I’m on a mission. It’s something powerful to commit to and something I’m quite serious about. I’m going to rid the world of cheating on pull-ups or chin-ups.
Okay so it’s not exactly that serious, but I like my vertical pulling to be as pretty as possible. For me, “pretty” means a full 180˚ of shoulder flexion. None of this bent arm, flexed lat, partial range-of-motion crap. Let’s get that dead hang, every damn time.
Before we continue, let’s take a moment to appreciate the inverse relationship between quality and quantity. More than any other exercises, it seems that our ability to perform pull-ups or chin-ups well declines rapidly as we do more chin-ups or pull-ups.
That’s okay if you’re chasing a specific number, and I offer you this question:
Would you rather do lots of shitty pull-ups, or a few great ones?
Movement mastery is all about adhering to a movement standard, and I believe we have the integrity to hold ourselves to a higher standard.
Here’s the chin-up I’d love to see us all doing:
Let’s put that in comparison to a much higher quantity, and much lower quality, of reps. Here’s an example of what not to do:
When it comes to properly executing the a pull-up or chin-up, there are a few things that come into play. My Big 3 for vertical pulling is position, balance, and strength.
The first step in chin-up or pull-up domination is making sure that we can get over head. As a guideline, if your arms aren’t going overhead on their own, it’s going to be a bit more challenging getting them there while hanging.
In a simple diagram, we want to get those biceps aligned with your ears:
As always, creating that vertical arm isn’t always as clear as we’d like. It’s not only about the arm position, but about the ribcage as well. In the picture below, you’ll see Tony Gentilcore demonstrating similar hand position with drastically different rib cage positions.
He’s overhead in both cases, but one demonstrates a better overhead position. Tony on the right can do pull-ups all day. Tony on the left? He’s got some other things to work on.
Our ability to keep those hands overhead isn’t all about flexiblity and stretching, but rather about how we balance stiffness. It’s great to have strong lats, provided we can create a relatively balanced amount of stiffness on the other side of our ribcage. That means we need some strong abs to get the job done.
Strong abs help to create balance to maintain our ribcage position, and here’s a sweet pullover and deadbug hybrid that Mike Robertson accomplish this very goal:
If we are striving for this balance while we’re on a bar, then the hollow hold is king. If you can create tension in your core while hanging from the bar, you’re better prepared for a pretty pull-up. This seemingly simple move can do a ton for solidifying that midsection before we start moving:
Once we’ve established better balance between the muscles in our midsection and those that are responsible for moving us up and down, now it’s time to actually get moving.
This one is the easy one. You’ve created better joint positions, and your muscles can create balanced forces to maintain those joint positions. Now it’s time to train that position, and you can do it in a number of ways.
Some of us feel best performing fewer sets of higher reps, say 3 x 10. Others feel best performing more sets with less reps, say 6 x 5. The total volume is the same, and there’s going to be some differences in how our body responds, but we’re looking at the bigger picture: Movement quality.
As an example of changes in movement quality, here’s a demo of the chin-up that I took two years ago, after starting at MFF:
That looks a bit different from the video that I took this afternoon, right? Here’s the new clip again:
When it comes to movement quality, I’ll ask you to perform the set and rep combos that you’re the most comfortable with, along with this caveat: Adjust so that you can ensure you get to the hang at the bottom every damn time. If a set of 10 means two good reps and 8 ugly ones, then let’s check our ego and focus on the good reps.
One of my favorite ways to do this is to focus on the lowering, or eccentric portion of the lift, on it’s own. This allows us to focus on where we’re the strongest in the movement:
We can also use cable pulldown or band-assisted chin-up variations to practice chin-ups, and they’re part of every programmers repertoire. I like going band-less so we can really hold ourselves accountable to practicing this full hang at the bottom.
Next time you grab a bar overhead, take a second and hang from it. Think about the tension, or lack thereof, in your biceps, lats, and abs. Remember to first find that low position, ensure that you can maintain it by balancing tension, then train that position to become stronger over time.
If there is indeed only one way to do a chin-up or pull-up, let’s make sure we make them as beautiful as possible.