How to get your first strict pull-up

Advice and training for getting your first pull-up
by Steve Johnson

Prior to diving into specific actions you can take to get your first pull-up, let’s ensure two things are understood.

First, strict pull-ups and kipping pull-ups are two different movements. The former is focused on building strength while the latter is focused on work capacity within a time domain. One movement does not replace the other in training. If you want to get stronger, develop your strict pull-ups. If you want to perform a lot of work in a short amount of time, kipping pull-ups are the answer. Practicing kipping pull-ups, however, will only refine your technique and won’t make you stronger at pull-ups.

Second, the reason we want you to be able to perform strict pull-ups prior to learning the kip is because the kip has unique demands on the body. It requires upper body and core strength as well as solid upper body mobility.  Learning the kip without addressing these demands will certainly lead to an injury.

Of course, we could spend much more time on those two points but we want to focus this article on what you can do to develop strength. So let’s get to it.

Ring rows – These are the perfect place to start because anyone can modify these to their current abilities and make simple adjustments to take the movement to the next level. Ring rows are known more developing your back muscles and general upper body and pulling strength. To get the most out of this, ensure that your body is stiff like a board throughout the movement (from head to toe) and that you perform each rep in the full range of motion (dead hang to rings touching your chest).

Negatives – By exaggerating the eccentric phase of the pull-up, you are able to develop your back and shoulder muscles in ways that few other exercises can replicate. To perform these, use a pull-up bar and jump to the top of the pull-up then slowly lower yourself to the dead hang position. The key is to move deliberately slow through the entire range and not lower yourself half way and then drop straight to the bottom.

Holds – There are two types of holds to focus on: the top of the pull-up and the dead hang position. To perform a dead hang hold, just grab on to the pull-up bar and hang with your arms locked out as long as you can. This will develop grip strength and develop the parts of your shoulders and back that kick in during the first moment of the pull-up. To perform a hold at the top of the pull-up, jump up so that your chin is over the bar and hold that position as long as you can. Similar to the dead hang, this will develop grip and upper body strength with a more significant focus on the back muscles.

To put all of this into practice, aim to perform these movements three times a week before starting the CrossFit class. Warm up properly and then perform either three sets of 10 repetitions or three sets of maximum holds. When doing ring rows, you could also do three sets of max ring rows. Allow yourself no more than 2 minutes of rest between sets.

If you have one strict pull-up but want to focus on getting more, there is a very simple program you could try. Every time you come to the gym, do four sets of max strict pull-ups. Keep track of how many total reps you get, then the next time you do it, try to get at least one more. Do this every time, aim for a minimum of 3 times per week for 6 weeks and let us know how it goes.