Monday, July 10, 2017

The Simple Pull-Up Progression You Haven’t Tried

A bodyweight pull-up is one of the most elusive movements to master in the gym, especially for adult female exercisers. It takes a rare combination of upper body strength, core strength, and low body fat.

The pull-up is an incredibly worthwhile goal, though. There are few feelings sweeter than conquering that first rep. Of course, one of them would probably have to be tasting that Unicorn Frappuccino everyone was going crazy about a few weeks ago. Mmmmm....

Starbucks drama aside, every trainer has their preferred method of working their clients towards a pull-up. Most pull-up progressions go something like this, with plenty of room for variation (you could argue about the exercise selection and order until the cows come home, and many trainers do):

1. Lat pull-downs
2. Australian pull-ups (AKA inverted rows)
3. Hanging hollow body holds
4. Band-assisted pull-ups
5. Bent-arm hangs
6. Scapular pull-ups
7. Negative reps
8. Pull-ups!

Progressions like these are proven: they’ve helped lots of trainees crush their first rep. But they don’t always work.

Where I see people plateau most often is right at the tail end of the progression. I’ve had clients who can do negative reps for days, but when it comes time to try the full shebang, they barely budge from the straight-arm position.

Fortunately, I believe I’ve discovered the last piece to the pull-up puzzle. It happened very much by accident, when my girlfriend (who coincidentally is working on her first pull-up) showed me a video of her performing a 3/4 partial rep. Because our doorframe pull-up rig is only so tall, she started with her elbows bent, as shown below, hence the ‘partial’ modifier.

Girlfriend not pictured.
But you CAN see what a doorframe pull-up bar looks like.

That’s when the light bulb went off.

Partial range of motion is a very common strategy for progressive overload. Examples include deadlifting from blocks, half squats, and board bench presses. The rationale for these exercises is that you can handle more load in the shorter range of motion. Gradually, you increase that range of motion using the same load until you’re doing the full-blown movement.

Why not apply this exact paradigm to pull-ups? Once you’re rocking out at negatives, you're ready to begin adding partial reps to the mix. I recommend doing partial reps on the way up, then lowering yourself all the way down slowly. Gradually add range of motion over time until you're pulling from a complete dead hang.

To implement this technique systematically, you’ll need a pull-up bar that’s higher than your standing reach. From there, the two ways to set things up would look like this:

1. Stack a bunch of plates or mats underneath you and remove them one at a time to progress.

2. Hang rings from the pull-up bar and increase the height of the rings little by little to progress.

The ring option may be slightly more challenging due to the instability. It also lends itself to a bent-knee position on the lowering phase, whereas with the mats you can choose bent-knee or the hollow body position that's shown. (See THIS blog post for a comparison of different lower body positions during pull-ups.)

Whichever option you choose, begin with half reps, where your elbows are bent to 90° in the bottom position. Once the half reps become easy, simply remove a plate/mat from underneath you or raise the rings a couple of inches so you’re doing 5/8th reps on the way up and full reps on the way down. Then 3/4 reps. Then 7/8 reps. And before you know it, the magic will happen.

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