Coach, I Can't Do Pull Ups: 7 Tips to Get You There
Pull ups are a basic movement in CrossFit, yet in and of themselves they are an intermediate gymnastic movement. Starting out pulling your bodyweight can seem like an insurmountable task.
Don’t fall prey to the mistakes of progressing too fast, kipping before you’re ready, or skipping over the fundamentals. There are tons of strategies and methods of assistance to get your chin over that bar, but not all of them are helping you to get stronger.
Here we will learn where to begin and which alternatives are worth your time. Here are seven tips for achieving that beautiful, dead-hang pull up:
1. Work Your Mobility
Pullups begin as all movements do - with proper mobility. Work on being able to maintain a proper overhead position exactly as described in my article The Safest and Smartest Progression for Building Your Overhead Lifts. If you start with tight lats, chest, or spine you’re already in a compromised position. This will put more stress on your shoulder joint and spine. For a pull up, you must start in a deadhang position with active shoulders. Once you can hang in this position in a controlled manner, then you can start pulling motions.
If you are unable to achieve a proper active hang position, you can still start building strength while working on your mobility. Work on grip strength using heavy deadlifts along with farmer’s carries. Both will stress the forearm and hands in a similar way to a pull up. To begin building pulling strength, you can do bent over barbell or dumbbell rows. Both are effective at building pulling strength and require less mobility to perform correctly.
2. Get Some Hang Time
Once you open up the mobility to dead hang properly, then you need to start spending time on the bar. Dead hangs for time are an effective way to build shoulder stability and grip strength. Make sure you never let your form suffer during these.
3. Avoid Jumping and Rubber Bands
Jumping pullups and banded pullups are popular in the CrossFit world as a way to get in a workout, but I’ve found little success with these methods and little direct translation into actual pull up strength. Strict banded pullups can be decent for building strength, but during a metcon they get abused and people begin to kip, bounce out of the hole, and squirm in all sorts of ways to finish their reps. If you’re after metabolic conditioning, switch to rows, deadlifts, rowing, ring rows, or some other variation.
4. Build Strength
To get your first pullup what you want to do is build strength. This means operating at 80%+ of your max effort at a minimum. Ring rows are one of the most effective methods to build strength and are easily varied in intensity by changing your positioning. Mark your foot positioning each workout and begin to creep your body closer to parallel with the floor each time. This will increase the load by involving a greater percentage of your bodyweight.
Negative pullups are also effective at building strength. Start with a five-second controlled descent and build to longer durations of time. Eccentric work can be very taxing and leave you sore, so start conservatively and add on as your body tells you. Don’t combine a lot of eccentric pulling work and then a hard metcon involving similar movements.
5. Stay Focused
Remember the body can adapt well in one way at a time. It’s hard to increase strength and endurance at the same time. This is why we cycle our training and have times when we focus on strength and times when we focus on conditioning. If your goal is to do a pull up, then focus on getting that first one now, and then multiple reps later.
6. Resist the Kip
Don’t kip until you can do at least five strict pullups. Kipping is the translation of horizontal momentum to vertical force and allows you to do a greater number of pull ups. Kipping is more efficient, but it also loads the shoulder dynamically, putting more force on it. If you are unable to control your bodyweight, there is no reason to add momentum on top of that.
7. Climb a Rope
Another movement great at building pulling strength is rope climbs. Rope climbing with efficiency involves using your legs to hook the rope and push yourself higher. Your arms hold you in place as you bring your legs up. So for a rope climb you only need to be able to hang on, not just pull your way to the top. Therefore, this is a great tool for people still working on building their pulling strength. If you’re a beginner, though, remember to let your legs help you so you don’t just focus on your arms and get burned out.
Respecting the pullup, training for your current ability level, and listening to your body will yield long-term results. If you’ve never done a pull up, then it’ll take time to get there, but the long smooth road always beats the ups and down of overtraining and progressing too quickly.
More pull up performance enhancers:
- Successful Pull Ups for Beginners: Say No to Bands
- Keep Your Chin Up! 5 Pieces to Progress Your Pull Up
- 10 Ways to Repair and Strengthen Your Pull Ups
- Show Me What's New on Breaking Muscle
Photo 3 provided by CrossFit LA.