Mastering the Pull-Up

Kevin Mullins | 08 Nov 2017

The pull-up, or even its chin-up variance, is one of the most sought after accomplishments in physical fitness. It goes beyond age, gender, and fitness level. There is just something incredible about being able to grab something above your head and pull yourself up to it that draws our attention and forms our goals.

It’s an exercise that demands absolute strength from the posterior chain, most specifically, the latissimus dorsi, posterior deltoids, rhomboids, mid-to-lower trapezius, biceps brachii, forearm muscles, and the rotator cuff. When done correctly, it also serves as an incredible core exercise that engages the internal and external obliques, the tranverse abdominus, and even the glutes. It’s a bang-for-your-buck exercise that everyone wants, and should be able, to do.

It’s not uncommon for a personal trainer to hear that a client would like to perform a single pull-up without assistance, or be able to do a set of ten in a row. It’s a lofty goal for most, but it is completely attainable if the coach sets forth the right training program, proper progressions, and builds necessary recovery periods in.

The catch though is that the pull-up is not an easy exercise to build progression on. The interconnectivity of the muscular, fascial, and the health of the active joints all factor in to the equation. The bodyweight of the client, their relative strength, and their training history also factor in. Lastly, their psychological outlook towards the challenge, themselves, and your coaching ability can add or remove performance blocks.

So as coaches, it is so much more that simply putting your client near the bar and telling them to knock out repetitions. It’s even more than helping them lose a few pounds and training their lats to be stronger.

It’s deconstructing the movement into its pieces, teaching your client to master each element, and putting it back together appropriately when the time is right. Results are achievable when a coach prioritizes the parts instead of just the sum. So, let’s examine these parts and put them together at the end.

The Shoulders Must Be Free

The overhead pulling motion (pull-ups, chin-ups, etc.) is executed with the intent to work the muscles of the back, such as the lats, rhomboids, and teres major. Whether a client is looking to build strength, size, or improve overall fitness – the pull-up motion can be used to enhance all of the above.

It doesn’t work, however, if the client doesn’t have access to appropriate shoulder mobility. If a client cannot reach overhead pain-free, then they are not going to be successful pulling themselves up towards a bar. If a client isn’t quite sure how to move their scapulae in space throughout the essential planes of motion, then it’s going to be hard for your client to continue a path of improvement. Lastly, if a client is unable to maintain thoracic extension throughout the entire motion, then they’ll be actively impinging their shoulder and leading themselves towards an injury.

So as a coach, you must address these concerns with adequate corrective, mobility, and activation exercises.

Some corrective and mobility movements include:

  • Sphinx Pose (thoracic extension)
  • PVC Pullovers (AC joint mobility)
  • Wall Angels (Scapular Depression/Elevation and Scapular Outward/Inward Rotation)
  • Cat Cow (Thoracic Extension/Flexion and Scapular Retraction/Protraction)

A client should have access to all of these aforementioned ranges of motion prior to engaging in any overhead pulling exercise, including lat pulldowns. You never want to compound dysfunction with more dysfunction.

As we move towards activation we are looking to strengthen muscle groups that are active in a motion, but may not fire appropriately due to the major movers doing most of the work. Some moves include:

  • Band Pull A parts (Posterior Deltoid, External Rotator Groups)
  • Face Pulls (Rhomboids, Posterior Delt, ER Group)
  • Lat Pullovers (Lattisimus Dorsi, Transverse Abdominus, Internal Rotator)
  • Deadlifts (Full Posterior Chain Recruitment, Grip Strength, Core Tension)

Each of these exercises provide strength to a part of the sum. Each of these movements will improve small muscular groupings, coach individual joint mechanics, and strengthen the neurological system to create better impulse when necessary.

It’s important to know that you must be great at the parts before worrying about the total sum.

The Pull-Up is a Plank

So many movements could use this title. The fact of the matter is that the core is a force transducer, or a “channel” for which energy communicates between the upper and lower body. Thus, in a pull-up it is important for the core to remain engaged and prepared for force production if you or a client are to overcome the inertia of your bodyweight.

The core tension extends into the glutes in this analogy as well. Like a plank – the core should be drawn in to create tension, as should the glutes and heel of the foot. By locking in the core and posterior chain you create irradiating forces which can help create greater total force in the exercise.

To help illustrate this science, think of it this way:

Would you rather attempt a max jump from the sand or from a hard surface?

Would you attempt a maximum effort lift on a trampoline?

The answer is emphatically no. And that is because you need stability for force generation in any exercise. So, coaching your clients to engage the core, glutes, and hamstrings by squeezing their feet behind them (not crossing) will lend itself to better overall performance in the pull-up progressions.

Train the Eccentric, Jump the Concentric

More damage is done to individual muscle fibers as you lower yourself from the bar. Yet as coaches and athletes, we often focus most of our efforts on the shortening phase, AKA when we lift ourselves up.

