Coach’s Corner: The Strict Pull-up
The pull-up consists of an athlete pulling themself from a dead hang position up to a point where their chin is above the level of the hands. The strict pull-up should be mastered before moving onto kipping, butterfly, chest-to-bar pull-ups, or muscle-ups. Regardless of the scaling option or progressions selected, there are a few fundamentals that apply to every variation:
- Scapulae remain engaged. Whether kipping or performing pulling movements strict, failure to engage the scaps can result in instability and unnecessary pulling on the shoulder joint, potentially causing injury. Protect your shoulders – engage your scaps.
- All pulling movements begin with the arms fully extended, with the exception of negatives where the repetition ends with the arms fully extended.
- The foundation for a sound pull-up or variation is the hollow-body position. Insist on it.
Prerequisite movements: None.
The Gold Standard
These standards apply regardless of grip width or hand orientation (pronated/supinated). There are benefits to each, however the Gold Standard below assumes a pronated, standard width grip.
- Hands just outside shoulder width, palms away, head neutral
- Scapulae engaged
- Elbows fully extended in the bottom
- Hollow rock position maintained (ribcage down, abs engaged, feet and knees together and just in front of the body)
- Arms pull the chin above the height of the hands
- Hollow rock position maintained throughout
- Body lowered back in a controlled manner, elbows returning to full extension.
Scaling Option 1: Assisted pull-ups
Using bands, a machine, or even a partner we can simulate the vertical pulling motion required in a pull-up. Band assisted pull-ups are one of the more common options in an affiliate, however keep in mind that the band will assist the athlete at the most challenging point (the bottom of the dead hang) and then will become more difficult throughout the rep as the tension in the band is reduced. Ensure the fundamentals are still adhered to.
Scaling Option 2: The Inverted Row
The inverted row is a great scaling option for pull-ups as well as an excellent strength building exercise. The scalability and ease of set-up makes it a go-to for athletes of all levels and can serve as pulling accessory work, or as part of a progression to get a pull-up.
- Set up the rings or barbell such that the athlete’s back is close to, but does not make contact with the ground when hanging under the rings/bar with the elbows fully extended.
- Hands shoulder width apart
- The heels determine the difficulty of this movement. The further in front of the hands the feet are, the more challenging the exercise.
Scaling Option 3: Jumping pull-ups
Jumping pull-ups can be a good scaling option if the desired stimulus of the workout is highly metabolic or calls for a large number of reps. It is important to ensure the pull-up bar is high enough over the athlete’s head to ensure that they use their arms to complete the rep and not by simply “jumping” to complete a rep. Ensuring the pull-up bar is about 6 inches over the athlete’s head will accomplish this for most.
- Ensure the athlete starts each rep with their elbows fully extended. Their knees will be slightly bent here.
- Use a soft surface underneath the athlete for safety.
- Remind athletes to keep their scapulae engaged in order to stabilize and protect the shoulder joint.
- Each rep begins with the arms fully extended under the bar and ends once the chin (or chest) clears (or makes contact with) the bar.
- The athlete uses hip extension to initiate the rep, but finishes by pulling with the arms and back. The descent should be controlled, but not excessively slow.
Progressions and Exercises
There are lots of way to manipulate the difficulty of the scaling options listed above to help get an athlete to their first pull-up. Additionally, a logical progression of the options below will also help build the requisite strength for a strict pull up, which will also serve as the foundation for more advanced movements like the muscle up. Additionally, programming midline work such as hollow-rocks will be tremendously helpful. As a coach, you will ultimately program the progression so we’ve omitted specifics like sets, reps, etc..
Progression Exercise 1: Flexed arm hang and/or negatives
- The athlete begins by jumping themselves up so their chin is over the bar.
- The athlete can then hold themself for as long as possible with their chin over the bar, or they can lower themself as slow as possible, holding tension all the way to the dead hang. You can also prescribe a combination of both – e.g. hold for 5 seconds, lower for 5 seconds.
- Be cognizant of total volume when prescribing these – they will make the athlete sore!
- Mix up the grip width and palm direction for added variance.
Progression Exercise 2: Scaled rope climbs
- The athlete begins in a similar position as the inverted row, but uses a rope instead of a barbell or rings.
- Using only the arms, the athlete climbs them-self to a standing position
- This exercise can help strengthen the grip and pulling muscles in a unilateral manner
- If the athlete is coordinated enough, regular rope climbs could be introduced.
Progressions for advanced athletes who can perform more than 10-12 strict pull-ups
- Weighted variations of all strict pull-ups
- Towel, fat bar, rotating bar, or pull-ups along a wall
- Strict or kipping ring and bar muscle ups
- Legless rope climbs
- Pegboard ascents
- Salmon ladder
- Iron crosses
Common Faults and Fixes
Fault 1: Not fully extending the elbows (no rep)
Simply put, this is a strength issue. Insist on full range of motion for all reps and gradually increase the volume and intensity.
The fix: if an athlete can only perform a few strict reps, they can perform their max set followed by a set of inverted rows, or negatives. This can help build their overall capacity.
Fault 2: Failing to engage scaps
Athletes who simply hang by their shoulder joints are not properly retracting their shoulder blades and could be asking for injury. Insist on activation with the scaps before any variation of pulling exercise is conducted.
The fix: a simple reminder or demonstration may be all that is needed. Once an athlete understands how to activate their scaps, scap squeezes are an excellent exercise that can be done at any difficulty level.
Fault 3: Loss of the hollow rock position
A common fault, especially in strict pull-ups, is the tendency to allow the feet to hang behind the hands either with the legs crossed, knees bent, or some combination of both. The athlete then reaches their chest to the bar with an overextended thoracic. Athletes may be able to achieve more reps initially with this poor technique, but eventually they will plateau. Insist on a proper gymnastics style strict pull-up from the beginning.
The Fix: Obey the hollow-rock position!
- Scaps are engaged
- Knees are straight and together, toes are pointed and together
- Toes slightly in front of the body with the abs engaged and ribcage down
Ready to get after it? Download and print one of our free strict pull-up weakness templates
Additional sample exercise programs for different ability levels
Program 1: (athletes with 0 – 3 strict pull-ups)
- Inverted rows: e.g. 3×10
- Progress by moving the feet further in front of the athlete each day
- Band assisted pull-ups: e.g. 3×10
- Progress by reducing the level of band assistance
- Negatives: e.g. 5 second hold + 5 second negative x 5 reps, for 3-5 sets
- Progress by increasing the duration of the hold or negative. These can still be used once an athlete can perform pull-ups as an accessory for added strength.
Program 2: (athletes with 3 -12 strict pull-ups)
- Pull-ups + negatives
- Select a number of pull-ups that the athlete can definitely perform for multiple sets. Once the athlete completes that number of pull-ups, they immediately perform negatives (you decide the volume based on capacity)
- Pull-ups + Inverted rows
- The negative improves strength in the eccentric phase of the pull-up where an exercise like an inverted row trains more of the concentric phase. This can improve strength at the end ranges of the pull-up.
- Every minute, perform X number of pull-ups. Total volume can start around 2x the athletes max set (e.g. an athlete’s max set is 10 reps, so total volume to start may be 20 reps). Progress by adding volume or increasing the size of each set.
- Max effort sets
- These are better for athletes who are slightly more advanced but are still very valuable. Workouts such as “40 strict pull-ups in as few sets as possible” or “4x max effort sets” can be beneficial.