The pull-up is a foundational strength movement. Being able to hang from support and pull yourself up, using no momentum, until your hands contact your chest, is a major upper body development goal.
From our earliest days we have used elastic bands as a tool to help people do pull-ups. Bands are used to help people who can’t do pull-ups at all, and as assistance to allow higher volume training for people who can already perform unassisted pull-ups. We had fully embraced the heavy duty rubber bands as a way to help our clients to perform their first pull-ups. This matched the ethos of “scalability” practiced in the CrossFit community. After many years of using this approach we have realized that the bands, while giving people the momentary ability to perform a pull-up, often failed to help our members actually gain the strength to perform the movement on their own. And many people who did gain the ability to do a pull-up, were unable to perform them properly.
Lets start by considering what you need to be able to do in order to pull yourself up. Beginning with the bottom or straight arm hang position, you first need to be able to firmly “set” your shoulder blades. They are the foundation your arms will pull from. Next is flexing both your arm – at the elbow – and your shoulder – pulling your elbow down. Finally the pull-up finishes with a strong shoulder extension at the top, pulling your elbows slightly behind your back. As you train for your first pull-up you will need to develop all of these areas.
There is a major issue with using elastic bands to help yourself get that first pull-up. The problem is that the force helping you is not consistent. You get too much help at the bottom, and not enough help at the top. Some people manage to acquire the pull-up skill in spite of these issues, but far too many folks never make the transition to unassisted pull-ups. In more than a decade of using bands for pull-up assistance, we have seen many people who never learned to set their shoulders properly, many people who never got strong enough to pull their chest all the way to the bar, and many people who can only do pull-ups with a kip. There is a place for kipping pull-ups, but basic strength development is not that place.
Lack of scapular retraction, as noted by “hunched” look, has caused the shoulders to elevate making a deep pull impossible. This causes unnecessary stress on the shoulder joint and can lead to injury.
One of the most important factors in developing a good pull-up is the ability to stabilize your scapula. Without this skill your shoulders will be unable to stay stable throughout the pull-up. This is most obvious when you see elevation and protraction of the shoulders during a pull-up.
Lets dive into the problem for a deeper look. You must develop the strength to really set your shoulder blades before beginning the pull, but this is when the fully stretched band is helping so much that you don’t really have to set your shoulders, and so you never develop this crucial skill. At the other end – the top of a good pull-up, fully lifting your body to the bar requires a strong shoulder retraction. You must be able to pull your elbows down and slightly behind you, while at the same time squeezing your shoulder blades together. The band is usually fully relaxed at this position and you can’t get all the way to the bar, so no strength development there.
The band is allowing you to fool yourself. The nonlinear assistance prevents you from developing strong scapula, prevents you from developing a full range of motion, and allows you to “do” the motion without fully engaging all of the necessary muscles.
For some, this inability to stabilize the shoulder, done by retracting and depressing the scapula, is the main reason they can’t do a pull-up. If you have ever hung helplessly from a bar, this is you. For others, the inability to maintain this scapular position causes the loss of stability, and strength to complete the pull.
Bands only exacerbate this problem by giving the strongest push at the bottom. At the bottom is where you need to learn to retract your scapulae. As you continue up toward the bar, the band’s resistance decreases. You begin to pull harder and your shoulders slip further forward. The results can often lead to shoulder pain and serious injuries.
So how do we build strength for a pull-up?
There are a few progressions we use to help people get chin-ups and pull-ups. The first is the assisted chin-up or pull-up. We like this method because you can give yourself the added help where you actually need it. And it allows you to develop strength where you need it the most. Unlike the bands, without the big push at the bottom, the assisted variations allow you to learn to set your shoulders in the proper position before initiating the pull.
At the top of the pull where you should be getting your chest to the bar, you can use your feet to give yourself a little boost.
“The standard of chest-to-bar is proof that you are fully retracting your scapula and keeping your shoulders in a strong, stable position.”
The standard of chest-to-bar is proof that you are fully retracting your scapula and keeping your shoulders in a strong, stable position. This added help from your toes isn’t cheating. It helps you get the strength development in your shoulders that you need.
The beauty of the assisted variations is you can pull yourself to the top properly and then lift your feet to perform a controlled negative. This eccentric contraction allows you to load all the muscles necessary to perform the movement while also moving through the full range of motion while your scapula are in the correct position.
This is where we find the biggest advantage over bands. Negatives can be performed assisted (with your toes still on the ground) or unassisted and at varying tempos. This is one of the ways you will start to build up the strength for a well-performed pull-up.
What about pull-ups in a workout?
The place bands are used most often is during a workout. Athletes are often asked to perform a high volume of pull-ups during workouts. Unable to do so unassisted, they head to the bands. The same problems persist; collapsed shoulders, bad movement patterns, and no progress.
So what should you do for high volume pull-up work? Jumping pull-ups are a decent option, however, these do little to develop pulling capacity. Ring Rows offer a more valuable return on your work. Ring rows are great as a strength tool, but in a workout they provide instant scalability. This means as soon as you fail at performing the pull to the full range of motion, you can instantly scale the movement to make it easier. This encourages a focus on proper movement, full range of motion, and progress without injury. Don’t write the ring rows off as too elementary. There is a good deal of use in them for our stronger athletes, especially those working towards muscle-ups.
What about kipping?
Kipping, like the bands, is helping you overcome your inability to set your shoulders. We advise not kipping in a workout until you are able to perform 6 – 8 strict chest to bar pull-ups consecutively. We keep our athletes from kipping until they have shown proficiency in the ability to pull. We will cover this in more detail in a later article.
Zack Finer has been a strength and conditioning coach since 2008. He was a founding member of Israel’s first CrossFit gym, and is a co-owner of moveSKILL.com. Recently Zack has shifted his focus to gymnastic strength training under the tutelage of Ido Portal in an effort to better understand human movement development.