10 Pro Tips for Your Pull-up Progression by Lisbeth Darsh

10 Pro Tips for Your Pull-up Progression by Lisbeth Darsh

It’s the dream we all have: pull-ups or more pull-ups.  

One. Five. Ten. Twenty. Fifty. Strict. Kipping. Butterfly. Hummingbird.

(Okay. I made that last one up. Although, I’m sure there are probably Bulgarian and Romanian pull-up versions that are even harder, like seemingly everything in the gym with those designations.)Pull_up_PME_130703-M-BS001-003 Marines

I don’t know a single person who says, “I’ve got enough pull-ups, thanks. I don’t want more.” Pull-ups are like top-shelf bourbon or New York cheesecake. They put the “voom” in the va-va-va-voom of fitness. (Read “What Is It About Pull-ups?”)

So, whether you’re on a quest for your first pull-up or five or ten more, listen up because (in addition to the great information contained in this fabulous article called “7 Reasons You’re Still Struggling with Pull-ups” and Dani Horan’s handy “Pull Yourself Together: How to Master Pull-ups”), I’ve got more for you!

Here are 10 solid tips for your pull-up game:

1.) Do Rows!

Not the rowing machine (although you can do that if you want!), but the row movement itself:

  • Barbell rows
  • Dumbbell Rows
  • Kettlebell rows
  • Ring rows

Rows build lats, and bigger lats are key to pulling yourself up. Educate yourself on a variety of rows (so you don’t get bored, among other reasons) and integrate them into your training.

Doing rows should be like voting in Chicago in the old days: do them early and often. (Ba dum bum!) But, seriously, do them and do them right.

For example, on ring rows, if you want the best effect, your body should be straight in the ring row, like a lowercase l (not a prone uppercase L). If you find your feet slipping because your legs are straight, try putting a dumbbell on the floor (or something else) to stop your feet from slipping. But get that body straight, clench your glutes, and row on those rings!

If you’re doing BB/DB/KB rows, focus on keeping your back flat and not using your legs or momentum. Make your lats do the work!

rings and pullups and bands old cfw

2.) Do Lat Pull-downs

Lat pull-downs are not stupid. They’re smart for building your lats.

When CrossFit first started, there was a fair amount of making fun of the old ways—like bench press and lat pull-downs and other things. That was understandable, but if you’re still avoiding lat pull-downs, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Properly executed lat pull-downs are a great way to strengthen your lats, and strong lats mean more pull-ups.

But don’t lean back and yank on that lat pull-down bar like a meathead. Lean back just a touch, and really focus on activating your lats to make the movement happen. This will require concentration. Discipline your mind here as well as your body. Focus and do the movement correctly for the greatest effect.

3.) Do Strict Pull-ups Before Kipping Pull-ups

If you’re trying to get kipping pull-ups by doing kipping pull-ups with a band, you’re skipping a step. Start with strict pull-ups, even on that band. Build strength FIRST, before you add ballistic movement.

Once you have a couple of strict (or at least one), then you can try kipping pull-ups. This is the way we used to progress in the old days, and we saw fewer shoulder injuries back then. Something to think about …

4.) Think About Ditching the Bands

Bands can be useful, but they can also be a big old crutch.

Don’t get me wrong: I love bands for some purposes. And I do not at all deny the many pull-ups that have been achieved through the result of band progression. But I’ve also seen people (including many women) get stuck in Band Purgatory.

You know what I mean. You’re two years into your gym routine, and you’re still on a band. All you want is one honest-to-God, non-banded, full-throated warrior-cry pull-up … but you’re still on a band. And you’ve watched countless women get their pull-ups, and you’re so envious, but you’re still living in Band Purgatory.

Cut that mother.

Or throw it in the corner for a while. Because your friend the band may have become your crutch. The band might be like that one friend who hangs by your side after a painful break-up: she was helpful for support at first (“you’re too good for him/her” and “you don’t need anybody”) but you got used to her and forgot you can handle this by yourself.

And that band might be stopping you from learning how to let your lats fire. Lats fire? What does that mean? Can you shoot bullets from that area? Not exactly, but learning to “turn on” your lats is crucial to executing pull-ups, and, sometimes, the band might not be helping this process.

I notice in my own training, when I don’t use a Gravitron or lat pull-down for pull-up practice (and solely use a band), my lats seem to “turn off” while the rest of my body tries to make pull-ups happen. What consequence does this have? My unassisted pull-ups disappear. Gone, like sweat angels drying up before the next class. If I add heavy rows back into my work though (and really concentrate on making my lats execute them and limit the use of my legs, my hips, my delts, and anything else trying to take over), my deadhang pull-ups come back. Why? I’m not sure, but I suspect it’s because I’ve “turned on” my lats again.

