back muscles.

It’s easy to think that the pull-down machine is the best way to practice the movement.  I found this lacking though.  The lats are a large set of muscles that attach into the trunk of the back and when we’re in a seated position this insertion is somewhat compromised, leading other muscles to train in the movement.

Instead I find it much better to practice a pulling movement while maintaining the aforementioned hollow body position.  My preferred method is to do body weight rows on the gymnastic rings or TRX gear.  This exercise reinforces the hollow body position while providing an easy method for progressing (increasing the angle as you get better) as the mind-muscle connection becomes established.

Another good exercise to use is the negative pull up in which you use a chair, box, etc… to reach the bar with your chin over the bar.  You then lower yourself as slow as possible.  I find that this allows me to activate by back muscles fully before needing to perform any action which has made it much easier to establish the mind-muscle connection.

3. Deficient muscle strength

When you’re at this point you should be able to do at least 1 pull up but you just can’t do an impressive amount.  In this case we are going to use a method pioneered by legendary strength coach Pavel Tsatsouline: Grease the Groove.

With this method we are simply going to forget about doing huge sets of pull ups or even doing a lot of sets.

We are going to do one pull up.  A lot.

Essentially you want to perform a pull up whenever you feel capable of doing a complete one.  For me I started working in these additional pull ups after sets of other exercises.  Finish a set of deadlift, do a pull up.  Every lap around the track, do a pull up.  Coming inside after taking the trash out, do a pull up.

Trust me when I say this, this is insanely effective.  The only caveat is that you have to be looking for those opportunities to do a pull up and be mindful of your state of fatigue.  When doing one pull up all day gets easy, increase to two, then three.  Eventually you’ll be able to start some of those ridiculous training programs that require 50 pull ups in a given session.

And that’s how i did it.

This method has worked for me and has been successful with every client I’ve had apply it.  At the end of the day it’s a small set of principles you need to keep in mind when you approach training for pull ups.  Keep them in mind and stay consistent and you’ll be doing high rep pull ups in no time.