Pull Ups - Episode 1 Building the basics and testing your start point.

CrossFit Chiltern
Pull Ups - Episode 1 Building the basics and testing your start point.

The foundations of a pull up are three areas.

·         Core Strength

·         Grip Strength

·         Pulling strength using your arm and back muscles.

For this we are going to start with three exercises that we can use as a benchmark starting point. Obviously if you already have a dead hang pull up then you can also use your number of reps of these as your benchmark. I want to see a full dead hang start position with fully straight arms working up to the chin comfortably over the bar at the top of each rep.

For most people who are yet to achieve a pull up we can start to test and build strength using the following three exercises.

Hollow Hold

We need to be able to hold our body tight using our abdominal muscles. It is much easier to pull when your body is solid. It is the same as lifting a 20kg barbell versus a 20kg sandbag, the floppy sandbag feels heavier and more awkward. Therefore we start by learning the hollow hold.

This is the foundation of many gymnastic movements and is a basic requirement for any rig work. Start by lying on your back with your feet off the floor, knees directly over your hips at a 90’ angle. Raise your shoulders and head off the floor and slightly tuck your chin. Bring your arms off the floor just by your side so your hands are about 12 inches off the floor. From here engage your abdominals by gently pushing into the floor with your lower back and drawing the belly button in towards the spine. This is the hollow position.

Progress on by extending one leg out, pointing the toes and keeping that same pressure on the floor with your lower back. You should feel your abdominals working to prevent your pelvis and rib cage moving apart from each other. If you cannot achieve this with a fully extended single leg, then bring the leg out as far possible whilst keeping the ‘hollow’ position.

Once you find the first progression comfortable then reset to the start position and work both legs out as far as possible keeping that hollow. If your back starts to come up bring it back to a position you can hold.

Finally the full hollow hold requires you to have your arms extended overhead in line with your ears. Creating a canoe shape with your body.

Once you can hold the hollow for 30 seconds with perfect form you have the core strength required for a good pull up.

This is benchmark 1.

Bar Hang

We obviously need to have the grip strength to support our own body weight to able to complete a pull up. A simple way to build and test this strength is in a bar hang.

If you have never completed a hang before then start with the low enough to keep your toes on the ground and then allow more load to transfer to your hands until you can bring your toes of the ground. For heavier athletes and those that lack grip strength this may time to build the required strength.

Once you can hang from the bar ensure you hold your hollow position learned through the hollow hold. Additionally ensure your shoulder are active by drawing your shoulders slightly down and back. We do not want to be just hanging off the shoulder joints.

I would expect athletes to be able to hang for at least 30 seconds to be thinking about pull ups.

That is benchmark 2.

Inverted Rows

All forms of rows should be included in your training as they have tremendous benefit for your shoulder health and posture. Inverted rows are one of my favourite variation. Mainly because they are adaptable to fit all levels of athlete. Your start point is to have your body inclined at around 45 degrees. Create a straight line from head to toe keeping a hollow position through your abdominals and squeezing your butt. Staying tight with the entire body lower down under control until your arms are fully extended. Take care to ensure your shoulders remain active in the same way we performed the bar hang. Then row yourself back up so that the bar contacts your sternum. I like to see these performed with a slight pause and hold at the top of each rep. Focus here on squeezing your shoulder blades together to increase recruitment of your upper back muscles.

You can then increase difficulty by moving to a more horizontal position. You can train lying fully horizontal and scale the difficulty by bending your knees and having the feet below them creating a glute bridge like position. Once you can perform inverted rows lying directly under the bar with legs extended you go the full motion by elevating your feet on a box or equivalent to allow you to be completely horizontal. Obviously the further towards your feet the box is the more difficult the exercise as the load you are pulling increases.

Once you can perform 10 inverted rows from this most difficult position you should be close to having the strength to perform strict pull ups.

There we have it. 3 exercises that you need to acquire to learn and improve your pull up strength.

Remember your benchmark targets are:

30s Full Hollow Hold

30s Dead Hang Bar Hang in hollow

10 Fully horizontal inverted rows

If you have the first 2 for 30 seconds, do not stop there, work up to a minute to build a more bulletproof grip and core that will transfer to all bar work.

You can perform these in many variations, just as separate exercises as accessory work. If you were to do so I would suggest 4 sets of each. 30s Hollow Hold, 30s Bar Hang and 10 Inverted Rows. Scaled the movements to allow you to complete the work. Alternatively you can combine into WODs to make it more interesting.

Here are 3 examples

Workout 1

Accumulate 4 Min Bar Hang

Every Break complete

200m Run

10 Inverted Rows

20s Hollow Hold

-          This one will really challenge the grip hard!

Workout 2

5 Rounds of

10 Inverted Rows

20s Hollow Hold

30s Bar Hang

40 Sit Ups

More of a core focus to this one!

Workout 3


Buy In

2 Minute Bar Hang – Every time your drop complete 10 Burpees jumping up to touch the bar each time.


Max Rounds of

5 Burpees to bar

10 Inverted Rows

20s Hollow Hold

This is a nice way of incorporating your work into a more cardio based session

I prefer these variations on training for a goal as you are getting some more bang for your buck and keeping things interesting.

Go ahead and try these for this week and I will give you some more options next time!













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