“I just want to be able to do a pullup”

    It’s a pretty common thing to hear when someone comes through the door for the first time, at least when we’re talking physical goals.

    We talk about all sorts of things on that initial meeting.

    What brings you in? Usually there are a number of reasons, but something along the line has caused enough of an emotional response to make a change. Awesome! (not the thing that caused the emotional response, but the readiness to make a change)

    We talk about what people are currently doing, and more importantly what they’re doing well.

    What are your goals?

    Usually quite common across the board are: lose weight, get stronger, tone up, and then there it is… “I just want to be able to do a pullup”.

    It’s a great goal; kind of the culmination of those things. To be able to do pull-ups you’ll need a fairly decent strength to bodyweight ratio. For many people this means losing weight AND getting stronger. And it takes time.

    I totally get it. There’s a certain feeling of helplessness when someone is unable to hang from a bar and pull themselves up to it. There’s almost a primal survival instinct to it- like if I were in a situation where I were hanging and needed to pull myself to safety, I couldn’t do it.

    Anyway I digress…
    We’ve learned a lot about how to get someone from zero pull-ups to one, to five, and beyond.

    Here’s what to do:

    • Focus on strict horizontal pulling movements. In our gym this is mainly ring rows (think plank position, hanging from rings, feet on the ground. Pull the chest to rings. Do these more than any other pulling variation. It’s going to do a great job of building the strength in your back, which most people lack. It’s not just the arms,
    • Be careful with the amount of total volume at first. Start with maybe total volume of 20-30 reps and break them up into sets of 5-6, using an angle that is challenging, but doable. As your body adapts, you can get into some higher rep sets and build the total volume, but don’t overdo it in the beginning.
    • As you get stronger, we can start to add things in like partner assisted pull-ups (think someone giving you a consistent little push from the bottom throughout the movement, essentially taking away a percentage of bodyweight you need to pull). Another great one is working the eccentric portion of a pullup, otherwise known as “negatives”. You can jump up to the bar with your chin over, and then slowly lower yourself in a controlled manner. This works really well, but we still need a baseline of strength so that you don’t just “drop”.

    How long will it take?

    This is so varied among different people that it’s impossible to put a number on. It depends on where you start. But if you want one, and you’re willing to work toward it, will you be able to do it? Absolutely. Be willing to fall in love with the process.

    What NOT to focus on?

    • Banded pullups – Without getting too “sciency”, the problem here is that the properties of an elastic band do not match the strength curve as it related to joint angles.
      Basically its this. The hardest parts of the pullup are the initial movement at the bottom, and closing the last little bit of the joint angle at the top.
      The band, when stretched, gives too much help at the bottom and not enough at the top. What does this mean? Not training the muscles in an optimal way to get stronger.
    • Jumping pullups – These are great where you’re doing a circuit or WOD and the intention of the workout is metabolic demand. They will still be challenging, you’ll be able to move through them quick enough, and they do provide a bit of pulling movement. But what they won’t do it get you stronger anywhere near the way the stuff above I listed will.

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