The Upper Body Squat
Written by Bryce Smith
Many clients ask why I love pull-ups so much and my answer is always the same: it is like a squat for the upper body.
The squat and deadlift often get the title of “king of all other exercises”, while the pull-up gets tossed aside as an accessory movement and does not get the recognition it deserves. The pull-up will literally save your life if you are ever hanging from a cliff and, if you get good enough at them, you may even be able to save someone else’s life, too.
Not to mention it is a prerequisite for cool movements like muscle-ups, kipping pull-ups, and butterfly pull-ups. It also helps with your toes to bar, rowing, kettlebell swings, and olympic lifting as well. The pull-up works the lats, the rhomboids, the biceps, the forearms, the teres major and minor, the infraspinatus, the levator scapulae, the trapezius, the pectoralis major and minor, the abs, and even the triceps.
The pull-up itself is awesome, but if you really want to go to upper body Gainzville, try the loaded pull-up. Many athletes are top heavy or have reverse pyramid syndrome (V-shaped upper body and lobster legs) which makes bodyweight pull-ups not very challenging. By adding a load to the pull-up, it will help to build muscle and strength. Just like when squatting, we do not and should not always perform high rep ranges of pull-ups. Low rep ranges with a heavy load will have serious muscle building potential. Lat pulldowns, ring rows, and all the fancy schmancy pull-up variations ain’t got nothing on loaded pull-ups. Especially if you are pressed for time, these guys will give you a lot of bang for your buck.
For an extra challenge try banded pull-ups as well. Not bands to assist the movement, but rather, bands to add additional resistance. This can be done by attaching a band to a heavy kettlebell located on the floor and wrapping that band over your shoulders to add resistance for pull-ups.
Lastly, to strengthen those rhomboids (the musculature between the shoulder blades) try doing pull-ups by touching your upper chest to the bar rather than being content with simply getting your chin over the bar.
All of these variations should be performed with both a pronated (palms facing away), and a supinated (palms facing you) grip. We do so much pronated pulling in the CrossFit world that I find the supinated grip to be challenging on my forearm mobility. However, the supinated pulling helps to align my scapulae a little better by forcing the shoulders into external rotation. This is the safest position for the shoulder.
These subtle, but challenging, little twists will help with your pulling strength and assist with the bigger movements like the muscle-up and the olympic lifts. Give the upper body squat some proper attention and let us know your progress.