"Real" Pull-up Strength
What muscles are you using?
The pull up is a constant exercise implemented into class and other training programs. If done correctly, It is a great exercise to build upper back strength and size especially in the rhomboids and Lats. With kipping pull ups and chest to bar pull ups being a debacle of real pull ups, it is common for lifters to abandon the focus of stimulating muscles in the name of getting more reps in. This is only a temporary solution to complete reps in a given workout. Even though you may be going through a complete range of motion, it doesn’t mean you are using proper form. Now I know most of you dabble in crossfit and will not be able to avoid these convenient pull up variations (butterfly, kipping, chest to bar) especially in competition, but when you are able to perform strict pull ups in your training for strength supplementation it is important you know how to stimulate the right muscles for optimal gains.
Just because you can do a lot of pull ups or add weight to your pull up doesn’t necessarily mean you are good or strong at them. Real pull ups start at the shoulders, not the elbows. A pull-up's target muscle groups are those of the mid and upper back. The lats are a major contributor when done correctly. Of course, the biceps and other synergistic back muscles will help out, but let's focus on the prime movers here. In order to engage them, the elbows can't be the first joint to move when executing the movement. In fact, the shoulders need to be depressed by way of initiating the lift through scapular movement. Having this control of the scapulae engages the back muscles and sets up the rest of the lift to be back dominant, instead of a pull that simply pumps up your arms.
The pull up is probably the easiest exercise to lose form when doing them. Look, you may be strong, but your back probably isn’t. Even if you know how to initiate the movement with the form stated above, it is another thing to maintain that position throughout the lift. Most people can’t do it. How can you tell? If you feel sore mostly on the outsides of your shoulder blades (high on the back) the day after doing a good pull-up workout, chances are you didn't tap into the real lat bellies down lower on the back. Being able to knock out multiple sets of 15 pull-ups is great, but actually using the lats to do it is a different beast. Instead of using everything and anything to pull your chin over the bar, try using your lats exclusively. You may be surprised at what happens to your rep total in a given set.
Doing negatives and pause pull ups are a great approach to facilitate strength and hypertrophy. Negatives focus on the eccentric contraction of the lats and can really embed proper form from the top-down. Instead of struggling to do full range weighted pull ups, weighted negative pull ups are a better alternative that won’t exacerbate form. Again it is important when doing negatives that you retract your shoulder blades, pinching your scapulae together and think about separating your neck from your shoulders (not shrugging up). This will ensure you are targeting the correct muscles. Pausing at both full extension (at the bottom) and at full contraction (at the top) is a good way to challenge the contractile strength of the lats. By taking away the stretch reflex and killing your momentum, a huge response from your lats will humble you and give the perception of much more weight being lifted.
Other pull up variations used in crossfit have their place... in the crossfit arena. In order to maximize your crossfit performance, you need skill and strength. The pull up is a strength exercise. The butterfly pull up is a strength-skill exercise. Without the proper strength, you will not be able to efficiently use your skill. With that said, there is no reason for you to be focusing on doing butterfly or kipping pullups for your primary pull up variation if you can’t do a set of proper pull ups consistently. In order to expedite your gains in the crossfit arena, focus on stimulating the muscles primarily used to perform the movement instead of the exercise stimulated by your movement.(Now read that again). So now with that said I wish you Happy Pulling season!!
About the Author
As a multi-sport athlete growing up, Miguel committed to football when college coaches began recruiting him in high school. His time as a collegiate and professional football player not only enhanced his passion for the sport but his interest in athletic development. Coaching strength and conditioning was a natural career transition. Miguel spent two years as an intern and assistant strength coach with the University of Florida strength and conditioning department and now uses his extensive knowledge to help others reach their fitness goals. He specializes in Olympic weightlifting and sport specific training.