If you’re reading this, odds are you fall into one of these categories:
- You’re working towards your first strict pull-up for CrossFit.
- You want to be able to do more strict pull-ups.
- You want to learn how to coach strict pull-up drills and progressions more effectively.
Great, you’re in the right place. Welcome to what we hope will be the ONLY strict pull-up guide you’ll ever need. The following article will cover everything from how to get your first strict pull-up, an array of drills, which muscles you should be focusing on, common errors, how to coach pull-ups… and the list goes on.
Strict Pull-ups for CrossFit
Strict pull-ups seem to be a skill that people all over the planet are pursuing, whether they are CrossFitters, military, obstacle course racers, or even just trying to test better in gym class.
In short, they are the foundation of most high-level gymnastics movements. So if your long-time goals have anything to do with kipping, swinging, climbing, or muscling-up over something, then a strict pull-up is absolutely necessary. To perform any of these skills at a high-level, you’ll need at least a handful of strict pull-ups as a foundation. The good news is, no matter where you currently stand strength-wise, you can start working on strict pull-ups. They’re extremely scalable - both up and down.
The key is making that plan.
Since this guide can be used in a bunch of different ways, here’s an outline of the different headers. If you’re just looking to skip through and pick and choose what you want to read, just click on the section that interests you.
- Breaking Down The Strict Pull-up
- Strict Pull-ups and Scaling
- Power to Weight Ratio
- Strict Pull-ups & Real Life Translations
- Strict Pull-up Drills
- Stringing Strict Pull-ups Together
- Strict Pull-up Strength
- A Strict Pull-up Warm-up
- Strict Pull-ups: Common Faults
- Unconventional Strict Pull-up Drills
- What To Do When You’re Feeling Stuck
- Mobility For Strict Pull-ups
Strict Pull-ups For CrossFit: Breaking down the movement.
Let’s start with something pretty obvious, but often overlooked: how to initiate a strict pull-up. Too many athletes aren’t starting from a dead hang, which is important. Stated simply, the standard strict pull-up is when you start by hanging vertically from a bar, with feet off the ground, palms facing away, and arms fully extended. The movement is considered complete after elevating your chin above the bar. This is done, most effectively, by recruiting your pulling muscles: back, biceps, shoulders, traps, lats, etc.
Want a quick muscle breakdown? Cool. A strict pull-up uses 39 muscles in total, which is roughly 5.6% of the muscles in your body. If you’re looking for a further breakdown of which muscles are specifically used during a pull-up, check out this article.
The point that I want you to take away from this section is that working on strict pull-up strength involves a lot more than just repeatedly pulling (or doing negatives) on a pull-up bar. There are tons of different pull-up drills (that we’ll talk about later on) to train all of those different muscles, which will also help to avoid training from becoming repetitive or boring.
Strict Pull-ups and Scaling
When it comes to scaling down for prescribed workouts, it is going to come down to where your strength currently stands. Jumping pull-ups are usually a good place for most athletes to start, and can slowly be made more challenging with a higher bar, lower box, etc.
However, believe it or not, jumping pull-ups are often executed with poor form. Many athletes unknowingly treat this progression as a jumping exercise, and forget that it should primarily be about pulling. In order to avoid this mistake, make sure you begin each rep directly under the bar before jumping. The action should mimic a pull-up, in that arms should be fully extended at the bottom of each rep and your body is underneath the bar at this point. Then, actively pull with a little help from your legs until your chin is over the bar.
When performed well, jumping pull-ups are an excellent choice to replicate the speed achieved through kipping pull-ups. Therefore, they are more likely to elicit the intended response.
Bands are another option to use in workouts. However, be mindful about becoming too dependent and comfortable with them (if you missed it, we also wrote about that here). The best way to do this is to make sure you move to thinner and thinner bands over time. Keep the full range of motion throughout, and then eventually move to no bands at all.
