Training: Perfect Pull-Ups for Climbing Strength

Basic exercises to increase endurance and lockoff strength
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Basic exercises to increase endurance and lockoff strength
Training Perfect Pullups

Perhaps no single training exercise elicits a more diverse range of opinions among climbers than the simple pull-up. Some swear by them while others believe they are a waste of time. So what’s the truth? Next time you’re at the gym, watch somebody doing them. Typically, the motion starts with a jolt from the shoulders that throws the body upward. The instant momentum expires at the apex of the motion, he falls abruptly, bounces at the bottom, and repeats, until collapsing in a sweaty heap, completely satisfied. This type of pull-up is fine if you’re in a drunken contest with your buddies, but it’s nearly worthless for climbing training, according to many sports-science studies and notable climbing coaches. The following guidelines will break down how to do an efficient and effective pull-up, including several variations to target different muscle groups, so you maximize your training time and get stronger with one of the simplest exercises out there.

Start Here

Like most strength and weight training, the first rule for pull-ups is to forget quantity and focus on quality. The goal is to gain strength and control throughout the movement, which forces the smaller stabilizing muscles to do some work and get stronger. These smaller muscles are crucial for all climbers, whether you’re dancing up a slab or trying to control a wild foot cut in the middle of a roof.

When starting the motion, the first movement should be to engage the muscles by squeezing the shoulder blades together; don’t just start from hanging on your skeleton (fig. 1).

Perfect Pullups for Rock Climbing Training

Figure 1. Photo: Ben Fullerton

Between reps, return to this engaged position (fig. 2), not all the way down. Pull-ups train lockoff strength and endurance for beginners and advanced climbers alike. Start with hands directly above the shoulders (fig. 2) to work the lats, shoulders, back, and biceps.

Perfect Pullups for Rock Climbing Training

Figure 2. Photo: Ben Fullerton

Working the hands wider (fig. 3) forces a more difficult movement that engages the lats more. Shorter climbers will find these wide-grip exercises beneficial because it trains for reachy moves and big lockoffs.

Perfect Pullups for Rock Climbing Training

Figure 3. Photo: Ben Fullerton

Principles of Pull-Up Training

  • Never blast off. A climbing move may begin from any point in the standard pull-up motion, and moves on real rock rarely start from a dead hang. That means every point of the motion is important to building climbing strength. Blasting off and relying on momentum negates its effectiveness.
  • Move slowly. Very few routes require cranking 27 dynamic pull-ups in a row, but balance and static control initiated by the arms and back are crucial to nearly every climbing move. Slow down to the point where even doing 10 pull-ups in one set is a challenge.
  • Focus on climbing first, and then add pull-ups. Most people will get stronger just by climbing, so make that a priority and then add a few sets at the end of training days. Once you can do three to five sets of 10 standard pull-ups with three minutes rest between each set after a full session of climbing, consider rotating in sets of the pull-up variations listed in this article (wide grip, horizontal, with leg lifts, etc.).
  • Go as high as you can. The apex of the movement should put your chin well above your hands, which is a great way to train lockoff strength and get the most from your frame on long reaches.
  • Down is just as important as up—if not more. Aim for a one-second count on the upward portion, a brief pause at the high point, and then at least two to four seconds for the lower. The down portion is the eccentric phase, which contracts the muscles and simultaneously lengthens them—a more effective way to strengthen them.
  • Consider your equipment. Standard workout bars are fine, but fingerboards and climbing holds are better. Jugs or big, flat holds are ideal; just remember that you’re working your pulling muscles, not finger strength.

Don't...

  • Don’t “kip,” a move popular among CrossFitters, which takes advantage of momentum to get more reps.
  • Don’t just drop your body weight onto straight arms. Lower carefully back to the engaged-muscle position (fig. 2) so you don’t injure your shoulders.
  • Don’t jump into it. This minimizes the amount that the muscles you want to target (back, shoulders, arms, core) have to work, thereby reducing the effectiveness of the exercise.
  • Don’t swing your legs or body. Trying to keep from swinging becomes an exercise in itself and will increase the movement’s efficiency by upping the amount your core has to work.

Do You Want to...

Get Stronger on Steeps?

