Strengthen Your Pullups

Published April 30, 2015


Written By Roberto Southards, LV1 Trainer

Fair Warning!  This article is not a detailed guide on how to do a pullup.  There will be a few good pointers presented, but as always; seek your CrossFit Trainers for more information.  The information presented is to help growing athletes understand the value of progression, and there will be a few examples.

First, there is no such thing as "CrossFit Pullups".  To begin to explain what a "Pullup" is, you must first look at the basic definition.

From Merriam-Webster Dictionaries:

Pull-Up (noun)
- An exercise in which you hold onto a bar above your head and then pull your body up until your chin is above the bar

Pull (verb) 
- To hold onto and move (someone or something) in a particular direction and especially toward yourself
- To remove (something) by gripping it and using force
- To cause (something you are holding or something that is attached to you) to move with you as you go in a particular direction

Pull (noun)
- The act of moving or trying to move something by holding it and bringing it toward you
- The act of pulling something

After looking over these definitions there is no standard on how to meet the goal except to pull above the bar; meeting the end result.  Wiki sites list many different styles of pullups, to include behind the neck pullups and muscle-ups.  Where standards come to play, it is dependent on the event or organization that is setting it.  This could be a military standards, competition standards, fitness programming, or Guinness records.  

Here in CrossFit, we use many different styles to become fit.  This article will help address progressive options in mastering just a few.  To start off, the most common types of pullups seen in our programming will include:  Strict Pullups, Kipping Pullups, Butterfly Pullups, Weighted Pullups, Banded Pullups; and all can be either chin above bar or chest to bar.  More advanced types of pullups can include muscle-ups and any variation of.

First progression in pullups should always start with learning the strict movement before kipping, even though strict pullups are much harder to achieve.  Why do we teach this?  You must first build a good strength base in your shoulders to help support kipping pullups.  High volume in any kind of movement can hurt if you don't first build a good base (squats or running anyone?).  Some damage can happen if you cut corners to get your first kipping pullup without a strength base (even with bands!) if you are not at your strongest.  Nobody wants a torn rotator cuff, labrum; biceps, SLAP tear, or shoulder dislocation because they were too eager to progress.  Examples can be taken from baseball pitchers and tennis players who have a weak strength base, but perform high volume throws or hits.  This is due to improper training (no overhead press and pulls).  Also SLAP tears (of any degree) is common to those trying to learn a muscle-up without the needed strength (have you seen the arms on ring gymnasts?).  In a muscle-up, there are both lots of strength and momentum involved.  If you do not have the strength to support, and depend on momentum, you can cause overuse injury to the tendons (in the biceps) that connect to your shoulder joint fairly quickly.

From CrossFit Invictus; their recommended standard before kipping is that men should be able to perform six unbroken strict pullups and for women, three unbroken strict pullups.  Then for athletes to make the leap from kipping to butterfly or chest-to-bar pullups, try to reach 15-20 perfect kipping reps.  Thinking of performing a bar or ring muscle-up?  Go for 15-20 chest-to-bar pullups and even a strict ring muscle-up.  These are only recommendations and we do realize we can't stop you from practicing all progressions, but we still recommend you to put some work into the progressions.

Other progressions we can recommend in building general strength can include performing negative pullups, static holds above the bar, tempo negatives, and scapula strengthening like the Crossover Symmetry System.  After these are complete, move onto better positioning with hollow and arch rocks or holds.  Good core work is beneficial as well.  Remember, most of the time we move from core to extremity.  

Every progression has its purpose, so try not to speed through them.  If you already have pullups down, the skills and drills will just make your better - efficiency is key!  Your CrossFit Trainers have both the education and experience to help you progress safely and effectively.  We are here for you, so challenge us to help you out.  If there is something that you may struggle on, incorporate different elements into your warmup routine.  Hope to see you all out there!

Leave a Comment: