Regressing the Pull-up

Many fear the pull-up bar.

And I don’t blame you if you do. Pull-ups are hard. Several NHL first round draft picks haven’t been able to do a single pull-up at the NHL combine, so at least you’re in good company. But that’s no excuse to not seek improvement. Pull-ups are an undeniably effective upper-body movement, right up there with push-ups. And, there are many way to regress pull-ups. Here are the regressions I use with athletes and clients. This is not an exhaustive list. These are the methods that I’ve found through training various demographics to be the safest and most effective.

Option #1: Put a knee or foot in a giant rubber band – Banded Pull-ups

The tension in the rubber band deloads the pull-up movement by helping you pull up your weight. Placing the band on your knee will help less than on your foot, because the band will not be stretched out as much, and therefore not have as much tension. The bands are great, but they do offer a few downsides. First of all, they’re a pain to put on your foot. Needing to run over to the pull-up bar during class to put someone’s foot in the band has become increasingly annoying. Teaching how to safely put the bands on has practically become an exercise in and of itself.

Also, younger kids often physically don’t weigh enough to be able to lower all the way to the bottom with the band. So, they basically end up flying up and down the pull-up bar with the band at risk of taking their feet out from under them. Probably not the safest spot to be. However, if we can find a sweet spot and get the kids doing the pull-up motion, then I like the bands, and so do the kids. For whatever reason, middle school boys love the giant rubber bands.

I use the bands more with those who particularly struggle initiating pull-ups from a dead hang. When using the band, it has maximum tension when when the person is fully stretched at the bottom. In this part of the movement, the band is helping to bring you up more than at any other point. At the top, the band has less tension, so it won’t be helping as much. The band has its place, but as time passes I find myself using them less and less and instead opting for bench-assisted pull-ups.

Option #2: Use one leg to help with the pull-up – Bench Assisted Pull-ups

Place a bench high enough underneath the pull-up rack so that the person is at a 90 degree hip and knee bend with the arms fully extended. Then, as you pull up, use your leg as if you were doing a split squat as much or a little as you need. I love this variation, and prefer it to using bands for a few reasons. First off, just about everyone can do it. Using the strength of you leg, you’re basically doing a split squat and a pull-up combined. It requires no additional set-up and monkeying around with the band. What’s also great about this variation is that in a split second you can make it easier by pushing your foot against the bench more, or make it harder by using your foot less. This ability to instantly progress or regress the movement can not be overstated for its practical benefit. These also work better for middle schoolers and adults with a pull-up phobia because the foot contact allows athletes to feel more in control as compared to the bands. Also, no danger of 6th graders flying around suspended by a band. Huge plus. The downside, for the kids at least, is that it’s less exciting. Sometimes you have to throw the middle schoolers a bone. That just requires more supervision and care on my part.

Option #3: Do eccentric pull-ups

In any exercise, the eccentric or lowering phase is easier than the concentric phase. Think about a bench press. Lowering the bar to your chest is not nearly as difficult as raising it back up. So, even if strict pull-ups are difficult the eccentric may be possible for higher reps. To do this, the athlete jumps up from the floor into the top of a pull-up, then they lower themselves down slowly. We usually aim for around four seconds on this lowering portion. This option is most applicable to athletes who can do a few pull-ups, but not a full set. So, if an athlete can do four pull-ups, then they’ll do four pull-ups. We’ll immediately follow that up with six eccentric pull-ups to continue the set.

Option #4: Include isometric holds

Often, what holds someone back from doing a lot of pull-ups, is one particular part of the movement. Usually, either the very top, or the very bottom. This is because the main movers are maximally shortened and lengthened at the top and bottom respectively, where the muscles are weakest. That’s when we include exercises liked the flexed arm hang (holding at the top), and the dead hang (holding at the bottom) to focus on grip strength and activating the lats from the bottom. We also use banded pull-ups to work on engaging from the fully lengthened position because of the band tension at the bottom. In a one-on-one setting, we’re much more specific about where the sticking point is, and what the best course of action to improve it is. In a class, we’ll do all kinds of isometric pull-up variations over the course of a few weeks to ensure that we check all of the boxes. Isometric hold competitions in classes are also a ton of fun. “Everybody jump up, last one still hanging wins,” always brings out the best in athletes. Check out me getting beat by a sixth grade girl here.

This is a lot of variation, and they all have their place. If you can’t do pull-ups right now, here’s a very simple program you can follow. If you have a pull-up bar in your house, this is something you can do almost every day without any other equipment except a stool or a chair. Start with bench-assisted pull-ups. Do four sets (two each leg) of 10 reps with about 90 seconds rest in between sets. Over time, try to use your leg less and less and eventually not at all. That’s your first pull-up! Now, for your four sets, you’ll do as many strict pull-ups as you can, and then do eccentric pull-ups with a four second lowering phase until you get to ten total. At first, this will be one strict, and nine eccentric. Eventually, you’ll be able to do ten strict pull-ups.

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