Dirty Dozen Move # 10: The Pull Up

by Phil Ross on July 9, 2014

IMG_1939There is no other single barometer for upper body, bodyweight strength more accurate than the Pull Up. Many other tests are rendered useless after the Pull Up is employed. Think about it, have you ever met someone who can do 20 Pull Ups, yet has a weak core? How many people that can execute 20 Pull Ups can’t do 50 Push Ups? It boils down to this simple axiom, if you can move your own bodyweight a full arm’s length, a substantial amount of times (10 to 20 repetitions), you are strong.

Who can do Pull Ups? Where do I start? How do we get to this point? How far to we take it? What are our limitations?

Virtually anyone can do Pull Ups. You are probably saying to yourself that “I’ve lost my mind.” Well, maybe so – but that has nothing do with most people’s ability to perform some type of Pull Up and significantly increase their Upper Body Strength. I train a number of fighters and other highly competitive athletes, but we are not going to focus on them. Instead, we are going to consider my student that suffers from spina bifida as well as students enjoying their later years in life. When she first came to train with me, she was using a walker to get around after suffering through an accident which resulted in her requiring surgery. After 4 months of rehabilitation at a PT center, she was at a stand still as was very frustrated.
On the recommendation of her physician, her father brought her in and I honestly didn’t know if I would be able to help. She told me what was being done for her in therapy and for some reason her core strength was not being addressed. The Physical Therapists were treating her body as if it were a set of disconnected parts. I decided to work her from her core out. This included what I call Plank (PCC Terminology – Down Under) Pull Ups as part of the routine. We trained three times a week and within 6 weeks, she was walking without a walker, driving her car and could even carry a pizza from her car into her apartment!
I also have a few students over the age of 60. They came in with very little upper body strength. I started them in a doorway hanging onto the door jam while standing almost upright. Shortly thereafter they were on the Smith Machine performing Plank Pull Ups at various heights. Will they ever be able to do a full, neck to bar Tactical Pull Up? Probably not, but who cares? They have and will continue to grow stronger and live better with their new found strength. Both of these students feel better and are more empowered.
So, yes – virtually anyone can do Pull Ups! 
If you are not an extreme case, I would recommend that you start by using the Plank (or Down Under) Pull Ups. Once you are able to perform 20 repetitions at hip level, while touching your chest to the bar, you are ready to move overhead. The Pull Up Protocol in the Convict Conditioning book is excellent. For a quick read, feel free to read my Greasing the Groove blog regarding my use of Pull Ups to rehabilitate myself after having neck surgery on four vertebra. I chronicled my progress and wrote the blog shortly after I had completed my self administered rehabilitation.
There are a great variety of Pull Ups that one may perform. I would consider The Standard to be an Overhand, Tactical Pull Up. Thumbs over the bar, body straight, clear the bar with your chin well over the bar (men to their Adams Apple) so that your neck can touch the bar. There should be no “kipping” whatsoever, that does not produce strength. The Chin Up version would have the same components except no thumb-less grip is required and your palms face you. Due to the increased involvement of your biceps, this version is a bit easier than the palms facing away Pull Up.
It’s up to you how far you’d like to take your Pull Up training. There are Uneven Pull Ups, Archer,  One Arm Pull Up (Ultimate Display of Strength), Offset, Weighted, Levers to name a few. It’s best to mix them up and be certain to “de-load” your forearms. Practice plenty of Push Ups and Handstand variations as well as exercises to stretch the extensors and flexors of the forearm. Be cautious with loading up too quickly, you want to avoid damage to the connective tissue of your elbows. I would also strongly recommend that you cycle the variations and the volume of your Pull Up practice throughout the year.
There are additional methods to produce strength for your Pull Up. Bent Over Rows with a Kettlebell, Barbell or Dumbbell. The Flexed Arm Hang, with either the Down Under or Standard Pull Up. I will usually incorporate these at the end of my last set. Once I’m at 80-85% of my maximum, I hold the top position of the movement for varying amounts time.
Enjoy your Pull Ups! Have fun incorporating them into your routine.
Strength & Honor
Coach Phil


About Master RKC Phil Ross: Master RKC, 8th Degree Black Belt, Specialist in Bodyweight Strength, PCC and CK-FMS Certified. His name is synonymous with Martial Arts and Fitness. He is known as the area’s Kettlebell King and has successfully competed on the National Level in…  Read more here.



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