How I Stopped Sucking at Pullups

I’ll never forget the overwheliming exhilaration I felt when I performed my first unassisted pullup. I hopped down from the bar and looked around the crowded gym thinking, “Did anyone see that?!”. Never in my life had I thought that I would be able to do a pullup; in fact it was one of those “I wonder if I can do this” moments that led me to that first epic achievement. When I was awaiting my knee surgery, I made a commitment to getting stronger at upper body lifts given that was all I could train (focus on what you can do). I started by doing band assisted pullups, and gradually reducing the tension of the bands. And so, armed with the realization that I could now pull myself unassisted over a bar, my obsession with pullups began. That was 2009.

That same year, I set a (longterm) goal to complete the RKC Iron Maiden Challenge, which includes a strict pullup with a 24kg kettlebell strapped around the waist. For the past two and half years I have had quite the pullup journey as I’ve experimented, practiced, failed and succeeded. I am by no means a Lat-laden beast, but I’ve come a long way on my personal journey and have helped a lot of women achieve their own pullup and chinup goals. Girls can do pullups, and we can do them well. Not to mention we look damn good doing them.

But, because my training age with the pullup was fairly young, and I saw rapid gains in the first year, I was devastated when my progress came to a screeching halt. From July 2010 to September 2011, my 1RM pullup (16kg) had not budged one bit. It was unbelievably demoralizing. “Why do I suck at pullups now?!”. I had to pull myself (pun intended) out of this dark hole of regression and defeat.

 5 Tips That Helped Me to Stop Sucking at Pullups

 

1. I stopped telling myself I sucked at pullups. This might be the most important step in the entire process. The mental energy I spent beating myself up should have been spent pumping myself up. Because I convinced myself that I sucked, I would approach the bar with dread just about every time. And when things didn’t go my way I was visibly perturbed. Perception is a powerful thing. Once I perceived my lack of progress as a normal roadblock that would be moved with time, I started making progress again. Perhaps I was always making progress, in the subtlest of ways, but could never see it because I was so consumed by the numbers. I realized then that it wasn’t my pullups that sucked-it was my attitude. Now, I get excited to do pullups! I seriously cannot wait to grab the bar and that excitement and positive energy has propelled me further towards my goal.

2. I stopped going to failure. Why I thought I could get strong by constantly failing is beyond me. Strength is about skill and practice, not constantly exerting 100% effort. The most experienced lifters reserve their max effort for competition. I read something recently that Dan John said: Train heavy not hard. Just because you are aiming to move weight that is heavy relative to your strength and skill level, does not mean it should be hard. Whenever you see someone do something physically impressive doesn’t it just look effortless? That’s what I began to strive for-effortless strength. Now I stay just below my max effort, and I am making huge gains. If I feel like I might be able to eek out one more rep, I stop. If I feel like I could pull 20kg and barely clear the bar, I pull a smooth 18kg. I stop before I fail because I don’t want to practice failure. In my group sessions we call this “No ugly reps.”

Foot loaded: My preferred method

3. I started doing more pullups. Strength is a skill, remember? Mastery of any skill requires thousands of hours of practice. I was doing pullups once per week, and sometimes twice if I was lucky. I had this worry that if I did them too often, I would overtrain and under recover, hence stalling my desired progress. I’m not really sure how I thought I could possibly master something by only doing it once a week for a typical max of 15 total reps. So, I programmed pullups 3 times a week, Monday/Wednesday/Friday and varied the intensity, load and volume. On Monday, I load the weight on my feet as that is my strongest method of loading. On Wednesday I do bodyweight variations and on Friday I load the weight around my waist as that is the method of loading for the Iron Maiden. Because I have varied my load and intensity throughout the week, the volume has not been a problem-my elbows feel great and my lats are never unbearably sore. This way I get more practice, more pullups and as a result, more progress.

4. I found tension. Tension in a strict pullup is an integral component of a solid pull. Think about the difference between carrying a toddler who is awake (body is rigid) and a toddler who is asleep (body is limp). Those of us who have ever had to move a sleeping child from the car seat to the house (I’ve done this in 5-inch heels no less!) know that a limp body is much more difficult to carry. Every time I would strap a bell around my waist I had the same ritual: grip the bar, step off the box, cross my ankles, squeeze my legs together, inhale, exhale, pull. Yet inevitably, as the bells got heavier the increased anterior load kept forcing me to lose tension in my midsection. I started realizing that when the bells were hooked onto my feet, I was much more capable of maintaining tension and subsequently pulling some real weight. Having my ankles intentionally dorsiflexed translated to more posterior chain engagement and a better hollow position. Unfortunately for me, the Iron Maiden Challenge is tested with the bell around the waist. In an effort to achieve those same levels of strength and tension in a waist-loaded pullup, I began to position my legs and feet as if I had bells hanging on them, imagining that they were there despite the bell hanging from my waist. This changed everything. I’m still stronger in foot-loaded pullups, but I found more tension in waist-loaded pullups with this simple and effective change.

