Why Your Pull Up Sucks

In my younger days I despised pull ups for the simple fact I just didn’t want to admit I sucked at them and didn’t understand how the entire body worked. Most think of pull ups as strictly an “upper body exercise” (when there’s a hell of a lot more going on). Just so we’re clear on WHAT an actual pull up is — it’s where the body hangs motionless on a bar, and then goes up vertically until the chin passes the bar and comes back down with control. The key word in that last sentence is MOTIONLESS. So jerking the neck, kicking the legs, and swinging the hips with building momentum to get over the bar and calling it a pull up is just as oxymoronic as vegan bacon. As you see in the video below there’s a huge difference in not just performance, but in safety. Kipping is so dangerous I didn't even want Kara to demo it and would rather show you the worst case scenario:

So I’ll be featuring Kara, who’s been training with me for years and is currently training to be a stunt woman in the movie/entertainment industry. I’m also using her as a strong example in this article, and I could care less if you’re a woman saying “I can’t do pull ups.” Strength is about consistency and practicing the essential techniques until they look easy…it doesn't give a shit if you’re a man or woman. Condemning yourself as weak before you even start on a goal is the problem. No one starts out perfect with any strength exercise like pull ups.

The Dead Hang Position

Many don't know what or how to pack their lats, yet this is essential for pull ups. The lats are the big muscle wings of your back and have the strength to protect your shoulders by retracting them down and back into the shoulder blades. This is why many get the wrong idea about pull ups by shrugging their shoulder into the ears. Notice in the picture below how Kara creates MUCH more space away from her ears when packing her lats down in the dead hang position. This is a simple exercise for beginners to hold a dead hang for 10-20 seconds (getting 5-6 sets).

Packed  vs Shrugged Pull Up.jpg

Keeping the neck at a neutral position looking forward is also very crucial. A common coaching cue I give is “the bar is going to be there.” Dr. Kelly Starrett views the spine as a neural hose line, and if you kink it you will lose strength and stability instantly. So if the neck kinks by looking up this dramatically takes away strength from the lats.

Hanging Leg Crunches & Raises:

Next, the hips should remain stable (not swinging) and this is what makes the hanging crunch challenging for a beginner. To resist, the abs MUST brace (like getting punched in the stomach) as the knees pull in just above the hips, and then slowly extend back down with the glutes squeezing to prevent the low back from swinging the hips:

Once your hanging crunch gets stronger you can advance it into a leg raise. This requires the exact same standards of the crunch, except the legs must remain locked. To accomplish this, you want to think at the top your body shapes just like an “L” with a brief pause.

Ring Negative Rep Chin Ups:

These are perfect for those who are more in the intermediate level of learning pull ups. Where you have the grip strength to hang, but can’t finish the pull up with the chin going OVER the bar. This is an important detail that many avoid and start half repping the pull up with a pathetic range of motion barely flexing the elbows in the hang position. So this is where rings can be more beneficial to not only set up the rings at your height, but torque them in and out for more lat engagement. Have the rings set up where you jump up and pull yourself into a chin up position. From there, SLOWLY come back down (negative rep) into the hang, and reset to perform it again.

Assisted L-Sit Pull Ups:

To be clear, I’m NOT a fan of banded pull ups because they don’t enforce any of the standards we have talked about in this article. With a heavy strength band anchored between the bar and the feet in the end loop the body really doesn’t have to do much from there, and the muscles get lazy with the band doing all the work. I’ve seen trainers make their students do this for months, and the student still can’t perform one pull up. The worst version I’ve ever seen was a male trainer making his female student perform a banded pull up with it looped in BETWEEN her crotch…behold the banded wedgie pull up (hand on face). Maybe HE should have tried it to see if it really worked.

Instead, have a partner assist you up at the end range of the leg raise (L-sit) with their arm extended out under your leg SLIGHTLY pressing up against your calfs. As you get stronger, your partner can press up less and less against you until you get the groove of it. Since the L-sit pull up requires so much strength — performing a regular chin up or tactical pulls will feel easier. If you can’t even get into the L-sit position this means you need to spend more time with your hanging leg raises.

Tactical Pull Ups vs Chin Ups:

Now, once you get the groove of pull ups, I recommend you play around with your grip position to make them even better. I personally like performing chin ups with rings and tactical pull ups on bars. Tactical pull ups are a thumbless grip to reenact scaling a wall (which are great for those who are training for an obstacle course race, in the military or a first responder). Remember to aim for 3 to 5 quality reps per set when first starting out.

I hope you got a little more knowledge on how to perfect your pull up technique. Remember that strength favors consistency, and if you treat your workouts more like a practice session — your pull ups will make significant gains. Be sure to check my NEW ebook: Reinventing The Steel Mace: Guide for Steel Mace & Bodyweight Strength Training HERE for more exercises and progressions like these to better strengthen your skills.

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Ian Vaughn