April’s skill focus is yet another gymnastics-based movement: the pull-up. This is the most sought-after skill for those entering the CrossFit world. It also happens to be one of the best movements for developing strength in the latissimus dorsi and muscles of the upper back. Pull-ups also help build a strong core, too.
The pull-up looks so easy. You just hold onto a bar and pull yourself up, what could be simpler than that? Its simplicity is deceptive, however. A pull-up requires strength, sure, but it also requires solid technique.
When performing a pull-up (or attempting to) there are a few key positions to keep in mind as you cycle through the movement. They are:
1. The Hang
The pull-up begins with the oft-skipped step of engaging your lats so that you hang properly from the bar. Activating the lats from the hang will put the body and core into a position of strength before you begin the pull. To activate your lats drive the shoulders down and back while you elevate the chest and squeeze through the abdominals. Keep your elbows locked out (straight).
2. Starting the Pull
The pull upward begins by driving the elbows down and back. During the ascent the chest should remain elevated, raising toward the bar. A common fault seen in the initial pull (especially when done with band assistance) is a minor drop to attempt to bounce out of the bottom position, which immediately disengages the lats. To avoid that, look up and try to lift your chest up into the initial movement. Keep as tight/active as possible before your pull. Don’t be loosey-goosey.
3. The Top Position
Remember: the objective is to get the chin higher in relation to the bar, not physically over the bar. When we drive our chin forward to accomplish the latter we stop our vertical movement and start a horizontal path. This shift causes a chain reaction: it rolls the shoulders forward causing the upper traps to shrug/over-engage, forcing the work into the upper traps and biceps rather than the posterior.
4. The Descent
During the descent there should be control (lats holding, core sturdy) to properly lower to the bottom position with the elbows locked/straight and the body ready for more!
Can’t do an unassisted pull-up? Then scale down
There are many ways to scale this movement. You can use a resistance band, do ring/body rows, seated ring or bar pull- ups, and jumping pull-ups. Always scale according to the focus of the workload in a particular WOD. If the workout has higher volume, or is meant to be metabolic conditioning, or cardio then the jumping pull-up is a perfect fit as it allows proper position to be achieved while keeping the heart rate up. If there is a moderate number of reps (eight-15) each round then band assistance, or body rows would be appropriate to keep good reps. But make sure to challenge the strength at the same time. In a buy-in and with a strength focus the ring/bar seated pull-ups would be beneficial as they allow you to move through the vertical plane. To perform, start seated and cross-legged under the rings with arms locked out. As you pull-up allow your feet to push with mild assistance toward your ascent.
Know how to scale up
The pull-up should not stop with its first successful unassisted rep. It’s not an endpoint but rather a tool to use for greater strength gain. This position can be challenged by the addition of weight, volume, and tempo. Adding weight —as we do on a barbell in a lift—will force an adaptive response that pushes the body to break through its current plateau. Doing more reps will build greater muscle memory (as long as you don’t allow bad reps to form the bulk of that volume). Tempo is the best way to iron out inefficiencies through your pull-up. Going at a set slower speed that incorporates a pause at the top will immediately show where the lats and core are giving out and where they are holding strong.
These steps to the positioning of the pull-up will certainly help you to achieve a harder standard whether it be more reps, fewer bands, or your first unassisted repetition. It is important to note that consistency will always help you gain strength and technique. Simply put, the more often you do pull-ups the better you will get. Look to our Buy-ins and workouts through the month of April to get plenty of work in on this classic and powerful gymnastics-based movement.
Craig Latendresse is a coach at Alchemy CrossFit.