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Conquer the Pull-Up: 8 Assured Methods for Achievement

By Sean Escaravage

Not too long ago, I sucked at pull-ups. Any sort of pulling motion from overhead I avoided, and it was with the worst reasoning:

I was bad at them, so I avoided them

OH MY GOD, WHAT?! If I could go back a few years ago to that time, I would slap myself silly for turning away from a movement because "it was hard". That being said, let's take a quick look at my coach bio;

"To see true lifestyle changes, the secret is to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. The hardest behaviors to break are the ones that limit true potential to personal fulfillment. In order to grow, you must conquer mental, physical and emotional adversity."

Sometimes it is the hardest to take your own advice, but often the most essential. I avoided that discomfort because of a minor fear of failure, weakness, and I didn't like them much. Come to think of it, those three reasons alone continuously influenced one another, creating a giant shit ball of negative mindset towards them.

By sticking to the things I liked (anything Kettbells, Endurance Training Powerlifting, Olympic lifting, Yoga) I became competent with my usual routine agendas, but much more incompetent with the infrequent movements.

"Obstacles are Great Incentives" -Jules Michelet

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After shoulder surgery, I was basically a clean slate by physical standards, and those 14 weeks in a sling were nothing short of pure torture. 99% of my activity was drawn to a halt, and instantly I appreciated all that I was able to do so much more. But in being forced to stop, I had a boat load of time to prepare and plan how I wanted to bounce back. The first step was to create more balance in my movement life, starting with the things I suck at.

Well, it's been just over a year since I did my first pain-free band assisted chin up, and a few weeks back executed one with 80lb hanging around my waist.

Getting the body confident and more comfortable in doing difficult movements again won't happen by waiting. Using building blocks to progress 'main movements' is the key to build a tolerance and improve the stress your body can overcome.

Take that bigger or daunting obstacle, and find checkpoints, strategies, and tools that can help you get to that point. If you chose to just try and do a chin-up, fail, and then just wait a few days to try again without gaining the prerequisites, it's safe to say you will never get there.

At Orca Empire, we are consistently exploring ways to maximize results without compromising individual differences. Some are seasoned veterans and can bang out 8-10 straight in a row, while others can't even hang for 1 second; we cater to both extremes and everywhere in between to keep progress and achievement in sight. These 8 methods have been battle tested and have been proven extremely effective, having a direct crossover to building your pull-up, and if you want to get better at them, this is how it is done!

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1. Hang

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If you are going to even attempt pulling yourself up from a hanging position, you best learn how to hang first! Our hands are so fragile, they are a huge inhibitor of our performance, so strong hands lead to strong and able bodies. For hand positioning, it's really based on comfort, but it is best to do so at least at shoulder width. Anything more narrow than that can cause discomfort and potential impingement if stress is placed in the wrong areas.

Try to hang as long as your grip will let you, which may not be too long at first. If you have vice grips for fingers, try removing one or two fingers from the bar, using a thicker bar, fold a towel over the bar, one arm hangs... the options are endless!

2. Farmers Carries

Carrying heavy shit is a fast track to get strong, period. Have you ever tried to move hay bales, buckets of feed, or other barn-style chores? It's effing hard! Farmers carries contribute to develop rock solid grip strength, and create a great connection between the hand, shoulder, and body to effectively brace under load, and fight off the 'yuck' to stay engaged. Use some variations, like front rack, overhead, mixed, or arms at the side. Depending on which variation you choose, this is a method that is less tasking on the shoulders since they are in a packed position, versus most pull-up variations since they require an active position. Active shoulders during a pull-up ("relaxed shoulders hang") stress the soft tissues in the shoulder more-so than packed shoulders.

Active Shoulders: Allow the shoulder girdle to move in the same direction as the arms are

Packed Shoulders: Keeping the shoulder blades back and down, regardless of the movement

Another helpful resource is an article I wrote on How to Bulletproof Your Back for Battle. I cover some key ways to keep your shoulders and back functioning optimally. You can read that here

Or, you can watch the video here

3. Feet Assisted Chin Up

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Vary the height by just adjusting the rack height! It is one of my favorite variations for those intimidated by the full movement. Plus, it is better to perform these for confidence then ride the struggle bus for 1 chin/pull-up

4. Weighted Variations (Traditional, Hang, Hold)

This is more suited for someone who can do at least one, and is looking for a way to really improve their progress. Before throwing some extra pounds onto your pull-up, you want to first have sound movement mechanics (core engagement, hand placement, breathing, ect.). You can go through some repetitions, or hold yourself above the bar at the top of the movement, becoming stronger and more proficient at one of the toughest parts of the lift, the finish. Or, my favorite, perform the hang with the weight, creating a "dragging you down" effect to overload your grip and shoulder strength...plus it forces you to really brace your trunk!

5. Scapular Retractions "Shrugs"

Your lats are pivotal to initiate a pull-up, seeing that they are responsible for the first portion of the movement. Practice engaging your lats by hanging with your arms straight, then "reverse shrugging", or drawing the shoulder blades back and down. This is the first step in the pull-up, and can be overlooked in importance for success for completion.

6. Bottoms Up Kettlebells Press + Pause

Holding a kettlebell firmly is a challenge on its own without crushing your forearm. But flip that sucker upside-down, and you are basically forced to hold onto it for dear life! You need connection of a strong grip and forearm, bulletpoof core, locked in and stable and controlled through your shoulder throughout the entire movement. This is just one bottoms up variation, there are others, but also using this as a farmers walk isn't a bad option either.

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7. Banana Hold

Too often, I see people "do pull-ups". Humping your knees up to the bar into the fetal position to gain momentum isn't pretty to watch, and gives a false sense of strength. Learning how to hold a 'hollow' position will not only train for a REAL pull-up, but it will drastically improve your abdominal strength, a good one-two combo!

What you are aiming to do is make yourself look like a delicious fruit. Lift your shoulder blades off the floor, while also keeping your heels off the floor, and legs fully extended. If those 2 are done right, your low back should feel smooshed into the floor (which is a good thing!), creating a rock solid anterior core. If having your arms overhead makes this too intense, or if your low back can't stay connected to the floor, bring your arms alongside your body.

8. Inverted Rows

Yes, I'm aware when doing a pull-up, you are vertically pulling yourself towards the bar. But this horizontal pulling motion contributes to the improve elbow flexion (shorten your biceps), lats, shoulder, grip, torso, and lower body connecteness. Think of it as a reverse push-up; from head to toe you remain engaged, and then you draw your chest close to the destination, in this case it is the bar. This can be done with an overhand or underhand grip

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This is among one of the harder feats of strength to achieve, so if it takes a while to build up for one, don't get discouraged, you still will get there! It's the "you're only as strong as your weakest link" in the fitness world. Unless you are being paid to compete in a sport, or on the verge of breaking records, specialization in one area is not effective for overall longevity, performance, and long term skill acquisition. Everyone's body is different, so all of these may help right now, while some can be waiting for you as your strengths continue to become stronger. Training your weaknesses isn't as much fun as the things you are already good at; but why not turn as many things as possible into strengths? That is where true ability lies.

Wishing You Great Health and Strength,

Coach Sean