Master the Move | The Pullup

by Kari Woodall
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Master the Move | The Pullup

The pullup is one of the most difficult bodyweight exercises. Pullups require back strength, not big biceps. Most people tend to be stronger on the front of their body (Think: chest, abs and quads) and weaker in back. To stay functionally balanced and strong, we also need the requisite strength on the backside. This equates to better posture and a reduced likelihood of experiencing aches and pains from sitting at a desk all day.

Moving well is just as important as getting strong enough to pull yourself up. In addition to back strength, there are a few other crucial components of a good pullup: shoulder mobility, scapular stability, core strength and spinal stability.

Try the following exercise sequence to master this gold-standard move:

BREAKING DOWN THE MOVE

1. ASSISTED STRAIGHT-ARM HANG

Why do it: A tight chest and lats can inhibit overhead shoulder mobility. This hanging stretch helps build the flexibility and shoulder range of motion necessary for a good overhead position at the bottom of the pullup. The assisted hang is also a great way to prepare the grip strength necessary for a pullup.  

The move: Stand directly below a bar with an overhand grip and slowly release some pressure from your feet on the floor until you feel a stretch in your back and up your sides. Breathe throughout the hang. If an assisted hang from a bar isn’t a viable option, foam roll your chest, lats and back. Begin with 2–3 sets of assisted hangs for 5–10 seconds each, using less assistance from your legs as you get stronger. Goal: 2 sets of 20–30 second hangs, three times a week.

Pro tip: Be careful not to hyperextend your lower back, it puts pressure on your joints. Look straight ahead, not at your hands. If you feel pressure in the back of your neck, dip your chin slightly.

2. WALL SLIDES

Why do it: Just like the assisted hang, wall slides teach good positioning at the bottom of the pullup. The movement pattern also teaches your body what a pullup should look and feel like, while mobilizing the shoulders and shoulder blades.  Standing against the wall provides feedback on posture or spinal alignment. If you can feel the wall on your tailbone, shoulder blades and head throughout the movement, you are more likely to be able to keep your spine aligned throughout the pullup.

The move:  Stand with your heels, tailbone, shoulders and head against the wall. Tighten your abs and glutes to engage your core, while still breathing easily. Begin with your arms straight up or in a wider V position if that is more comfortable. Keep all of the aforementioned body parts plus the back of your hands and arms touching the wall as you slide your elbows down. Stop if your hands and arms come off the wall. If you can’t do both arms at the same time successfully, try standing with just one arm raised and the other arm at your side. Perform 2 sets of 6–12 reps slowly, daily.

Pro tip: Avoid arching your back as your arms move overhead and rounding your back as your elbows bend.

3. PLANK

Why do it: A strong core helps stabilize and protect your spine. It also helps your joints work properly and more fluidly throughout your movements. In this case, core strength will help posture and mobility. A stable spine is able to resist arching and rounding.

The move:  Get into a pushup position on your hands with your hands directly under your armpits or onto your forearms with your elbows directly underneath your armpits and palms flat. Tighten your abs, armpits, glutes and legs. Gaze  between your hands so your neck stays long. Perform 3–6 10-second planks with a very short rest between planks, daily.

Pro tip: If you’re sagging or piking your hips, keep your knees on the floor. Make sure your  head and neck are in line with the rest of your spine.

4. SCAPULAR PACKING

Why do it: Good scapular control means the correct back muscles are driving the movement from the beginning — and pullups begin with a technique called scapular packing, where your shoulder blades (not your arms) initiate the pull. The shoulder blades need to depress (move downward) and retract (move inward) before the elbows bend.

The move: This exercise is done with straight arms in a pushup or table top (hands and knees) position. Think of pushing the floor away so your shoulder blades pull apart and move away from the spine. Once they are pulled apart, you are ready to “pack” the shoulder blades. Think of pulling your shoulder blades down into your back pockets, and then slightly squeeze the pockets together, toward your spine. The pullup begins with this same movement, before the arms move. Perform 2 sets of 6–12 reps slowly every other day.

Pro tips: Close your eyes and feel the movement in your back versus looking at your arms for feedback. Avoid rounding your spine or bending your elbows versus moving the shoulder blades and dropping or lifting your chin.


READ MORE MASTER THE MOVE
> The Pushup
> The Lunge
> The Burpee


5. NEGATIVE PULLUP

Why do it: If completing a full pullup is your goal, you don’t want to skip these. Working the lowering (eccentric) phase of the pullup builds strength for the full pullup since you’re using the same muscles needed to pull you up. Lowering your body to the floor and resisting gravity requires a lot of upper-body strength and works your muscles in a different way, so be prepared to be a little sore the next day or two.

The move: Start at the top of a pullup. Keep your shoulders away from your ears and turn on your core muscles. As slowly as possible, straighten your arms and control your descent. Try to squeeze your armpits down to your side to resist straightening your arms rather than lifting the shoulders up. Try 1–3 sets of 1–3 reps as slowly as possible, twice a week.

Pro tip: The slower the better!

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER  

ASSISTED PULLUP AND THE FULL PULLUP

Using the floor, a bench or a band helps you get strong enough to eventually complete a full pullup with your feet off the floor and your body aligned.

  1. Using an overhand grip, hang from the bar with your feet on a band. The band helps pull you up, just as pushing your feet into the floor helps.
  2. Initiate the pull with straight arms and pack your shoulder blades down. You should feel a pinch in the middle of your back as some of those smaller muscles are working!  
  3. Next, squeeze your armpits and bend your elbows down by your side. You’ll feel the bigger muscles working on your back, like your lats.
  4. Keep your core active by using the planking techniques. Maintain good posture, being careful not to arch at the bottom or round at the top. Your shoulders stay pulled down away from your ears throughout the pullup. If they lift up, you are pulling with your arms and the wrong parts of your back.

Do 2 sets of as many good reps as you can, once or twice a week. A good goal is 3–6 reps.

Pro tip: Avoid initiating the pullup with your legs or arms instead of your shoulder blades and back or lifting your shoulders up toward the ears during the pull.


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