I have found the pull up to be a very intriguing exercise constantly on the minds of the people who come through the door of my gym. Generally speaking, as new trainees most cannot do them and if they can maybe they only muster up 1-2 full repetitions with an attempt to get their chin past the bar. Most of the time I see trainees resembling a flaying fish or furious pedaling air in a bicycle competition while trying a pull up.
Even with the initial limited success, I would say that most of the clients I train actually want to do them and get better at them. When I construct new programs the pull up is probably the most requested exercise variation to add. I believe this to be because most standardize testing from grade school to the law enforcement training has some sort of strength standard based on the pull up.
At the local middle school the Gold Standard for the pull up test are as follows:
Boys Pull Ups: Girls Flexed Arm Hang:
6th Grade; 2 reps 6th Grade; 17 sec.
7th Grade; 3 reps 7th Grade; 18 sec.
8th Grade; 5 reps 8th Grade; 19 sec.
Ye s I am a little disappointed to see the girls only have to do a flexed arm hang so I train the girls to work their way to pull ups figuring a few reps are better than a flexed arm hang any day and the testing allows pull ups to trump the flex arm hang.
For the Military standards for male recruits in boot camp the minimum requirement for pull ups is three repetitions and doing 20 reps earns you a top score during the testing phase.
Whether it is the need to get better for upcoming physical tests or an understandable measure of success to go from one repetition to five, the desire for trainees to perform pull ups is there and I will encourage this type of drive and add a pull up exercise variation within people’s programs. For many pull ups do not come easily at first and there needs to be a few stepping stones to get to the real deal. In this article I will go into the remedial exercises to get you to doing those perfect pull ups.
Activate the Correct Muscles
One of the most common movement mistakes I see with people who are not successful at pull ups is not activating the proper muscle groups to make their movement more successful. I tend to initially see a lot of hunching at the shoulders and pulling with the arms. The focus on the vertical pulling movement required for the pull up requires emphasis on the posterior muscles of the upper body.
When you elevate your shoulders you are basically turning off the functionality of the back muscles requiring you to rely on your arm to take over the movement. The back muscles are much more equipped to perform the movement successfully we just have to get them activated.
One of my favorite ways to activate the back also turns out to be the simplest; the band pull apart. Simply get a small elastic band and grab with the straightest wrists possible. With your shoulders down and elbows locked out, pull the band apart, towards the chest, by thinking about pulling your shoulder blades together. Make sure to control the band back to the start and reset the body position, if needed, and perform the next rep.
You can also simulate a pull up in the vertical plane with the band by starting overhead with the band and pulling to the chest.
Inverted Row Variations
This is one of my favorite movements towards pull up success because you can involve the correct pull up muscles and move your body weight through the range of motion while at an angle that can be manipulated to make the movement harder or easier.
Now the big difference in that inverted rows are more of a horizontal pull rather than a vertical pull, like the pull up, however the back muscles are generally much stronger pulling horizontally so you can easily perform more repetitions to train the muscles to get stronger for your pull ups.
The bar variation is a good place to start and the nice thing is that it is fully adjustable according to your current pulling condition. If you are beginning this movement, have the bar a bit higher and as you get stronger move it down.
As with any horizontal pulling movement it is important to have an even grip, keep the shoulders down and moderately retracted with your head neutral with the rest of the spine. Proper execution comes from moving the body as one unit, focusing on the muscles of the back (Lats, Rhomboids etc) to initiate and move the body during the pull. You want to feel the shoulder blades moving freely and gliding along your rib cage until they meet together in the middle of your back. Control the eccentric (downward motion) and always try to achieve full range of motion (ROM).
Grip is a huge factor when it comes to pull up success. Make sure to squeeze the bar tight when you are working through the ROM and you can slightly relax the grip momentarily in between repetitions.
Another variation of the inverted body row involves using a suspension type system like the Blast Straps or TRX. These suspension systems act much like the bar by making the movement harder or easier depending on the body position however they also train any imbalances between sides because of the independent handles. The technique is the same as the bar just pay close attention not to pull too far and have to manipulate your body to increase your ROM. This can primarily be seen in the flexing of the wrists or dropping of the shoulders forward to get further.
Suspension trainers also offer the added benefit of performing the motion with a single arm which can train the strength and stability difference between the two sides of the body. The trick when doing the single side is to keep proper mechanics of the inverted row in mind. Shoulders down, body aligned properly and as you pull your body weight up the strap remains stable; you do not want to use any momentum to propel you upward.
For any of these inverted row variations, as you become better, you can add weight to your body to make the movement harder. A weighted vest or chains that can be wrapped around the body work best.
Band Assisted Pull Ups
The other exercises mentioned above will all help to get your muscles stronger for pull up success however you have to train in the vertical plane to truly get the pull up down. Even if you can’t do a body weight pull up there is a way to train this movement with assistance.
Using bands for assistance is a good way to train the vertical motion of the pull up and to progress towards your body weight goal. Bands come in various sizes each having their own assistance/resistance level; the bigger the band the more help you will get.
Set up the band in the middle of the pull up bar ideally splitting your body right down the middle. Depending on the tension of the band and how much assistance you need you can place the band on your foot (more assistance) or on your knee. If you train solo it will be easier to set up the band around your knee especially if it is a larger one.
Keep your form strict and work up to a desired number of repetitions and gradually work your way to using small bands that offer less assistance until you are performing body weight pull ups.
Pull ups are achievable with the right progressive programming and dedication to the movement. Now go get them done.
