What’s more superhuman than being able to find a bar and smash out a few chin ups girls? Do you want to know how? Well read on!
When a female client comes to the gym one of their main strength bases goals is to perform body weight pull-ups. This is a fantastic goal, as being able to perform movements by lifting your own body weight is a great fete of strength. Many women comment on how they have no upper body strength or they feel weak in the upper body. The core of the matter is they probably don’t know where to start, they haven’t yet dedicated enough time, practice and perseverance to develop strength in the upper body. Training towards and being able to body weight pull-up is great upper body strength builder, as well as great for developing a strong and shapely back. Becoming proficient in this movement will also have a great carry over into, the deadlift, squat and pressing movements.
Typically, when a new client comes to the gym I will ask them to perform a pull-up without any coaching or cuing from myself so that I can see how much they understand how to perform the pull-up. Once you begin to understand what’s involved in the pull-up, you will then be able to coordinate your muscles better in the movement and start to progress. This will also identify any weaknesses in the movement chain. In strength training or becoming proficient in any movement, you will only be as strong as your weakest link. So identify it, and work damn hard on it.
Rarely do I see females (or males) performing a strict pull-up correctly. Many will fail to achieve engagement of the back musculature when initiating the movement. They dominate the movement with there arms, and wriggle there head up to the top of the movement, by using momentum created by kicking their legs, creating a swinging movement, to internally rotate their chest towards the bar. This creates a very inefficient movement, and line of pull, and also consumes a lot of energy, whist engraining a posturally poor movement.
When it comes to developing pull-up strength for females I use the following approach by breaking the movement down into 3 separate parts that are interdependent on one and other.
1. Initiating the movement
This is where I see a lot of females go wrong when attempting to do a pull-up. If you fail to initiate the rep properly, it is highly unlikely you will complete the full rep. The pull up should be initiated from a dead hang, arms at full length, and your body on a full stretch. The shoulder blades should then be depressed and retracted into the shoulder girdle (shoulders back and down) before you begin to drive your elbows downwards pointing your chest towards the bar. Once stability is created in the shoulder joint and the back musculature is engaged the movement then relies on the biceps to pull. It is imperative that some form of bicep isolation work is included in training.
2. Failing the middle section of the pull-up
Breakdown in this part of the movement usually correlates to a lack of full body tension. Many people consider the pull-up to be an upper body exercise, but in fact it relies on the ability to create muscular tension in the upper, core, and lower body to perform the movement efficiently. Therefore, if you lack the ability to brace (breathing) and are weak in the core, you will struggle to achieve a full pull-up. I typically cue females, to bend their knees, hang the legs back to enable the glutes to engage and push the hips in to extension, this helps to brace the core and direct the chest up towards the bar.
3. Unable to finish the pull up, and get your chest to the bar
Anecdotally speaking, most people will be weak in the extremities of a movement and the pull-up is no exception. My go to methods for addressing any weakness in these areas is to spend more time in these weak areas. If we think about finishing a pull-up it is essentially the end point of a rowing movement, it is therefore important to include a variety of rows into your training programme as assistance work. One of my go to exercises would be to climb to the top of a pull-up and perform and isometric hold at the top of the movement, not only does this train the end point of the pull-up, but it teaches you to create full body tension in the pull-up position.
Putting it all together
So where to start, for your entry level of pull-ups.
Beginner (unable to perform 1 rep)… yet!
Practice initiating the pull-up by using the following exercises;
A) Hanging scapula depressions, perform 3x sets of 8-10 reps. Once you are able to perform this comfortably, I would look to add weight incrementally to a weight belt, and overload the exercise.
B) Jump Chins, or Chin holds. 3x sets of As Many Reps As Possible (AMRAP). Perform your first set of jump chins, or chin holds. As you lower yourself down (eccentric phase) make this as long as possible. Time it and perform this 2-3 times. Look to increase the time you are able to stay in the eccentric phase of the movement.
C) Horizontal or vertical cable row perform 3x sets of 10-12 reps. Initiate the movements as you would a chin up. Practice makes perfect!
D) Bicep Curl 3x sets 8-10 reps.
With all of that being said, whilst it is imperative that the weak links in the movement are identified so that they can be improved upon and strengthened. Remember, that strength is a skill, becoming good at any skill requires perfect practice and frequency. I would therefore recommend, adding in assisted pull-ups, by use of a machine or a training partner to drill the movement sequence (not to exhaustion) but to become neurally better at the movement. I’ve found this is more beneficial when you are able to get to one pull-up, you can then perform a single pull-up frequently across the training week.
The next part of the pull-up series will look to progress you from a beginner (0-1 pull-ups) to developing the strength to become intermediate (3-5 pull-ups) to advanced with 5+ pull-ups and beyond. Happy pulling!