Pull ups are a must for almost all climbers who are serious about their progression and longevity in the sport. Year on year improvements in strength are essential for grade progression and the lowly pull up is an incredibly versatile tool for this. In essence, it involves the resistance training of the main upper body prime movers in climbing: lats, rhomboids, biceps, trapezius and infraspinatus just to name a few. Add to this the fact that there are almost infinite variations on the pull up and you’ve got an exercise that will serve your performance for literally decades. Addressing the strength element in training is key for longevity in the sport and injury prevention. With the pull up, we have an exercise that – along with its variations – is capable of building strength in almost every muscle in the arm and upper body.
Now that we’ve hopefully convinced you that we’re looking at a useful form of training, let us address one of the biggest issues that we face as a training company – a complaint that we hear across all our platforms and one that’s entirely valid! There are thousands of climbers out there who want to use pull ups in their training, but their conditioning level is still at the level where they may not yet be able to do a single pull up, or, even more commonly they struggle to do more than a few reps so most training advice out there feels irrelevant because suggestions are typically along the line of “3 sets of 8 pull ups, with XYZ form or plane of movement.”
What should you do in this situation? What options are there if you’re caught in that chicken-and -egg situation whereby you’re struggling to even get started with this form of training?
Before diving into the details of the solution, we’d like to remind you that learning how to execute well and learning the movements is definitely worth the time spent to master. These movement cues and form will allow you to push harder, reduce injury risk and execute any exercises with a higher degree of efficiency.
Form and Movement Cues
- Engagement of shoulders: the very start of a pull up should involve the depression and engagement of the scapula without excessive movement or flexion (bend) of the arm. Initially, this can feel like a really weird exercise, but with all of our clients and athletes, this forms a core of their yearly strength and conditioning. Learn to engage those shoulders and learn it well!
- Tracking elbows narrow: as you start to bend the arms, try to concentrate on keeping the elbows parallel to each other throughout the entire range of movement and don’t let the elbows “chicken wing” out. There are advanced forms of pull up variation where this may be relevant, but certainly try to avoid it while you’re still mastering the pull up.
- Arching back: there can be a tendency to arch and overextend your lower back when a pull up feels super hard at the start of your training journey. A good cue to look for is tightening up the core and glutes during the pull motion and you’ll find the arching quickly disappears.
Part 1: Pull Up Preparation
There are a few exercises that we love to use for those working toward their first pull up or alternatively as an effective warm up in intermediate and advanced athletes. These exercises start at 4.43 in the video demonstrations.
- Theraband pull down: remember on this one that the difficulty of the exercise is going to be moderated by both the strength of the band and the speed of movement. If you wish to make each rep as hard as possible (for strength) then use the hardest resistance band with the slowest rep completion. This exercise can be done with elbows in close or with elbows out wider to increase the breadth of muscles worked in this range of movement.
- Scapula engagements: this can be completed at bodyweight or with resistance band assistance. We recommend that reps are kept lower initially (4 reps) until you’ve mastered the exercise and also understood how your shoulders respond to the exercise. Don’t forget that your arms are not bending on this movement!
- Locks: initially you almost certainly want to complete these with assistance. We’ve found that working the 90 degree and 120 degree locks to have a good transfer back into pull up performance in the long run, although it should be noted that other positions can also be tried! The only position we’d recommend significant caution with, is the top “deep lock” position which can be aggravating for many peoples’ elbows.
- Low row: this is a totally underrated exercise! Even better, is that there are also a number of variations on this training tool, including 2-arm work which can have significant potential for core training as well. An essential element for this exercise is “setting” the shoulder back in a position where the traps and rhomboids have retracted the scapula before you start the pulling movement. This means it’s key to go a little lower on weight than you expect, so that you’re able to maintain your shoulder in the correct position throughout.
Pull Up Preparation Example Session
- Exercise 1: Theraband pull downs (2 sets of 8 reps)
- Exercise 2: Scapula engagements (2 sets of 4 reps)
- Exercise 3: Lock offs (4 sets of 5 seconds)
- Exercise 4: Low Row (2 sets of 6-8 reps)
We recommend around 3 minutes of rest between sets and exercises, but you should certainly take more if you require it to complete in good form! Taking a few more minutes rest will not destroy the potential for improvement.
Pull Up Progress
For those of you who have mastered the initial preparation exercises and can complete these comfortably at least two times a week, then we have a range of tools that we can use to progress from just a single pull up or two toward the range of five or more. Note that all of these exercises will only work well if you are fuelling adequately, resting frequently enough during your week and keeping stress to a minimum. While this may seem somewhat obvious, we like to state this frequently as we see so many people struggle with improvements in strength when some of the base elements of their lifestyle are not taken care of. Train like an athlete, but also treat yourself like an athlete would!
Assisted pull ups: lots of climbers who struggle with completing more than just a couple of pull ups need to get involved with this form of pull up! One of the keys to strength training is being able to train in a range of rep volume. What I mean by this, is that just because 2 pull ups (at a 2 or 3 rep max) feels super hard, doesn’t mean that it’ll continually make you stronger and more well conditioned month after month. In reality the most successful athletes will train strength across the very low rep ranges (2-5) all the way to higher reps (12-20) because they seek a range of physiological adaptations that come from training across the volume spectrum. When completing your assisted pull up, try to concentrate on a consistent speed throughout the entire range and if you want to be really clever about it, slow the movement down at the point where you’re getting most assistance from the theraband!
Eccentric pull ups: due to the nature of a muscle being able to resist more force than it can close on the concentric motion, the eccentric pull up is a superb way to build increasing volume and intensity into your pull up sessions. What we mean by eccentric is the lengthening of the muscle rather than shortening (concentric) that you experience when doing the up part of a pull up. Even if you’re unable to complete 3 or 4 full pull ups, you will find that most climbers will be able to complete well over 5 eccentric pull ups in a controlled manner. Note that with this exercise it is very high intensity so do stay away from failure and loss of form, particularly on the lowest section of the range of movement. Also bargain for double rest days after this session as the impact on the muscle physiology is significant.
Lock offs: as you should be in the position of having mastered the preparation exercises, the lock off comes back into play as a tool for increasing training load by increasing time under tension. Again, we’d recommend working on a few key angles (90 and 120 being popular) and work towards increasing the time under tension and intensity during your training season. In the example below we’ve given you a sample session of 10 second hangs, but you may also see some great results by working up toward 20-30 second hangs on this exercise.
Pull Up Progress Example Session
- Exercise 1: Assisted pull ups (2 sets of 5 reps)
- Exercise 2: Negatives (2 sets of 3 reps)
- Exercise 3: Lock offs (4 sets of 10 seconds)
We love hearing from clients and fans who’ve used the above advice to move forward with their upper body strength and conditioning—often people will smash right through the “5” barrier quicker than they think, with some consistency and dedication! What we do want to remind everyone of though, is that just because a training method works for two, three, four months, doesn’t mean it will work indefinitely! If you’ve put the hard work in and made significant improvements in the next 8 to 16 weeks, then look to change up the exercises. Your assisted pull ups may now be completed in three different grip positions and your negatives could be done on a flat edge rather than a pull up bar.
For more training session ideas, download the free Crimpd App, where you’ll find all of the strength and conditioning ideas you need to take you forward for the next decade of performance.