One of the classic staples of exercise is the pull-up. Unlike the bench press or squat however, the pull-up can have the tendency to leave most with a giant question mark above their head. This is due to the nature of the exercise and some of the limiting factors that come with it. If you wanted to improve on your bench press the basic concept would be somewhat simple, start with light weight and slowly increase throughout the following weeks. Trying to apply this format to the pull-up usually bring up one big question “what if I can’t even do one?” The following is designed to answer that question and show how you can start a safe and effective progression in order to improve on your pull-ups.
Form form form. One of the hardest things to do in athletics is to unlearn bad form. This is why, even if you can already do several pull-ups, it is important to take a close look at your form to identify tendencies that might hinder your progression in the long run. One of the most common errors in performing a correct pull-up is what I refer to as “looking over the ledge.” This refers to over-using the abdominal muscles in order to assist in the movement. The problem with this is that bringing your body into a crunched position as you perform a pull-up will simultaneously take the stronger muscles of the back (latisimus dorsi/rhomboids) out of position to be the prime movers. One tip that can be helpful is to imagine a string attached to the middle of your chest and go through the range of motion as if someone was pulling you up by the string. Leaning back slightly while doing a pull-up will not only increase your power, but in the long run will enable you to perform more reps due to the increased muscle recruitment
Once you have identified proper form the next step is strengthen that pattern. To do this there are two exercises that I recommend; the first being the Lat Pulldown. With this exercise you can choose an appropriate weight that will allow you to focus solely on form as well as provide a clear path for progression throughout the following weeks. The other exercise that I recommend to begin with are called “jumping pull-ups.” To perform this exercise you will need a box to place under a pull-up bar. When standing on the box and holding onto the bar, your arms should have between a 25-45 degree bend in them. Squat down until arms are fully extended. While beginning the upward faze remember the goal is to use as much of your upper body as possible while still maintaining proper form. Aim for your chest to hit the bar (Note: Watch your chin on the way down!).
Once you are able to do 2-5 pull-ups while maintaining proper form it is time to add them into your routine. Start by doing as many reps as possible until you fatigue. Once you are unable to do another pull-up, switch to either the jumping pull-ups or the lat pull-down immediately after each set in order to fatigue the muscles even further. This progression should be used until you can perform 10-15 pull-ups with proper form.
Pull-ups are an important addition to anyone’s program regardless of whether or not your sport requires it. Adding pull-ups to your weekly routine will help ensure a balanced muscular structure by preventing the chest and shoulder muscles from being overdeveloped. Following this progression will help anyone, whether age 8 or 80, achieve a perfect pull-up without compromising form or increasing your risk of injury. For more tips on how to improve on your pull-ups please contact Personal Fitness Trainer Will Paton.