Wednesday, October 1, 2014

How Top Fitness Pro's Coach Leg Position on Pull-ups

When it comes to leg position on pull-ups and chin-ups, we have a boatload of options, including knees bent, legs straight, and hips piked. With so many positions to choose from (if you know what I mean!), I've long pondered the merits of each.

Wait a second, you may be thinking. Aren’t pull-ups a back exercise? Why’s this guy wasting his time worrying about what the legs are doing? Is it because he’s missing one and that’s causing him to overcompensate?

As it turns out, the lats have their insertion all the way down on the iliac crest of the pelvis. That is to say, what you do with your lower body really does have an effect on your upper body.

To complicate matters, when selecting the optimal leg position we must consider things like training age, goals, and even simple logistics. If your bar is only six feet off the floor, you’re probably not knocking out reps with your legs straight (unless you are a person of unusually short stature).

With surprisingly little good information available regarding the pluses and minuses of each leg position, I decided to ask 23 experts for their take. Their answers are diverse, thought-provoking, and sometimes completely contradictory. What fun!

Without further ado, here’s what they had to say.

(If you're interested only in the final tally, click here.)

1. Miguel Aragoncillo, Cressey Sports Performance and Enhance2Dance
Client Population: Professional baseball players, youth athletes, and general population
Leg Position Rx: Legs straight (“RKC style”)

The key points are maintaining core integrity towards having the ribs positioned over the pelvis without flaring. Apply tension throughout the glutes and quads, and dorsiflex the ankles so your toes are pointing up to your head. It's like holding a vertical plank and working on anti-extension (similar to a weighted front plank). If you aren't strong enough, we’ll use a band and a bent-knee position.

2. Brad Dieter, Evolutionary Health

Client Population: Mostly masters-aged strength and CrossFit athletes
Leg Position Rx: Depends on the person

A bent knee position will be optimal for people with less strength and skill at doing pull-ups. Bending the knees helps maintain a "narrower" center of gravity when we think about rotational moment arms. A legs straight down position is for clients who have solid pull-up form and are looking to use pull-ups as mainly a lat, rhomboid, and biceps exercise. Finally, the piked leg position is for more advanced lifters looking to use pull-ups to increase core strength.

3. Will Levy, Melbourne Strength & Conditioning

Client Population: Young athletes all the way to post-rehab clients, especially low back pain, with plenty of body composition clients
Leg Position Rx: Typical knees bent and back arched (it’s typical for a reason!)

Generally, I like all the various positions, as I'm all for movement variability. In early progressions, I will teach the pull-up as a vertical plank: legs straight, heels down, glutes contracted. For maximum weight/reps, the knees bent behind with crossed ankles and a focus on extending through the thoracic spine (though the lumbar spine will necessarily extend, too) is usually the most effective.

I do throw in the hollow body pull-ups for variety, as well, though they're not a staple. I particularly like these for my younger athletes who tend to be very extension dominant, as it creates a flexion bias that really challenges them from a positional standpoint, though it does limits the actual pull-up work done. When progressing a new client to pull-ups, I commonly use bands, and I always opt for feet in rather than knee in. The band pulls the feet forward, though we try to minimize that.

4. Dan Pope, Fitness Pain Free

Client Population: CrossFitters and patients in the physical therapy clinic
Leg Position Rx: Hollow body

It all depends on the client's goals. For carryover to gymnastics, I’m a big fan of the hollow body position. For hypertrophy, I don’t worry much about the hollow portion, just a nice controlled motion. If loading the movement with a dip belt, be aware that the belt tends to pull the spine into hyperextension, which can be tough on the low back. If you've got a bar high enough and a step to reach it, keep the legs straight to ensure a more neutral spinal position.

5. Brad Kelly, Classic Muscle with Brad Kelly

Client Population: Men and women looking to build muscle and strength
Leg Position Rx: Feet straight down or ankles crossed behind the body

Maintaining the vertical plane (upper body in a straight line) is my primary goal in a pull-up for maximum lat recruitment. For most clients, that means feet straight down or ankles crossed behind the body, whichever is most comfortable for them.

6. Matt Cordery, Riverside Strength and Performance

Client Population: Super heroes and super models (and also general population clients with an emphasis on strength training)
Leg Position Rx: Hollow body position

I cue my athletes to plantarflex (point their toes down) during chins and pull-ups, bringing them into a hollow body position. I find this increases rectus abdominis recruitment, prevents them from slipping into lumbar extension, and avoids excessive swinging or kipping. In the case of a beginner striving for their first few chins, though, I go with whatever they find most comfortable. Once they start banging multiple reps out, then we dial in technique.

