Small Pieces to Larger Parts of the Pull-up

Blog 34 – Small Pieces to Larger Parts of the Pull-up

The pull-up seems to be the movement most often idolized at the gym, and subsequently the one that we’ve lost access to. You might be saying well “what about THIS?” or “what about THAT?!” I will certainly grant you that we’ve been limited with other movements to varying degrees, but not in the same way as that elusive pull-up. 

Generally, we focus, separate, and rotate our work by larger compound movements that are grouped by upper and lower body and by push and pull movement patterns (This is probably too simple). What this means is that we’ve chosen to center programming around four basic movements – squat, hinge/deadlift, press, and pull-up. With each of the first three, it is relatively simple to reproduce without any special equipment. We can literally squat, hinge, and press with whatever device we are reading this blog on, or just using the ground and your bodyweight. Done long enough or with enough intention, we’ll get a certain stimulus that at the very least allows us to feel like we are working those targeted patterns. 

The pull-up, though, is quite different. It requires a fixed position or specific equipment – like a bar, stable and sturdy enough to withstand the forces of us hanging and pulling down on a bar. There are not many places that meet these requirements. Trees, decks, park fixtures (Columbia Park) are all great options, but also don’t often exist where we’ve chosen to workout – our living rooms, most open spaces, the front landing at PDX Strength – nor do they allow for modifications if strict pull-ups are not yet within our capacity. All of this makes the pull-up even more elusive. 

What can we do without access to a bar/rig? Being a compound movement, we break the compound movement in to its parts, and focus on accessory work. I know that accessory work is not the same as doing a pull-up. But if we consider that all compound movements are chains within the body, and a chain is only as strong as it’s weakest link, then we start to understand how we are improving the pull-up “chain” by focusing on each of its links. 

The basic links (or joints) of a pull-up are the hands/wrists, elbow, and shoulders/scapulae; involving basically every muscle group, tendon, and ligament from fingertips to our mid back. The muscles that we most commonly consider “pulling” muscles are the biceps, traps, and lats, but commonly neglect our hands and forearms and don’t often consider how much opposing muscles like the triceps, deltoids, and pecs factor in to our ability to stabilize a pulling motion.

To strengthen these links we’re looking at picking 2 or 3 the following type of exercises about 2x/week in sets 10-15:

  • Wrist curls and extensions 
  • Any curl variation; especially the Hammer curl
  • Upright rows
  • Lateral/ front shoulder raise
  • Back/ chest flies
  • Shoulder/bench press
  • Triceps extensions
  • Shrugs
  • Pullovers
  • And all the like bodybuilding exercises

None of the above requires much in the way of specialty equipment other than some type of weight or resistance band. Taking this information we can start to deconstruct our own pull-up to better understand where our imbalances lie and strengthen the links if the chain rather than trying to make the pull-up stronger all at once. You might be surprised how big of a difference how something we haven’t focused on, like wrist/grip strength, plays into the efficiency of your pull. – D 

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