So, I’m not saying abandon the bands. I’m just saying think about taking some time off from the bands so you can utilize alternate ways to work your lats (and your pull-ups). You might be surprised at the results.

6.) If You Have Access to a Gravitron, Use It

The Gravitron is that weird assisted pull-up machine at some gyms. It’s good, but most people don’t realize its usefulness. In our small gym boom, many people forgot about the Gravitron, and that’s a shame. The Gravitron is handy for building your capacity for pull-ups because it spots your weight like a band, but in more measured increments, so you can use the data a little more effectively in your pursuit of the pull-up. (Also, on a Gravitron, you can do neutral grip pull-ups. More on this in #7!)

So, if you have access to a Gravitron, use it. You’ll be surprised at what can happen.

7.) Switch Your Grip

Try a variety of hand grips:

  • Supinated grip (palms face towards you)
  • Pronated grip (palms face away)
  • Neutral grip (palms face toward each other)

You don’t have to be faithful only to the pronated grip of the pull-up. Supinate your grip and try chin-ups. Because bicep activity is greater during chin-ups, you might get a few chin-ups when you can’t get pull-ups.

Why would I tell you to do this? Because it’s different, and because sometimes we all need a little encouragement. Doing the hardest thing is fun, but it can get depressing if all you do is fail. So, throw chin-ups into your training too. Or try all three: a few pull-ups, a few chin-ups, a few neutral grip pull-ups.

8.) Wrap Your Thumbs Around the Bar

Do you deadlift without your using thumbs? Or clean? So why would you do pull-ups without wrapping your thumbs around the bar?

A pulling motion on a bar benefits from use of the thumbs. The pull-up is a pulling motion on a bar. Wrap those thumbs. Notice the difference. (And if you want to know a bunch of other reasons why you should wrap those thumbs, watch this video from Kelly Starrett and Carl Paoli. Thumbs over the bar = more stable position for your shoulders.)

melis cf football course milford

9.) Consider That Your Body Type Might Make Pull-ups a Bit Harder for You 

I’m a #thickthigh kind of gal, and I have a big booty. (Just being honest here!) These are factors I can’t ignore in my pull-up quest. My lats are kind of large (the TSA agents feel them every time I fly because they are sure I’m hiding something during the body screen), but powerful lats are not quite enough to overcome the genetics of my body. It’s always going to be harder for me to do pull-ups, even if some day I have 12% bodyfat. (Hey, a girl can dream, right?)

In contrast, my training partner is long and lean (and strong). She’s ideally suited for pull-ups and can strap 30 lbs onto herself and do multiple strict pull-ups. Sometimes, I want to throw a rock. (Haha! No, I don’t. She’s a lovely person.) But my point is that we are a classic example of two strong women with very different bodies. Our strengths and weaknesses will be different, so that means we have to mentally and strategically account for these factors.

If you have a larger body, you might want to consider focusing on fat loss. Yeah, I went there. Why? Because you’re not alone. I’m right there with you. A little extra fat mass is what’s limiting my number of pull-ups. I stopped doing kipping pull-ups (due to my shoulders saying “no mas”) but I still do chin-ups or pull-ups every week. And I know that if I had 10 fewer pounds of bodyfat, I would have more pull-ups.

It’s a simple equation. Less fat mass = more pull-ups.

So, if you’re like me and you need to focus a little more on your nutrition to lose more fat, do so! We can do this!

German_Armed_Forces_Proficiency_Badge_wikimedia public domain

10.) Become Meaner (But Only Towards Pull-ups!)

Sometimes, the best friend you have is your attitude, and you need to have a little talk with yourself:

  • Quit whining to yourself about your lack of pull-ups
  • Quit bemoaning this fact to your friends
  • Quit expecting that a gift called pull-ups will appear with little effort on your part
  • Quit looking at your lean gymmates and sighing “If only I looked like that, I’d have lots of pull-ups too”

Resolve right here and now to shut your mouth and not stop working until you have at least one real dead-hang pull-up (or 5 or whatever you want). Pipe down and (wo)man up. Be like your dog with a bone. Growl if anybody comes near. (Okay, you don’t have to growl. But you get what I’m saying!)

It might take months for you to get your first pull-up (or more pull-ups), but be prepared for it to take years. And that’s okay. (It took me years to build my pull-ups. Then I injured myself and lost them. Rebuilt them. Lost them. Rebuilt them. Pull-ups are a continuous process!)

Nobody builds strength overnight. You can’t order strength from Amazon. No drone is going to fly it in. And you won’t find it scrolling through Netflix. 

You earn strength day by day, workout by workout, choice by choice.

Set your jaw, do what you have to do, and get those pull-ups! Then tell us all when you do! We’re rooting for you!