7. Jim Ferris, Gym Ferris Fitness

Client Population: High school, college, and professional athletes
Leg Position Rx: Knees bent, legs straight, or hollow body

As long as the lower body is under control, I’m usually not too picky as far as knees bent or legs straight. If people are out of control with the lower body, I place something between their thighs, shins, or feet to give them a stimulus to focus on. I love the hollow body setup for neutral grip holds with elbows at 90 degrees. I use it for clients who can’t perform pull-ups in order to build grip strength, endurance, and control, as well as with added weight for clients who need additional tension and overload.

8. Eric Bach, Bach Performance
Client Population: 50/50 split of competitive athletes and "look good naked" general population
Leg Position Rx: Knees bent slightly backwards

We use this position mostly because our chin-up handles are low on the front of the squat rack. The advantages are that it prevents most swinging, enables clients to engage their glutes for better lat activation, and allows for a complete range of motion.

9. David Crump, DC Training
Client Population: General population
Leg Position Rx: Hips slightly piked, similar to the hollow body position

This position requires appropriate core and glute contraction, which is important because the core needs to be contracted in order to transfer maximum power to pull against the bar. This position works the abs more than a pull-up/chin-up with the feet behind the body. We often have to work up to this position through the following progression: knees bent, straight legs, slight pike.

10. Robbie Bourke, All Things Strength

Client Population: Amateur adult athletes
Leg Position Rx: Depends on the equipment

It often comes down to the equipment being used. Ideally, I like straight legs with a neutral rib position and contracted glutes. In our facility, however, the bars are very low, so we have to bend the knees. I’ve also seen coaches put a small stability ball between people’s heels in the hope of some irradiation benefits.

11. Jon-Erik Kawamoto, JKConditioning

Client Population: 30-60 year olds
Leg Position Rx: Split leg position

For most, I cue a split leg position (one leg in front and the other leg behind) to create balance and prevent swinging between reps. For advanced lifters, I'll cue knees bent. For even more advanced lifters, I'll move toward hollow body and L-sit positions.

12. Adam Pine

Client Population: From fat loss, athletes, and strength sport athletes to general population
Leg Position Rx: Straight legs

When performing a pull-up with a new client, I often begin with a straight leg position and a braced core to help maintain a neutral posture and to avoid swinging. For people who are unable to perform a bodyweight pull-up, we begin with band-assisted pull-ups, also with a straight-legged position with one foot in the band.

Ultimately, optimal technique differs from person to person. My clients are performing the pull-up to strengthen their lats and upper backs. I want them to use a safe leg position they feel strong in. If they adopt another leg position that doesn’t compromise the movement in any way, I’m fine with it.

13. John Phung

Client Population: Men, age 20 to 50
Leg Position Rx: Parallel to the ground (L-sit position)

I have my clients perform chin-ups and pull-ups in this fashion because it adds abdominal work to an already effective upper body exercise, thereby saving time. If my clients have trouble maintaining the extended knee position (or can't get into it in the first place), I'll have them do it with their knees bent until they develop the strength to get in the L-sit position.

14. Eric Johnson & Ryan Johnson, Sons of Strength
Client Population: From Hollywood actors and recording artists to combat athletes and weekend warriors
Leg Position Rx: Plank position

We coach our clients to stay in a plank position when performing pull-ups and chin-ups: toes up to the shins, rib cage locked down, and hips underneath the shoulders. This tactical style is strict and reduces any kipping. It also promotes a proper posture and gets the entire body involved in the movement.

15. Tim Berzins, Berzinator Fitness Designs

Client Population: Fat loss with a focus on aesthetics
Leg Position Rx: Knees bent with the heels behind you

This position encourages a proud chest with a slight arch in your back, which is great for engaging the lats as well as preventing kipping (and nobody wants to see you kip). A legs raised, hollow-body approach is good for getting some extra core stimulation, but it disengages the lats by preventing back arch. Since the purpose of pull-ups/chin-ups is to target the lats (and arms), I’d rather get maximal lat stimulation and hit a few sets for core afterwards. As far as whether or not to cross your legs, I don’t think it matters either way. Simply do what feels right.

