Pull Ups Made Easier and Better

Bret’s intro: Here’s a guest article from Max Shank. Max emailed me the other day because he read a pull-up article I wrote and the thought I’d appreciate the video tip embedded in this article. I watched the video and agreed with the rationale, but then I taught a couple of my clients the technique, and two of them set immediate PRs that day. My client Camille could only get one pull up, and after two weeks of employing the technique that Max described, she’s now busting out 3 pull ups like a boss. I think she’ll be doing 5 within another month. I hope you read the article, watch Max’s videos, and test out the ideas. 

Pull Ups Made Easier and Better
By Max Shank

I’ve gone back and forth with many different methods in terms of teaching, cuing, and progressing someone to a pull-up. I fortunately have the luxury of owning a gym where I have a large sample of guinea pigs  willing gym members at varying stages of pull ups or chin ups.

There is statistically a clear and obvious separation between men and women, and where they struggle during the pull-up.

In general, Women struggle at the start to put their scapulae in the right place and keep their shoulders out of their ears.

Men tend to be stronger (and stiffer) in the shoulders which makes the initial pull easier, but owning the top position significantly more difficult. I can think of several people off the top of my head who could do 10 pullups on day 1 but couldn’t hold the top position for more than 1-2 seconds.

It’s all about the joint angles, baby.

When you initiate the pull with your torso perpendicular to the floor, your GH joint is at a disadvantaged position, requiring you to have ridiculously strong, mobile, and coordinated scapular movement to set you up properly to pull. Conversely the strength curve of a horizontal row is just the opposite. The initial movement puts you at the greatest leverage, while the top position (fully contracted) is the most challenging and requires the most strength. This also has to do with leverage and joint position

So in short, we are going to make the initial pull, more like that of a row, which will help recruit the lats, and avoid hyperactive upper traps and ear-shoulder-syndrome.

You can see how to do it here:

Note that the movement is like a closing jackknife. You initiate the movement by opening the joint angle and finish the movement by engaging the abs and strongly closing everything back together. Every video I’ve ever seen of anyone doing a one arm chinup (myself included) follows this basic rhythm of opening and closing.

If your shoulder mobility sucks, you are working against gravity, and the residual tension of your muscles. Think like a band resisted deadlift where the bands make the weight feel like 1000lbs at the top but 400 at the bottom. You might be able to cheat it up there with some momentum, but it ain’t staying there. This is a problem.

Fix it by mobilizing the pecs, shoulders, and thoracic spine so you can own that top position. Then own it with this cool drill here:

In the video I’m using end range isometrics to focus on owning that position using a martial arts belt. As far as mobilization is concerned I like to work in some thoracic bridges to open up the thoracic spine, then afterward address the pecs with some tabletop bridges–though there are a plethora of choices for both of those areas.

Furthermore I should mention that for most people, most of the time, I like to do neutral, supinated, or ring pullups. The reason being is that most people can’t do a palms forward pull-up and have the top position look good or posturally beneficial. I’ll take that extra external rotation any day of the week if I can, provided it doesn’t aggravate the elbows, which is also usually a problem that stems from tight shoulders or thoracic spine.

Still can’t quite get that pull-up yet? Hammer away at some with the assistance of a partner or work those muscles with some horizontal rows until you build up the adequate strength.

Better every day,

-Max

Author Bio 

Max is an author, coach, and owner of Ambition Athletics in Encinitas, CA. He also competes in a wide variety of sports ranging from Muay Thai and Jiu Jitsu to Scottish Highland Games.

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Max Shank

Max’s desire to constantly improve his knowledge and personal skills has led him to be a sought after international presenter of his unique and pragmatic blend of strength, flexibility, health, and overall athleticism. Follow Max at these links:

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17 Comments

  • Nick says:

    Bret,
    you agree with Max that the Lats are the biggest muscle in the body, even bigger than our gluts? Well anyways, it’s all about that posterior chain baby!
    Great videos and drills. Brilliant way to think about and improve the pull up!
    Thanks!