Ring rows are a third option that are often defaulted to. While they are great at building some strength, they don’t necessarily mimic the same movement as a strict pull-up due to the more horizontal body position. With that in mind, use ring rows as a scaling option intermittently, not indefinitely to avoid ring row burnout.
For more scaling ideas, check out this full article.
At the end of the day, the key component for pull-up progressions is not any single movement or rep scheme, but hard work and patience. In today's on-demand economy, people want results fast. The only problem is, taking shortcuts in CrossFit® might lead to injury or, even more likely, premature plateaus.
The basics are the basics, and you can't beat the basics. - Charles Poliquin.
While we’re on the topic of scaling, I want to loudly note this:
Never move on to kipping pull-ups until you can do at least a few strict pull-ups in a row.
There’s absolutely no reason to do kipping pull-ups before you can do strict pull-ups. There’s a potential risk for injury, and you’re severely limiting your potential. It’d be like trying to run before you can walk.
The same goes for butterfly pull-ups. These shouldn’t be on your radar until you have 10+ kipping pull-ups, which shouldn’t come until you have a few strict pull-ups.
Here’s a good analogy for all the coaches out there trying to spread this same strict-first Gospel:
- Strict Pull-ups = Walking
- Kipping Pull-ups = Running
- Butterfly Pull-ups = Sprinting
Which one should athletes learn first, second, and third? Hopefully it’s pretty obvious.
Strict Pull-ups: Power to Weight Ratio
This is a topic that a lot of coaches tend to avoid, yet it’s an important one. Being able to do strict pull-ups essentially comes down to your power to weight ratio.
What do I mean by this?
You can get super strong, do lat pull-downs until you turn blue, and work on negatives three times a week. You could have extremely strong pulling muscles, but if you have extra weight to lose, it’s going to make your journey towards your first strict pull-up way more challenging.
It’s basically like trying to get a strict pull-up with a heavy weighted vest on, which everyone knows can be very difficult. The key for any athlete in this particular situation would be to work on slowly, safely losing weight, while increasing their strength simultaneously.
To be clear when I say “extra weight to lose”, I’m not trying to fat-shame anyone. You do not have to be “shredded” to knock out strict pull-ups. You just need to be conscious of what's holding you back from achieving your strict pull-up goal. Sometimes that just happens to be a low power to weight ratio.
If you're working on losing weight and feeling frustrated with your results... or you're overwhelmed and don't know where to start - check out "The Only Nutrition Article You'll Ever Need.”
Strict Pull-ups: Real Life Translations (Sort Of)
Why should I learn strict pull-ups? Outside of the obvious that it’s a cornerstone movement in CrossFit®, strict pull-ups are actually a skill that translates across a lot of real life situations.
Stay with me....
It’s a nice day, and you find yourself hiking with a friend. A strong gust of wind comes along and you lose your footing; suddenly you’re hanging off the edge of a cliff for dear life.
Got strict pull-ups? Then no problem - it’s the exact same movement, you’re just pulling from a rocky cliff instead of a bar. Don’t have the strength for strict pull-ups? Uh oh...
You’re taking a helicopter ride to get an aerial view of a tropical island. The pilot makes an erratic turn, and all of a sudden you are tumbling through the open door of the helicopter. Luckily you grab onto the side, yet you’re dangling there with no one to help you back up but the pilot.
Can you hold on? Can you pull yourself up? Well it depends…. do you have strict pull-ups? 🙂
In all seriousness, pull-ups are generally a great life strength to have. The fact that some of the U.S. military forces use pull-ups as a measure of service members’ fitness says a lot in itself. If you can do a pull-up, you’re harder to kill (to put it bluntly).
Strict Pull-ups Progressions & Drills
So we’ve talked about scaling options in workouts. Now let’s take a look at some pull-up drills and progressions so that you can actually make a game plan and start working on that pulling strength, outside of WOD’s. Choose your level below, depending on where you currently stand.