Waist loaded with dorsiflexion

5. I started doing assistance exercises. Just like the lack of tension I was experiencing on heavy pulls, there were other energy leaks that were inhibiting my ability to make progress. In an effort to uncover these leaks, I started experimenting with various assistance exercises, mostly consisting of different hand positions and leverages. What I discovered was a significant left/right asymmetry in my ability to connect to my lats, as well as a noticeable difference in grip strength and general control on my left side. One of my favorite unilateral assistance exercises to increase my bilateral pulling strength is a band assisted one arm pullup.  I grab just below the knot on a super band and perform a few solid reps (pulling mostly with the arm on the bar), starting with the left and taking a short break before doing the right. The arm on the band does a fraction of the pulling, and the connection to the lat on the pulling side (bar side) is insane. These are a heck of a lot harder than they look, but have allowed me to assess and dissect my pullup groove, and have had a serious impact on my connectivity during heavy pulls.

Band assisted 1-arm pull-up

Practicing these 5 concepts has gotten me to the point where I can perform a strict 20kg pullup, and 13 dead hang bodyweight pullups. I know the pullup isn’t my strongest or most impressive lift, and it might not ever be. But it improves consistently and more importantly, it no longer has a mental hold over me. I’m confident, motivated and most of all free from the feelings of defeat and disappointment.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08362159223646385401 New Outlook Fitness

    Great post. Thanks for this, you’ve inspired me to smash through my pullups too. Keep trainging hard ;)

  • http://www.prana-pt.com Ann Wendel

    Thanks for the tips! I am on my own quest to do pull ups and I will use your pointers to help me get there! I talked about my journey on my blog:
    http://prana-pt.com/2011/11/27/let%E2%80%99s-get-specific/

  • Anonymous

    I’m still using fairly strong bands (already feeling more “pulled together) but I really appreciate hearing about your insights into dorsiflexion. It seems to fit with some of the Iyengar style yoga instruction I’ve received. Headstand is often imagined as Mountain Pose, upside down re: feet. Barb

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03776420534440308810 Naomi(Onefitfoodie)

    great post! Love it, straight and to the point…I always tell my female clients who want to be able to do unassisted chin ups or pull ups is to just keep on doing them! We work on the bands, and some have moved up to sans bands! its incredible to see!!

  • http://kbwarrior.wordpress.com/ kbwarrior

    Excellent tips. Thank you so much Neghar. You’ve really inspired me and I always hear your wise words in my head when I’m training! I hope you don’t mind, but I copied one of your passages about avoiding ugly reps on my blog!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01923124635796890810 Krishna

    Hi – Just now bumped into your blog. Nice to read and very well written! Keep up the good work.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12117157035822714899 Neghar

    Ann-I will definitely check out your blog!

    Barb-very good point! I like the comparison between the two.

    Naomi-Isn’t the most amazing thing to see a woman accomplish? We have the best job!

    kbwarrior-That is so kind. You have no idea how happy it makes me to know that I’ve helped in some way. Of course, always feel free to share!

    Krishna-Thanks for reading! I appreciate the encouragement :).

  • http://www.fabulouslydomestic.com Natasha Kay

    I can definitely relate to that feeling of extreme pride and elation when I banged out my first unassisted chin-up! I also really appreciate this post because I’ve been stuck at a plateau for the last 6 months and was wondering what it would take to improve it. :)

    • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12117157035822714899 Neghar

      I hope your chinup progress is going well! :)

  • http://strengthswag.wordpress.com/ strengthswag

    just started following your blog – love it – and this pull up post is beaaaast. GREAT reminder about varying the mode & intensity of the training while still focusing on the skill. SUPER important – using it in my own training now to increase my pull up numbers. i’m really excited to read more of your stuff, thanks for posting!!

    • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12117157035822714899 Neghar

      Thank you for reading! This is one of my favorite posts because of how big of a roll pullup training and progression has played in my life. Glad it was helpful for you!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11738628750005878830 Blender411

    Seriously, I am the same person as you lol. Ive read several of your articles now and came across this EXACT discovery of learning how to create tension. First with my squat and then with my pull up . I too also have a lat asymmerty thing going on. I swear I’m living in your parallel universe!

    I need to get on those one arm band pullups ASAP.

    Thanks!

    • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12117157035822714899 Neghar

      Ha! Maybe you’re bizarro Neg?

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  • http://twitter.com/FrugalChow4Abs Natcha Maithai

    Most women don’t even have their first rep yet lol. Can you write about progressions that got you there?

    • neghar

      That’s for another post!

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  • elizabeth_TMFP

    I’m on my own pull-up quest this year, and like you I started doing them only once a week with 15 reps at most (all assisted as of yet), but I’m varying things up now and doing them 3 times a week, and I’m definitely seeing a difference!

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