This is shortsighted since much of our hypertrophy response will come during a controlled eccentric phase that causes the cross bridges that are formed during actin-myosin cross bridges to tear and send signals for repair. It is this stress signal that will increase protein synthesis, burn additional calories, and increase the neural relationship between the muscles and the brain.

As coaches we should emphasize this lowering phase as our clients are learning to master the pull-up. By putting a box below their feet can allow them to essentially climb towards the top of the motion. They can either jump up the remaining distance, or simply begin lowering their body towards the ground. Our goal is to make the concentric phase as effortless as possible, which will increase the energy available to train the eccentric phase.

Over time, a client may not need as much help from the box and may begin incorporating a powerful jump to help them overcome the inertia during the upward phase. Their legs essentially spot their arms and boost them to the top. Still, we train the eccentric and continue to push them towards mastery of five, ten, and even fifteen repetitions of controlled lowering.

As a client begins peaking in this phase, you’ll know that they are getting significantly closer to doing an unassisted pull-up. Yet, avoiding the temptation to jump straight to the movement is even more important at this juncture. The final phase will be building strength, muscle size, and tolerance to the movement prior to unleashing them towards the bar.

Adding Assistance or Lowering the Load

The final phase of preparation will be the inclusion of banded repetitions or load manipulation in order to make your clients weigh “less”. By removing a certain percentage of their body weight, the client will be able to train the movement for repetitions, which will help build tolerance and serve as a lead in towards the total bodyweight movement.

It’s no different than training for a weighted exercise. We don’t just throw three plates on a deadlift and see what happens. We intelligently progress through loads as we get stronger, more body aware, and more finely tuned. This theory of progressive overload is one of the backbones in physiological adaptations.

And it belongs in bodyweight exercises just the same.

You may have access to a pull-up assisted machine in which you may use weights to defer bodyweight by increasing the amount of assistance given by the machine – essentially a counter lever. This will give you a very specific feedback on how much weight your client can currently “pull”. If a 150 pound client needs at least 50 pounds of counter load, then you can be certain that they can’t yet knock out repetitions with bodyweight only.

Resistance bands are based upon their thickness, which estimates their level of assistance on the packaging. Using the appropriate band can help your client propel themselves up during the bottom of the lowering phase – a place where many people get stuck in the motion. So, utilizing these bands can help your clients that are used to pulling themselves up and down on the bar naturally, but now with added push to overcome their bodyweight.

You can also push against their feet as time passes and they come closer to achieving an unassisted repetition. Knocking out these repetitions are as close to the real thing as you’ll get, so the psychological confidence of doing the movement will help push your client to the next level.

Putting it all Together

Now, as you exit this final phase of preparation, it is important that you coach the movement appropriately with cues. These cues should be used throughout the phases of programming, but should really come into picture when you are setting your client up to perform without assistance.

Major cues are:

  • Pull the elbows towards your hips. (Imagine a parenthesis as the path)
  • At the top, squeeze an orange in your armpits
  • Draw your core in, squeeze your glutes and flex your feet together to stay tight
  • Inhale on the way down and exhale as your drive to the top of the bar
  • Don’t reach with the chin – touch the bar to your clavicles.

As your client self-regulates using your cueing, then your job is to tempo their repetitions. Don’t just unleash them and expect them to add reps each week. In fact, a proper pull-up program will often have them doing less repetitions, but more sets, in an effort to increase total volume. On average, alternating between weeks of high repetition, but fewer sets and less reps with more sets will lead to the best progress.

Closing

The pull-up is a movement that is desirable for many who work out. There is something alluring to pulling yourself up over a bar and showing gravity who is boss. Of course, understand that a client’s current bodyweight, body fat, or total muscularity may impact their ability to perform the pull-up and its variations. Quality conversation about appropriate goals and a training program that helps get them in optimal condition will be your best first step. However, if your client is ready for the pull-up, then coach the process and not just the exercise.

The sum is always better when the parts are optimal.

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Kevin Mullins

About the author: Kevin Mullins

Kevin Mullins, CSCS is a Tier 3+ coach for Equinox Sports Club in Washington D.C. A B.S. in Kinesiology from the University of Maryland serves as the scientific foundation for the following certifications - ISSA certified Personal Trainer, USAW Level 1 Sports Performance, and Precision Nutrition Level 1.

Kevin writes for multiple resources and has been featured by PTontheNet, the PTDC, Men's Health, Women's Health, the Washington Post, and local television outlets. He was selected as Men's Health Next Top Trainer in 2014 and 2015.

Kevin maintains his own site at KevinMullinsFitness.com

As a fitness professional, Kevin aims to listen and learn as much about a client in an effort to design training and nutrition programs that are personalized to someone's physiological, psychological, and sociological readiness. No two programs should look the same.

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