“How many strict pull-ups can you do?”
It’s a question that coaches ask often, and athletes hear all of the time. If you’re a coach, odds are it’s one of the first things you ask new athletes who walk into the gym for their first workout.
Strict pull-ups are the foundation of a ton of gymnastics movements across our CrossFit world. So as a coach, how do you respond when that new athlete responds to your question with, “Zero”?
Do you throw a bunch of bands their way and wish them good luck? Do you tell them to just “practice some negatives” before or after class? Do you tell them to scale to jumping pull-ups and never really give it a second thought?
Strict pull-ups can be a daunting, seemingly impossible skill for a lot of new athletes. Coaching strict pull-ups is just as delicate of a process as learning the skill itself. 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 coaching pitfalls and mistakes. Don't’ get me wrong, I've been guilty of making ALL of these mistakes before. But once I changed my coaching strategies, way more athletes started doing pull-ups! 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 throw a pull-up progression at a new athlete and tell them to ‘work on it when they have time.’ Odds are after a few weeks of doing banded pull-ups 3x per week, that athlete is 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. This will keep athletes more excited and interested if they are trying different modifications regularly.
Here's a few movement suggestions to help spice things up:
As a rule of thumb, it’s not safe for athletes to move on to kipping pull-ups until they’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 an athlete squeak out a few more reps, but increasing from zero to several strict pull-ups will drastically improve their kipping pull-up potential. There is a huge return on investment for increasing strict pull-up strength. If you're able to convince your athletes that strict strength will increase their performance (not just prevent injury) they'll be more prone to listen. They’ll thank you for it in the long run.
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. So please, please, please don’t program “100 strict pull-up negatives” for anyone. Ever. 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 encourage them to come back to the gym (and really, that's the whole point of coaching!).
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.
Coaches must stress constant progression in order to keep athletes 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 remind athletes how they can keep working toward their goals. See an athlete who's been using the same band for a few months? Call them out (lovingly, of course). 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. You need to play the role of counselor and gently push them towards a newer, healthier relationship with progress.
This kind of structure should be built in to your weekly programming, so that your athletes 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 they are aiming for their first pull-up or to increase their max set over 15.
Looking for a little more strict pull-up help?
You can have an extremely strong athlete, but if they are wearing - for lack of a better term - a “natural 50lb weight vest” (they are 50lbs overweight), then learning a strict pull-up is going to be much harder.
This can be a tricky subject, but more coaches need to be willing to have the difficult conversation. You don’t want to start off your foundations class by saying, “Hey Bob! You’ll never do a strict pull-up because you're overweight.” That is not recommended. Instead, let the athlete know that by focusing on simple changes with their nutrition, maintaining a healthy activity level, and managing their calorie balance - they will see changes in their body composition as well as their physical performance.
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 anaology 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 coaching athletes who are working on strict pull-ups. Odds are you’ll have happier athletes, who are progressing more steadily.
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 Boulder, 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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