Level 1 Drills
- Grip Strength: If it hurts your hands/grips just to hang from the bar, start by working on hanging for short periods of time. Active hangs are when your lats and shoulders are engaged, and the core is tight and in the hollow body position. Passive hangs are when your body is again in the hollow position, but your shoulders are not yet active.
- Hollow body holds: The hollow body position is used in almost all CrossFit® gymnastic movements, and is great for your core regardless of what you’re working on. Lay with your back on the floor, and engage your core, pressing your lower back into the ground and bringing your arms above your head, as well as your feet off the ground (keeping them together).
Level 2 Drills
- Scap pull-ups: While this is a small movement, it’s effective. Begin by passively hanging from the bar, and then use your shoulder blades (a.k.a Scapula) to initiate an upward pull. It’s almost like an upside down shoulder shrug, and your body is the weight. Scroll down to drill #5 for a full video on scap pull-ups.
- Banded work: While this shouldn’t be your only tool for learning strict pull-ups, bands have a lot to offer. Whether you’re working on full range of motion pull-ups with a light band, or even working on chest to bar, make sure that you’re choosing the correct band thickness. The less assistance that it’s providing you, the better. Just a forewarning, make sure that you don’t get stuck using the same band forever, and end up using it as a crutch.
Check out this video for a full-length demonstration of a banded drill:
Level 3 Drills
- Segmented Negatives: If you can already do one pull-up but are ready for more, use segmented negatives to find out where your sticking points are. Start with your chin over the bar. Hold that position for a few seconds, and then lower a few inches. Hold that hanging position, then lower a bit more, and hold once again - repeat until you’re at the bottom.
This drill will quickly show you that there ‘sections’ throughout the negative that are going to be a lot harder than others. Work on those specific sections and think of them as your ‘sticking points’. If you struggle at the very top, then work on chin over the bar holds. Struggling to pull out of the bottom? Try engaged holds in that position.
As a rule of thumb, we recommend doing 2-3 days of strict pull-up accessory work on top of your normal training. This can be something as simple as 10-15 minutes before or after your normal class. More than that, and you’re muscles might start to get angry with you.
Stringing Multiple Strict Pull-ups Together
If you can already do five or so pull-ups - that’s great! You can definitely move on to learn kipping as well. However, don’t stop your strict progress there. Try adding some weight to your strict pull-ups by wearing a vest, or putting a weight belt on and adding the correct amount of plates (or a kettlebell) to it. Try out sets of 2-3 reps at a time to continue increasing strength.
If you’re looking to add more variety in building your strict pull-up strength, check out this video for 3 new drill ideas that don’t necessarily involve the pull-up bar.
Strict Pull-up Strength: How Does It Work?
We’ve talked a lot about making sure that you have a plan in place when you are working on strict pull-ups for Crossfit. However, unless you have a coach who is willing to write out a program - or you’re able to do it yourself, sometimes it can be hard to know where to start.
If you’re looking for a pull-up program and ready to commit, consider this: WODprep has an 8-week Strict Pull-up Strength course. So far we’ve had a ton of athletes either get their first strict pull-ups with us - or progress to being able to do larger sets of them. We’ve even had athletes go through the programming multiple times so that they can continue to build towards larger sets of pull-ups.
If you’ve never been through a WODprep program, or curious as to what programming for strict pull-ups would even look like, check out this snapshot from week 2 day 2 of our Strict Pull-up Strength course:
If you have 2-3 days, and 15 minutes per day free, then you’re ready to sign up. Here's the link with more information on how to join when we re-open enrollment!
Strict Pull-ups: How To Warm Up
While pull-ups may not seem like the most intensive movement, warming up correctly for them can still be critical. Recently one of our mobility-specialists, Coach Garry, created a video covering this very topic... check it out here:
Common Pull-up Faults and How to Fix Them
Believe it or not, there are actually a lot of small adjustments that you can make to your pull-up form in order to become more efficient with the movement. Below are a few common errors, and how to correct them:
In a lot of cases, you can feel when this is right or wrong when you first start pulling. Too wide or too narrow, and you’re simply making the pull a lot harder on yourself. For a strong pull, set your grip up so that it’s just slightly outside of your shoulders.
