New Years came and went without me saying much about it. I didn’t speak of goals, and haven’t pushed athletes to put goals up on the board. I was waiting for the Open. The Open is our New Year. It’s a time when everyone gets fired up to achieve something that has been eluding them and wasn’t a priority until they were faced with doing it in one of the WODs. I want to strike while the iron is hot. For many it is the Pull Up. I wish I could say it in slow motion, and with the same emotion as one says, “RPG”, when one of those lovey bundles of joy come screaming in towards you. Picture the painfully contorted face, eyes burning, glistening drops of spittle cascading from the pursed lips making the “puh” sound, and the distorted and agonizingly slowed voice with its deep otherworldly tones.
T H E P U L L U P
I love the Pull Up. The strict, dead-hang Pull Up (hence forth whenever I refer to a Pull Up, know that I am referring to the strict, dead hang variety) is particularly close to my heart and is so for many reasons. As an exercise it is the gateway to moving one’s body through space effectively as well as the foundational stepping-stone for other, more advanced gymnastics movements. There are scant few exercises more misunderstood or more poorly executed.
My love affair with the Pull Up began December 1997. I had made the decision to apply to USMC Officer Candidate School and learned of the Physical Fitness Test (PFT) that all prospective candidates were required to pass. One of the exercises on the test was Pull Ups. I was confident as hell, could do pull ups for days, and was ready to show the Corps just how easy they were. I knew for a fact that once I dropped from the bar after having impressed them with my 30 or so reps, they would be begging me to join.
I hopped up on the bar and started to blow them away with my sheer physical awesomeness. The Gunnery Sergeant was not counting my reps. Clearly, I was banging out repetitions faster than he had ever seen before. I dismounted the bar confidently and ready to graciously accept the praise that was sure to be rendered by the Gunny. “27”, I said. “I would have gotten 30 but I’m not used to doing pull ups right after a 3 mile run and a bunch of crunches”.
Z- E- R- O
With out even the slightest hint of giving a shit he looked at me with just enough disdain to ensure I knew the utter lack of value I possessed as a human being, and said, “ZER0”. He turned on his heels and dismissively finished his narrative while walking away saying, “You didn’t have straight elbows, you didn’t come to a dead hang between reps, and you didn’t get your chin all the way over the bar. Go talk to the Captain”.
During my time as a Marine I trained, literally, hundreds of people to do pull ups – strict, dead-hang Pull Ups that require nothing but pure strength and bulletproof shoulders. If you want to do Pull Ups, read on. Some of this may be hard to hear.
First things first: The reasons I don’t like kipping pull ups for athletes not able to do 5-10 Strict Dead Hang Pull Ups.
An athlete that is not able to do a Pull Up(s) (and most times not able to complete even multiple set of 60 second flexed arm hangs with their chin over the bar) has weak muscles and connective tissue relative to their body weight that prevents them from lowering into full shoulder and elbow extension under control.
Often times, but not always, their shoulder flexibility and ROM is poor (this is more common in males of all ages and females over 30).
An athlete that, lacking the strength to lower themselves under control, relies on momentum to get their chin up and over the bar literally falls down below the bar after each repetition. That fall is not controlled.
The uncontrolled fall results in the athlete pushing their shoulder into a ROM that is beyond what is normal for their abilities.
The athletes then is hanging from and/or bouncing off of connective tissue that is not ready to handle the MULTIPLES of body weight that the fall created.
Many coaches rely on kipping pull ups, in the absence of strength, as a means of getting their athletes up and over a bar.
Kipping pull ups do not build strength or lead to more pull ups. I’ve read articles that, in an effort to justify the kipping pull up, compare it to the push press. That it just asinine nonsense. I’ll save my vituperative thoughts on that topic for another rant.
So, there it is. Remember, I said I don’t like kipping pull ups for those that can’t do Pull Ups. In the sport of fitness, kipping pull ups do have a place. They must be practiced and there is a very specific, deliberate technique that is used. Those that are entering fitness competitions must become extremely proficient with them, and have the shoulder health to support doing them. Before the kip one must be able to do Pull Ups that would make a Marine Proud.
There are the two reasons an athlete is not able to do a Pull Up(s):
Of the two – loosing weight is the easiest to correct and will give one the most bang for buck. Hell, weight affects performance. In drag racing every 100 pounds on a car or motorcycle is worth a tenth of a second. Each tenth of a second equates to about a car length. Weight makes a difference! Not possessing the requisite amount of upper body strength and developing sound technique is often a longer process and requires an equally deliberate plan.
If an athlete is packing a little too much heat at their sides, then their program begins with them improving their nutrition plan and making body composition changes. Their first move must be to loose weight. If they are carrying around 10+ extra pounds they have bigger fish to fry than getting their chin over a bar. Their journey to a Pull Up stops here until they have solved their weight issues.
What of an athlete lacking upper body strength and technique? Read on.
