This is my second attempt to write about pull-ups; Katy Perry rudely interrupted my last attempt (a transgression for which I still have not forgiven her). Anyway, I have to start by admitting that I love pull-ups. Seriously. It is likely my most favorite training exercise. Well, the pull-up and all of its variations, to be more precise. I’m even pretty good at them. Unfortunately, I’m willing to bet that you’re not. In fact, most people are pretty miserable at pull-ups, let alone any sort of advanced maneuver beyond the basic dead-hang pull-up. I would like to do everything in my power to help every single person out there to become more pull-up capable. In fact, I believe that if I were able to get even half the world’s population executing a few pull-ups with confidence, I will have done more for world peace than Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton combined.
NOTE: This blog post and all future pull-up related blog posts are NOT exclusively for men. Every bit of the following advice is just as applicable for women. Women tend to feel like the upper-body strength necessary to do pull-ups is out of their reach (hahaha…puns), but it is very much possible for a woman to pull-up as well as any guy. Also, pull-ups will not make women “bulky.” Cupcakes do that.
First of all, let’s define the pull-up. I’m sure there are varying professional opinions, but as far as I am concerned, a strict pull-up is done by putting hands supine (palms facing away from body) on an overhead object (usually a bar) and pulling the body up to the point where the chin is above the level of the hands. Most of us have done this, or at least tried, in some random gym class at some point in our lives. I intend to use this reference as a baseline to which we will build – and build from.
A very wise fitness guru named Gray Cook is famous for saying, “don’t add strength to dysfunction.” Simple yet brilliant advice. That being said, in order to build pull-ups, as with any other training, it is eminently important to develop a solid foundation. Since no kinetic activity is possible until the body comes into contact with a surface to work against, the grip would be the most elemental part of the foundation. This is usually where pull-up novices exhibit some serious weakness. There is hope however, as grip strength can improve dramatically pretty quickly. Grip strength comes from a combination of hand and forearm muscles, but if the whole body is hanging from the grip, there will be some action elsewhere in the kinetic chain as well, so let’s check out the whole thing.
While you are sitting here and reading this, squeeze your hand into a fist. You should feel and even see muscle contractions in your hand as well as your forearm. While these are the most obvious muscles to develop for grip strength, it is also important to analyze the biceps and shoulder muscles. At this point, I would recommend trying to take the biceps out of the equation as much as possible in order to save energy as tensing them won’t help you to stay in a hang and will only sap your overall strength. Don’t worry, we will still develop your guns soon enough. Try clenching your fist again, but keeping your upper arm relaxed. If you have never really trained for this before, it might be kind of tough. You are effectively training your brain to talk to your muscles – an exercise at least as important as training in any other sense. Work on this selective tension whenever you can, especially while reading www.FYMPlanet.com.
On to the shoulder. This is one complicated joint; there is a lot going on here with muscles, connective tissue, and bone. Let’s go from sitting and reading to actually hanging. If you grasp an overhead bar and contract nothing except for your gripping muscles, you are in a dead hang. The name should be pretty intuitive. Notice how your shoulder seems to elongate or separate – this is called “extension” of your shoulder joint. As long as this doesn’t cause pain (if it does, go see a doc), this is a good position to train for some grip strength. I would also recommend holding a hang with your shoulder fully engaged. That is to say, draw your shoulder joint back together and hold it. I like to call this hanging with an “active” or “contracted shoulder.” If this is difficult to visualize, try doing a dead-hang in front of a mirror while wearing a sleeveless shirt. You should be able to see your shoulder “separate” as you hang, and you should be able to see it come back together as you “activate” it. As with the lower arm strength mentioned above, dramatic strength increases will occur early on thanks to simply training your brain to work these muscles.
The rationale for training lower-arm strength in grip training should be obvious: your hand strength is what keeps you on the bar. If focusing on the shoulder muscles in hanging seems less obvious, simply do a pull-up motion (either on the bar or off) and pay attention to how many degrees of rotation through which your shoulder socket moves. Additionally, the pull-up is not the end-all of upper body pulling strength; there are more advanced and worthwhile exercises to come and they will require even greater shoulder rotation. Since the joint is so complex and is home to so much connective tissue, it is exceedingly important to develop it well in the very beginning.
All of this considered, no matter what level you are on, it is time to train that grip with this hang. I consider myself intermediate to advanced in my pull-up capability and I still make sure to train hangs often. Try simply dead-hanging, try hanging with an active shoulder, and finally try hanging while transitioning between the two positions. For a novice, the transition may be difficult and may even lead to pain. If it hurts, stop and talk to a doc. Otherwise, vary the speed, the time of each hold and time between holds, and even vary between two-handed and one-handed hangs. As far as frequency, listen to your body. The untrained shoulder is easy to strain, so ease in to it and focus on quality. The trained shoulder is a very capable mechanism however.
In addition to training the grip from a hang, it is possible to greatly strengthen the grip by doing Olympic style lifts. Deadlifts, cleans, snatches, and so forth all involve using the grip to hold on to a weight while you move it around. Typically, at some point in training, the weight used in these lifts will be limited by grip strength, at which point your gripping muscles will have to develop to keep up. Combined with the hanging training mentioned above, QUALITY Olympic training can enhance grip strength tremendously.
I emphasize QUALITY because Olympic training should never be approached without appropriate coaching. Improper training can lead to not only serious injury, but can ingrain improper form that can drastically affect every other aspect of physical training (refer to the abovementioned Gray Cook quote). Do not trust some hack Level 1 Crossfit “Instructor” or fall back on your or some “bro’s” high school football training, but rather find a serious coach (whom, yes, CAN be found in the Crossfit community) if you have no background on the subject. Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe is absolutely mandatory reading before you EVER think about picking up an Olympic bar (or pick one up ever again for those of you that have been training poorly all these years). Don’t screw with this. Seriously.
The total impact of both training methods is much greater than the sum of its parts, so try and get both in. One common mistake will significantly reduce the gains made in the grip department, both in Olympic lifting and in hanging: Gloves. Understand this: Gloves suck. Do not use them, you pansy. Glove-like accessories, such as wrist straps, also suck. They gather hand sweat and bar filth, are difficult to clean and therefore can spread disease, not to mention inhibit grip strength improvement. The fact that things are easier to hold on to while you are wearing gloves should be an indicator that your training is suffering and not be seen as a relief (i.e. a crutch). My hands are my gloves, as yours should be.
After a few weeks of this hang training and hopefully some Olympic training, a solid foundation for pull-ups should be in place. Even if you go from never having accomplished a pull-up to knocking out sets of 50, never stop training your hang. Hanging is useful (you never know when you will need to hang from a tree, a window sill, or whatever for an extended period), it promotes hand strength in other applications (punching, handshakes, chopstick utilization, etc.) and it keeps your shoulders strong (don’t be that person with the labrum tear). In the next chapter, we will go from hanging to actually pulling up. In the meantime, go find somewhere to hangout.