Are You Ready For Your First Pull Up

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The ability to perform a pull up isn't simply a feat of strength but a byproduct of a structured balanced training program. Before we go on any further lets be specific on what a strict pull up is:

  • From a dead hang
  • Arms are full extended at the start
  • Chest/sternum to the bar
  • Minimal swinging

Where To Begin

Can you get your arms in the right position to perform any sort of vertical pulling motion? I would begin here against the wall in a back to wall shoulder flexion screen

  1. Begin with your back from head to tailbone against the wall.
  2. Flatten out your lower back (slight posterior pelvic tilt)
  3. Lift your arms straight out in front of you towards the wall

You pass if you can reach the wall comfortably without losing contact of the wall.

This screen shows us a few things:

  • Good core positioning
  • Adequate shoulder mobility to an overhead position
    • Limited external rotation (Including short pecs, lats, and subscapularis)
    • Lack of upward scapular motion (including weak lower trapezius and serratus anterior along with synergistic dominance of the levator scapula, rhomboids, and pec minor)
  • Poor thoracic spine extension
  • Lack of anterior core stiffness

This is important because if you can't get your arms overhead at rest what makes you think you'll be able to under full bodyweight load hanging off of a bar?

If you didn't pass, I would address the soft tissue restrictions listed above and improve mobilization in the thoracic spine and improving upward scapular motion.

Here are a few video to help you get started with that.

Related: Thoracic Spine and Breathing

If you passed congrats you can physically get into an overhead position safely, but now where do you go from there?

That Pull-Up Machine

Yeah stay away from the counterbalance machine that most commercial gyms have. My main beef with the machine is the lack of stability required to perform this version (hint: it's zero). I've seen it many times, a lifter works their way down to the lightest setting, only to barely be able to get anywhere close to an actual pull up. But why?

The main cause is poor tension throughout the body along during the movement. You spent so much time building strength in a stable position, a free standing pull up is anything but. I would say it's akin to push ups from your knees, you may get the big muscles strong but you aren't stable enough to express your strength.

Which is why I start all my clients with...

Inverted Rows

The inverted row allows you to learn how to properly engage the right muscles while having to actually stabilize your bodyweight. Most every gym has at least one of these TRX straps  hanging in their facility so just about anybody can do these. 

The ability for an individual to get good scapular motion, pull and engage their lats, traps and rhomboids is key to being able to have that carry over to performing a pull up. This move should be the main bodyweight motion until you're able to perform them with your feet elevated.

Really any row variation is great at teaching engagement of the proper muscle, a favorite of mine is the chest supported variety which keeps you honest from momentum. A chest supported T-Bar works well too. 

Negative & Isometric Pull Ups

After some time working on strengthening the proper muscles, I would then begin both negative only motions and isometric holds.

This is an intelligent way to overload the motion because as the muscle lengthens under tension, it is able to produce greater force. Unlike the concentric (think pulling yourself up) the joint is pulled in the direction of that contraction whereas the eccentric (lowering) contraction the muscle slows down the joint at the end of a movement. 

In plain english: Your body is significantly stronger from an eccentric stand point versus a concentric only. 

I would have the client jump up, sternum to the bar and contract the lats, stick the shoulder blades into their back pockets and slowly lower themselves back down to the box. The most important aspect is control. If you can't come down at a 3-5 sec count, then I would go back to inverted rows until you are able to. 

Band Assist Pull Ups

From there I would also incorporate the band assist version. This would be done in conjunction with the isometrics and negatives only. The only problem is not everyone has access to these bands but they are very useful (also they can be a little pricey for a full set of bands).

And then it's simply a matter of patience. Put in the work and soon you'll be knocking out pull ups like a champion. There are many other variations I use with clients but this is at it's simplest the most straightforward progression that most individuals can follow. 

You Get What You Pay For

"I'm sick, can you please direct me to the cheapest doctor that will do the job?"

"My car is making a weird noise, can you recommend the least expensive mechanic?"

"My roof is leaking, will you please call the cheapest repair man?"

"I need a personal trainer, do you know anyone cheaper than the guy at the gym?"

Of the four statements I bet most people would say that number four is the one they would likely think or say. Why is that? 

Standards in Fitness

It's a catch 22--you don't know what to do and you want to hire someone. The problem is that a $30 per hour trainer may not know how to work around your specific injuries, compensations and/or lifestyle so they may in fact do more harm than good. But no one bats an eye after you get hurt because they say it's part of the process. No pain no gain, right? (No, it's not.)

Do you have to seek out the most expensive trainer around? No, and in fact there are fantastic coaches available at all price points if you look hard enough. The problem isn't the consumer being educated but the industry as a whole. Whether you hire a commercial gym trainer or an independent seasoned vet, you should be able to get results and be better off having hired said coach, not worse. Unfortunately this isn't the case across the board.

Why Do Some Trainers Cost $100+ per hour?

Why do some trainers command over $100-150 per hour if all should be qualified enough to help you out with any straight forward goals, like adding on muscle or losing 15 pounds?

