Raise your hand if you’ve seen people do pullups and thought “pft – what a stupid exercise; nobody wants to be able to do that.” Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? (If you don’t know this reference, then it’s time to catch up on your 80s pop culture movies. Or time to say “wow, she’s old”. Either or.).
Raise your hand if you’ve seen people do pullups and thought “I wish I could do that”, but then you never tried it because you didn’t want to look like a weakling in front of all the other people in the gym (who probably would think “good for you for trying” but in our minds they would point and laugh).
I think most people fall into one of two categories:
1. they can do pullups
2. they wish they could do pullups
As a personal trainer, I would like all of my clients to fall into group 1, but we’re not there yet.
This article and video are for group 2. Group 1 people: As you were.
Traditionally people try to progress to pullups in one or more of the following ways:
1. Lat pulldowns.
2. Inverted rows, or horizontal pullups.
3. Pullups with band or machine assistance.
I think 2 and 3 are great options, and 1 is a bit of a waste of time. That might be my anti-machine bias speaking, but it’s my blog, so I get to have a bias. If anyone has successfully transitioned from lat pulldowns to pullups, do share and perhaps I’ll change my tune. I doubt I’ll have to find a new song.
Inverted rows, or horizontal pullups are great exercises, but they often don’t quite translate to pullups. That is, once you can do inverted rows, that does not mean you will be able to go and do pullups. There is a missing step.
Band-assisted pullups can also be great, and for some people, they really work. But for others, they are either too daunting, they don’t have access to heavy bands, or they just don’t yield the results they want. I have struggled to understand why it doesn’t necessarily work. I started to read research studies about pullups to help me understand. I did not find a lot of research, but one study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research may have the answer: Surface electromyographic activation patterns and elbow joint motion during a pull-up, chin-up, or Perfect-Pullup™ rotational exercise. In addition to comparing the muscle activation values for each of these pullup variations, they looked at the sequencing of muscle activation, with the following conclusion:
- “A general pattern of sequential activation occurred suggesting that pull-ups and chin-ups were initiated by the lower trapezius and pectoralis major and completed with biceps brachii and latissimus dorsi recruitment”.
In other words, the lower traps are recruited the most at the bottom of the pullup. Due to the nature of band resistance, band-assisted pullups provide the most assistance at the bottom of the pullup and the least at the top. What does this mean in the context of this study? The band-assisted version provides too much help to the lower traps, which are weak for many people (desk sitters!). Then when they transition to full pullups, they do not have the strength to initiate the pullup because the band-assisted pullup did not address their lower trap weakness. Once they get up a few inches, they tend to do very well for the rest of the pullup because the biceps and lats take over. In other words, the band-assisted version neglects to address a key weakness in the pullup for many people.
The series of TRX partial pullups below is meant to fill the gap left by these other options.
They should be done once someone is already able to do either TRX inverted rows, or power rack inverted rows. The benefit of these variations over the band-assisted versions is that the resistance is consistent assistance throughout the exercise – the lats and lower traps do not get a free pass in this version.
Give it a try, and keep these three things in mind:
- When doing the TRX version, make sure you aren’t pushing with your feet. Your feet are on the floor (or box) as a way to reduce how much weight you lift off the floor; they are not on the floor to help push you up.
- Also with the TRX assisted version, make sure you go all the way down and that your hips and shoulders and hands make a straight vertical line at the bottom. If you don’t do this, you’re not letting yourself build strength in that bottom range.
- Work on core exercises to complement this progression. Pullups are both an upper body and a core exercise, so working on core strength is an important part of building pullup-ability.
Questions or comments? I’m happy to answer!
Elsbeth Vaino is the owner and head trainer at Custom Strength in Ottawa, Canada.
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