October 11 2023
How to Train Your Strict Pull-ups
Strict pull-ups are one of the most challenging yet rewarding bodyweight exercises that can significantly enhance your upper body strength and overall fitness. Unfortunately, a lot of people see the word ‘strict pull-ups’ in a workout and are instantly defeated. If you’re in that boat, don’t worry; like any worthwhile goal, with a dedicated plan, there’s hope!
The journey towards mastering this movement begins with understanding the intricate interplay of muscle groups involved, the importance of balanced training, and the critical role of mobility work.
Let’s investigate further.
The Essence of Balance: Training All Muscles Involved
Strict pull-ups require collaboration among various muscle groups. The primary muscles engaged in this movement include the latissimus dorsi (lats), biceps, deltoids, trapezius, and the muscles of the forearms. To execute a strict pull-up with precision and control, each of these muscle groups must be well-conditioned and coordinated.
Neglecting any of these muscles can lead to imbalances, hindered progress, and even the risk of injury.
While the focus of this article is strict pull-ups, I don’t believe your training should be focused solely on that movement. In my training plan The Ultimate Guide to Strict Gymnastics Strength, we train the strict pull-up, strict handstand push-up, and strict toes-to-bar under the same program (at the same time).
Focusing exclusively on pull-ups may lead to overdeveloped back and biceps muscles while neglecting other crucial upper body areas. Incorporating handstand push-ups and toes-to-bar promotes balanced muscle development, reducing the risk of muscle imbalances and associated injuries.
Not only that, a training plan that focuses on all those movements not only emphasizes building strength for the pull-up but will also pay careful attention to developing these muscles in unison, creating a symphony of power that will propel you to new heights in your pull-up journey.
Think about it like this:
If you’re focused only on your strict pull-ups, you’ll probably neglect your shoulders and pecs. However, if you’re training the strict handstand push-ups at the same time, those muscle groups will get just as much attention as your lats and biceps (the primary muscles involved in the pull-ups).
In The Ultimate Guide to Strict Gymnastics Strength training is split into a 3-day training week. If you’re writing your own plan, I would suggest something similar.
- Day 1 is a pull day (focused on pull-ups).
- Day 2 is a push day (focused on your handstand push-ups).
- Day 3 is a push + pull day (focused on both the pull-up and handstand push-up)
- Your core, or toes-to-bar strength, is trained every training day.
Training for pull-ups should ideally encompass both horizontal and vertical exercises because this balanced approach targets a wider range of muscles and movement patterns, promotes better muscle balance, and ultimately improves overall pull-up performance.
Horizontal exercises for the pull-ups include ring rows and Australian pull-ups. Vertical exercises include negative pull-ups and isometric pull-up holds.
Pull-ups are primarily a vertical pulling movement, emphasizing the muscles in the back, particularly the lats. However, horizontal exercises, such as rows, engage these muscles differently. Incorporating horizontal pulls activates the upper back, rhomboids, and rear deltoids in a way that vertical pulls do not, helping to create a balanced and well-developed upper body.
Overemphasizing vertical pulls without incorporating horizontal movements can lead to muscle imbalances. This imbalance may result in poor posture, increased risk of injury, and limited functional strength. Horizontal exercises help counteract this by strengthening the muscles responsible for scapular retraction and shoulder stability.
The Foundation of Mobility: A Key to Pull-Up Success
While strength is the backbone of strict pull-ups, mobility is the secret ingredient that ensures your success. A full range of motion in the shoulders, scapulae, and wrists is essential for executing pull-ups with precision and safety. Without adequate mobility, you may find yourself struggling to achieve proper form or, worse yet, experiencing discomfort or strain.
In The Ultimate Guide to Strict Gymnastics Strength mobility is a part of every training session–usually in the prep section.
My Favorite Exercises
The Dead Hang
As for mobility and training prep, dead hangs are my personal favorite.
This exercise can increase blood flow to the same muscles used in the strict pull-ups along with improving shoulder stability, posture, and joint mobility – all important aspects of strict pull-ups.
But even more, bar hangs increase grip strength and provide athletes an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the pull-up bar, which may not seem like an important aspect of strict pull-up training, but it is.
For strength training, I was debating between ring rows (and its variations) and negative pull-ups. In the end, I chose negative pull-ups because they’re a bit more adaptable. If you’ve yet to achieve your first strict pull-ups, this is the clear option for you.
The pull-up has two phases:
The concentric phase: Where you pull yourself up and your muscles shorten.
The eccentric phase: Where you lower your body back down and your muscles lengthen.
The concentric phase takes 20-30% more strength than the eccentric phase. So for those not strong enough to pull their body weight up, training the eccentric phase through negative pull-ups is the way to go.
Although I’ve written much about the benefits for beginners, eccentric strength training should be a part of all athletes' regimens–from beginner to advanced.
In The Ultimate Guide to Strict Gymnastics Strength negative pull-ups are programmed from day 1. I provide athletes with different levels of this and several other exercises. Not only does this allow athletes to train at their current fitness level, but it also motivates athletes to work toward progressive mastery (or in this case, leveling up in difficulty).
- L1: Box Negative Pull-ups
- L2: Box Negative Pull-ups w/ Isometric Hold
- L3: Jumping Negative Pull-ups
- L4: Jumping Negative Pull-ups w/ 3 Phase Hold
- L5-8: Repeat L1-4 w/ Weight*
*For example, L5 would be Weighted Box Negative Pull-ups
Mastering strict pull-ups is a significant fitness achievement that can enhance your upper body strength, build muscle, and boost your confidence. As discussed, a well-rounded approach encompasses strength training, balanced muscle development, and mobility work. It's a journey that requires patience, dedication, and the application of proper training techniques. By following a systematic progression plan, incorporating variations, and staying committed to your training regimen, you can absolutely achieve the coveted ability to perform strict pull-ups and reap the numerous physical and mental benefits they offer.
Good luck on your journey!
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