Improving Your Pull-ups

Six Drills to Help You Perfect Your Pull-ups
Completing an L Pull-up.

Pull-ups are an excellent exercise with many benefits. In CrossFit, there are a few varieties of pull-ups we perform, each with a unique purpose. The following list is not exhaustive, but it details four common variations you may see:

  • Strict Pull-up: In an ideal strict pull-up, the body stays in a ‘hollow’ position while the back and arm muscles are used to bring the chin over the bar, keeping an overhand grip. 
  • Chin-up: Similar to the strict pull-up, only the bar is held in an underhand grip. 
  • Kipping Pull-up: This variation relies on hip and core-driven momentum to achieve the same chin-over-bar result. 
  • Butterfly Pull-up: A variation of kipping pull-up that can be completed faster than traditional kipping, but it is often harder to master.

Each variation serves a purpose. Strict pull-ups and chin-ups build strength and are essential to improving kipping movements.

Kipping and butterfly pull-ups are used in workouts with a large quantity of reps that are completed ‘for time.’ They train coordination and flexibility and keep the heart rate high, which is crucial in certain workouts to meet the intended stimulus. Just like their strict counterparts, they are a skill to master and use appropriately.

Before training large volumes of kipping or butterfly pull-ups, the strict variations must be utilized. Whether you already have strict pull-ups or are working towards your first, the following six drills and exercises will help you improve all variations of pull-ups.

Grip Strength is fundamental in improving your pull-ups. Start simply with some bar hangs, holding the bar in a full overhand grip with the thumbs wrapped around. Complete three sets of 30 to 60 seconds each day of these bar hangs. Hold the bar with the hands just outside the shoulders. Keep your core active and in a hollow position. You may notice other benefits to your shoulder and back with daily bar hangs as well.

You can also add in Farmer Carries, or hold two dumbbells at your side for 30 to 60 seconds after your bar hangs. 

Negative Pull-ups are a good exercise whether you have pull-ups and are looking to get more, or if you are still working towards that first one. 

In this exercise, use a box or other means of assistance to start with your chin already above the bar. Lower yourself down as slowly as possible until your arms are at full extension. Complete three sets of 3 to 4 reps a couple of times a week. Focus on keeping your elbows out in front as you lower yourself down. Be conscious of your back muscles engaging to you lower yourself down. 

Though negative pull-ups are a very helpful exercise, these should not be over-done. Do not exceed 12 to 15 reps total each day you choose to include them. 

Banded pull-ups can be a great way to assist you in your pull-up journey. Again, these can be utilized whether you already have pull-ups or are working towards your first. Using one or more bands, place one foot in the bands, wrapping the other leg around to secure it into place. The band will offer some assistance so you can still train the full range of motion in the pull-up. As you get stronger, decrease the resistance. You can include four sets of 5 to 10 reps a couple of times a week to build this strength. 

Bands can also be used to train your pull-up volume with drop sets. If you have a couple of strict pull-ups, complete as many as you can, then add a band and complete more until failure. Rest a couple of minutes between sets, and complete 2 to 3 times. 

Another way to improve your pull-ups is to strengthen your back, arms, shoulders, and core. Focus on movements like barbell or dumbbell rows, lat pulldowns, and curls. Complete 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 12 reps of each movement. 

Core is also extremely important for pull-ups. No need to get super fancy here. Three sets of 30 seconds of both hollow and superman hold each day will do wonders for your pullups. 

When you do feel you have sufficient strength and body control for your pull-ups, spend time dialing in your kip swing. 

The ideal kip swing starts from your core – moving between your hollow and superman positions. After the core, the shoulders get involved. Spend time working on a good kip swing: keep your feet squeezed together and legs straight. Make the movement snappy, and treat the kip as its own skill to be mastered. 

Once you feel good with your kip swing, begin initiating your pull-up by sending the elbows forward and engaging your scaps while in your hollow position in the kip swing. 

Mobility is often overlooked, but it is just as important as anything else, especially when moving to kipping pull-ups. 

Tight shoulders and pecs will inhibit your range of motion, and not only does this make for inefficient and difficult movement, it can also lead to injury. Before working pull-ups or kip swings, take time to stretch out your shoulders. 

Take a band and wrap it on the bar. Hold it in one hand and walk forward so your arm is overhead, using the band to stretch. Move the arm to the side to hit the muscles in a different way.

When it comes right down to it, you need to master the basics and ‘boring’ stuff to get your pull-ups down. You do not need to do everything on this list every day, or even every week. Maybe one week you get in negative pull-ups a couple of times, and the next week you get some work on your kip swing in addition to some sets of banded pull-ups.

If there is one thing to get in every day, it is the stretching and the hollow and superman holds. You can complete both in less than five minutes. 

If you want to improve your pull-ups, you will need to make the conscious effort to do so, but it does not need to take a large amount of time. Focus on a couple things there and there, and when in a CrossFit class, take the warm-up and practice drills to heart. 

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Article by Karisa Stapp

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