Rethinking Exercises to Improve Pull Ups
Are you currently performing pull ups, or exercises to improve pull ups? Or variations of pull ups? Of course you are. You cannot deny how important pull ups and chin-ups are to a Spartan race training plan. Or any training plan, for that matter.
Whether you love them or hate them, they can make dramatic improvements in your fitness and performance. But after reading this article, you may hate them just a little bit more. Pull ups are a fundamental movement to master, but the bottom line is they are hard. And with I am about to make them much harder for you.
I have never been a fan of programming a lot of reps of pull ups. If I do it will be some type of assisted pull-up. Because this is such a challenging exercise, it is incredibly hard to maintain good technique with high reps at the same time. Sure, there are some freaks out there that can handle it, but for the majority, it is an exercise that really needs more concentration and energy to it that does not permit high reps.
In this article I want to discuss the two biggest compensations that come up with pull ups, especially if you are performing them when you are getting tired. If you are not careful, the reps will get sloppy as you fatigue. Your job in training is to not just get tired and sore; your job is to get better at a task. You want to get so good at it that it just become automatic. You just do it with little thought on what you have to do. When you achieve this level, you have mastered the movement.
But when you just perform many reps instead of quality reps, you learn how to perform a movement poorly. You, in fact, get really good at doing it badly. Obviously, this is not a place we want exercises to improve pull ups to take us. This leads to a false sense of strength and stability that will most likely get us injured at some point.
While there are many things that can go wrong with this exercise, I want to focus on two of the most common mistakes. If you can eliminate these two, you are building a solid-looking pull-up.
Loss of Core Stability
It may not look like a core exercise, but any functional pattern involves the core and requires you to actively control its stability. When I describe a pull-up to a client, I say I want them to look like a gymnast, not a wet noodle.
By wet noodle, I am referring to the body moving in different motions or positions as opposed to a single unit. You start to see the knees bend and the low back arch. There is a reason you prefer to do this: it makes the pull-up easier. But the problem is that it strains areas you do not want to.
Instead, when you perform pull ups or exercises to improve pull ups, picture a gymnast’s movement. Their body performs one single strong movement. When holding the iron cross position, their feet are perfectly together, legs straight, forming one unit instead of individual pieces. This will be your new goal when performing a pull-up. You will keep your feet together and maintain high spine stability. This will protect your body, in particular your lower back, from unwanted stress.
Many people are familiar with the hollow hold position. This is where you lie on your back with your legs and arms extended. You raise your shoulders and legs off the ground while pushing your lower back toward the floor. Holding this position is a great way to build core stability and endurance. This is the same position we want during a pull-up, and it makes a great starting point for perfecting your pull-up. Once you have mastered the hollow hold, you can take it vertical and try to hold the same position while hanging. These are two great exercises to start with.
Loss of Shoulder Stability
Moving up from the lower back, we have another extremely important joint that needs to be stable during the pull-up. This is the shoulder girdle. If you have ever had shoulder pain from doing pull ups or doing exercises to improve pull ups, this is likely the reason.
There is a position of the shoulder that you really want to learn to love in your training. It is referred to as a “packed shoulder.” A simple way to describe this would be to keep your shoulder in your “socket.” One of the best lines on this I have ever heard was from Brett Jones, the director of education from StrongFirst. He said, “Ears are shoulder poison. The closer your ear gets to your shoulder, the weaker it will make it.”
I often tell clients to not turn into a turtle at the top or bottom of a pull-up by going into their shell. More simply, they should try to keep a long neck. Whatever imagery you need to drive home this position will work. The goal is you should be able to hang with a packed shoulder and long neck. You also must be able to maintain this position at the top. You can see this if you hang from a bar and try to pull yourself up without bending your elbows. It is not a huge movement, but when you do this your neck seems to get longer as your shoulders drop down.
Usually what I see at the top of a pull-up or chin-up is that the shoulders shrug, the neck disappears, the shoulder blades rise, the shoulders roll forward, and the head pushes forward. Put all these movements together, under load, and you have a recipe for shoulder problems. I can get into the biomechanics behind all of this, but you can just trust me on why you don’t want to perform pull ups this way.
To improve this stability, you can start by perfecting your hangs. Do your dead hangs and flex hangs while focusing on a stable shoulder. Even if you can only hold these for five seconds, it is a start. You will get better and better.
Check out the video here to see the good and back positions of the pull-up and some exercises to improve pull ups to get you started. So, as I have explained, we just made your pull ups significantly harder. But this is what will build better strength and keep your joints lasting longer. Remember that the goal of the exercise is to get stronger with upper body pulling movements and to improve core strength, and this is a great way to do it. The goal should not be to perform as many sloppy pull ups as you can do.
Working on this will help you understand the true nature of exercise, which is to exercise with purpose, not just to get tired and sore.
Good luck and aroo!
Pull ups are key to the Spartan path. Download the free Get Fit Fast training plan.