Pull-ups are the ultimate test of relative strength — a timeless assessment of physical fitness and manly (or womanly) mettle. It’s no wonder that all branches of the military and most law enforcement agencies have a pull-up standard for new recruits. Improving pull-up performance, however, is a puzzle many trainees struggle to solve. How can such a simple movement be so puzzling? It just requires pulling the chin above the bar from a dead hang without swinging the lower body. No rocket science there. The problem isn’t that people don’t have the know-how to get better at it. It’s that folks fail to fit the training pieces together properly. Here are five tips on how to solve the pull-up puzzle.
1. Practice Top-Position Isometrics
Finding and maintaining a solid chin-above-the-bar top position teaches the body to finish strong. It says, “This is where we are going, we’ll fill in the blank from the bottom to here.” Top-position isometrics also trains the grip strength and lat tension needed to build strong pull-ups. Do them for time, either at bodyweight or with additional resistance from a weighted vest or dipping belt. Perform bodyweight holds for 30 seconds to one minute. For heavier, weighted sets, do 15-second holds.
2. Learn the Hollow-Body Position
The hollow-body position is a gymnastics basic. It builds and maintains full-body tension that promotes solid pulling. In the proper hollow position, the bellybutton is pulled toward the spine and the legs are stiffly locked. Practice by lying faceup on the ground, then try it from a dead hang on a pull-up bar. Hold the hollow-body position strongly during all pull-up reps.
3. Increase Frequency
It’s a crazy notion that skill improves by practicing something. Who would have guessed that? Buy a pull-up bar, set it up in a doorway and commit to doing pull-ups every day until you reach your goal (say, 15 clean, consecutive bodyweight pull-ups). The key, however, is to avoid complete exhaustion, which degrades proper form and reinforces bad habits.
4. Take a Total-Volume Approach
Plan on hitting a given number of reps per day — 20 to 30 is a good starting point — by doing sets of two or three reps at a time. If you can’t do a pull-up yet, work on top-position isometrics every day and increase the time you can hold the top position each week until you can do full pull-ups. Then gradually bump up the volume of pull-ups each week. After a month or so, test yourself with a max-reps set to judge your progress.
5. Practice Eccentric Pull-ups
Doing something slowly and in reverse helps the body fill in the blanks and solve the puzzle — especially for those that have a tough time pulling up to the bar. Only training the eccentric, or lowering, phase of a pull-up for a month or so helps ingrain a solid pattern while building tremendous strength. Do them by lowering as slowly as possible with good form for sets of three to six reps. This is a learning drill, so it’s important to avoid exhaustion. The brain and the body have a hard time learning when they’re tired.