“7 Reasons Why You’re Struggling With Pull-ups!” by James Barnum

“7 Reasons Why You’re Struggling With Pull-ups!” by James Barnum

Ah…Pull-ups.  The pull-up is one of the most versatile exercises out there; you can do them with your body weight, throw on some chains, use wide and narrow grips, even turn your palms over and do a chin-up.  This staple movement not only develops strength and muscularity, but it carries over to any real-world scenario where you might need to…pull yourself up and over something.  It’s also vital to master the pull-up if you ever expect to do a muscle-up.  While the pull-up doesn’t seem all that hard to do, it’s one of the most difficult exercises to even get started with so I came up with this short list of the 7 reasons why you STILL haven’t mastered pull-ups!

1.  You’re too heavy.

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More often than not, the folks who have the most trouble with body weight movements like pull-ups are a little on the heavy side and they’ve developed little-to-no general physical preparedness (GPP).  Six-seven years from now when you’re carrying 20 more lbs. of muscle you can probably get away with being heavier, but right now, losing that fat will make a massive difference in your body weight movements.      

Be honest with yourself:  if you have a lot of fat to lose and you’re out of shape, you need to tackle one obstacle at a time. Start by getting your nutrition in order so you can drop some weight.  We can help with that. As you work to trim off some fluff, you’ll need to improve your work capacity by doing heavy resistance training with a barbell and dumbbells (more on that in a bit), biking, swimming, walking, rowing, sprinting, sled dragging, and even carrying heavy stuff – which brings us to our second point.

2.  Your grip strength isn’t up to par.

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Despite this meme, I assure that Chris Bonante doesn’t have any grip strength issues; he’s almost 40, has benched over 400 pounds, squatted 500, and trains regularly for GoRuck events and other endurance sports.  This was a defective bottle – if you have the same issue on a daily basis, you’re gonna need to do some work.

If you come from a sedentary background – i.e. you don’t play sports, work a physically demanding job, or get a lot of activity in general – chances are your grip isn’t anything to write home about.  If your grip strength isn’t sufficient to hold your body weight, there’s only a slim chance that you’ll be able to do a pull-up.  How do you fix this? Contrary to what you may see at your local globo gym, doing thousands of repetitions of wrist curls with 2.5 lb. plates is NOT the ticket to a bone-crushing grip.  To improve your grip strength, you need to perform exercises that involve static contractions of the hands, forearms, shoulders and upper backHang from the pull-up bar for time, carry heavy dumbbells for distance, load up a barbell and do timed holds for 30-60 seconds, or use a grip trainer.  Grip training is hard, so don’t bite off more weight than you can chew; start off light and go for endurance.

3.  Your back needs to get stronger. 

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This may seem like a no brainer – that’s why you’re trying to incorporate pull-ups into your routine anyway, isn’t it?  Although pull-ups are one of the best ways to develop back strength, the fact of the matter is that staring at the rig isn’t building a single ounce of muscle. Whether you can’t do a single pull-up or you can only bust out a few ugly reps before you’re gassed, you should add a few upper body pulling movements into your back workout to ensure that you’re getting stronger each week.  Try these exercises for 3 sets of 10 repetitions each:

  • Pull-up negatives have tremendous carryover to the pull-up.  Stand on something or jump up to the bar and get yourself in the top position of a pull-up.  Lower yourself in a controlled fashion until your arms are fully extended, then get right back up there and keep going until you’re done with your set!
  • Ring rows are a go-to pull for building strength in your entire back and core because they get you working with your body weight and can be easily modified as you progress.  Start with your feet on the floor, then elevate your feet with a box as you get stronger.
  • Single-arm dumbbell rows are great because they offer freedom of movement and an increased range of motion.  Support your body with one arm by leaning on a bench and explosively pull the dumbbell back like you’re trying to elbow someone in the gut.
  • Lat Pulldowns or any vertical pull done with a cable machine can help you develop pulling strength along the same plane as a pull-up and they offer the same freedom of movement as a dumbbell.