  • NVP says:

    Note how he also rotates his elbow to point forward, engaging the lats before they’ve done too much shortening as a result of humeral extension

  • Martin says:

    Bret, can you PLEASE do something about your newsletter notification? It pops up whenever you open your page and you have to wait a bit before closing. I have signed up but don’t get the newsletter. It is just damn annoying. I enjoy your blog and used to visit it every day, often to check archives. I know it looks like a small matter, but this simple annoyance keeps me away. I still check the blog every month or so because the content is usually so good
    Martin

  • claudia says:

    nice

  • Itai says:

    Bret,
    Thanks for the post.
    Dosn’t the intial set up of arching the torso, requier allot of lats strength?

  • Anna says:

    Interesting! I supposed the were a biomechanic secret to those! i am just starting with chinups. I can do 3 but only when i lift up my knees. Is It common? :/

  • Dunkman says:

    Been a pull-up guy for decades, but this is one of the best explanations I’ve seen. Thanks guys!

  • Chiharu Aoki says:

    Hi Bret! I read this article before and I thought chest extention is not a good move when performing a good pull ups. I can not really get this what is the best form of doing pull ups. what do you think about this??
    You might read this article. sorry if I misunderstood what you explained.

    http://www.theptdc.com/2015/01/do-you-want-to-improve-and-master-pull-ups/

    …..extension is necessary at times for power development, but this isn’t one of those times. You need to convince your clients that a pull-up is really a moving plank where they’re working on anti-extension.

    • James Cerbie says:

      Hey Chiharu,
      Thanks for the share man! So I think our friend Chris below makes a very good point in answering your question. Like just about everything in this industry, the answer is it depends.

      I’m going to tend to teach the pull up as anti-extension exercise because my population is more concerned with either health (figure a gen pop fitness client) or a a field/team sport athlete concerned with maximizing performance. In both of those cases, it’s imperative that they have enough core stiffness to adequately oppose their lats, or else I’m asking for trouble down road (i.e. a sagittalized system that lacks variability).

      If I was training a bodybuilder/physique competitor, who’s sole concern is looking great on competition day, or even a powerlifter who’s trying to deadlift as much weight as possible, then I may coach it a different way to get after a different adaptation.

      I know that doesn’t exactly answer your question, but I’d encourage you to ask yourself what your goal is. The answer to that question will dictate how you want to perform the movement because it’ll change the exact adaptation you’re getting.

      Hope that helps!
      James Cerbie

      • Chris says:

        Ah, ok. For health reasons, half-pulling half-rowing is great anyways. Thx for clearing up!

      • Chiharu Aoki says:

        Hi James! Thank you for anwering my quetion.
        I see crossfitter is doing another way of pull up using momentum.
        Just wondering what is safe way to do pull ups.
        But I got the point ,Thank you!!

  • Chris says:

    Well, if your goal is to do as many pull-ups as possible, then this may be a good strategy. But its the same kind of making an exercise easier as pull-ups counterpart, the press: by leaning back and including more and stronger muscles, the pecs in the leaning-back press, and the rhomboids/teres in your version of the pull-up.

    Remember, training for hypertrophy is to maximize muscle work, not to maximize performance – that is strength performance. And most of the reader of this site wouldnt benefit from more pull-ups if theyre done in an easier fashion (well, their ego would; or maybe if theyre in an emergency situation to climb something). They would rather benefit from less pull-ups if they maximized the muscle action of the targeted muscles, read: vertical pulling, not horizontal.

  • Katie says:

    Thank you!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Omg. I could never get the chin up of neutral grip pull-up from hanging. Only from standing. This just helped me do both for the first time for reps! I love you!

  • Theresa says:

    I can’t imagine it’s just coincidence that I’ve been *so close* but struggling to complete my first unassisted chin-up for months, but a mere 5 days after reading this post I banged out not only my first unassisted chin-up, but FOUR of them. Holy cow. Pretty sure reading this and practicing the lat activation Max demonstrated was the missing link! THANK YOU 😀

  • Thanks, great video, I have been building on deadlifts, squats and pushups for a while now, but have been struggling with pull ups….hoping to get my first unassisted pull up by the time I turn 60 in a couple of months..gulp! Thanks again!

  • Ray says:

    I have difficulty hearing and was wondering if there was a chance you could add closed captioning to your videos? I feel like they have so much additional information aurally that simply watching doesn’t give. I love your advice, one day I hope to do a proper pull-up!

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