Why Pull-Ups are Awesome Sauce
Written by Kirsten Ahrendt
Pull-Ups! Everybody wants ‘em. Some people have none, some people have some, and most people could be doing them better! So whether you’re team “I heart pull-ups” or team “lift barbells not bodies”, I’m gonna break some things down for you:
– why pull ups are awesome sauce
– 4 things to incorporate in your training to improve your pull-ups or get your first one
– a sample of 2 weeks of pull-up accessory work to incorporate into your own time at the gym.
Why Pull-Ups are Awesome Sauce
Pull-ups are a great test of relative upper body strength. To successfully pull your own bodyweight up requires some key health parameters
- Strong grip**
- Relative upper body strength (how strong you are compared to your size)
- Healthy shoulders
- Strong core and back (specifically anterior core (abs) and lats)
**Did you know?! There are interesting connections between grip strength, absolute strength, all-cause mortality, and chronic diseases. If you have a stronger grip, you are likely to live longer. Read Coach Fritz’s article here for the scientific references and explanation.
Being able to pull your own bodyweight up is a great indicator of health in each of the 4 areas listed above. Coincidentally, focusing on these 4 parameters makes for a great roadmap to GETTING your first pull-up or INCREASING the # of pull-ups you have.
This prerequisite for a pull-up can be easily trained. A good baseline to achieve is a 60-second bar hang (can you do 2 minutes unbroken?). If you can’t do this yet, of course you can still work towards a pull-up, but I urge you not to skimp on this very boring and seemingly easy training. Begin incorporating bar and ring hangs into your daily warm-ups. Accumulate 3-5 minutes daily. Switch up your grip (supinated, pronated, neutral on rings) and see where you are deficient. If you are already really good at hanging, progress to single-arm hangs – carefully. Farmer carries are also helpful (long distance and light, or short distance and heavy). Take a page from Coach Bryce’s book, he programs 400m farmer carries at the start of his sessions – how heavy can you go while remaining unbroken for that long distance carry? You will build tremendous grip strength, endurance and shoulder health.
Relative Upper Body Strength
In order to do a pull-up, we have to be strong enough to control our own bodyweight. It is not merely enough to be able to do a heavy lat pull down or barbell row. Moving an external load with our arms is different than moving our own body with our arms. So, we’ll train our upper body to be strong pulling in a variety of planes, tempos, durations and reps, with external load as well as moving our own bodyweight. This is why you’ll see a variety of vertical pulling, horizontal pulling, unilateral pulling, static holds and isolated muscle group accessory work all mixed in for a well-rounded pullup program! Some of my favorite exercises include:
- Chin-Over-Bar Holds (minimum 30-second hold, aim for 60 seconds)
- “Sticking Point” Holds
- Inverted Barbell Rows
- Pull-Up Negatives
- Ring Rows
- Single-Arm Dumbbell Row
- Wide Grip Landmine Rows
- Chest supported row (wide grip, with a killer tempo)
- Weighted Pull-Ups (if you’re already proficient)
The shoulder is a delicate joint and usually becomes stronger in some places than others depending on the frequency and efficiency of our movement patterns, creating imbalances and less than optimal movement (which is why your coach is always telling you to get your traps out of your ears!). If you want pull-ups that are also DEAD SEXY then you should pay attention to how your scapula move. They’re the triangle bones on the back of your shoulder. They rotate down as you pull up, and rotate upwards as you lower yourself back to the dead hang. When you have imbalances or poorly trained motor patterns from lots of “not-so-sexy” reps (re: using your upper trap VS your lat), you often need to retrain your scaps. This is why you’ll see accessory work and drills focused on how your shoulder blades move. Movements that will help you create well-balanced scapular and dead sexy shoulder mechanics in your pullup program include:
Strong Core & Back
Try to do a pull-up without bracing your abs. Then try where you’re super braced. It is infinitely easier to do when you brace. This is because 1) when you brace, you actively connect your upper body to your lower body, meaning your arms don’t have to pull dead weight (have you ever tried moving a dead body?) 2) Irradiation. Pavel Tsatsouline says “irradiation states that a muscle working hard recruits the neighborhood muscles, and if they are already a part of the action, it amplifies their strength.” This means when we brace our core and activate our lats, it helps fire up other muscles to assist in the movement. This is why you’ll see core work in your pull-up programming and a ton of lat training. Stuff I like:
- Strict T2B or Knees-to-Elbows
- Dragon Flags & progressions
- Banded Lat Activation
- Hand Over Hand Rope Pulls
2-Weeks of Accessory Work
Here’s a sample of 2 weeks of 3x/week pull-up accessory work, broken into the 3 categories that I suggest you train to improve your pulling ability.
Day 1 focus – time under tension
Day 2 focus – pulling strength & isometrics
Day 3 focus – volume accumulation
3 things to remember:
- Consistency trumps intensity. Every. Damn. Time.
This plan is not the ONLY plan. Do something 3-4X per week and watch yourself improve (hang every day, farmer carry 3x/week, perform pull-up isometrics every warmup).
- Poor movement gets you poor results.
Take the time and have patience to train good movement patterns now, even if it takes you longer to get the result you want. You’ll save yourself from some nagging shoulder injuries down the road (talk to more 40 year olds who are banging out 10 strict pull-ups rather than 20 year olds, and see what they suggest).
- Coaches are smart.
Our job is to help you get from where you are to where you want to go. Hit up ANY of the Invictus coaches to create a 90-day plan custom for you and your goals.
For further reading, check out: Pull-Ups 101: Everything You Need to Know. Looking for even more of a plan for your pull-ups? Download our FREE 3-Week Training Guide to help you get your first pull-up or to increase the number you can currently bang out!