Tech Tip - Training - Overcoming the pull-up hurdle

By Eric J. Hörst ,

Figure 1. Lower from a lock-off to train for pull-ups.

The pull-up is a staple exercise for many climbers. Several sets of pull-ups performed a few days a week will give you the base level of “pull-muscle” strength you need for all the basic rock moves. Unfortunately, some climbers are only able to do a few — or even no — pull-ups, and find themselves unable to engage in effective pull-up training. If this sounds familiar, take heart. If you can’t do five consecutive pull-ups (palms facing away), employ a “negative” training strategy to target the pull-up muscles. This strategy leverages the stronger eccentric (lowering) phase of the muscles’ movement, so even if you can’t yet lift your bodyweight, you can still train by lowering through the pull-up’s range of motion. To do this, place a chair below your pull-up bar and step up into a lock-off position with your chin just above the bar. Step off the chair and hold the lock-off for five seconds before lowering yourself to a slow five-second count (Figure 1). Immediately step back up on the chair to the top lock-off position and begin the process anew. Repeat the hold-lower process five times, then take a five-minute rest. Perform three sets. An alternate strategy for training pull-ups requires a spotter. Have a friend grasp you at your waist and aid you through eight to 10 less-than-bodyweight pull-ups (Figure 2). Do three sets in this manner, with a five-minute rest between sets. While you’ll be able to crank a few unassisted pull-ups in a few weeks, keep working with your spotter — for effective training, you need to complete eight to 10 repetitions per set. Use one or both of these strategies, three days per week, and you’ll be surprised how fast your pull-up strength improves. Soon you’ll be doing five, then 10, pull-ups on your own. At this point you can graduate to a standard pull-up workout: five sets of 10 to 15 pull-ups with a three- to five-minute rest between sets. For all pull-up training, use either a pull-up bar or the largest holds on a fingerboard. Your goal is to train your pulling muscles, not your fingers. Train only in the “palms away” position, the way you usually grip the rock, and with your hands about shoulder-width apart. Also, be open-minded in assessing your changing strengths and weaknesses as a climber. If you can do 15 solid pull-ups, but can’t climb 5.10, your limiting weakness is likely technique and mental control, not lack of strength.

Figure 2. Have a friend hold your waist and aid you through less-than-bodyweight pull-ups.

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