RIDING THE PULL-UP WAVE
The pull-up is possibly the king of bodyweight exercises. It encourages a healthy strength to bodyweight ratio, builds strong abs, lats and a mean grip. Most people think of the pull-up as an exercise in upper body strength, but when it comes to conquering a pull-up or adding more reps strong abs and timing of the breath are essential.
THE PULL-UP DEFINED
First, let’s be clear on what a pull-up is:
A pull-up begins with you hanging motionless from the bar in an overhand grip, with arms extended and your feet off of the ground.
From this motionless dead-hang, you will pull yourself up without swinging or kicking until your throat or chest touches the bar.
Consecutive pull-ups require you to lower yourself under control and start each rep anew from a motionless dead hang.
No kicking, swinging or kipping is allowed. Ever.
THE STICKING POINTS OF THE PULL-UP
During any lift there comes a point in the movement where you experience poor leverage or a transition between muscle groups that can cause your lift to slow down or grind to a halt.
Here are the three most common sticking points I’ve found in the pull-up.
- The start: Overcoming the inertia of the dead-hang.
- The Mid-Point: the point where your elbows approach shoulder level
- 3/4 The Way Up: The point where the bar approaches eye level.
As with any lift there are a lot of little tricks of the trade to develop the strength to pull or push your way out of your sticking point such as partial reps, isometric holds and so on. But another way is to learn to shift gear and accelerate before you get stuck. I’ve found that hardstyle abdominal training and power breathing as taught in the StrongFirst School of Strength are two great ways to cruise through these sticking points.
To improve your pull-ups you’ll need stronger abs. You don’t need a visible six pack, but you will need a strong midsection. This can be accomplished through a variety of methods, but before your start cranking out worthless traditional crunches putting your spine into flexion I strongly recommend the methods found in Hardstyle Abs and the StrongFirst Bodyweight Instructor Course. The methods are vastly superior to traditional sit-ups and safer. With a qualified instructor these methods can produce dramatic results in a single session and life-changing results after 8-12 weeks. After learning these methods you’ll find ways to strengthen your abs anywhere with little to no equipment in a manner that will actually strengthen and protect your back instead of injuring it through commonly practiced methods.
During a pull-up strong abs can be used to knit the entire body into a solid and more manageable piece to be controlled in space.
This becomes evident with the following mental experiment: Imagine pulling a friend up over a wall who is holding still then another friend who is flailing about. The one who is holding still makes your job easier by allowing you to direct all of your effort into pulling, while a friend who flails about causes you to expend extra energy toward steadying or steering him as you pull.
The ability to both strongly and quickly contract and relax your abs means you relax at the proper time during a pull-up and quickly tighten in time to cruise through a sticking point.
Note: “Hardstyle Abs” is the title of a fantastic book on abdominal training by Pavel Tsatsouline. ALL of the abs drills I use and teach are derived from his methods contained in the “Hardstyle Abs” as well as what I’ve learned from attending his courses and bodyweight strength instructor certifications. I recommend them because they are 1) Safe, 2) Simple and 3) Devestatingly Effective. One of the principles behind hardstyle ab training is learn to generate MORE tension with your abs and to do so faster. This ability to quickly contract your abs AND contract them harder is the equivalent of putting in a powerful engine so your car.
Athletes such a powerlifters, martial artists, boxers and volley ball players understand that breath control is the key to producing power, or relaxation. A long sigh can relax, while a short intense grunt produces maximal strength. Listen to a pro tennis player hit a ball with power and you’ll notice a sharp and loud exhalation similar to a grunt to produce power followed by longer drawn out sigh to promote quick relaxation. To learn power breathing, I recommend visiting a StrongFirst certified Instructor, preferably one who is certified as bodyweight instructor as well.
RIDING THE WAVE
One way to get better at pull-ups is to coordinate your abdominal contraction around your breathing.
Initiate the pull-up with a grunt, pushing the diaphragm down and zipping up the abs with the intention of shortening the distance between your sternum and belly button. If done properly, you will feel like you are braced for a punch to the midsection. By strongly and quickly contracting your abs in this manner while hanging from a pull-up bar your feet will pull up quickly and start a shockwave that travels upward within the body. When you can do this strongly it’s like getting a small push from below to start your pull-up.
Practice this combination by hanging, then tightening/grunting as you give an initial pull, do this repeatedly for several reps.
Notice sensation it creates as well how far it gets you into the pull-up. Also, take note of how quickly the tension from the initial explosive grunt dissipates. This is the initial “wave”. It will only get you so far, to your first sticking point to be exact, but it’s a great start.
Now that you have practiced this explosive take-off it’s time to learn to quickly change gears and keep accelerating.
Just before you hit your first sticking point where the upper arms are approaching parallel to the floor tighten up your abs and glutes again with a sharp powerful hiss and pull. This second contraction of the midsection momentarily increases the tension in your midsection and surrounding muscles to facilitate a stronger pull. The key is to time it perfectly so that you get tight-ER just before you hit the sticking point and you continue accelerating. When done properly you’ll practically glide right through your first sticking point. The next sticking point occurs just before you are about to clear the bar. By adding another strong contraction / sharp hiss just before this sticking point you improve your chances of cruising past it as well.
So the pull-up is initiated with a grunt, then quickly followed by a short hiss and increased tension when necessary before a sticking point.
NOTE: It’s important to point out that in both types of breathing an audible grunt and hiss are not the goal of the power breathing but the result of an incredibly forceful abdominal contraction. Simply making noise misses the point and will not give you the desired result. The grunt is the result of the initial contraction and the hiss is the result of breathing out while tightening the midsection further.
Like anything that requires timing, this skill will require practice.
To practice and get this down you will need a partner to help you through the sticking points at first. Your partner will place their hand on the center of your back. When you get stuck, your partner’s job is to give you just enough assistance to keep moving and finish the rep.The speed of the assisted rep should be as close as possible to the speed you intend to do an unassisted rep. As you practice your partner should give you feedback and communicate to you when he or she feels you are improving and requiring less assistance. Eventually your partner will need to push less and less or not at all.
Give this a shot and let me know how it helps your pull-up training.