We need to talk about the shoulder briefly. Consisting of 4 joints, the shoulder is the most mobile component in the body, capable of movement in several directions, but whose primary function is NOT weight bearing. The reason its primary function is not weight bearing is what makes it capable of such extreme movement – it is a very shallow joint, i.e. the humeral head is not buried deeply in a concave capsule. Rather, it relies on several ligaments (bone to bone connections) and tendons (muscle to bone connections) to create the “cuff” that keeps the head of the humerus where it needs to be. That is important to understand because we no longer swing from vines and branches as a means of survival. Our bodies have evolved in such a way that, without specific training prior to swinging from branches and vines (or pull up bars), makes them prone to injury.
The muscles, tendons, and ligaments that make up the rotator cuff are not primary movers. Their primary function is to stabilize the components of the shoulder and ensuring everything is in the right place allowing for unimpinged movement. The deltoids are the primary movers of the arms (once the arms are more than a few inches away from the body). The lats, rhomboids, triceps, traps, and biceps are the primary movers for the Pull Up. Further complicating this is the fact that gravity will always win. While it would be great to say an athlete will always keep their shoulders packed with the primary movers engaged, from experience I know that is simply not realistic. Fatigue is going to set in. Momentum-generated forces that are greater than we are strong will be exerted against our joints. All the major muscles are going to get exhausted. Who among us had not dangled from a bar like a fruit bat, hoping to have the energy for one more rep? While dangling there in a state of exhaustion the amount of load placed on the connective tissue has increased far beyond what an unprepared shoulder joint was designed to handle. To remain healthy and in the fight an athlete’s shoulder must be prepared for that kind of use. Getting it ready for that kind of work is a straightforward, though lengthy process.
Hang from a Pull Up bar:
Be able to hang from a bar without dropping as though one has socks full of rocks. Multiple sets of 30 seconds is a good start. If one can not hang from a bar without any type of dynamic forces being applied they can not expect to be able to hang on a bar under dynamic loading (forces resulting from pulling).
Practice hanging on the bar with one hand. Start by hanging with both hands. Quickly open and close opposite hands. Over time extend the amount of time that each hand is opened until it is possible to hang for 30 seconds with one hand.
Hang from a bar in a fully relaxed position with completely extended shoulders and elbows and absent of any tension. This is an important component in conditioning and strengthening the connective tissue (ligaments, tendons, and cartilage) that is responsible for keeping one’s shoulder from exploding.
Get the shoulder functioning correctly to do a Pull Up:
The most effective means of doing this is by doing scapular pull ups. (We do these several times per week in our warm up’s.) Athletes will notice increased scapular control and movement over time. Scapular control is a good thing. It means that the athlete is able to manipulate the positioning of their scapulae and fire the rotator cuff muscles when needed.
Practice doing scapular Pull Ups with the ribs “locked down” and the body in a hollow rock position.
Do one-sided scapular Pull Ups. Once scapular Pull Ups can be done with an appropriate amount of movement and control, hang from the bar with both hands but this time engage only one shoulder at a time.
Remember that the goal isn’t to engage the lats (pressing the palms down onto the bar) but rather to extend and flex the shoulder deliberately gliding the scapulae across the rib cage. Flexing the shoulder and retracting and adducting the scapulae are the first movements that should occur when doing a Pull Up.
Athletes should strive to improve the ROM in their shoulders through dynamic and static stretching.
Build Pulling and Static Strength:
There is an endless combination of exercises that can be done to increase pulling strength. KB, DB, and BB rows, push ups, rope stands and rope climbs, banded pull downs are just a few that require minimal equipment and set up.
Do assisted variations of Pull Ups. Barbell Pull Ups, Banded Pull Ups, Jumping Pull Ups, and Seated Ups are all outstanding means of building pulling strength.
Whenever pulling on a bar or set of rings ensure the body is in a hollow rock position.
Do ring rows in varying rep schemes and levels of difficulty. Rings rows are invaluable in building pulling strength. Include static holds with the rings glued to the chest in order to build static strength.
Complete multiple sets of flexed-arm hangs with the chin over the bar. Work up to 4-5 sets of 60 seconds. This will further develop connective tissue strength.
When an athlete can do multiple sets of flexed-arm hangs start doing, “negatives”, resisting the eccentric portion (the lowering part) of the Pull Up.
Do Pull Ups and things that help one do Pull Ups:
Work on Pull Ups, often and systematically. Never pass up an opportunity to perform the above-mentioned steps.
Do ring rows, assisted Pull Ups, and assistance exercise with intensity and precision. Be deliberate in execution, keep track of progress, make increases in weight, reductions in assistance, or increases in repetitions only when truly ready. Don’t half-ass preparation work.
Get a Pull Up bar. Once an athlete has a single Pull Up, they need to keep doing them. Grease the groove by repeatedly performing single (or more) Pull Ups throughout the day.
