Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Training for the Pullup and Beyond

The Pullup is one of the foundational bodyweight pulling movements in the book.  Adam Cristantello, one of our on staff bloggers brings up some important points on training for the pull-up to ensure that you've got the proper strict pull-up strength before diving into the kipping pull-up.  As Adam tells us, the kipping pull-up puts much greater stress on our joints and by training for better Scapular Control we can not only avoid potential injury, we can see some serious gains in our pulling strength.

The Pull-up is one of those important movements to building balanced fitness, and subsequently is one a highly sought after ability/skill. Whether for application of sport, or for living into your later years with high levels of function…the pull up is something worthwhile to pursue. I am talking specifically about a strict pull up. While a kipping variation can have application (especially for competitive CrossFit), the increased joint forces demand greater muscular strength/power, and coordination under fatigue. This means you need to develop strength and coordination before stringing together kipping pull-ups. Fortunately, a simple progression can help you build your pull-up regardless of the goal. This first article will address building your pull-up by establishing scapular control and movement coordination. The next will address building strength for the strict pull up. 

Step 1: Establish Scapular Control

The scapula (a.k.a. shoulder blade) is important to the shoulder joint because it controls position of the articulating surfaces. The head of the Humerus (the upper arm) sits on the Glenoid Fossa of the scapula, and with proper position the rotator cuff strongly reinforces the joint.

A simple and loose analogy is that of a golf ball and tee. When positioned correctly, the ball is balanced and well supported for you to crack the hell out it. However, if the tee is misaligned the ball will easily fall off.  Good luck controlling the shot even let alone hit the ball. What does this mean if you have poor positioning in your pull-ups? The smaller biceps are forced to work harder, the larger lats are limited, and often leads to a chin reach rather than elevating the chin over the bar (huge f*ing pet peeve). 

Besides not actually being able to do a correct pull up, there is also an increase risk of injury. The rotator cuff is struggling to keep shoulder alignment while in a weakened position. This causes undue forces on your labrum, joint capsule, as well as close down an already limited amount of space for your tissues. Over time this wears on the tissues until they finally break. This is called Micro-Trauma. Hello SLAP tear, impingement, labral tear, and months of not using your shoulder!!! Hence micro-trauma should be a CrossFitter’s, or an exerciser’s, biggest concern in regards to injury. The gist: by having good scapular control, you will be putting your shoulder in the most efficient (and safest) position to move, and keep you progressing towards your goals. If you don’t, every rep is just a game of probability and chance. How often do you roll the dice?

Since I potentially just scared you from ever wanting to use your arms again, let me point out a few very important things. 
  1. Nothing is perfectly safe…welcome to life. Live in a bubble, or step out the door.
    Don't live in a bubble!
  2. Pull-ups are a very safe exercise when set up AND PROGRESSED properly. Scaling by slapping a band on the bar because you don’t have the strength for 100 pull-ups is not progressing. That is often the equivalent to duct-taping your car window. It works in the short term, but it is not great as a long-term solution…no matter how awesome duct tape works. 
  3. Kipping doesn’t necessarily translate to better “fitness.” A strict pull up is always more impressive than a kip. So don’t succumb to the pressure and rush into a kipping pull up. I know plenty of people that can kip but can’t climb a rope in an L-sit. What do you think requires greater fitness? 

Practical Application

The following exercises are meant to help build the ability to stabilize, depress, and retract the shoulder blades. Without going into a ton of the specifics; elevation and protraction is the caved-in hoarding look that we are trying to prevent. Additionally these exercises will also translate to other movements as well… BONUS! 

1) Retractions:  Purpose is to build awareness and control
-Allow your shoulder blades to move forward (protraction)
-Pull them back and slightly down
-Pause in the end position
-There is no motion of the elbow
-In either a bent over row position (RDL position), with a band, or on the rings

2) Rows: Using the same variations (I prefer the rings or bent-over variations) 
-Hold the scapulae in the retracted position 
-While maintaining posture, pull the elbows back with a slight flare (not dragging on the body)
-Slowly and with control return to the starting position
*Tip: focus on pulling from the “elbows” and not the hands. This will often lead to smaller muscle groups (i.e. the elbow flexors) doing too much work.

3) Reverse Shrugs:
-Hang from the bar with a pronated grip
-Relax and allow the shoulders to elevate towards your ears
-Pull your shoulder blades down 
-Pause at finish position and control the return to the start position


4) Banded Pull Downs:
-From a kneeling position, start by initiating scapular depression/retraction (this will resemble showing your chest to the bar)
-At the same time, contract the abdomen and glutes to stabilize
-Pull from the elbows
-Lower the band down until the band goes below your chin
-DON’T reach with your chin…think double chin and that usually helps

5) Assisted Pull-Ups:
-Hands in a pronated grip 
-Use a band at the foot or knee (less assistance), or cross your ankles and have a partner assist you.
-Start by initiating scapular depression/retraction (this will resemble showing your chest to the bar)
-At the same time, contract the abdomen and glutes to stabilize
-Pull from the elbows until the bar is below your chin. Again don’t reach your freakin chin up!

Here is a simple start up program to ensure you have adequate scapular control, and to build your strength for every variation of the pull-up. Add it into your weekly training when you are fresh to prevent interference from fatigue. The next article will further expand on techniques for building strength for the strict pull-up.

Day 1: 
A. Ring Row Retractions: 3 x 6 w/ a 1 second hold at end position
B. Ring Rows: 5 x 6 to 8 reps w/ a 1 second hold at end pos
C. Reverse Shrugs: 3 x 6 to 8 reps w/ a 2 second hold
D. Banded Pull Downs: 5 x 6 to 8 reps

Day 2:
A. Reverse Shrugs: 3 x 6 to 8 reps w/ a 2 second hold
B. Bent-Over DB Row Retractions: 2 x 10 reps w/ a 1 second hold
C. Bent-Over rows: 4 x 6, 1 second pause at finish and a 2 second eccentric
D. Assisted Pull-Ups: 5 x 3 to 5 reps, 1 second pause at top to ensure proper scapular positioning, and finish with a controlled and even descent

  1. Shoulder Boney Structure:
  2. Shoulder Anatomy:
  3. Bubble Boy:

About the author:

Adam Cristantello ATC, USAW-L1SP, CPT
Co-owner of Nova Fitness

Adam's 14 years of strength training experience, to include sports performance and a degree in Sports Medicine, has led to his prioritization of teaching a healthy perspective towards exercise and wellness. This is important because a misaligned perspective often leads to short-term results and long-term problems. His process begins by building a solid foundation based in quality movement, while analyzing the motivations for exercise (goals, current health and psychological state, life priorities, etc.).