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Zero to Hero: Drills for Your First Pull-Up

Pull-ups are one of the most simple and effective back, shoulder, and arm exercises we have, providing a huge “bang for your buck”, perfect for those of us who don’t want to or can’t spend 8 hours in a gym every day. All we have to do is hang from a bar and pull ourselves up until our chin is over the bar, easy enough, right? If you found yourself shouting “Wrong!”, then you’re in the right place. Today, we’ll go over four drills that will help develop our grip and upper body pulling strength to reach the iconic fitness milestone of our first strict pull-up.

Related: The Slipstream Approach to Training

To be clear, we’re focusing solely on strict pull-ups here. While kipping may make the movement easier, it is essential to injury prevention to build a strong base of strict pull-ups before moving on to kipping. By being patient and taking this route, we ensure that all the ligaments, tendons, and muscles that make up the shoulder joint are strong enough to handle the increased demands that kipping places on them. All these drills we’ll go over are intended to be done separately, so 10 minutes before or after a class focusing on one of them is all you need to start making progress towards this elusive goal.

Related: 4 Simple Shoulder Mobility Movements

  1. ACTIVE HANG

To begin this drill, stand underneath a bar you can reach on your tiptoes. Start by wrapping both hands as far over the bar as possible, knuckles facing away from you. Pick your feet up off the ground, and now we’ll focus on finding the “active” position. Starting from the top down, we want our head neutral with gaze straight forward, and shoulders active by slightly pulling your shoulder blades down. Squeeze the belly, point the toes, and bring feet just slightly in front of the bar. Every muscle in the body will feel fired up here. Start small by holding this position for 10-15 seconds, and work on this until you can hold for 1 minute unbroken.

  1. SCAPULAR PULL-UPS

This drill will build on the active hang position, so make sure you’ve mastered the first drill before moving on to scapular (“scap”) pull-ups. For these we’ll start in the active hang position, and then focus on pressing down and into the bar to pull our shoulder blades back and down even further. Arms stay fully extended throughout this and continue to focus on squeezing the belly. In the finish position the body will still be in one line but tilted slightly backwards when viewed from side. Start with 3 sets of as many as you can, and work on these until you can do 3 sets of 8-10 reps.

  1. NEGATIVE PULL-UPS

To start this drill, place a box underneath the bar so that the bar is only a couple inches above your head. You can think of these as reverse pull-ups, where we slowly lower down instead of pulling up. This eccentric or lengthening phase of a movement is one of the most effective ways to build strength, even though you’re not doing an actual pull-up. Jump up so that the chin is over the bar, and cross ankles behind you. Lower down as slowly as possible, which may be anywhere from 3 to 10 seconds. While lowering, focus on not letting the elbows flare out to the sides too far, and control the movement all the way down until the arms are fully extended before placing your feet back on the box. Jump back up and repeat for 3 sets of 5 reps.

  1. BARBELL PULL-UPS

The setup for this drill is a bit complicated, but definitely worth it. To start, place a barbell onto j-hooks about hip height or a bit higher. Wrap bands around the end of the barbell and j-hooks to secure the barbell in place. Then place a box a couple feet in front of the bar. Now, to start the drill, sit underneath the barbell, grab onto it, and place heels on the box in front of you. In this starting position, arms should be fully extended and hips should be off the ground. Start with active shoulders, just like we did in the active hang, and initiate the movement with a scap pull-up. Pull-up to the bar with elbows staying in close to side body. Work on these until you can complete 3 sets of 3-5 reps without feeling like you’re driving into the box with the feet. If in the beginning, these are still very difficult, raise the barbell to take more of the load out of our arms, so keep working on these and lower the bar one or two holes every time you work on these.

Related: How Do I Stay Consistent With My Fitness?

If it seems like progress on these drills is moving slowly for you, don’t get discouraged! Pull-ups are incredibly difficult and require a range of skills besides strength, like stability and total body coordination. Therefore, it may take quite a bit of time to build up to even be able to do just one. But know that if you’re in it for the long haul, the feeling when you finally do get your chin over the bar will be that much sweeter.

–Jay Alexander

Coach/Trainer

jay@crossfitslipstream.com