A standard pull up may seem like a rudimentary exercise, but it packs a punch. A simple strict pull up, where the body is suspended by the hands and pulls up over a bar, requires significant upper body strength. They work your arms, shoulder blades, back and midline – plus a few added secondary benefits (improved grip strength and posture, for instance). They’re a staple resistance training movement that can promote muscular endurance and enhanced cardiovascular health, sometimes halving the time you need to spend in the gym to get results, according to one study1. Not to mention, doing a successful pull up can help with building strength elsewhere in the gym, like the bench press and inverted row. If all of this wasn’t enough, they can be done just about anywhere – no specialized equipment required, just a bar and the ability.
But pull ups (and their cousin, chin ups, which differ only in their supinated grip) are also notoriously difficult, especially for women. A case study2 in the UK was grim – just over 31 percent of women reported they could do a single unassisted pull up. The benchmark for “fit and strong” women? One to three pull ups.
What makes them so hard? While pull ups fire most of the muscles in your upper body, it’s still only around 5-6% of your overall muscle mass. And that 5-6%? It’s lifting your entire body.
Mastering the pull up takes patience and practice, but then there are scaled pull ups – whether you want to work on pull up progression, get that first strict pull up or eventually build up to a kipping pull up eventually.
STOP – Warm Up Before Attempting Scaled Pull-ups
Stepping up to the rig and hopping right on will make your coach’s eye twitch, and for good reason. It’s a surefire way to pull something – and we’re not talking a pull-up. We’re talking a not-so-nice pulled muscle. So, for the love of chalk, take the five extra minutes to generate some heat in your upper body. Here’s a few quick movements to try first thing:
- Dead hang in the bottom position
- Scapular retractions: Hang from the bar, engage your shoulder muscles by pulling them together back and forth. DO NOT shrug your shoulders upward toward your ears. You should also feel this in your middle back muscles.
- Resistance band rows: Loop a resistance band through the rig. Step back until there is tension in the band, grip the band in both hands. Pull the band slowly to your sternum, keeping your elbows in tight to your sides. Release under tension until arms are fully extended in front of you. Repeat 10 times.
- Superman: Lie facedown on the floor with your arms extended in front of you. Squeeze your glutes and lower back as you lift your arms, chest and feet off the floor. Hold for five seconds and release slowly. Repeat 5-10 times.
- Forearm stretch: Kneel on all fours with your palms pressed down. Slowly twist your hands so your fingers face the body. Hold for 10-15 seconds and release.
Technique, Technique, Technique
Whether you’re just starting out on pull ups or you’re trying to increase your reps and fluidity, good form makes a big difference in preventing injury and improving technique.
– Grip the bar at shoulder width
– Use a “false grip” (thumb over, palms facing away)
– Fully extend your arms before and after each rep
– Tighten your core, pelvis and glutes during ascent
– Keep your elbows pointed toward the floor during ascent
– Pull your chin up completely over the bar before descending
Seated Pull ups
A seated pull up is a great way to train the muscles needed to nail a strict pull up. The upright torso helps mimic the pull-up effectively, with an added focus on range of motion. To get set up, secure an empty barbell on the rig so it is overhead when you are sitting beneath it. Hint – the higher the bar, the more of your weight you’ll have to pull. Sit in an L-formation on the ground with your legs straight in front of you and reach your hands up to the barbell. Pull straight up. Keep your heels on the ground to reduce your body weight, but be careful to not let them push your upper body up over the bar.
Band Assisted Pull ups
Using a band for pull ups can help master correct form and increase the number of reps while building pull up strength. These elastic bands vary in resistance levels – from around 5 lbs up to around 15-20 lbs. Heavier (or wider) bands will provide the most assistance to the athlete. Bands can be looped over the pull-up bar so you can either step into them with your foot or with your knees from a box. They can also be attached with J-cups just beneath your feet. Band assisted pull ups have their place in pull up progression, but any coach will warn you – don’t get too comfortable. Strive to drop down in band thickness as you improve, with the ultimate goal of losing them altogether.
Jumping Pull up
Another fantastic Metcon scaling option – jumping pull ups give you the ability to work through many reps while gaining strength. Use a box to stand just beneath the pull up bar. The bar should be hitting between your wrist and elbow while your arms are overhead. Bend your knees with your arms overhead and use the momentum to pull yourself up over the bar. Then, concentrating on the eccentric movement, slowly lower yourself down to a dead hang. Want to make it harder? Add an isometric hold for several seconds before lowering down to the starting position.
A Word on Ring Rows
Ring rows often used as an alternative to pull-ups for newer athletes, especially those who need to concentrate on muscle development and work on pulling movements in general. While not a scaled pull up, per say, it works the same muscles and therefore has its place as a development step or another option for high-rep workouts. They are also a good plan to switch to mid-workout if your pull-ups are starting to gas out.
To set up, lower the rings to hip height and grip them hammer-style. As you ascend, squeeze your shoulder blades together and bring your hands up by your armpits. Lower slowly until your arms are fully extended.
Foot placement will dictate the overall level of difficulty. The farther you go from upright – the harder it gets. Aim to get more horizontal over time, which will increase the upward pulling motion. For an additional challenge, place your feet on a box to become parallel to the ground.
It All Comes Back to Form
Whether jumping, ascending with a band or sitting, keep form top of mind – especially in the shoulders and rotator cuffs. Some tips to remain injury free during pull-ups:
– Avoid behind-the-neck pull-ups
– Do not lock out your arms in the dead hang, keep a slight bend in the elbows
– Watch your grip – don’t widen out beyond shoulder distance
– Take a rest if you feel your form heading downhill – this is not the time to work to muscular failure.
– Concentrate on joint mobility during warm-up and post-stretch
Most anyone in the fitness community will tell you – pull up progression doesn’t come overnight. But whether it’s starting at ring rows, progressing with a band or jumping on a box, proper technique and determination will help you get that chin over your bar in good time (maybe even sooner than you think).
Kendra Whittle is a writer, novice CrossFitter, marathon runner and triathlete. She lives in St. Louis with her husband, three kids and two dogs.