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The power of strict: Getting your first pull up + increasing capacity

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By Coach Jenna

As a coach, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “I suck at pull ups.” Ah, pull ups — we all want to do them, be better at them, improve our Fran time. We all dream of repping out 20 butterfly chest to bars at a time. A noble goal, but in order to accomplish that, it’s necessary to improve your back and pulling strength with strict pull ups. Kipping has its place, of course, but it shouldn’t be performed until you first build strict pull up strength.

But how? Well, just as you practice cleans, snatches, and other barbell movements every day, so do you need to practice your overhead pulling strength. Unfortunately, you can’t just keep lifting weights every day and expect to one day magically jump up on the bar and pull yourself up. So, where to begin? Some tips …

  1. Improve your general pulling strength. Deadlifts, ring rows, RDLs, sumos, dumbbell rows, and essentially any other kind of row will all help. While they won’t help you get better at strict pull ups, they will increase your potential to get better at them. The key — if you can’t do a lot of strict pull ups — is to get stronger overall on pulling exercises, as well as training yourself to pull with your back, not your arms. 
  2. Do more pull ups. Pulling your body weight up requires strength, but it’s also a motor skill. Frequency trumps volume and intensity when it comes to motor learning. The trick is to do pull ups as often as possible without wearing yourself out excessively. If you can do 1 or 2 strict pull ups, do single reps as often as possible. Start with 10 singles before class, and throw in a few singles throughout your workout. Do a few at the end as well, when you’re at your most fatigued. Once you can do 5 or more strict pull ups at a time, shoot for a specific number at the beginning of each session, say 20 to 30. It doesn’t matter how many sets you need or how much rest. Just try to get there as quickly as possible. 
  3. So, what if you can’t do one strict pull up? Get stronger. Do more ring rows, more pulling exercises, and in the meantime, practice your strict pull ups with a band. Use the lightest band possible, while still achieving full range of motion. Important things to remember: body tight, legs together, no momentum, chin over the bar. Hold for a second at the top, then lower with control. EMOMs are extremely effective as well. If you’re just starting out with very little pulling strength …
  • Start with 2 to 3 banded strict pull ups on the minute for 10 minutes. Once that becomes too easy, increase reps.
  • Once you can complete 6 to 7 reps every minute for 10 minutes, decrease band assistance and start back at 2 to 3 reps.
  • Continue this progression until you can do one solid strict pull up without a band. Once you’re consistent with singles, you can start the EMOM with 1 rep on the minute without assistance, and then add a band any time if you start to fail.

In our training, we all tend to shy away from things we’re not good at. I’m guilty of this as well. It’s easier to just decide you’ll only do jumping pull ups because they’re faster and easier. But I find when I really hone in on a weakness, it’s led to significant changes and strength gains. Don’t resign yourself to just sucking at something. Take the opportunity to focus in and get better. You’ll be surprised what your body is capable of. Happy pulling!

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