Monday, February 23, 2009

Pullup Training: Become a Pullup Enthusiast

At dinner this weekend, a friend of mine mentioned that he's trying to increase his pullup count. I told him I'd email him information on a couple programs with which I am familiar. As I thought about what I'd include in my email, I realized I have enough knowledge about pullups to warrant a blog post.

First off, a disclaimer. A fair characterization of me is "pullup enthusiast" rather than "pullup professional". Ever since I had any interest in physical fitness, I've always wanted to do more pullups. But it wasn't until a year or so ago when I discovered CrossFit that I really got serious about training my pullups. Anyone who knows about CrossFit knows about its emphasis on bodyweight exercises, and pullups appear in a lot of workouts. So while my pullup numbers have improved in the last year or two, my numbers still won't impress too many people. Furthermore, there are myriad pullup resources on the Internet; the CrossFit site alone has just about all the information you need.

Nonetheless, I thought I'd add one more article on pullups to the Interweb, to share what I've learned over the last couple years, and hopefully provide a starting point for others.

The first thing to note is that the pullup has many variations:
  • Perhaps the most common form is the dead hang or static pullup. This is where you hang from a bar, feet not touching the ground, and using only the muscles in your arms and back to pull your body up to where your chin clears the bar. Some people call this a chinup; my understanding is that a pullup is when you perform this movement with your palms facing away from you; chinup is when your palms are oriented towards you. My informal conclusion is that people generally find the chinup slightly easier.
  • A "pullup" in the CrossFit context implies the kipping pullup. A lot of people call these "cheating" pullups. The goal is in fact to make the movement faster, and engage more muscles than just your arms and back; the goal is power generation. In short, the idea is to use your hips (not so much legs) to generate momentum, then quickly pull yourself towards the bar. It is a complicated movement that took me a long time to understand and execute correctly. Go here and search for "kipping" to see instructional videos on this fantastic exercise.
  • Jumping pullups are a great variation for beginners. Fortunately, they have a self-explanatory name: start with your feet on the ground, jump up, grab the bar, and pull until your chin is over the bar. The idea is that you will generate upward momentum from your legs, which are obviously stronger than your arms. Assuming your legs help you enough to clear the bar, you can then work the "negative" of the exercise (lowering yourself) using only your arms.
  • Weighted pullups. Also self-explanatory: add weight to your body when doing pullups. There exist belt-like chain devices that facilitate adding weight to your body; there are weighted vests; my low-tech solution is to just hold dumbbells between my ankles with my feet.
  • Assisted pullups: these are the opposite of weighted pullups: through some means, you effectively make your body weigh less, reducing the amount of effort required to pull yourself up. Many gyms have a machine specifically designed for this: you basically stand or rest your needs on a platform as you do pullups. The platform is reverse weighted---it pushes up on your body (just like a human spotter). You can also buy what are basically large rubber bands that have the same effect (i.e. the band supports some of your weight).
Of course that list is by no means complete! There are other variations, including flying, butterfly, one-armed, towel, ring, and so many more... but the above make up the the "pullup foundation", vital for beginners, but equally important for intermediate to advanced trainers.

There are two popular pullup programs that I've discovered on the Web: Recon Ron and Armstrong. The Armstrong Pullup Program has you doing a different pullup "workout" each day of the week. The emphasis is on daily variation. The Recon Ron Pullup Program is what is often referred to as a "grease the groove" program: constant repetition at about 70% of your maximum effort. It's easy enough to find these programs via web search, but for convenience, here are some redundant links:


Recon Ron:

A lot of people will say, "I can't even do one pullup, how can I even start these programs?" Use the variations described above, particularly jumping and/or assisted pullups. Another starting point is to simply hang from the bar---yes, I mean hang, with your arms extended. If you cannot even perform one unassisted pullup, then hanging will in itself be a workout: it takes a lot of grip strength; it will also stretch and strengthen a lot of muscles you probably didn't even know existed. Hang from the bar as long as you can, until you basically fall off from muscle fatigue. Rest a couple minutes, then do it again. Do five sets of this every day for a week. Be sure to record your hang times.

Once you are comfortable with your hang (or get bored---simply hanging is extremely monotonous), try again with the jumping pullup. The jumping pullup is really a two-for-one exercise: not only will you build strength in your "pullup muscles" (primarily the back and arms), but you'll work your legs. As an added bonus, if you try to do as many jumping pullups as you can in a short amount of time, you'll also get in a cardiovascular workout (or what CrossFit calls metabolic conditioning).

Both the Armstrong and Recon Ron pullup programs are aimed at doing strict form/dead hang pullups. But there's no reason why you can't do the program(s) with jumping pullups or assisted pullups.

Ultimately, like everything in life, if you want to improve something you have to work at it. If you want to be stronger at pullups, train on pullups. For me, becoming a pullup enthusiast helped me improve the most. That is, learning more about pullups, variations and programs. It's boring to do the same number of sets/reps of dead hang pullups day in, day out. But it becomes less so if you vary the kind of pullups you do: jumping, assisted, kipping, dead-hang; throw in a weighted set when you're feeling particularly strong or have met some goal. Even if you can only do, for example, assisted or jumping pullups, the approach or workout can be varied sufficiently to fight monotony. The Armstrong program is especially helpful in this regard: each day is a different approach: max effort, ladder, working sets, etc. The simple pullup can become an almost entirely different exercise when you start playing with the time between sets, the number of reps per set, etc.

Hopefully this article will serve as a starting point for all the other budding pullup enthusiasts out there.