Pull-ups should be a staple of any good training program. Why? Whether you’re a strength athlete, CrossFitter or just someone looking to get stronger, pull-ups work a large number of muscles at once, don’t require any equipment (just something to hang from) and build the kind of upper body strength that can transfer over to a host of other things.
But what if you don’t have the strength to get your chin over the pull-up bar? Or maybe you’re struggling to learn how to kip? How can you avoid wasting your time flailing around on the bar or performing drills that do more harm than good? (More on these later.)
Former circus star Sean Lind, the founder of Conjugate Gymnastics and Hybrid Performance Method’s gymnastics coach, is here to help. Lind, who has programmed for numerous CrossFit Games athletes (2014 Games champ Camille Leblanc-Bazinet and 2013 champ Samantha Briggs to name a few) shares some of his knowledge, favorite drills and tips below that will have you conquering the pull-up bar in no time…
STEP 1: KNOW YOUR WEAKNESS(ES)
In what capacity are you struggling with pull-ups? Are you trying to do more reps? Looking to be more fluid with your technique? Or do you just need to get stronger? That’s one of the first things Lind assesses when working with a new athlete and what you need to do to identify your biggest weakness.
Doing so is easy: find your max reps of unbroken strict pull-ups, then find your max reps of unbroken kipping pull-ups. If you have no strict pull-ups, skip to the section on building pulling strength. If those numbers are close (and assuming you have at least a few strict pull-ups), grip strength may be a limiting factor.
“If you don’t have the ability to hold on to the bar you stop pulling and your grip starts failing,” Lind said. “That’s No. 1. You have to train your grip.”
How do you know if grip strength is an issue? Try these bar taps shown in the video below. The premise is simple: hang from the bar, let go with one hand and tap your hip, switching arms each time through.
Ideally you should be able to do this for a minute, with the long term goal of hitting three minutes. If you aren’t there yet, that’s okay, just know you need to make grip strength a part of your training.
“I want the endurance to hold up,” Lind said. “Having better grip strength will translate over not just on the [pull-up] bar, but in everything else you do.”
If these are too hard, scale down to hanging with both hands on the bar until you feel comfortable enough to do taps. You should also be working in wrist rolls with the variation shown below. This variation takes the emphasis off of your shoulders —a common downfall in rolling up a free weight— and places it on your wrist and forearms.
** Note: The last thing you want to do when you’re working on gymnastics skills is rip. Take care of your hands, invest in a good pair of grips and be sure to do these grip strength drills as accessory AFTER your training. Once your grip goes, it takes a while to come back. And you don’t want to smoke yourself before doing a workout session involving your hands.
DEVELOPING A POWERFUL PULL
If you can’t do any strict pull-ups yet, or you can do big sets (20-30) of kipping pull-ups but can barely do a few strict, you need to focus on developing your pull strength. Same goes for those whose primary sport is either weightlifting or powerlifting. Build up that pulling strength.
To do that, you need to get in repetitions at a lighter scale. Think of strict pull-ups like your back squat: you aren’t going to go and lift 90-100 percent of your one-rep max every time. If you can’t do at least five strict pull-ups, how are you going to be able to do sets of twos or threes? You’re either going to have to take enough rest to fully recover or you’re going to fail the sets. Neither of those is an ideal scenario.
“I’d rather an athlete do more feet supported pull-ups so they can get more reps. Most people don’t realize that,” Lind said. “There’s nothing wrong with that or adding a weight vest [while supported] to take away some of that assistance. To build up the movement you need to spend time being able to do the movement.”
Find a challenging progression you can do for 8-10 reps and work on building up that strength. Lind prefers the feet-support method to bands —which have the tendency to fling you up— though both progressions are shown in the next video. If those are too easy, but unassisted strict pull-ups are still too hard, add a weight vest.
“I’m a big fan of volume, but not high intensity volume,” said Lind, who writes gymnastics programs that range from two to five days a week. “I like lighter, but more volume. I’d rather have someone do 5 sets x 10 reps bodyweight strict pull-ups, then 5 sets x 2 reps weighted. I want them to get more fluid at the movement. That time under tension will also help with more joint and tissue development.”
Obviously practicing pull-ups is important. But if you really want to become a better puller you have to constantly do variations of pulling. Rope climbs, ring rows, body rows and chest supported rows are all examples of movements that will help strength your lats, biceps and scapula.
