5 Pull-up Variations Every Beginner Should Master
Since 2001 I have made my living training people and the two most popular goals for trainees during all these years, has been either to lose a few pounds or to be get better at doing pull-ups or pull-up variations.
Why the pull-up I am not exactly sure, whether it is simply a goal that seems achievable with a little bit of work or to get a little nostalgic about being back in a PE class performing the President’s Test or climbing that rope in the gym; the goal is there and it’s pretty popular.
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It is hard to find the exact averages for the number of pull-ups a person in specific age ranges should be able to do with most of the current data coming from military testing.
From my research I did not find any averages for any groups near 10 repetitions and, in some cases, the number is below five repetitions.
Even for the entry level military Special Forces standards I did not see a number higher than 6 repetitions. I did find that for the Army Rangers 12+ repetitions was recommended.
If you are reading this article you are probably looking for pull-up variations to help increase your pull-up potential and if you are reading Awake and Alive, chances are, you are not the average trainee nor do you strive to be. You are a cut above and want to be that way.
“If you read Awake and Alive, chances are, you are not an average trainee.”
In this article and video I highlight some of my favorite pull-up variations that can work for complete beginners or for those who can muster a few reps but want to get more.
I will progress the movements from the most remedial exercise, used to build a solid foundation, to the more advanced to help you increase your repetitions.
One thing to consider: pull-ups are the epitome of use it or lose it exercises and unlike others, once you lose it, it is very difficult to get back.
If you think you can do them once a month and make progress forget about it. From my experience, some pull-up variations should be in your programming weekly for maximal success.
#1: Band Pull Downs
Before you pull down towards your chest, make sure to set your shoulder blades down towards your back pockets which will lift your chest and stabilize your shoulder girdle.
This is the starting position for pull-up success and injury prevention. If you elevate your shoulders during a pull-up you are basically turning off the functionality of the back muscles requiring your arms to take over the movement.
The back muscles are much more equipped to perform the movement successfully if you just set them to activate properly.
After you are set; pull the band apart and downward towards your chest mimicking the pull-up motion. Do not let the band fly back up. Control the band back to the starting position while maintaining the correct shoulder girdle set up.
#2: Bar Inverted Row
The Bar Inverted Row, an exercise with many names, is also referred to as an Australian Pull-Up.
This is one of my favorite exercises for pull-up success because you can involve all the correct muscles while moving your whole bodyweight through the range of motion.
These inverted rows also allow for progressive success because you can adjust the angle you are moving at to make the movement harder or easier. If you are beginning this movement, have the bar a bit higher and as you get stronger move it down.
The limiting factor with the Bar Inverted Row is that it trains more of a horizontal pull rather than a vertical pull. Unlike the pull-up trajectory; the back muscles are generally much stronger pulling horizontally so direct carry over between the two is not perfect.
I recommend building up your repetitions with the Bar Inverted Row to train you grip and back muscle endurance to get stronger for your pull-ups.
Start with your hands on the bar with an even grip, keep the shoulders down and moderately retracted with your head neutral with the rest of the spine.
Proper execution comes from moving the body as one unit, focusing on the muscles of the back (i.e., Lats, Rhomboids, etc.) to initiate and move the body during the pull. Y
ou want to feel the shoulder blades moving freely and gliding along your rib cage until they meet in the middle of your back. Control the eccentric (downward motion) and always try to achieve full range of motion (ROM).
Grip is a huge factor when it comes to pull-up success. Make sure to squeeze the bar tight when you are working through the ROM and you can slightly relax the grip momentarily in between repetitions.
#3: Band Assisted Pull-Ups
To do successful pull-ups you must actually do pull-ups, so getting in that vertical plane of movement is essential. If you can’t do a pull-up yet or you are struggling to get that next repetition, there is a way to train this movement with assistance.
Using a band for assistance is a good way to train the vertical motion of the pull-up and to progress towards more repetitions. Bands come in various sizes each having their own assistance/resistance level; the bigger the band the more help you will get.
Set up the band in the middle of the pull-up bar; ideally splitting your body right down the middle. Depending on the tension of the band and how much assistance you need you can place the band on your foot (more assistance) or on your knee.
If you train solo it will be easier to set up the band around your knee especially if it is a larger one.
Keep your form strict and work up to a desired number of repetitions and gradually work your way towards using smaller bands that offer less assistance until you are performing bodyweight pull-ups with ease.
#4: Jump Assisted Pull-Ups
After a while you must take the training wheels off the bike and go for it. You might be close to full pull-ups with the band off, but you still need a wee-bit-of-help getting those extra repetitions to build your strength.
Get a small box and give yourself some upward assistance with a hop followed by a pull to the top. Control your body down, building your strength eccentrically, and repeat.
How much hop is up to you. If you are getting tired and want to get a few more reps, hop a bit more. Want to be a little more strict hope less or push off slightly with only one foot.
#5: Ring Pull-Ups
The final phase for pull-up success will find you off the bar and on the rings. For many, the rings will prove to be more manageable for pull-up success versus the bar because you can rotate the rings to create torque to assist your upward ascent.
Start with your basic shoulder girdle set up with your palms facing away.
As you begin your upward pull, rotate your palms towards each other which will generate some torque to further assist you to the top. On the way down slowly reverse the order and repeat.
Pull-ups are achievable with the right exercise progressions and dedication to the movement. Now go get them done.
For further explanation of the progressions above check out the video below.
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