Ah, the good ol’ strict pull-up. Nothing like having to elevate your entire body weight! Some people have no problem banging out strict pull-ups. However, a large population of CrossFitters see the word “pull-up” and are instantly defeated by what seems to be a mythical accomplishment.
Women in particular have a very difficult time conquering their first strict pull-up. Since the pull-up isn’t very technical, it’s mostly due to a lack of strength, not skill, that holds women back.
The Banded Pull-up Paradox
Most CrossFit boxes have no issues in allowing athletes to throw bands on the bar to use as an acceptable scaling for pull-ups. While this is OK for WODs, it doesn’t help much for developing pure pull-up strength. We all know that one person who has been using the same thick green band for the last two years. Heck, it might even be you. There are several problems with using bands:
Bands take off nearly the entire load of 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.
Bands are elastic, therefore causing you to accelerate 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.
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 WOD standards, it isn’t doing much to help you achieve a strict pull-up.
Often a band is either too easy or too hard, so strengthening the pull-up requires strength work outside of the regularly scheduled WOD.
Conquering the Pull-up
The pull-up requires a dedicated strength plan. Waiting for the word ‘pull-up’ to appear every once in a while on the whiteboard isn’t going to cut it. You need a dedicated plan that will simulate actual pull-ups and strengthen the muscles in that specific movement pattern. In my experience with clients and athletes, getting your first pull-up is as simple as periodizing four exercises and just requires hard work and patience.
Accountability is key. Most people know they have weaknesses but don’t know how to address the issue.
The Dead Hang
How to do it
Find a bar and just hang as long as you can!
Why it works
You might be surprised but this exercise will really test your grip strength. If you can’t perform a strict pull-up there’s a strong chance you can’t hang on a bar for more than 30 seconds either. Having a weak grip is a contributor to pull-up weaknesses. The stronger your grip is, the greater your work capacity to perform pull-ups.
The Ring Row
How to do it
Set up rings to a height that is roughly at the hip. Hold on to the rings and slowly lean back until your arms are fully extended and your torso and legs are straight. Pull on the rings until your hands reach your chest. Do not use your hips to assist you. The stronger you are, the lower you can set the rings and bring your torso to the ground.
Why it works
The ring row is a basic back strengthening exercise. If the other movements are still too difficult, even after adjusting to easier levels, stick with ring rows for a while. A study in the International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics revealed that most pulling strength is exerted when the arms are 90 degrees to the sagittal plane (a vertical plane which passes from front to rear, dividing the body into right and left halves), which means this a great exercise for beginners to start developing pulling strength.
The Segmented & Eccentric Pull-up
How to do it
The name is a little crazy, but it’s the best way to describe what you’re doing. You’ll start on a box set up to a height where you can perform a pull-up. The great part about this set-up is that it can be adjusted to any strength level. If you’re very weak, you might have to stack some plates on the box so that you’re closer to the bar (you can even be just a few inches from the bar if needed). If you’re close to your first pull-up, you’ll be setting up a height that is a lot lower.
The reason it’s called a segmented pull-up is because this height will be referred to as a segment of the repetition. For example, if you are starting your pull-up on a height where your arms are bent 90 degrees, this is a half-rep segment.
Now that you have the set-up, it’s time to do some work. Pull yourself over the bar from this position. The next step is lowering your body down in a slow and controlled manner to a complete dead hang. You’ll have to pull your feet back to avoid hitting the box. A common mistake is people who lower themselves slowly to about halfway, hold it, then drop fast. You must lower yourself slowly throughout the entire range of motion to develop bottom half strength.
Why it works
This is known as eccentric-enhanced training. What we’re really doing is overloading the eccentric phase of the pull-up, which is the going down portion. Since you’ve never performed a pull-up before, you’ve never experienced that much resistance loading on the back muscles. A study done by the Journal of Strength and Conditioning concluded that eccentric-enhanced training results in an increase in concentric power. The researchers believe that since a heavier than normal load is applied to the muscles, an increase in muscle tension and cross-bridging of fibers occurs. Another benefit of eccentric enhanced training is that it strengthens tendons. This is especially important if you plan on performing kipping and other gymnastic exercises in the future.