You’ve been CrossFitting now for three months. Six Months. Maybe more than a year. And still, despite your efforts, the strict, unaided pull-up remains elusive to you. It’s frustrating, and it’s time to make it stop!
What most athletes struggling with pull-ups need to work on is not technique so much as strength. Kipping becomes a nice way to string pull-ups together, but what you really need is the fundamental strength to do a strict pull-up.
Pull-up strength comes largely from the biceps, but not exclusively. You’re also engaging your trapezius, the muscle that runs along your upper back from your neck and down between your shoulder blades. The best way to build strength in particular muscles is to perform isolated movements, which can help target weak areas for more complex movements.
Below are some strength-building exercises to help get you to your first strict pull-up. Do each of these exercises once a week, adding in two days for rest and recovery. They’ll only take a few minutes, so come early before your workout and perform them as part of your warm-up.
Day 1: Ring Rows
You may have moved from ring rows to banded pull-ups, but ring rows remain a great tool for building strength in both your biceps and your traps. Do three sets of 5 to 10 repetitions, with a minute or two of rest in-between each set. If you can easily perform 10 reps, then walk your feet further forward of the rings (or up onto a box) to make your angle steeper (making the exercise more difficult).
Day 2: Banded Pull-Up Negatives
Using the thinnest band possible, perform three sets of 5 to 10 repetitions of strict pull-ups. But instead of dropping quickly, perform a slow three count as you lower your body and extend your arms. The slow, controlled movement of negatives helps to build strength. Rest a minute or two in-between each set.
Day 3: Struggle-Ups & Jumping Pull-Ups
Do three “struggle-ups” for max time (probably only 10-20 seconds each). A struggle-up is where, while hanging from a bar, you pull your body up toward the bar as far as you can and then hold it. It’s basically your attempt at a strict pull-up. You may only rise half an inch up from the hang position, but that’s OK. The point is you are actively pulling up with all of your strength and engaging your muscles. Finish each set with 10 jumping pull-ups. For a jumping pull-up, stand on a box or bumper plates until the pull-up bar comes to your wrist when you extend your arm upward. Then, holding the bar, jump up and use the momentum of your legs to help you get your chin up over the bar.
Day 4: Dumbbell Bicep Curls
Do three sets of 8-10 bicep curls on each arm. You can perform bicep curls multiple ways:
- Standing Dumbbell Curl with either one arm at a time, or both simultaneously.
- Concentrations performed on a bench, one arm at a time with a dumbbell.
- Barbell curl using an empty barbell.
Day 5: Bar Hang & Scapular Pull-Ups
Perform three sets of max hang from a bar with a minute or two of rest in-between. The max hang will help build your grip strength. Follow with three sets of 10 scapular pull-ups, which will help to build strength in your traps.
Even if you already have your pull-ups, these are great exercise for building bicep and trap strength. Repeat these exercises for four to eight weeks and you’ll be much closer to getting your first strict pull-up.