Imagine this; you’re out on a nice hike with your significant other. Strolling along, enjoying the day nothing seems out of the ordinary. The birds are chirping, skies are blue, and all is well, until you happen upon a clearing in the forest where a pack of wolves hovers over a freshly killed fawn.
Unfortunately you’re down wind and one smells you, turning his gaze to you and your partner, one by one the wolves start to shift in your direction. You run to the closest tree in hopes to climb to safety, but you’ve been avoiding pull ups at the gym...
Pull Ups Can Save Your Life
This simple exercise has been a staple of sport, military, and law enforcement training for a long time for a reason — it is the most practical exercise that can actually save your life. It bespeaks of human upper body strength, and if some s#!t goes down, you can actually get your ass out of dodge.
For most of us, though, we’ll never have an encounter with a wolf, go to war, or arrest a suspect. The reason most of us seek out a fitness program is to live a longer, healthier life, and a 2015 study of over 140,000 people found that upper body — specifically grip — strength was found to be a better predictor of mortality than blood pressure*. So, developing the pull up may not only help you escape the clutches of a pack of wolves or fight off an enemy, it could actually help you stretch out your lifespan.
Pull ups have long been a benchmark movement pattern for developing basic upper body strength, and they are an integral component of any strength and conditioning program. This fundamental exercise sets a baseline of back and arm strength that transfers to an immeasurable amount of capability in both sport and life.
Get Off The Struggle Bus
In the last decade of coaching, I have seen hordes of people struggle with pull ups. Some struggle due to atrophy from inactivity, some because they’ve never been exposed to a training regimen that included this movement, and some are just void of skill and resolve themselves to an approximation by yanking their face north of the bar in any and all spasmodic fashions.
There are loads of programs out there that teach us how to kip better, do more pull ups, and load reps upon reps, but often we aren’t set up for long term shoulder health or performance. This lack of strategy can lead to both injury and, even more frustrating, a lack of progress. When you hit a wall, the frustration can totally undermine all effort toward progress.
When done right pull ups are not only a fantastic display of basic upper body strength and shoulder health, but also a door into advanced skills like muscle ups. When done improperly they become a path to dysfunction.
At home at CrossFit Virginia Beach, we have had our fair share of beginners come in without proper pull up progression. In one particular case a young woman, who we’ll call Martha, had been training for about 18 months and already had some exposure to kipping style pull ups.
Thanks to improper training, she looked like a scorpion stinging it’s pray but could not do a single strict pull up — and she had shoulder pain during kipping to boot! Martha had constantly tried to work on pull ups, with more and more volume, but couldn’t seem to improve her pulling capacity. She finally asked for specific help and we started from the ground up.
We followed a loose protocol that actually prompted a program that we now use with regular success for healthy pull up and shoulder strength development.
Over about a year’s time, Martha developed her trunk strength and created a strong platform in her upper back. This developed a solid foundation for both pull ups and, later, even muscle ups! It allowed her to add advanced training skills and volume without being concerned if her body could handle the forces on her joints.
To this day she experiences no shoulder pain as a result of pull ups or muscle ups. It just takes reps and reps of the right work.
Steps to Awesome Pulling Strength
Properly organize the trunk. Keeping your abdominal and your butt engaged will help maximize your nervous system involvement. Allowing yourself to writhe around like an earthworm getting baked on a summer sidewalk will not help you accomplish your goal.
Strengthen everything around your scapula. Our shoulder blades are anchors for the shoulder joint, and controlling their position allows us to use larger muscle groups to do the heavy lifting. If you do this, expect all you barbell movements to get better, too!
Practice skills as skills. For beginners — and you are one if you have less than 3 strict pull ups — doing galactic s#!tloads of pull ups or sloppy kipping gets you nowhere. Even though it’s important to do vertical pulling when developing this specific pattern, we can more effectively increase strength by exercising pulling muscles with dumbbells, barbells, and ring rows. By combining these with our skill practice, we can effectively integrate our strength with our skill.
Propagate full range of motion.
Any good program will take this into consideration. By including mobility work and using full range of motion movement patterns, we maximize our strength potential and minimize our chances of injury.
Overhead oscillations with lacrosse balls are a classic way to open up the shoulders for the bottom of the pull up.
Pull Up Assessment
Here are two simple tests to see how you stack up:
Flexed Arm Hang
- Set up a jump box under a bar
- Grab the bar in a chin up grip (palms facing you)
- Jump up so that your chin is clearly over the bar
- Hold for max time
Strict Pull Up Test
- Start in a fully hanging position with palms facing out
- Legs should be straight with feet together and trunk braced tight
- Pull chin clearly over the bar and return to the start position with control
First Tier: 0-15 seconds/0 pull ups
You need the basics. Developing fundamental grip and back strength is the key, here. Performing sets of flexed arm hangs with various grips, as well as just hanging from the bar, are some ways to start advancing hand and forearm strength.
Second Tier: 15-30+ seconds/1-3 Pull Ups
Most athletes who need pull up help fall into this category. These two results often overlap and the actual capacity is measured differently. Most people on either side of this coin need the same development.
Folks get stuck here, and it can feel like pull up purgatory. You’ve got some grip and basic back strength, but you can’t quite put things together. We can start to tolerate a little more weight and volume in our accessory work without effecting our skill progressions heavily.
Here we can start layering more advanced skill work while continuing our strength gains. Perfect practice really counts in this phase.
Third Tier: 3-5 Pull Ups
Sweet! You can do some pull ups. If you find that you can do a few pull ups with good form but the rug quickly gets pulled out from you, it’s time to get real: all about repeated exposure here. You should still be addressing pulling strength with a decent amount of assistance work, but crank up the volume on pull ups. That being said, position is king. Don’t get sloppy.
Getting good at pull ups can help you fill out a tank top better, develop athleticism, and possibly even save your life. Best yet, they can just be fun. Don’t get stuck in pull up limbo; start attacking this exercise now and open a gateway to strength, skill, and good times that awaits you.