Instead of having your legs hang straight down, elevate your lower body with boxes (or find a lower bar) so with straight arms, your chest is facing the bar and your toes are pointing straight up with your body almost horizontal to the ground (fig. 4). Your heels should be on the boxes or the ground if you are using a low bar. Pull your chest into the bar while keeping your body straight (fig. 5). Using the core to hold the body horizontal emulates an overhanging line where the arms support most of the weight and create the power to move upward. 

Perfect Pullups for Rock Climbing Training

Figure 4. Photo: Ben Fullerton

Perfect Pullups for Rock Climbing Training

Figure 5. Photo: Ben Fullerton

Get a More Intense Core Workout? 

Do pull-ups with your legs in a variety of positions; try lifting your knees, or even harder, lift straight legs so your hips are at a 90° angle. Too tough? Work separately to do L-hangs (hang from bar with legs extended horizontally) without a pull-up. Once you can do this for at least 10 seconds, try it with a pull-up.

Get Better at Clipping and Placing Gear? 

Try Frenchies, which is an advanced technique that involves pausing at equal intervals in the motion. Pull up and hold your chin over the bar (fig. 6) for a count of three (or five for more difficulty). Lower all the way down, pull all the way up, and then lower so arms are bent at 90° (fig. 7); hold it for a count of three. Lower all the way down, pull all the way up, and then lower so your arms are two-thirds of the way straight (fig. 8, about 130°); hold that for a count of three. Lower all the way down, pull all the way up, and then lower completely. That’s one Frenchie! This develops the staying power to hold strenuous positions so you can figure out sequences, place gear, or clip.

Perfect Pullups for Rock Climbing Training

Figure 6. Photo: Ben Fullerton

Perfect Pullups for Rock Climbing Training

Figure 7. Photo: Ben Fullerton

Perfect Pullups for Rock Climbing Training

Figure 8. Photo: Ben Fullerton

Get One-Arm Lockoff Strength?

As mentioned before, you can try a wide-grip pull-up, where your arms are much wider than shoulder-width apart. Another option is the towel (or uneven-grip) pull-up. Throw a towel, rope, or strap over the bar, putting one hand on the bar and the other about 18 inches lower on the strap (fig. 9). The initial movement should focus on pulling with the higher hand, but as you go up, you can start to push down with the lower hand. Less vertical distance between hands is easier; more is harder. Make sure to switch hands.

Perfect Pullups for Rock Climbing Training

Figure 9. Photo: Ben Fullerton

Get Strong Really Fast?

Try weighted pull-ups, which you should only do if you can crank out 10 quality pull-ups without coming off the bar. Start with five pounds for a few weeks and work your way up as you get stronger. Anyone with shoulder injuries should be very cautious when doing weighted pull-ups, and it’s probably best to avoid them altogether.

Can’t Do a Single Pull-Up?

You might not want to hear it, but the best way to get better at pull-ups is to, well, do pull-ups. If you can’t manage to crank off one, there are a few cheats that will allow you to strengthen those muscles and eventually do them on your own. You can also incorporate these methods to finish full sets of 10 when you’re tired. All four are an excellent way to get stronger so you can eventually do pull-ups on your own.

1. Have a friend help push you up and take some of the weight, just like getting a “power spot” when climbing. Have your helper stand behind you and put their hands on your hips. As you pull, they should be trying to lift you up, assisting you through the motion.

2. Use a chair. Place it in front of you so you can reach it with one foot through the entirety of the pull-up motion. Do the exercise with one foot pushing off the chair; as you get stronger, you can move the chair farther and farther away, which means there’s less weight on the chair and more on your arms. Eventually you won’t need the chair at all.

3. Try the pull-up machine, which simulates the movement while you stand on a platform that moves up and down and provides weight as a counterbalance. As you get stronger, use less weight. If your gym doesn’t have a pull-up machine, try doing lat pull-downs, which develop the necessary pulling muscles.

4. Loop a TheraBand over the bar so it reaches your foot and tie off a section so you can put your foot in it. Pull with your arms and straighten your leg to “stand” in the loop, so it gives you a small amount of support. These stretchy bands have varying degrees of resistance, so use a higher-resistance band for more assistance.

Adam Scheer Illustration

Illustration by Skip Sterling

Even though Adam Scheer is a full-time physicist researching new biofuels in California, he still manages to climb 5.13 weekend-warrior style by adding a few sets of pull-ups to his sporadic gym routine.