These specific physical preparedness (SPP) exercises use the same muscle groups and similar motor recruitment patterns as the pull-up.  If you improve at a number of SPP exercises, you can bet your bottom dollar you’ll get better at pull-ups too.

4.  Your form needs work.

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Pull-ups are like any other exercise or movement – there’s a right way and a wrong way to do them.  You can’t just grab the bar and pull all willy-nilly!  Here are some tips on maximizing your leverage and getting your back into it:

  • Take a shoulder-width grip!  Not only will you tear your shoulders apart by taking too wide a grip, but you’ll also limit your range of motion and use less of your back.  You can always work in wider grips as you progress but most of your pull-ups should be done with a moderate, shoulder-width grip.
  • Keep your head up!  By lifting your chin and tucking your neck backwards (packing your neck as some may call it), you can engage your upper back muscles and put yourself into a much better position to pull from.  To get an idea of what I mean, try first shoving your head forward, looking down, and tucking your chin into your body – do the opposite of that!
  • Pull Up and back!  Don’t think of the pull-up as a strictly vertical movement.  Instead, lean back and pull the bar to your upper chest, not your chin or neck.  Your lower body will be slightly out in front of you and your back will remain neutral – the classic hollow gymnastics position – NOT arched like crazy.  Don’t curl your legs – at least not at first.

5.  You don’t stay tight. 

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If you can’t maintain relative body position throughout the pull-up and you flop around like a mudkip, you have what we call an energy leak.  What this means is that instead of using your entire body to pull, you’re relying on whatever muscles will do the work – most likely your rotator cuff.  (Hint:  that’s bad.) Everything should stay tight when you pull; point your toes, lock your legs, squeeze your glutes, pack your neck, tuck your chin, take a big breath, and squeeze your core out as you pull your upper chest to the bar with a vice grip around the handles.  Don’t loosen up until you’re done with the set!  Sounds uncomfortable, eh?  It should be.

6.  You aren’t practicing often enough.

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You are what your repeatedly do.  If your form is on point, but your specific work capacity sucks and you have to jerk your body around to get your chin over the bar after the first repetition, you’re just teaching your body to express an inefficient movement pattern.  It’s much more difficult to unlearn bad form than it is to teach it, so you’re going to want to add in some specialized practice whenever possible. One of the best ways to practice pull-ups is to hang a cheap doorframe pull-up bar in a room you enter/exit frequently and knock out 1-2 explosive reps every time you pass through that door.  In his book “Power To The People”, Pavel Tsatsouline describes this as “greasing the groove” and it takes advantage of increased training frequency and specificity to perfect whatever movement you apply to it.  Here’s a real world example of how you can use this technique over the course of a week if you can only d 5-6 pull-ups in a row right now:

Monday
Tuesday
Wednesday
Thursday
Friday
Saturday
Sunday
10 sets of 2
2 sets of 3
12 sets of 2
OFF
3 sets of 3
10 sets of 3
2 sets to failure

What’s going on here is that you’re accumulating a large volume of perfect repetitions throughout the week.  The volume undulates between 9 and 30 repetitions per day with only one day off.  By focusing on sets of 2-3 reps, you can focus on form yet still elicit the fatigue required to grow stronger.  At the end of the week, you’re trying to hit as many reps as possible across two sets.  Over time, you’ll gain pull-up repetitions and really dial in your form.

7.  You’re over-reliant on assisted pull-ups.

This is going to shock some people, but doing assisted pull-ups exclusively in your workouts may be preventing you from doing a real, unassisted pull-up.  Why?  Look back at reason #5 where we went over technique/form.  Your whole body needs to stay tight during a pull-up, and assistance – whether it’s on a machine or with a band – removes the legs and core from the equation almost completely.  It’s difficult to use your back efficiently with a loose core so you end up pulling with less lat engagement and develop improper mechanics.  Assisted pull-ups have their place as a developmental exercise (see reason #3), but you absolutely cannot rely upon them too much.  When it comes time to WOD, modify and save the assisted movements for your strength/skill sessions. With these tips in mind, go forth and conquer the pull-up!