Monday 24 November 2014

A Simple Way to Get Better at Pull-Ups

Want to build muscle, burn fat, test your strength, improve your performance, train in a time efficient manner or just impress people at the gym? If so getting good at pull-ups can help! However for many people – especially ladies, pull-ups can be a real struggle. This is why it is so impressive to see a lady cranking out quality pull-up reps. If you want to get good and pull-ups and you are willing to put in the work, I have just what you need to seriously improve your pulling strength. Are you up for it?

Back in 2012, I did a series of posts on pull-ups. If you have not done so yet, or as a refresher, I suggest checking out the following links to my previous posts on this topic. If you are not able to do any pull-ups, part 1 & 2 of the How to Get Good at Pull-Ups posts will walk you through a progression sequence.  

The Secret to Getting Good at Pull-Ups
The real secret to getting better at pull-ups is to do more pull-ups. I know as you read that you are probably thinking, “Well, thanks very much Captain Obvious!” What I mean by this is that pull-ups are an exercise that requires sufficient volume and frequency to get good at. With traditional training methods, those who struggle to do pull-ups are often not able to do enough quality pull-up reps in a training session to see improvement. 

For example, let’s say your max is 5 pull-ups. On your first set, you do 3 decent reps and then in a slow, painful manner, you grind out the last 2 reps. Now you are spent. The next set you barely grind out 2-3 reps. The final set (because almost everyone does 3 sets) you are lucky to do 1 pull-up. When you add all this up, you find that you have done a whopping 8-9 pull-ups. This is far less volume than you need to get good at pull-ups. As a result, your next training session is pretty much the same. Many people get stuck here and can go for months without seeing any progress. Then, they get frustrated and begin to hate the pull-up. If you want to get good a pull-ups, you need to take another approach.

The 400 Meter Sprint Approach to Pull-Up Power
Have you ever ran a 400 meter sprint? If so, you will recall that it is a really difficult distance because you are basically doing a long-distance sprint (which is an oxymoron). What would happen if you tried to run a 400 meter sprint at your top sprinting speed? If you said, “I would die before I finished!” you are right. To run a 400 meter sprint, you have to pace yourself. You have to hold back enough in the first part, so you have enough gas to finish. No one questions this as not being hard core. It is a necessity to complete the 400 meters. This is exactly what you need to do to get good at pull-ups. Instead of going all out your first set and frying your muscles and nervous system, hold back enough each set that you can get the required volume of quality reps. This will mean less reps per set to avoid fatigue and more sets per training session to get the extra volume.

A Sample Program
Here is a simple way to put the above information into a practical training session. Instead of doing standard training where you do all your sets for one exercise and then move on to the next exercise, structure your exercises in a circuit, but include pull-ups between the other exercises. If you can do 5 pull-ups, start with about 3 reps on your first set and when that gets challenging, drop to 2 and then to 1. The goal is to never grind a rep, but to stop 2 reps short of failure each set. If you cannot do at least 4-5 reps, use some band or machine assistance

1a) Pull-Up: 3-4x1-3, rest 30 sec
1b) Squat variation: 3-4x5-8, rest 30 sec
1c) Pull-Up: 3-4x1-3, rest 30 sec
1d) Pressing variation: 3-4x5-8, rest 30 sec
1e) Pull-Up: 3-4x1-3, rest 30 sec
1f) Hinge variation*: 3-4x5-10, rest 30 sec
* For the hinge variation, I suggest avoiding regular or Romanian deadlifts because they tax the grip too much. Instead, try a more suitable option such as: single leg Romanian deadlift, swings, back extensions, glute/ham raises or hip thrusts). Do deadlifts another day of the week. 

Pull-Ups and your Joints
If you are doing more pull-ups, you want to be careful not place too much strain on your joints. My favorite fixed bar option is the neutral grip pull-up where you palms face each other. Another good idea is to switch you grip every month or can alternate between two grips. Also, if you have access to gymnastic rings, consider using them for pull-ups as they are the most joint friendly (a great tip I learned a few years ago from Chad Waterbury).  

In addition to this, also consider working on your thoracic spine (upper back) mobility and if it needs work, deal with it before you go after the pull-ups. Also, do not look at pull-ups as a replacement for rows. The rowing movement is very important for upper body structural balance and you do not want to leave them out. 

In Conclusion
I know that holding back and doing less reps sounds really non-hard core. Some people try to take each set to utter failure and want to finish every workout collapsed on the ground in a pool sweat and vomit. However, training for a goal is not about getting tired, it is about getting better. Yes, you will have to work really hard to reach your goals, but you also have to work smart and sometimes this means strategically avoiding fatigue. If you want to get better at pull-ups, just like the 400 meter sprinter, you need to avoid fatigue so you can get the distance (i.e. volume) needed to get better at pull-ups. It can be done - and ladies, this includes you! Happy Pull-Up Training!

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