Pull ups can feel like the most impossible exercise ever! I've been there myself. Many would assume that I could always do a pull up, due to my background in aerial arts and pole dancing, however that was never the case. I had to work extremely hard to get my first pull up.
Which is why have created this blog to help you understand why you may be struggling to achieve them, and some exercises that you can put into your training program to help you master your first pull up.
Firstly, It’s not rocket science, but an individual that is fairly light in weight is going to find the process much easier and quicker than someone that is heavier. This doesn’t mean that you will only be able to do a pull up if you are light, it just means that you will have to work a little harder to master it.
This is why I have also provided some scaled alternatives if it feels impossible to hold your own bodyweight at the moment. That being said, if you can hold your body weight but it feels “hard” then you NEED to stick to the harder option. Even if you’re not able to control the tempo on your last rep and finding it hard. The process shouldn’t be easy, it should be challenging and tough.
Before I go ahead and give you some exercises to try, I want to talk about eccentric loading and why it is the secret behind building maximal strength, anaerobic power and acceleration.
Eccentric loading, also referred to as a “negative” is simply when you when lengthening a muscle as it extends as a-posed to shortening the muscle when it contracts, which would be a concentric movement.
The simplest way for this to be understood is by imagining that your starting point would be at the start of an exercise’s end position/range and slowly lower yourself from that position.
For example if we were to take the pull up, the hardest part of that movement is pulling up, this would be the concentric part where the muscles shorten, therefore the eccentric part would be lowering down from the pull up once you’re up!
Let’s take a bicep curl, the hardest part of that movement would be the curl, brining something towards you. The eccentric part would be lowering the weight away from you. Let's take a squat, the hardest part is coming up from the end position, at the bottom. The negative or the eccentric part of this would be lowering into that position.
Below are some examples of some eccentric contractions:
Lowering a weight during a shoulder press.
Lowering yourself during a pull up.
The downward (lowering) motion of a squat, push up, dip.
It is scientifically proven that an eccentric contraction can produce huge muscle forces of levels up to 60% greater than a concentric movement.
Therefore, that means that by working on the negative phase of your compound movements or any other exercise you will excel and become more efficient at the exercise itself and see improvements a lot faster.
In addition to that, technically due to fewer motor units (muscles) being recruited in the exercise and reduced central nervous activity being present, our bodies will be conserving its energy and oxygen more efficiently than a concentric contraction, allowing you to create more force. This means that eccentric loading will help enhance muscle growth, increase post exercise resting energy expenditure and improve insulin resistance which can increase an individuals rate of metabolism, promoting weight loss.
However, with any exercise there are pros and cons and it's always important to know them.
Some side effects of a lot of eccentric work can include muscle pain, delayed onset muscle soreness, which can lead to feeling very stiff and swollen. Additionally, if our bodies are not ready for the load being applied individuals may risk tendon and joint structure injuries.
However eccentric movements will help with rapid progress in muscle strength and muscle mass, improve an individuals athletic performance (speed, jumping and which quick change of direction), Improve mobility and promote lean mass, promote fat reduction, increase our resting energy expenditure and improve our resting metabolism to up to 9% (NSCA).
Now that I have explained the benefits of eccentric loading, it is the trick behind mastering the pull up! You may have a Long way to go until you can get there if you are unable to yet hold your weight but its something that you should aim for. Don't give up! Scale exercises when necessary and you will always be one step closer to your goal. Below I have listed some exercises you can string together in a workout to help you master yours. Be very strict with your form and your rest period.
Note* example = Tempo 51x2 The first number being the eccentric or lowering component of the lift.
The second number resembles any pauses at the mid point.
The third number being the concentric component. If we were to take the tempo from this example and the pull up as an exercise, the number 5 would be the lowering of the movement. the 1 would be the dead hang and the 2 would be the reset to getting back up to the top of the bar.
I have tried my best to film some videos, however I have also attached some youtube links if you need any further explanation.
1. 12 Negative Pull ups
Tempo at: 51x2
Rest 90s 3 Rounds
Additional supported video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gbPURTSxQLY Note* Make sure you have a box to jump back up to the bar or a high enough surface so you do not have to struggle with the pull upwards. Remember to come down all the way to a dead hang.
2. 12 Close grip Bent Over Barbell Rows
Tempo at: 31x2
Rest 90s 3 Rounds
Additional Supported Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nq7GQxyMrW4 - Please make sure your arms are external rotated (you should feel like you are going to break the bar) and on the pull keep your elbows close to your rib cage, avoid flailing the elbows out. Engage your lats and keep that bar close to you at all times.
3. 12 Mini Rope climbs (6 each side) Rest 45s 3 Rounds
Unfortunately I do not have a rope in my Gym but this is a BRILLIANT exercise to incorporate to any training program, below is an excellent video that I found with multiple variations. The movement I would like you to focus on are called leg assisted rope climbs in this video.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v_tf16u75zM- If you don't have a rope you can perform 15 Ring rows, slowly aiming to master a supine ring row. Remember internally rotate the shoulder when the arms are lengthened and externally rotate the shoulder when pulling.
4. 20-60s Isometric Holds
Rest 90s 4 Rounds
Note* Keep your shoulders away from your ears (pull them back and down) imagine there is something in-between your shoulder blades and you are trying to squeeze that object together. Be strict with your rest time!!! Stick to the rest to work ratio :)