Pull-Ups — A Brief Guide to Getting Your Chin Over The Bar

pullupBy Alexander Castiglione

Pull ups. They’re a movement you either love or hate. Like their horizontal cousin, the burpee, they’ve plagued the lot of the fitness community; with groans being emitted once people spy them on the whiteboard, especially from the bigger athletes. Well, that’s about to change (hopefully).

Pulling your chin over the bar, whether it’s with a pronated grip or supinated grip (chin up), is a basic motor pattern that works several different muscle groups, and translates into pulling power through most vectors. Simply put, if you do a lot of pull ups, you will get better at pull ups (obviously), muscle ups, bent over rows, and even sumo deadlift high pulls. Once you get more advanced, weighted pull ups will bring your lifts up, from both the concentric motion of the lift and the eccentric motion.

First and foremost, I need to say this to you: If you can’t do 5-10 strict pullups, cleanly – meaning with no swinging, bucking, or whining – then don’t even bother kipping. I know, I know, you want to RX workouts, but you need to crawl before you go sprinting towards a labrum or rotator cuff injury that will put you down for at least a few weeks. If you can do this – kipping is a great way to get through workouts like Angie, Nicole and Murph. Also, you probably lack the shoulder girdle stability coupled with the mobility required to properly and safely execute a kip. For the latter, if you can’t do a PVC pass through with your hands at should width or close, you probably don’t have the proper shoulder mobility to kip and joints will break down under the tremendous force and flexion required to kip or butterfly.

Now, if you can’t do strict pull ups, negatives are the way to go. Start at the top hold position, and slowly lower yourself to the bottom. Make it a controlled and even descent, smoothly dropping from the bar into a dead hang. Step up, and repeat. Start with 5 sets of 3-5 reps for 5 seconds descent. If that’s too easy, tack some time on. If that’s still easy, you’re probably ready for strict pull ups.

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Strict is strong. Remember that. It doesn’t matter how many kipping muscle ups or kipping handstand pushups you can do if you’re not competing. What matters is how clean and controlled you can do them strict, and pull ups are no exception. Demonstrating control without momentum trumps control with momentum every time when we’re talking about strength (Power, well, we could argue that).

Strict tempo pull ups are a fantastic way to build your strength and endurance – whether pull ups, chin ups, or a different variation of the both of them (more on this later). The way to read a tempo-training notation is simple – the first number refers to the lowering (or eccentric) phase of the lift, the 2nd number refers to the number of time spent at the bottom (or top depending on how you look at it) of the lift. The 3rd number refers to the time it takes you to get to the top of the lift (for pull ups the time it takes to pull your chin back over the bar). The 4th refers to the time you should be at the top of the lift, or in this case spent with your chin over the bar. So – to put it into use – tempo pull ups that read 5-5-x-3, would be 5 seconds lowering, 5 seconds hanging, x denotes exploding into the 4th portion so here you would get from a dead hang to over the pull up bar as fast as possible (If it was 5-5-1-3, you would spend 1 second pulling up over the bar).

The last number means you would spend 3 seconds in a flexed arm hang with your chin over the bar. Since these are deceptively hard, pick a rep scheme that suits your level and ability. For beginners – who have about 10 strict pullups as a max effort – I’d go with something like the following. 3 sets of :3-2-2-5 for 3 reps. Once more, this would be read as 3 seconds lowering, 2 seconds hanging, 2 seconds pulling up, and 5 seconds holding the top. Do that two more times, and that’s one set. And yes, it will probably suck the first time around.

The benefits of tempo work are plentiful – but in this case you will get your muscles and more importantly your joints used to handling your bodyweight over more time, thus strengthening everything involved: tendons, muscles, etc. The more advanced you get, the more time you can add to certain elements, the more sets and reps you can add. Once you can hit something like 5-10-x-10 for 3-5 reps, I’d say it’s time to move to the next endurance builder for pull ups. (Note the explosive factor on the concentric portion of the lift – since you’ll be hanging and holding top for quite a bit, you’ll want to acclimate yourself to exploding and pulling hard when you are taxed).

Bent arm hangs will test your endurance, grip, and resolve. Using whichever grip you like (or hate and need to work on) pull yourself over the bar and remain there for a set period of time. Do not then your chin or neck touch the bar and take on some of your weight. Beginners should aim for about 10 seconds, adding time as it gets easier. I’d say once you hit 5x50s-60s, it’s time to move on. Throw them in to add diversity to a workout, but a minute or close to it is plenty.

Weighted pull ups remain one of my favorites and training staples. Using a weighted vest, or simply grabbing a dumbbell between your feet, pull yourself over the bar. It’s that easy. I would establish and 1 RM with this movement, then do percentage based workouts, similar to a lifting program. To use round numbers, say your 1 RM is 100lbs. I’d do sets of 3-5 at 80% or 80 lbs, sets of 10 at 60% or 60 lbs, or if you are training for power, singles at 90-95% – in this case 90-100lbs. If you are going for endurance, train for 60%, if you are going for a mix of power and endurance, try working in the 80% range, and power, stick to singles.

Drop sets are another training variation to help you break the monotony or a plateau. Again, to use round numbers put on a 40lb vest – but whatever weight makes you do a tough 5 reps. Do 5 reps with 40lbs, 5 with 30lbs, and so on until the vest is empty. Once you have no extra weight, go for max reps. This will increase your endurance, acclimate your upper body to working while stressed, and a psychological bonus – the last set will seem vastly easier with the extra weight; usually leading to a PR. You could also add reps when you drop the weight, making it a little more spicy – IE 5 reps with 40lbs, 7 with 30lbs, 9 with 20lbs etc.

Last but not least, throw in some variety. Don’t just do regular pull ups. Do wide grip. Behind the neck wide grip. Close grip chin ups. Mountain climbers. Towel pull ups. Switch grip pull ups. Strict chest to bars. Whenever a movement gets too easy, it’s time to modify it to be harder, or find a new movement; that’s the only way you’ll get out of your comfort zone.

Bodyweight chins got easy? Add some weight, or do pull ups. Now go out, find a bar, chalk up, strap some kettlebells to yourself, and get your chin over that bar.


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