For further explanation of the progressions above check out the video below:
Let’s face it the internet can be a wonderful thing, with a few key strokes you can find any information you want. Not a day goes by that I do not go to the University of YouTube to find my daily how to information.
Having a lot of information is great but it can also bog us down with too many choices leading us to be even more confused than when we started. Information on fitness training is no different.
There are plenty of exercise demonstrations and programs for bodybuilding, powerlifting, weight loss, speed and agility and flexibility training but with so many options there always might be that little bit of doubt in the back of your mind wondering if you are on the right program.
Maybe you stay with the same program until you repeat the weeks over and over until your results stall out. Maybe you hop from program to program every other week until your create the ultimate muscle confusion and the gains simply shut down. Maybe you are so overwhelmed you don’t follow a program at all and wander around your gym aimlessly performing a few sets of bench press, a couple of Lat pull downs and some leg press, hit the sauna and come back in two days and do it again.
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Summer is here and that time of year signifies school is out and athletes are heading back into the gym eager to get huge for the summer and prepare themselves for the next school year’s sports season.
It is inevitable that if I get a male athlete who is new or who returns from college to start their summer training program going I will get the question, when are we going to bench press? This is usually followed up with my answer, Let me see 15 pushups.
The bench press is a tremendous exercise for building upper body strength; in fact it is THE exercise where the athlete has the potential to use more weight to train their upper body than any other, which allows for greater strength gains. The bench press is, however, potentially useless and dangerous if you don’t completely understand the movement and train your body to do it properly.
There is much more to the bench press than simple grabbing the bar, smoothly bringing it down to your chest and pressing back up. In fact, go to any commercial gym during the summer and you will see anything but a fluid movement demonstrated by a flock of 16-year old boys.
The bar will be loaded too heavily, their set up will be off- kilter, the weight will plummet like a meteor towards their chest, create a bounce that they use to press it back up while their friends laugh and half-spot and half-save the poor kid’s life from the bar crushing his now concaved chest.
In this article it is not my intention to go over the proper technique of the bench press. I am going to move a step back and get you to assess and see if you or your athletes are truly ready to perform this exercise. If you are interested in the technique check out my other article Make the Bench Press a Whole Lot Easier.
First and foremost an athlete has to be able to perform proper pushups. I do not have a magic number to complete to be able to graduate to bench press but I’d like to see 12- 15 repetitions with unwavering shoulder stability and good body unity during the movement.
Like most exercises, pushups should be progressive in their degree of difficulty in order to ensure the athlete’s success is gaining the physical and tactical attributes to perform a correct and effective bench press.
I like to start out my athletes using a bar in a rack to not only asses their upper body strength and control but also their push up prowess. There are a few nice components that the bar allows for during the pushup. The hand position, unlike a floor push up, is gripping the bar much like during a bench press so that the athlete can activate more forearm and back muscles during the movement when compared to the hands simply on the floor. The bar in the rack also allows for height variability which can correlate the athlete’s current strength and coordination levels. Simply put; when the bar is higher off the ground the easier the pushup will be. As the athlete gets better with the movement, the bar can be lowered to make the pushup more challenging.
After the athlete gets proficient with the bar I like to move to a slightly less stable platform, a suspension trainer, to further increase the demands on the shoulder muscles to stabilize the body during the movement. Because the arms are working independently there is much more demand on the stabilizing muscles of the shoulders for strength and more core muscle activation to keep the body in proper alignment. Shoulder stability during the bench press is crucial for safety and success.
You can take the pushup one step further before moving on with the uneven push up. Utilizing an elevated object, like a medicine ball, in one hand while the other hand rests lower on the floor, creates more demand for work out of the shoulder stabilizer muscles and the core to resist rotation. The goal for the athlete to complete this exercise successfully would be to move through the range of motion with stability and a level body through core stability and strength.
Before we get to the bench press I like my athletes to get comfortable using variations of dumbbell chest pressing. Unlike the push up the dumbbell chest press allow the athlete to mimic that exact same position that they will be in for the bench press. The individual weights also allow for more shoulder stability development and helps balance strength between both sides of the body so when your athlete moves on to the bench press they will have as much equal strength on both sides to make the bench pressing as strong as possible.
You want to first make sure the athlete is set up properly so they can take it with them when they bench press. Feet should be on the floor, even on both sides and rooted into the ground for maximal stability. Their glutes should be engaged to keep the hips stable during the movement and the shoulders slightly retracted so they are also stable.
When the athlete performs the movements I like to start with two dumbbells and I have the athletes understand lifting in both directions. I impart this to eliminate fast descents with the weight which is not only weaker but very perilous to shoulder health. I like the analogy of compressing a spring where the athlete with pull the weights downward, in control, using their lats and then use the elastic energy to press the weights back to the starting position using their chest, shoulders and triceps.
The second variation I like to practice is the alternating dumbbell chest press. While one dumbbell is moving you will have the athlete keep the other dumbbell up and stable; when completing the rep on one side you will switch to the other dumbbell. This variation puts more emphasis on shoulder strength and stability enhancement with the isometric hold while the other is moving.
The final variation I like to implement is simply chest pressing with one dumbbell. This puts a great emphasis on core stability because without the other weight to counterbalance the body, you have to tighten the core so you do not move or roll off the bench while the weight is descending on the opposite side.
Performing big strength movements requires proficiency in the foundational movements and building a base level of strength. If you are willing to take the time to do this, when you incorporate the bench press into your program you will achieve much greater success.
Check out the video below for more information:
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