“This morning I did pulling work that was 6 sets x 5 reps strict pull ups, 15-20 peg board climbs, 50 chest supported rows and bicep curls. And that was just my pulling,” Lind said. “Just doing a couple sets of pull-ups isn’t going to do it. You need to attack your entire back for this. And you need to be doing some kind of midline stability work daily.”
NO MORE NEGATIVES
Lind rarely, if ever, has his athletes perform eccentric (slow negative) movements. The reward just isn’t great enough and, quite frankly, he’d rather his athletes use their time more efficiently.
“Eccentrics don’t help you build strength. They can assist in muscle size, but I see too many people doing eccentrics for strength gain,” Lind said. “It’s like trying to push a wall locked into place. It can be great for learning positions, but there’s a big different between [eccentrics] and isometrics. I’d rather they do a pull-up and hold it at the top [of the pull] than do a slow negative. A pausing clean is an isometric. That adds value. Not a slow eccentric.”
Instead, Lind would rather athletes build the lat strength needed for pull-ups with movements like lat pulldowns which he does at least once a week. If you aren’t at a gym that has a lat pulldown machine, you can use a PVC pipe and hang it from the rig with bands.
Again, pausing to feel the position and movement is fine. Going slow-mo in reverse order isn’t the most efficient use of your time and is going to leave your body feeling wrecked the next day.
“Training eccentrics is one of the worst things you can do. You are going to be just tearing muscle and extremely sore for no reason,” Lind said. “Another big thing is people neglect scapula work. Both protraction and reaction. You want the shoulders and scap to be stable.”
Scapular pull-ups and dumbbell reverse flys are two movements that help work on that and can easily be incorporated into your warm up or as accessory work since they aren’t super taxing. If scap pull-ups are easy, add a weight vest.
WHEN YOU’RE STRONG ENOUGH, BUT CAN’T KIP
For a smaller group of athletes, strength isn’t the issue. Kipping is.
“The biggest breakdown for athletes is losing their tight hollow body,” Lind said. “If they are popping their hips up they lost their hollow [position] and are trying to create force another way. What you have to keep in mind is longer levers generate more force. If you are straight you generate more power. if you are bent you generate less power which is inefficient.”
To work on that hollow body position (and the arch that goes along with it), forget about pull-ups and just work that beat swing over and over. The more you get used to that style of movement the easier it is to translate over into a beautiful kipping pull up. You know you have the strength to get over the bar, so take the time to practice the swing and get comfortable moving back and forth. If you need a reminder to stay tight, put a towel or yoga block between your feet and squeeze it.
“One complex I like to use is a two-station drill. In the first station they do strict pull-ups in whatever scale they need,” Lind said. “Then the second station is anywhere from 5-10 beat (kip) swings. Just so they can break down those two elements and separate them neurologically. And practice the two side by side.”
Once you have a beautiful kipping pull-up that you can do for high volume sets (20 or so repetitions), you can progress to butterfly. Keep in mind the mechanics of the movement don’t change. The only change is the rotation.
“Instead of forward and back, it’s a constant forward motion. That’s the only difference from a butterfly pull-up to a kipping pull-up,” Lind said. “The same hollow, same pull and same arch all happen, just in a different sequence.”
Grip strength is going to be super important here. As with kipping, you want to spend the majority of your time just practicing the motion and not worrying about whether you are pulling high enough over the bar. You need to work on familiarity with the swing, staying active in the shoulders and timing the arch to hollow in the butterfly. Practice on the ground. Practice the motion standing on one leg with a PVC pipe. There are no shortcuts, but if you’re strong enough and have a beautiful kipping pull-up, the transition to butterfly should be just a matter of putting in the reps needed to train your brain to remember that movement.
But please, please, please don’t rush to get here!!!
“I’m not going to have anyone clean until they can deadlift and front squat. You have to have those two movement understood before you start [teaching] the clean. if you don’t, you don’t know how to catch the barbell,” Lind said. “It’s the same thing here. I want the movement broken down into pieces. For butterfly, until you can do beautiful movement with kipping, you just aren’t ready for butterfly. Your body and joints aren’t ready for it. It has so much force in it that if you’re not ready to control that power, you are going to wreck your body.”
**Both founders of Athlete Daily have followed Sean Lind’s gymnastics programming for several years—going from zero strict pull-ups to 15 unbroken and strict muscle ups—and we highly recommend it to athletes of all levels. If you’re looking to improve your bodyweight skills, check it out here. Sean’s gymnastics programming is also available through Hybrid Performance Method here.