Tuesday 21 August 2012

How to Get Good at Pull-Ups Part 1

In previous posts, I discussed some issues related to pull-ups and the incredible benefits to this amazing exercise. Unfortunately, many people would like to do pull-ups but don't do them simply because they can't- until now. If you have always wanted to be able to do a pull-up, here is your guide to get your chin over that bar!

Pull-Up Prerequisites
Before applying the following pull-up progressions, ensure that you have met the following prerequisites:

Healthy body: 
Shoulder problems, elbow concerns, postural deviations, asymmetries, mobility deficits and/or stability issues should be addressed first. Jumping into intense pull-up training could make things worse.

Decently lean: 
Even fairly strong people can struggle doing pull-ups if they are carrying too much extra body fat. I have a lot of information on fat loss on the blog already with the plan of regularly adding more – so help yourself to the information. I also have a fat loss workshop coming up in September. 

The Pull-Up Progressions

Pulldowns and pull-ups are different. Pulldowns are an open chain exercise (i.e. you sit and your body stays put while you lower the bar) and pull-ups are closed chain (i.e. you pull on the immovable bar and your body moves). While they look the same, they can be quite different to the nervous system. Due to the principle of specificity, pulldowns will not transfer that well to improved pull-up performance. Generally speaking, pulldowns are inferior to pull-ups. However, they can be used as a first progression in the following situations.
Beginners  If you are a beginner, the principle of specificity is not as important to you as it is if you are advanced. As a result, you can use pulldowns for a while to develop a base level of strength in your lats and biceps that will help you with pull-ups down the road.
Temporary lack of access to some of the other methods given below. If you are traveling or waiting for your bands to come in the mail, then, by all means, use pulldowns as needed.
You are overweight: If you are overweight and the other methods are not safe or practical for you, then use pulldowns while you work on weight loss.

Machine-Assisted Pull-Ups
Assisted Pull-Up Machine
With the exceptions listed above, machine-assisted pull-ups are far superior to pulldowns as they are significantly more like a regular pull-up. If you have access to this machine and can safely use it, then this is a good place to start. 

Partner-Assisted Pull-Ups
This is similar to machine-assisted pull-ups, but you have a partner instead of a machine to assist you. The down side with this method is that you need a partner and it is hard to measure how much the partner is actually helping. Because this method makes quantifying progress and progression challenging, I seldom use it.

Self-Assisted Pull-Ups
With this method, you bring a sturdy bench or box over to the pull-up bar. You use one leg pushing on the box/bench to assist you as little as needed with doing the pull-up. On the way down, you can also have assistance or do that part yourself. As with partner-assisted, you still have the challenge knowing how much help you are giving yourself and progression is difficult to gauge.

Negative-Only Pull-Ups
With this method, you step up and then lower yourself down under control. From a strength development perspective, negatives are great! Many people have used them to get to the point where they could do pull-ups. However, the disadvantages are that they can produce a lot of muscle soreness, they are hard to recover from and they increase your risk of injury. If you choose to use them, do so sparingly and with caution. A good rule when doing them is to stop the set when you would not be able to control the next rep. (That also implies that if you are not strong enough to control even one rep, you are not ready for this yet). Also, you may want to alternate them with less stressful pull-up variations (e.g. machine/band assisted) on the other training days in a week.

I really like band-assisted pull-ups. I have used them successfully for years with many male and female athletes as a way to get them doing body-weight pull-ups. Like machine assisted pull-ups, this method allows you to vary the number and thickness of the bands to get the proper amount of assistance and to gradually reduce that assistance over time by moving to fewer and thinner bands. An advantage to band over machine-assist is that bands allow the body to swing freely which is much closer to the feel of a body weight pull-up. The disadvantage is that you get less help at the top (because of band tension). You also need to have access to high-quality bands in varying levels of tension. You can order them online and they are popping up in more local stores as well.

Stay-tuned for part 2 of this post where I’ll cover proper pull-up execution and effective programming.

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