Improve your pull-ups by building your back

The age-old question posed to CrossFit coaches from clients is “how do I get better at pull-ups?” In CrossFit, the infamous pull-ups get a lot of attention. Skill work to improve the gymnastics kip is usually at the forefront of improving clients’ pull-ups.

However, there are some consequences to learning how to kip too early. In fact, most of your clients that may be able to kip likely cannot perform one strict pull-up; this is something we want to avoid.

In this article, I hope to give you a quick and dirty guide to helping your clients improve their pull-ups. Most importantly, this guide will also keep your clients healthy and provide proactive measures to ensure we avoid injury common with kipping pull-ups.

Shoulder Issues and Kipping Pull-ups

Aside from performing copious amounts of high-skill gymnastics work, which I wouldn’t recommend for the general population, there is a huge imbalance in most boxes: the balance between vertical pulling and horizontal pulling.

You’d be hard-pressed to find many boxes that regularly program row variations, but in reality, horizontal rowing should take precedence vs. vertical pulling.

Of course, we aren’t debating the value of the pull-up, but what we are considering is the lack of development of the lats, rear deltoids, and rhomboids for most people and not being able to stabilize when performing dynamic movements.

Another aspect of improving vertical pulling strength is direct arm work. For year CrossFit has demonized direct arm work, labeling it “non-functional.”

This could not be further from the truth. In fact, direct arm work is a cornerstone of any successful program that facilitates results and longevity.

Moreover, there is not one single person that attends a CrossFit box that does not want better arms, so why not provide methods that achieve this goal? To read more about why direct arm training is, in fact, functional, check out this article from Dr. Rusin here.

The solution here is pretty straightforward, in which we can implement change without having to drastically modify programming. These changes will directly correlate to improving vertical pulling.

The Solution

Horizontal Rowing: Replace some of your vertical pulling with horizontal rowing. There is a long list of row variations that can be done with a barbell, dumbbells, and kettlebells so use all of them at your disposal. We include horizontal row work at least 2x a week in our Affiliate Programming in relatively high doses.

Band Work: An easy way to offset pressing and vertical pulling volume is to include high-volume band work. A standard rule of thumb that I learned from Dr. Rusin is that horizontal rowing should equate to 3:1 of pressing volume and 2:1 horizontal rowing vs. vertical pulling. This can easily be accomplished with high volume banded pull-aparts and banded face-pulls. We recommend 100 reps of each done twice a week.

Direct Arm Work: Nothing new here to the strength & conditioning world. Direct arm work is an integral part of our programming. The results with the inclusion of single-joint movements like a hammer curl goes a long way to improve vertical pulling strength. Additionally, direct arm work is instrumental in
providing a solid foundation of musculature to alleviate undue stress on the glenohumeral joint thereby allowing your clients to remedy chronic shoulder pain as well as improving the composition.

Opt for more Dumbbell Variations: A lot of times people can’t get their heads around scaling a movement. If you’re having issues, then scaling should be your friend. For instance, many trainees that complain of front deltoid pain can be exacerbated by barbell work with a pronated grip such as the bench press or shoulder press. An alternative is using dumbbells with a neutral grip, taking a lot of the stress of the front deltoid and allowing people to utilize the musculature of their triceps as a primary mover. Many find that they can comfortably press with dumbbells using a neutral grip and don’t incur the same discomfort.

If a movement is causing you pain, then that movement will have little value for you at that moment in time. And if you don’t train smarter, you’ll always be “broken.”

The Plan

In our Affiliate Plan we include horizontal rowing 3-4 times a week. Most times this comes by way of band variations which are easy to teach and can be done for high volumes of work. Additionally, row variations as well as direct arm make an appearance weekly – keep in mind frequency is important for your clients to see the results they are looking for not to mention to facilitate shoulder health.

Here’s some recommendations:

  • Band Variations such as pull-aparts, facepulls, and pulldowns – 200-300 reps per week
  • Horizontal Row variations – 100 reps per week
  • Direct arm work variations – 100 reps per week

Conclusion

If all else fails and you’re unable to perform the prescribed work, a simple and effective method to add volume to your upper-back work is to include high-volumes of banded pull-aparts, pulldowns, and face pulls. This can be accomplished with as few as five minutes a day.

Helping your clients improve their pull-ups is important, but building resiliency first sets your clients up for longevity. It’s important to remember that training should be an incremental process; there are no quick fixes or short-term programs to get you closer to your goals.

You most certainly need to make sure you’re building the foundation first, and horizontal pulling and direct arm work is a pillar of any successful programming.

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