Performing pull-ups has very little to do with strength.
If you’re having trouble getting that first life changing pull-up or breaking through a plateau, you probably are not using the proper technique to access the body’s natural ability to pull your body weight.
In childhood we are able to mobilize our entire body with just our arms. Surely the muscles of a newly developing child do not rival those of a fully developed person. The truth is we are born with innate abilities to move our bodies in ways many people cannot conceptualize today.
Over time we tend to stop accessing the innate power we were given and this causes us to lose our connection to movements, such as pull-ups.
The truth is most people who are not extremely overweight have the strength to do a pull-up now. What most may not have, is the awareness of the proper activation techniques that catalyze anyone to harness the power of their back muscles for a perfect pull-up.
Pull Ups can be best understood in a 2 step process.
Step number 1: The “Mini Pull-up”.
To do a mini pull-up, grab a pull-up bar with an overhand grip. Let yourself hang (be aware that you are not hanging too much on the joints of the shoulders). If you feel like there is too much pressure on the shoulder joints use a lower bar and keep either 1 foot or both feet on the ground. And if you only have a higher pull-up bar you can use a chair to place your feet for modification.
Once you are comfortable hanging, draw your shoulders away from your ears and down your back. You will notice your body start to raise up and your chest begin to stick out. Also your back will be engaged.
Once your shoulders are as far down your back as you can take them, hold the contraction for 2-3 seconds. Slowly release the contraction back down to a hanging position.
Continue this process for 10 more repetitions much like you would a typically lifting set.
This concept known as the “mini pull-up,” which may sound minuscule; however it truly will achieve major results! Doing this exercise 2-3 times a week as either a warm up or a cool down with your typical routine will greatly progress your body awareness.
The reason mini pull-ups are so effective is due to the activation of the latissimus dorsi which happens to be one of the largest and strongest muscles in your body, when the shoulder blades are drawn down the back.
Most people approach pull-ups and other back exercises only as a pulling concept, which is partially correct, however if you do not first activate the latissimus dorsi then you will be attempting to lift your entire body with only your arms.
Not activating the lats leads to overcompensation, which is your body’s way of recruiting neighboring muscles to support the lack of strength and stability that the latissimus dorsi provides.
When overcompensation occurs we become vulnerable to injuries and muscle imbalances.
If you are not ready for the pull-up bar just yet, then it is still possible and highly effective to practice this activation technique off the bar.
You can either use a lat pulldown machine with very light weight added and simply sit down holding the bar with straight arms. Then you can draw the shoulders down and hold for 2-3 seconds and then release.
Also you can practice standing with your arms straight up overhead without any weight or bar and practice shrugging your shoulders up toward your ears and then down your back keeping your arms straight the entire time.
These exercises will give you the best results if you use them as a supplement exercise in your current routine. 3-4 sets of 10 -15 reps is ideal depending on your body weight and where you are in your journey.
Remember it’s not always about how hard you try or how many you do, but it’s about quality. The 80% rule is a great method to apply to this exercise (See my blog “ No Pain is Sane”)
Step 2 - Full Execution
Now that you have mastered the mini pull-up and lat activation it’s time to pull! The second step after drawing your shoulders down your back is to pull with your arms.
Have fun and remember to keep it simple.
Josh was born and raised in Lexington, KY. He played collegiate soccer at Transylvania University where he also studied business and psychology. Upon graduating college in 2002 he chose to begin a professional career as a restaurateur. Josh watched his business grow exponentially over the course of a decade, while he watched his health steadily declined. In 2011 Josh developed a mysterious disease, that modern medicine could not explain. He decided to embark on an optimal health journey to discover a cure. His journey lead him to receive his certifications as a personal trainer, RKC Kettlebell instructor and Yoga Alliance instructor. Josh’s unique combination of business, personal training and ayurvedic nutrition experience organically spawned a system that is guaranteed to upgrade the life of everyone from office executive to professional athlete. Josh now pursues his passion in teaching others to find their perfect work, life balance.
Main Photo Credit: takoburito/shutterstock.com; Second Photo Credit: BLACKDAY/shutterstock.com; Third Photo Credit: Jasminko Ibrakovic/shutterstock.com; Fourth Photo Credit: onixxino/shutterstock.com