Why You Are Not Getting Any Better at Pull-Ups

Ahh, the elusive pull up.  It is a movement that doesn’t come easy for a lot of people.  However, if you’ve been doing CrossFit for a while, it’s worth devoting the time to focus on them as they are a great way to build upper body strength in the lats, arms and increase your grip endurance.  They are also a functional, real-world movement that can be utilized outside of a CrossFit class.  And finally, if you are interested in ever performing kipping pull ups, butterfly pull ups or muscle ups, you MUST have strict pull ups first!

Reasons Why You Aren’t Getting Better

While banded pull ups and jumping pull-ups are a good progression to use during a fast-paced metcon to keep you moving and keep your heat rate up, they will likely never get you to a real, unassisted pull up.  By using this type of assistance, you are never actually holding 100% of your bodyweight and going through full range of motion (ROM).  This means that you will likely not develop enough strength through the bottom position, where the band is stretched the most and provides the most assistance.

Second, unlike the weighted movements we do in CrossFit, where you can decrease the weight on the bar, you’re stuck with your bodyweight on movements like pull-ups!  Obviously, the lighter you are, the easier it is to pull your bodyweight over a bar.  When we first start out on our fitness journey, sometimes we may have a little weight to lose, which is completely normal.  After working out regularly and getting your nutrition dialed in, you can get to a weight that is ideal for bodyweight movements AND all the weight training we do in CrossFit.

Progressions to Practice

So now that we’ve identified a couple problems that may be stalling your progress, you may be wondering how to start working on getting your first pull up. For that, you’ll have to devote some time (consistently) to developing pulling strength.

1 – Hangs:

Being comfortable in holding your own weight on a pull up bar is the first step.  If you grip strength is lacking, practice hangs first.  A couple times a week, simply hang from the pull up bar for 2-3 sets of a max hold.  Make sure you are in an “active” hang.  This means that you should pull your shoulder blades down and back (think of tucking your shoulder blades into your pockets.)  Once you get to the point that you can hold for 15-20 seconds at a time, move on to the next progression.

2 – Static Holds: 

Starting with your chin over the bar (either jump up or use a box to assist), hold in that position for as long as possible.  You should start shaking as your muscles fatigue.  Once you cannot hold any longer, lower yourself to the ground.  Rest 1-2 minutes between and perform for 2-4 sets a couple times per week.  Once you can hold for 10+ seconds with your chin over the bar, move on to the next progression.

3 – Negatives:

You will start with your chin over the bar by either jumping into position or using a box to assist you.  From here, lower yourself as slow as possible through the full range of motion until your arms are straight.  After your arms are straight, you can put your feet on the floor and start the movement over.

A couple things to keep in mind on negatives are that you want to work through the full ROM. This means that you do not relax until your arms are completely straight.  A lot of people will lower slowly until the very end range of motion and then just fall to the ground.  If you do this, you will never develop strength in that range, which is often the hardest part of the pull up.

Practice this on days that we aren’t already doing pull-ups, either before or after the workout.  Each week, try to increase the amount of time it takes you to lower through full ROM.  If you are able to lower under control with a 5+ second count, consider adding a weight vest (with a very small amount of weight at first) and repeating until you can lower slowly with weight added.

4 – Accessory Work:

Wok on the progressions above 2-3 times per week on days that aren’t already pull up intensive.  In addition, you can add in accessory movements to help increase your pulling strength.  Things like bent over barbell or dumbbell rows, ring rows or scap pulls are great options.  If you have access to a lat pulldown, use it!

Finally, be patient and make sure you practice consistently.  While some people may be able to obtain their first unassisted pull up in a few weeks, it may take several months for others.  Keep practicing each week and you will get there.  And getting your first strict pull up is just the beginning.  After that, tackling all varieties of kipping pull ups and muscle ups will be next!