As stressed prior, hollow body is key when initiating your pull. One common error that I see a lot when athletes start their pull is basically the inverse of a hollow body - or "the scorpion".
However, keep in mind that hollow body also does not mean that your legs and chest should be sticking out. Your body should be compact, a slight c shape (left picture) with open hips , and not an L-shape with your legs and chest jutting out (right picture).
The last error to address is the finishing part of the pull, and what the chin and head are doing to cross the plane of the bar. Your chin should NOT be reaching up to break the plane - your entire head should instead be pulled past it, in a neutral position.
Unconventional Strict Pull-up Drills
Remember: strict pull-up work doesn’t always need to be on the bar or rings. There are plenty of great accessory movements to keep in mind that will help to target those weak areas while saving your grip. If you’re still looking for some ideas, let me throw a few your way.
- Bicep curls. While it may be hard to take yourself seriously as you stand in the corner of the gym doing bicep curls with a dumbbell (or a barbell) this accessory drill is a good one for both pull-ups and chin-ups. Be sure to fully extend at the bottom, and don’t use your body to curl the dumbbells up (like the dude below) - use your arms only.
- Bent Over Rows. This is an excellent movement to build strength in lats and lower traps while requiring the rotator cuff to work hard at stabilization. I recommend placing your free hand on the abdominals instead of a bench to encourage awareness of a stable core and neutral spine throughout.
- Trap 3 Raises. These guys work on developing lower trap and rhomboid strength while encouraging you to work on retracting and depressing the scapula, which is helpful in the initial phase of the pull-up. Lower traps are often weak due to sitting and slouching and require specific movements to target these areas and build them up.
Strict Pull-ups: Help I’m Stuck!
We’ve all been there. You’re working on a new movement or skill, and you feel like you’re making NO progress. Suddenly it’s been 4 months and you don’t think that you’re pulling any higher than when you first started.
What should you do?
- Have you tried filming yourself? This is a great way to measure progress and also highlights areas of weakness that you might not notice in training. Film your attempts and your drills, and then take some time to break them down. Even better - analyze it with one of your coaches!
- Create tests for yourself. Set up testing methods that are both reliable and repeatable, so that you can measure success in more ways than “I have a pull-up or I don’t.”
In our Strict Pull-up Strength program, we have 3 standard tests which athletes complete as they begin the course, in week 5 and then in the final week. This also helps with accountability throughout the program, knowing when there is a test week coming up. Our athletes have reported a ton of different different improvements including grip strength, positioning, muscle activation… many things overlooked without proper testing structures in place.
We understand that strict pull-up success can sometimes look like this: pass or fail. You either get one or you don’t. So in order to record the tiny bits of progress in the journey towards that ‘pass’, you have to get creative with how you measure it. It could be testing max reps with a certain band, then repeating that test with the same band some weeks later. Or it could be one of our favorites - a chin-over-bar holds. Increasing the length of time in this hold will be a valid indicator of strength gains.
Keeping all this in mind, check out this awesome graphic from one of my new favorite books, Atomic Habits by James Clear. It really helps to put the pull-up journey into better perspective.
Strict Pull-ups For CrossFit: Mobility
If you haven’t already read it, we actually have the best damn shoulder mobility article on the planet. For real... you should read it or save it for later. It has a specific section in it for pull-up mobility.
Coach Garry also put together some videos for some pull-up specific mobility drills below. Try them out after a pull-up strength session to keep your shoulders happy.
Bridge Drill (shoulder opener and stabilizer):
^^ this is also a great warm-up drill!
Strict Pull-ups: That's a Wrap.
Phew! That was a long one. Hopefully you found our guide to be helpful, maybe it gave you some fresh ideas, or maybe just some encouragement - whatever you were seeking. If you're looking for ever MORE strict pull-up advice, check out our free pull-up guide here:
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