Pull-ups can be a make or break event in the gym. Those that know how and practice excel in CrossFit workouts. Those that flounder at first just need a little bit of extra work.
You’re only a few tips away from improving your pull ups and and finishing that WOD in style.
Check out the tips below—work them into your CrossFit WODs and your daily worouts. Within 30 days you will see solid results.
Keep it simple.
TIP #1: Warm Up With a Shoulder Mobility Workout
Foam roll as needed.
10 arm circles (large, small, reverse)
5 slow pushups
1 minute stretch band overhead
10 meter plate drag in plank position 3x
20 seconds bully stretch each arm
Whether you’re new to pull-ups, or you’re a veteran, it’s really important you pay attention to shoulder mobility. Your shoulders take the brunt of the force that comes from both the pull-up and when you lower your body.
There’s a saying in the world of exercise—stretch what you strengthen and strengthen what you stretch. But it’s important to understand that stretching doesn’t necessarily create mobility.
Stretching helps create mobility, but mobility exercises ensure you get a full range of motion.
TIP #2: Engage Your Core
Train pull ups with a fixed barbell or ring rows at waist height. A TRX Suspension trainer is a good substitute. This will help you strengthen your core and is easy to scale and increase resistance as you progress.
It’s easy to think all the strength comes from your shoulders and upper back, but your core (all the muscles in your trunk—from your neck down to your hips) is what keeps you steady and supports your shoulders and arms for the pull-ups.
Think of your core as your foundation. The stronger the foundation, the better the support. You wouldn’t build your house on a weak foundation, so don’t build your fitness goals on one, either.
Another good way to train your core is to do plank holds. SGPT recommends doing these in the top position of a push-up, as this engages your core more and also engages all the muscles in your arms.
TIP #3: Factor in Jumping Pull-Ups
These are great because they also have a good cardio element. Stand on a box below the pull up bar. Do a quarter squat—then jump up putting your chin over bar. Drop down and repeat.
Don’t just let yourself fall, though. Engage your arm, shoulder and core muscles and lower yourself as slowly as you can.
Be careful not to overdo it with the jumping pull ups as a beginner could get rhabdomyolosis (tears in your muscle tissue, which then comes out through your urine) doing too many too quick.
This is more serious than simple muscle soreness. It’s actual damage to the muscles. It also damages your kidneys.
Also, , if you don’t have good shoulder mobility, you won’t be able to lower yourself more slowly.
TIP #4: Use a Band to Help You
Using one will help you get your chin over the bar. It will also help you train yourself lower yourself correctly so you don’t just drop to the ground when you do jumping pull-ups.
Pick the best thickness to assist you over the bar. Too thick a band and its too easy. Too thin and it’s too hard. Work with your trainer to pick out the band that is best for you.
Try to stay away from pull up machines or lat pull-downs. These do not work the core like a real pull up. A stretch band is preferred if you need assistance.
As you get better at the pull-ups, replace the thicker band with the next size down. Keep doing this until you no longer need the help.
TIP #5: Work on Doing Dead Hang Pull-Ups First
Use the stretch band to help if needed. You can also start with what are called “Australian Pull-Ups”. This is where you are under a lowered bar at an angle and then pull-yourself up in a kind of reverse, angled bench press.
Learn proper mechanics for the grip. Use hook grip for the hand placement on the bar. This will help you engage your arm and shoulder muscles correctly.
It may not seem important to have your thumb hooked around the bar, but even little things like this can mean the difference between correct movement and movement that leads to injury.
TIP #6: Learn Proper Mechanics for the Feet
Keep feet together. Use a pad between legs to block movement and improve proper shoulder movement.
We do not recommend crossing your feet as this can also lead to improper muscle engagement. You want to ensure all your muscles are in proper alignment for any movement you do so you can remain free from injury.
Crossing your feet can cause strain on your hip muscles, which then makes it harder for you to engage your core correctly. Poor muscle alignment will also create strain on your shoulders.
TIP #7: Avoid Kipping Pull-Ups If You’re a Beginner
We don’t recommend attempting this style of pull-ups as it’s very advanced. If you do not have the basic pull-up mastered fully, and you do not practice shoulder mobility, you will not be able to do kipping pull-ups correctly.
They look cool, but if you don’t have the basics down, you’ll get injured.
TIP #8: Always Cool Down With Stretching and Mobility Movements
Get a good foam roller and use the stretch band to help keep the muscles healthy.
If you’re feeling stiff, try using mobility balls. You can make your own with two lacrosse balls and some duct tape. You also want to make sure you’ve got good overall mobility. Try these SGPT mobility workouts.
Tip #9: Make Sure You Also Focus on Grip Strength
Weak hands are the first things to fail during a pull-up session. It’s easy to think all your pull-up strength comes from your arms and your shoulders, but your hands are what hold your body in place when you’re performing a pull-up.
Try these tips.
Whenever an athlete contacts me about how they aren’t hitting their pull-up PRs like they want, I always ask if they’re working on their grip strength. Most of the time they aren’t.
Tip #10: Don’t Overdo It
While we all want to hit a new PR, too much work too soon leads to injury. Start with low numbers and gradually increase them.
Athletes that do too many pull ups without proper technique and rest can risk injury (elbow tendonitis, torn rotator cuff, etc.). Get adequate rest. This includes good sleep and factoring in recovery and rest days.
Do some yoga or go for an easy run or a walk. Do extra stretching.
Your body needs time to repair itself. If you keep pushing too hard and your body hasn’t had time to recover, this is also how you can get injured. Injury will mean a lot of time off. That’s why rest and recovery days are important.
It’s better to take a day or two off during the week than 3-6 months while your injury heals.
Good luck on your pull ups and crush that next CrossFit WOD.
QUESTION: Hi, Coach McLeod. I don’t know why I haven’t asked already, but I don’t have any gymnastics rings for the ring row workouts in the beginner’s portion and was wondering if there were any suitable substitute exercises for that.
ANSWER: Try Australian pull ups or jumping pull ups. See the information above for more tips.
QUESTION: I’m kinda new exercising on a regular basis. I’ve been working with a trainer, and she mentioned she thinks I’m not getting enough nutrition. Do you have some tips?
ANSWER: Yes—check out this article about the kind of nutrition we recommend.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brad McLeod knows first hand about mental toughness. After passing Hell Week and Dive Pool Comp at BUD/S, he failed a math test and was kicked out of training. A year later, he returned, graduated, and served as an operator on the Navy SEAL Teams.
Check out SEALgrinderPT Coaching to help you step up and take hold of your dreams and realize your goals.