Modifications 101: Pull-Ups
Chances are you have wanted to complete an unassisted pull-up or improve your pull-up performance. It is a valuable movement with tremendous upside for health and performance. It can also be an extremely frustrating movement when you struggle to complete it.
When I was younger, I struggled with pull-ups. I remember taking the Presidential Fitness Test and scoring in the top percentile of each physical test except pull-ups. It was not until I reached my 20s that I could complete unassisted pull-ups. It took plenty of training sessions filled with modifications to get me over the top.
The key to pull-ups is to treat them like a strength exercise.
When you see pull-ups in your fitness training program, do you just skip them and move on? Do you sub in something that is a completely unrelated movement? This is part of the reason for your struggles.
The big key with modifications is to make sure that a vertical pulling motion is maintained. Often I see clients switching a pull-up for a horizontal row variation. While this is still in the ballpark of the same movement pattern, strive to pick something that includes a more vertical posture.
Instead of running away from the pull-up, apply some of these modifications to improve your pulling performance.
The biggest pitfall (and area for improvement) is often the hang position. If your shoulders are covering your ears, you are not controlling the bottom position of the hang.
Try this: Shrug your shoulders up towards your ears and hold for 10 seconds, then release. How does your neck feel? If I had to guess, not great! Now imagine holding this position over and over again during pull-ups or overhead activities like swimming.
Start with the active hang and tidy up your positioning. Once you make this improvement, add in the flexed arm hang to train both endpoints of the movement. Avoid shrugging your shoulders during both movements.
The next place to venture is to remove some of your bodyweight. This will allow you to replicate proper positioning and adjust your load over time. You can accomplish this with a barbell, band, or a TRX. By using these implements you can treat your pull-up more like a strength exercise. Just like you progress load over time for an exercise like a squat, you can gradually use less assistance over time. Eventually, you will get to the point of an unassisted pull-up and then you can add external load after that point.
Remember the keys you worked on during the active and flexed hang. Proper body position will help you progress faster.
It is also important to work on eccentric control. You can complete dropdown pull-ups with just your bodyweight or with a band for assistance. Focus on minimizing any major low back arch.
Once you are able to complete five or more unassisted pull-ups, you can start adding in some more advanced variations. Take your time. Treat the movement like you do other strength exercises and progress will happen!
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