It comes down to specialization and likelihood of remaining safe. Price often acts as a filter for quality, though not always the case. 

Lets use a doctor's analogy: If you have a cold, you would likely visit to a general practice physician. But if you have a broken leg and needed surgery, you'd likely go to an orthopedic doctor and surgeon. It makes sense that the person who specializes in that specific area of medicine would be the person to cut you open, not the general practice doctor. But both are doctors! Yes, but one has a bit more knowledge about the matter at hand. And since a surgery is a much more dangerous and intricate procedure, I'm willing to bet they will cost more. 

So can the $30 per hour trainer help your daughter with her ACL post-physical therapy outpatient rehab? Maybe, but I bet that $200 per hour trainer who has testimonials of similar cases and the background to aid her can. Yes, it's a lot more money, but if you want the job done right, you hire once and you hire right. For me, I'd rather spend three months with a more knowledgable, more expensive trainer than 8 months with a less expensive, less knowledgable one if it means I'll get the best results possible. In this scenario I'm also willing to bet you'll remain safer with the $200 per hour coach.

Too often the fitness industry writes articles about how the consumer needs to become more educated, pushing the onus on them. While I don't disagree that a more educated customer is beneficial, I also feel that the industry as a whole needs to take more accountability on raising their own standards of practice.  Only then will telling people you're a "personal trainer" actually mean something more than just a guy who counts reps and grabs you a towel. 

Social Media: Where Pros Give Unsolicited "Advice"

It's late one night and you're scrolling through a social media feed on your phone and come across some friends working out. Like most individuals you might give them a like or comment about how that's awesome or congratulating them on a new accomplishment in the gym.

You go to the comments and see:

"Not hitting depth, smh"
"I'd be careful, your back shouldn't be like that"
"Shoot your hips back more and focus on arching"
"Leg drive! Arch! You'll push more once you learn to do that"

The "Fit Pro" Commenth

You click on the profile of the individual who left one of these types of comments and discover they're trainers and coaches who've decided they know best on how EVERYBODY should train.

Now I'm not talking about the fitness enthusiast who fancies themselves an uncertified trainer because they have a six pack or competed in a powerlifting meet. I'm talking about a true "professional" who puts food on the table training others. These are the guys I have a gripe with. I used quotes because these "pros" aren't very professional. 

Here's why it's a load of bull for one fitness "professional" to call out another publicly on social media.

I'm ACE, NASM, NCSA, ISSA, ABC123 CPT

While you may not agree with what you're seeing, it's also not your job to be judge and jury for all things fitness simply because you passed the most rudimentary of Personal Training certifications. Nor does ripping off someone else's training philosophy and system suddenly make you an expert. As a professional it is your job to help YOUR clients and contribute to the fitness industry. It's easy to move on and not waste your time being the form police. Instead of tearing others down why not be a positive beacon building others up by reaching out. Don't try and hijack someone else's feed by putting them down and trying to show how superior you are and why they or their followers should add you, they won't.

Did it ever cross your mind that the person you're critiquing is the very person in the video, a person who is NOT a professional but a paying customer? Now I know what you're thinking, hey if that coach did a better job the client would be moving better. Heres the problem with that line of thinking. You have no context as to how long this client's been training and more importantly how much progress said client has made.

While you may be watching someone perform a squat to a less than desirable depth or deadlift with a slightly rounded back, you didn't know that the coach wanted the client to be focused on hip positioning today. They're crushing their hip position and in time I'm sure they'll fix that back position as well. This often can be the case for very untrained individuals because they can easily become overwhelmed with dozens of cues and checkmarks. A good coach breaks things down into easy manageable steps. Sharing progress is that, progress and not the final product. Critiquing the technique of a beginner is as ridiculous as over analyzing a T-ball swing, really man what are you doing?!

Social Media Crusader

Here's my biggest gripe I have with other fitness "professionals" criticizing other pros via social media: Your critique can be the sole reason another person loses business and is unable to keep the lights on in their home. Said client may read your comment and decide that maybe their trainer isn't good and decides to stop. While you may think you're doing a service to the industry, all you're doing is a being a jerk. I've meet thousands of trainers, some good and some needing more CEU's, but for the most part they've been good people. Judging others coaching abilities isn't up to you! Who are you to be reaching in and taking money out of somebody else's pockets?! Don't be upset with them, be upset you aren't better at marketing your services to help more people. 

I firmly believe the cream rises to the top. If a coach is good they'll succeed on their own, just like they'll run themselves out of business all the same if they don't deliver results. It shouldn't be because you're planting the seed of doubt into their client's head. Yes sometimes these coaches have their clients performing less than stellar technique on a regular basis but also remember that their poor training only highlights how good you are without saying a single word. 

If you really feel the need to criticize another coach, for all that is good and holy just send them a private message.

Lastly lets stop being lazy with these bot comments and copy+paste DM's. I get you're trying to build up your following but you're trying to do so by being lazy and trying to take a short cut. Some of these comments don't even make sense, I'd ask for a refund for that bot if I were you.