16. Kennet Waale, Performance and Postures

Client Population: Everyone from general office workers and sufferers of low back pain to fighters
Leg Position Rx: Hips slightly piked (hollow body)

It doesn’t have to be a perfect gymnast hollow body position, but I at least want every rep to be from a dead hang with tensed abs and glutes and a slightly concave body shape. From an overall strength perspective, the hollow posture sets you up for more of a synergy between the lats, pecs, serratus anterior, and obliques. This synergy can be especially good for a client who suffers from low back pain and feels relief from increased glute, lat, and abdominal activation.

I tend to steer clear of the standard bodybuilding pull-up (externally rotated hips, crossed ankles, big expanded chest, retracted scapulae, slight swing/kip) due to the stress on the low back that this position can cause. The hollow body position also has a lot more carryover to a fighting stance when compared to the bodybuilding pull-up. Just try taking a blow to the top of your abdomen with an extended torso and weak and lengthened muscles!

17. Karl Safran, No Bull Training

Client Population: Athletes (MMA fighters, in particular) and general population
Leg Position Rx: Knees bent or straight

I cue tight glutes and tight core with knees bent or straight, as long as their hips are extended. I want the spine stiff throughout the entire movement – and absolutely no kipping!

18. Louie Guarino, Lean Bodies Consulting

Client Population: Mix of physique and general population
Leg Position Rx: Legs crossed behind the body

How often do we see people’s knees tuck in towards their stomach as if they’re doing a cannon ball instead of an actual pull-up or chin-up? This flexion pattern can be corrected simply with proper leg position. In order to get into more extension, maintain the “ribs down” position and a neutral spine, and achieve greater lat engagement, I teach my clients to cross their legs behind them and squeeze their glutes.

19. Jordan Syatt, AMP Fitness and Syatt Fitness

Client Population: Mix between general population, powerlifters, and general strength enthusiasts
Leg Position Rx: Straight legs, one crossed over the other for beginners; anything goes for advanced trainees

When first teaching a client/athlete how to chin-up correctly, I almost always start with straight legs, one crossed over the other, glutes and quads squeezed as tight as possible. Doing so helps to reinforce and understand the meaning of total body tension and how, when used correctly, it can drastically increase your strength.

As a trainee progresses with their chin-ups, however, and can do weighted chin-ups with an appreciable amount of weight, I am much more lenient with their leg position so long as they don't slip into excessive lumbar hyperextension and/or use their legs to create momentum. So long as they maintain good posture and scapulohumeral rhythym, I could truthfully care less about where they place their legs.

20. Shannan Maciejewski, Raw Fitness and Sports Training

Client Population: Football (soccer) and futsal players and guys just wanting to be the biggest, strongest, most dominant versions of themselves
Leg Position Rx: Hips extended, knees bent

This position allows my clients to lock the glutes on and create more control over the movement. If we wanted to increase the challenge, we might bring the legs up into an L-sit position or keep the legs straight down. Foot position isn't something I worry with too much about.

21. Dewey Nielsen, Impact Performance Training

Client Population: Martial artists, climbers, and general population
Leg Position Rx: Heavy doses of variety

Leg position is going to depend greatly on the end goal in mind and the desired carryover. It will be different for rehab, mobility, maximal tissue recruitment, etc. Some of the variations we use are the L-sit position, straight legs for archer pull-ups, and bent-knees for extended range pull-ups.

22. Molly Galbraith, Girls Gone Strong

Client Population: General population
Leg Position Rx: Straight plank position

I like to see the whole body nice and stable with the glutes contracted and the ribcage down towards the pelvis. However, that's an extremely hard position to achieve, even for me, and I can do 8+ neutral grip pull-ups! 

This is where the art of coaching comes in. Depending on the client, I will, at times, let them get their chin above the bar in any way they can (barring kipping), simply as a confidence boost that they can do a pull-up/chin-up! Of course, I only accept less-than-ideal form if I'm confident that my client can remain safe and I think it will benefit them physically, mentally, and emotionally. Then from there, we work towards a more ideal body position.

And the winner is...

  1. LEGS STRAIGHT (7 votes)
  2. Knees bent (6 votes)
  3. Hollow body (4 votes)
  4. "It depends" (3 votes)
  5. Split-leg (1 vote)
  6. L-sit (1 vote)
Though, strictly speaking, as most of the authorities alluded to, it really does all depend!

For a visual take on the information presented above, check out this video by HomeMade Muscle: