Pull-up mastery: The strict pull-up is one of the best exercises for anyone attempting to build upper-body strength. This compound move works the back muscles, abs, and biceps simultaneously, and so improves overall fitness.
Sound good? You bet, but there’s a downside: strict pull-ups may be hard as hell for you, particularly if you’re only starting to incorporate them into your regular workouts. It’s not enough to get your chin up and over that bar; you need to do that without swinging forward to give yourself upward momentum, instead keeping your ribs down and fully engaging your core.
The discipline needed to perfect this move is why many people cold-shoulder it in their workouts. But truth be told, you’re not going to get far on a Spartan race course without building some good upper-body strength. And if you want to know whether you’ll get to the finish line, then pull-ups are a telling indicator of whether your fitness is up to the task.
But what do you do to get strict pull-ups down pat? Luckily for you, Brad McLeod, best-selling author, former Navy SEAL, and founder of the online intense physical training resource SEALGrinderPT, has some premium tips on how to go from zero to hero while mastering this all-important move. (Read about McLeod's resilient path to earning his Navy SEAL Trident here).
Pull-Up Mastery Tip #1: Start Where You’re At
The best way to crush your first pull-up? Don’t focus on that pull-up. Instead, suggests Brad, focus on strengthening the muscles you’ll use during the exercise, and get those muscles used to pulling up your body weight. Here are some exercises that will help.
- Stand on a box, holding the bar with a wide overhand grip.
- Put your chin or chest up above the bar and then slowly lower yourself down to the ground.
- Get up on the box and start again.
“Keeping a little bit of resistance in your arms as you lower yourself allows the biceps and lat muscles get used to your body weight being pulled down in a negative position,” Brad notes.
- Using a bar two to three feet from the ground, lie under it, face up, with your body forming a straight line from your heels to the back of your head.
- Grip the bar (overhand) with your hands positioned a little wider you’re your shoulders.
- Pull your chest up to the bar.
“You can adjust your feet however you want,” suggests Brad. “Or use a block to keep them from slipping. But however you modify the position, always keep your core tight.”
Pull-Up Mastery Tip #2: Grip Like You Mean It
“The stronger your hands are,” says Brad, “the stronger your ability to do the pull-up. If your hands are as weak as noodles, having super-strong lats is not going to help you out.” With that in mind, Brad suggests these simple exercises to help you build a firm squeeze on that pull-up bar.
Farmer’s Carries with Stones
“Stones are great because the wider they are, the more they force you to open up your hands,” says Brad. “They put you in a position where you’re not holding them comfortably so you have to grip them hard. Doing this exercise is going to make your hands tough and that much stronger for the pull-up.”
- Hold a large rock or stone on each side of your body.
- Keep your shoulders back and stand tall.
- Grip the stones tightly and walk or trot forward.
“Hanging from the bar is a simple exercise that can really help your grip. You can do this with your own body weight, or you can add weight to it,” says Brad.
- Grip a pull-up bar and just hang.
- Keep your chest up and shoulder blades down to engage your back muscles.
- Hold this for approximately 30 seconds, drop to the floor, and repeat.
Pull-Up Mastery Tip #3: Mix It Up
Fun fact: you don’t have to have a pull-up bar to learn or improve strict pull-ups. “You can row with a barbell, kettlebell, dumbbell, or sandbag,” says Brad, “as the row is a similar motion to the pull-up, and so works similar muscles.”
- With your knees bent, hold the handles on either side of the sandbag.
- Bend over at the waist, with your hands holding the sandbag and your arms hanging downward.
- Pull the sandbag up to your chest and then slowly lower it again.
- Do not round your back during this lift and maintaining a tight core throughout.
And when you are on the bar, don’t limit yourself to strict pull-ups all the time. “The more you use a variety of pull-ups, the better you’ll get at regular ones,” says Brad. “So do chin-ups, narrow pull-ups, everything. By working your muscles differently, you avoid plateauing and limiting your chance of improvement.”
Pull-Up Mastery Tip #4: Improve Your Pull-Up Max
Once you’re able to do pull-ups as part of a regular workout, you may want to pump out more reps each time you train. According to Brad, adding weight to your pull-up is particularly beneficial to those who want to increase their overall pull-up maximum.
Wearing a weighted vest, belt, or even a backpack filled with books or heavy water bottles will work. Whichever you choose, adding weight will help you increase your strength and develop your back muscles and pulling capacity. But, warns Brad, don’t try this unless you’ve already mastered the regular pull-up and can do up to 20 reps without much fuss.
Additionally, make sure your form is great—the ability to do a strict pull-up well becomes all the more important in terms of avoiding injury when you’re pulling yourself up with extra pounds on your back.