The Pull Up is a bit of a bastard. It’s the baby no one wants to call ugly but everyone damn well knows is. Is it a function of strength? Is it a function of endurance? Well, an athlete is taking their puny, little T-Rex arms and hoisting a body-weight sack of meat up, defying gravity, and then returning back down under control – I’d say it is a function of strength. Then the athlete is going to try doing it 20+ more times – I’d say it’s a function of endurance. I’d say it’s a bastard and it must be trained like one – hard and often.
Athletes Unleashed, Inc. is full of individuals that made up their minds to accomplish specific goals. Juicy wanted to become an Olympic lifter, Justinius wanted to squat, A.Hill wanted to loose weight, K.Pop wanted to link MU together, Horseman wanted to get stronger, and MP wanted to do unassisted Pull Ups. Juicy began attending BBC faithfully. Justinius spent countless hours working on his ankle and hip flexibility. A.Hill jumped at the opportunity to attend the nutrition seminar, currently attends the support group meetings, and put the time into learning how to shop and prep her meals. K.Pop came in for two-a-days and spent hours working on her transitions. Horseman faithfully participated in our strength program. MP recently committed to nailing down her nutrition plan and dropping a few pounds.
Juicy is now an Olympic lifter and just hit a few new PR’s. Justinius squats with full ROM and weight in his heels. A. Hill has lost 100+ pounds. K.Pop links MU together. Horseman is moving big weights and can now crush multiple Pull Ups. MP is now doing unassisted Pull Ups. What they have in common is that they all decided to DO what they wanted to become better at. If an athlete wants to do Pull Ups there is no short cut. The machine must be first built! That takes patience. Start by:
Checking the ego. Think quality not quantity. Build the foundation with skill and strength appropriate exercises.
When doing Pull Ups do the strict, hollow rock, dead hang variety.
Stick to the plan and follow through. (Remember the 3 Pillars of Fitness: Consistency, Intensity, and Nutrition.)
Talk about it less, do something about it more.
Understand that it is not an easy undertaking. It is going to take a long time to realize the body changes required and achieve the necessary level of strength.
As tempting as it is, using momentum to “kip” up over the bar in order to compensate for the strength that an athlete doesn’t possess and the training they failed to do is a recipe for disaster.
In order to achieve a perfect score of 300 on a USMC Physical Fitness Test, one needs to get 20 Pull Ups. It was a long, hard road for me to achieve that; it took me about 20 months. Upon entering Officer Candidate School, 8 months after my first abysmal failure at strict, dead hang Pull Ups, I was able to perform 14 of them. By the time I was done with The Basic School I was up to 16. When Infantry Officers Course ended I was at a consistent 18-20. I reported to my first unit, 2d Battalion 2d Marines, the “Warlords”, in September 1999. When we took our PFT you better believe I knocked out 20 beautiful Pull Ups. The steely eyes of 40 killers set upon me wondering of what I was made – I needed to set the standard. In my 14 years in the Marine Corps I never failed to get my 20 on a PFT. That was possible for me only because I made the decision that Pull Ups were something I was going to own. And I trained them like the bastard they are. Are you ready to train your bastard?
Below is a plan for the UNLEASHED:
If an athlete has between 1 and 9 Pull Ups they will use the charts on the wall that separates the Furnace and Foundry. They will do the prescribed number of sets of Pull Ups every M-W-F on some weeks, and T-Th-S on other weeks.
If an athlete has 10+ Pull Ups they will use the larger chart that displays 38 weeks of sets and reps. Pick the appropriate week and do 5 sets of Pull Ups 5 days/week. If Pull Ups are not programed stay a few minutes after class to get them done. Find the time. An athlete progresses to the next week when they are able to complete all reps and sets as prescribed and with perfect form.
All athletes can benefit from the below plan to increase pulling and static strength.
If an athlete does not have at least 1 Pull Up that also means they most likely are not able to do flex arm hangs and probably still have some weight to loose. The most important thing an athlete with a few extra pounds can do is get their nutrition squared away. While they are making those changes they can start doing prep work on their shoulders and begin increasing their pulling strength.
Every M-W-F on some weeks, and T-Th-S on other weeks they will do a flexed arm hang from the floor using rings.
3 days per week stick around after class and perform 3×8 KB rows, 3×8 Bar Bell Pull Ups, and 3×8 Push Ups. Increase in weight only when form and ROM allow it. Use strict form and full ROM. Be disciplined. Do this for 3 weeks.
3 days during the 4th week, do 1×8 of each exercise with light weight,
Week 5, 6, and 7 do 2×12 of each exercise starting with the same weight used in week 3. Increase in weight only when form and ROM allow it. Use strict form and full ROM. Be disciplined.
Refer to the poster that is located on the wall that separates the Furnace from the Foundry. I have also attached it below.
See one of the coaches at the completion of week 7 to learn your next set of exercises.