From the Ground Up: Pull-up Fundamentals

Grab Some Sky

Whether it’s primates climbing, taking the hill in battle or being on dad’s shoulders, we’ve always had an appreciation for height. At RD, pull-ups satisfy our appetite to get higher, but what’s the best way to build the necessary strength?

Pull-ups are an elusive movement because it’s not a regular part of our daily life. We step, push and squat more frequently than we pull. Therefore, pull-ups take even more work than almost any other pattern we coach. We’re sure a lot of you out there feel the same way.

To start your journey to find higher ground, here are three drills to start crushing.

Floor Hollow

Seems backwards to start learning to pull-up from the floor, but keep an open mind. The one theme permeating all of these drills is tension. Learning to create core and lat tension and connection now makes it easier to adapt to the more intense drills later on. These are the tips for the floor hollow.

The t-shirt gives Andrea feedback on driving the small of her back into the floor.

The t-shirt gives Andrea feedback on driving the small of her back into the floor.

1) Grab a dowel, broom handle or pvc pipe and anchor it to an object. Lie on your back with the dowel above your eyes. Shoulders are away from the ears to find your lats.

2) Bring your feet out towards the ceiling. Squeeze your knees together.

3) Drive the small of your back down into the floor. This is starts the hollow position.

4) Lower your legs slowly until you feel the small of your back come off of the floor. 

5) Hold that position. Keep pushing your back into the floor while driving the dowel into the object. 

This is the start. The hollow position patterns the total body tension needed to do a stellar pull-up. Lock in the lats and set your core on fire to carry those positions to other movements.

Ab Wheel

The hollow position is now turned upside down and the ab wheel tests your new found skill. The biggest flaws you’ll see when someone uses the ab wheel is a loss of connection at the lat and loss of core tension (creating a sag in the spine). Here are the finer points of the ab wheel.

1) Start position. Start in a quadruped position (shoulders over hands, hips over knees). The ab wheel starts under your heart.

Shoulders away from ears, belly button up!

Shoulders away from ears, belly button up!

2) Get your shoulders away from your ears. Packing your shoulders engages the lats, supporting your spine.

3) Belly button up. Pull your belly button up towards your ribs, engaging your lower abs and flattening out your lower back. This will ensure spinal support and crazy core contraction.

4) Roll out slow. Keep the wheel under your heart, shoulders away from your ears, belly button up, as long as you can. If you lose any of those points, stop. Push the wheel into the floor to roll yourself back.

5) Keep testing the water. Be patient. Find that spot that challenges your position repeatedly. Slowly, you’ll be able to go further, safely. 

Time under tension is a universal concept in strength training. The ab wheel does that for you. You’re forced to stay tight while you roll out and come back. Take any opportunity you have to turn up the heat so you can find it when you need it later on.

Goblet Carry

Since time under tension is a skill we’re developing, a carry can’t be over looked. Again, what are we trying to teach when you're getting you ready to pull-up? Lat connection and core tension. Goblet carry is a great way to develop those feelings. Take this seriously, and you have another tool to develop the pull-up. Here’s how it works.

1) Hold a kettlebell "by the horns" (the section of the handle where it meets the round part of the bell).

This isn't a stroll in the park. Engage the lats and keep the ribs and hips connected.

This isn't a stroll in the park. Engage the lats and keep the ribs and hips connected.

2) Keep the elbows tight to the body and the bell in front of the heart.

3) Hold the bell a few inches from your chest and don't let the weight pull your shoulders forward. Keep them wide.

4) Find the connection between your ribs and hips. It's normal to want to lean back to counter-balance the weight. Instead, take a deep breath and brace your core.

5) Stay tall, shoulders wide. Reach the top of your head for the sky like someone is pulling you towards the ceiling. Then, go for a walk.

Like we mentioned before, vertical pulling is an underdeveloped pattern for 99% of people. You’re going to want to pull-up right away. You’re going to want to use bands for assistance. These tools have their place but try and resist the temptation. You’re not doing yourself any favors by skipping the fundamentals.

StrongFirst recently published an article mapping out some of the finer points of the pull-up. Check it out.

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