When Strict Pull-ups are programmed in the gym, what do you default to if you can’t do them? For most athletes, it’s banded pull-ups. Don’t get me wrong; they have their place, but adding in other exercises will help to build strength in areas banded pull-ups fail to target.
Strict pull-ups are the foundation of a ton of gymnastics movements across our CrossFit world. Have you ever had specific pull-up coaching during classes or are you sent for bands until you can eventually Rx?
Strict pull-ups can be a daunting, seemingly impossible skill for a lot of new athletes. While the movement may seem cut and dry, progress can be slow and sometimes non-existent without a plan.
After nearly a decade working in/around CrossFit gyms, I’ve noticed some common pitfalls and mistakes. Let’s take a closer look at some of these mistakes and what I usually do to avoid them.
It’s way too easy to just to begin knocking out banded pull-ups because it seems like the only–or most popular–method. Odds are after a few weeks of doing banded pull-ups 3x per week, you’re going to be feeling pretty bored and possibly even defeated. “I’ll never get rid of these bands…”
Just like CrossFit® workouts themselves, variety is key for pull-up drills. Consider different scaled options depending on what the workout is; don’t default to ring rows for every single workout modification.
Here’s a few movement suggestions to help spice things up:
As a rule of thumb, it’s not safe to move on to kipping pull-ups until you’re able to do at least a few strict pull-ups in a row.
Why? Kipping movements can take a huge toll on shoulders. Therefore in order to know that your shoulders are robust enough for a more intense and dynamic movement, multiple strict pull-ups are a necessary benchmark to hit first. Athletes who are “stuck” on a few kipping pull-ups (and lack the ability to do strict) need a wake up call.
The bottom line: improving kipping technique might help you squeak out a few more reps, but increasing from zero to several strict pull-ups will drastically improve your kipping pull-up potential. There is a huge return on investment for increasing strict pull-up strength.
Ring rows are a movement that coaches love to substitute for athletes when they don’t have pull-ups yet. There’s certainly nothing wrong with using them in moderation; ring rows are great for building up some of that middle back strength, and they are really easy to set up. However, keep in mind that the movement doesn’t fully replicate that of a strict pull-up, and should only be used on occasion if your ultimate goal is to be able to do strict pull-ups.
In short, ring rows should be one weapon in your arsenal, not the only one. Here’s a full video on the topic if you’re interested.
Eccentric loading (AKA – the “lowering” part of a pull-up) can increase the risk of Rhabdomyolysis. It’s too easy for athletes to push PAST failure using both negatives and/or jumping pull-ups, which can lead to bad results and incredible amounts of soreness.
Prime example: Athletes not being able to fully straighten their arms the day after a workout. This is not going to make you feel like training again the next day!
At the end of the day, focus on quality controlled movements, not quantity. I’d rather see someone do less reps, but with more body control. This will also keep their muscles happier and their arms fresh, instead of sidelining them for days due to execessive soreness.
Constant progression is required in order to keep moving forward. A major problem that we too often see are coaches trying to simply “get through class”, yet never actually take the time to make sure athletes understand that they should be decreasing the band strength, increasing reps, difficulty, etc.
Every class session, take a minute to think about how you can keep working toward your goals. Been using the same band for months? Try challenging yourself to a lighter one, even if it means reducing the reps then building back up. We all know someone who fell in love with that green Rogue band several years ago and still hasn’t found the guts to break up with it.
This kind of structure should be built in to your weekly programming, so that you have time outside of metcons to build strength progressively over several weeks. A pull-up program should be suitable for both beginners and advanced athletes – whether you are aiming for your first pull-up or to increase your max set over 15.
You can be an extremely strong athlete, but if you are wearing – for lack of a better term – a “natural 50lb weight vest” (50lbs overweight), then learning a strict pull-up is going to be much harder.
Don’t read this the wrong way, I’m not suggesting that we obsess over the number on the scale. However, generally speaking, pull-ups are all about “power to weight ratio”. The more powerful you are and the less you weigh, the more pull-ups you’ll be able to do. If you increase strength AND decrease weight – you’re on the fast track to learning pull-ups! Here’s an analogy that I’ve used in the past to explain it to my athletes:
“Imagine wearing a backpack with this 45lb bumper plate. You have to wear it 100% of your day. Doesn’t that sound exhausting? Imagine how great you’ll feel when you can take off the backpack! Not only that, imagine how much easier these gymnastic movements will be!”
Whether you’re reading this as a coach, or as an athlete trying to pick up more tips, hopefully you were able to pinpoint a few holes in your pull-up game and make a plan for moving forward. Strict pull-ups are one of those movements that are too often overlooked when coaches are focusing on skills within the gym; they’re just a “simple” pulling movement.
Yet just like all skills, progress without a plan can be extremely difficult. So make sure to keep in mind these 6 mistakes the next time you’re working on strict pull-ups. Odds are you’ll start seeing much more consistent and predictable progress.
Remember: Variety, Consistency, Progression, and Nutrition.
If you have more questions about coaching strict pull-ups, drills, pointers – comment below and let us know. We would love to help you or one of your athletes make strides towards their first strict pull-up!
The CEO and Head Coach at WODprep, Ben is passionate about helping fitness athletes of all abilities get their competitive edge and learn new skills! He's currently living in Denver, Colorado with his wife and two dogs, and whenever possible the two love to travel and explore new places around the world (and meet new WODprep athletes).
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