Working Up to Pull-up Success

By Diane Vives, M.S., C.S.C.S. – April 2, 2012
Photography by Brian Fitzsimmons

The fun and excitement is building, and athletes of all ages are training for Austin’s Fittest Challenge. There is no doubt that there are some great challenges among the tests on event day, and one of the biggest is the Pull-up Test. In my 14 years of training all levels of athletes, I know that pull-ups are one of the best ways to train and measure upper body strength and upper body strength endurance. That is why it was chosen as one of the tests in the event day competition, and in order for it to make a positive impact on your score as a competitor, you need to focus your training now.

When we look at upper body strength, we separate pulling movements (bring the hands toward the body’s center) from pushing movements (taking the hands away from the body’s center). This allows us to include a lot of the main “prime movers” of the back and shoulders, and to work efficiently for strength and muscle toning, which many of us target for a nice, lean build. The caveat here is that, by focusing on the movement rather than small isolated muscles, we can apply it to performance and, more specifically, to the performance of the pull-up test.

So many athletes and exercise enthusiasts see the pull-up as a daunting exercise to be avoided. To break down that barrier, here are movements that progressively build strength specific to the pulling movement needed for the pull-up. This will allow some to achieve a first body weight pull-up while others will rack up their best possible score on testing day.

Assisted Pull-Up

Purpose: Trains the actual pull-up movement while using the band to assist in lifting your body weight.

a. Attach band to the pull-up bar where it does not hinder movement. With palms facing out, grip bar just outside the shoulders and put bottom loop of band around one knee.

b. Perform a pull-up by bringing your chest vertically towards the bar, arms to the side, and maintaining a straight line of torso. Finish with chin in line with the bar.

c. Then, with control, lower body and take advantage of the eccentric load to build strength. Make sure not to shrug shoulders, and maintain space between shoulder and ear throughout the entire movement.

Reclined Row 

Purpose: Focuses on lifting your own body weight using a pulling motion and allows you to adjust to your strength level.

a. Start under a secured bar on a Smith Machine or squat rack, pulling into the rack for safety. Keep body in straight line and start with arms extended.

b. Pull your body as one unit up to the bar and position yourself so that bar finishes right at the chest.

c. Lower yourself to start position in a controlled manner. Do not let hips bend; maintain straight line.

d. Adjust bar level for difficulty. The lower the bar, the higher intensity because you are pulling more of your own body weight.

Plank with Single Arm Cable Pull

Purpose: Increases core stability and control that is vital to engaging the body for good posture during the pull-up.

a. Start in a plank position, with the hips and shoulders parallel to the floor. Anchor band or cable low to the ground, and use one hand grip with arm extended.

b. Make sure to engage the core and hips to create a straight line from ears, shoulders, hips—all the way to your feet.

c. In slow, controlled movement, pull your elbow down to your side. Always squeeze the shoulder blade down and toward spine as you pull the hand, elbow, and arm lateral to the side of your body.

d. Avoid pulling under the body, as this can cause rounding of your shoulders and upper back.

Tackling a big strength move like the pull-up is a great way to build confidence in your fitness…and become a great competitor at this year’s big event.

Diane Vives, M.S., C.S.C.S., is an Advisory Member of the Under Armour Performance Training Council. An internationally recognized fitness expert, she has appeared in several publications such as Women’s Health, Shape, and Muscle & Fitness Hers.



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