I continue working on my own social media presence, it takes work and if you're a true professional, you'll be working on it yourself. 

Fad Diets

Fad Dieting

"I've tried everything, I lose some weight but when I go back to eating regular food I regain it all back."
  • I only eat veggies and drink water for two months.
  • Detox juices
  • The Blood type diet
  • Cabbage soup diet
  • Paleo diet
  • Cucumber and milk
  • I only eat fruit 
  • Drink this tea and lose weight

These are all examples of fad diets. Some better than others but really what they all have in common is that they tell you NOT to consume certain foods for the sake of maintaining a specific "diet". 

What is a Calorie?

A Calorie is chemistry. It is the measure of energy stored in food. More specifically the amount of energy it takes to raise the temperature of 1L of water by 1 degree Celsius. Food energy is turned into eat which is how we measure what we understand to be food calories.

Science and Your Body

70% of weight and body shape is hereditary. This is where we get body shapes like the ones below. 

However I believe that while you may be predisposed to a certain body shape it isn't an excuse to blame your parents for why you can't lose weight. No matter your body shape there's no reason you can't look the best YOUR body can be. You can lose some weight on any diet, but it comes right back on if it wasn't built upon proper nutrition habits. 

Psychological Aspect of Weight Loss

John goes on a diet to lose weight. And he is able to lose 10 lbs in 3 weeks. John proceeds to tell everybody how great his diet was. He gives full credit to the diet. The problem is John proceeds to go back to his usual eating habits and regains the weight. Instead of blaming the diet, he blames himself.  Does this sound familiar?

Often times these diets restrict and cut out a large macronutrient. That alone will force weight loss, albeit mostly water and glycogen stores. The diet had very little to do with the person's success and now it damages the individual's psyche because they don't believe they're able to succeed. And that alone is large enough of a reason to not entertain trying these types of diets. 

Many fad diets have little science to back-up their crazy ideas and claims. This is why the results aren't what you're hoping for. Just because something works for someone else doesn't mean that it works for you. When you're looking to lose weight like getting a thinner waist or smaller thighs, your body doesn't know that's all you want. Metabolically speaking, it adjusts and when you continue to consume the same amount of food you ate to lose weight; you stop losing weight. In the same way that exercise needs to be progressed so too does your nutritional protocol. 

Lack of Internal Hip Rotation Relates to Low Back & Hip Pain

Today we're discussing internal hip rotation. Yeah that sounds as exciting as watching grass grow. But what most of us don't know is that dysfunctional internal rotation (IR) at the hip can wreak havoc on our hips and backs! We can implicate the hips in obvious movements like deep hip flexion like a squat but also during the swing phase while running. When we consider there's about 30 muscles that attach to your pelvis, it's quite probable that the hips are a problem for almost everyone. 

Hip IR should be tested in two positions, because different structures can limit range of motion depending on whether the hip is extended or flexed. The second test is actually a mobilization for improving hip IR if and when progressed properly.

Testing Seated Internal Hip Rotation

Sit at the end of a table, with your knees bent over the side, and hold onto the table itself.

Now internally rotate the hip, without abducting or side bending, which is a sign of compensating with the lower back.

Generally speaking 35 degrees is good in the general fitness population and 40-45 degrees in competitive athletes.

A quick check to see if you may simply have a "lazy" side if one leg has better hip IR than the other. Perform a side plank on the side that's lagging and reassess. It should improve if it's simply an activation problem, otherwise it helps to narrow down the problem to a structural/muscular or alignment (though not very common) problem. 

Mobilizations to Improve Hip IR

Kneeling Glute MOB

  • Set up on all fours with hands under the shoulders and knees under the hips.
  • Maintain a slight arch in the lower back and place your right foot on the back of your left knee.
  • With your back set sit back into your right hip and hold for a 1-2 count before moving back. Perform 5-10 reps on both sides. 

Lying Knee Pull Ins

  • Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor.
  • Exaggerate the width between your feet. 
  • Think about trying to internally rotate your femurs which as a result have your knees touch together while keeping your feet on the floor. Hold for a two count and return to the starting position. The stretch should be felt in the hips and not the knees. 
  • Perform 8-12 reps before working out.
  • Good for those with muscular restrictions. 

Prone Windshield Wipers (TEST #2)

  • Lie on your stomach with your knees together and feet up in the air. 
  • Keeping the knees together, let the feet fall out to the sides.
  • Hold for a two count and return to the starting position. 
  • Perform 8-12 reps prior to workout.
  • This is great in particular for those with a capsular restriction. 

Passive Internal Rotation Stretch

This goodie comes courtesy of Dean Somerset. This is more of an advanced stretch and would be sure to be able to knock out all the above aforementioned ones before using this one to help maintain proper hip IR.

  • Sit at the end of a table or elevated step and lift one leg back into internal rotation as shown. 
  • Progressively work your work close to the table, and hold for 30 seconds. 
  • Repeat on the other leg. 

I hope that this post will help steer you in the right direction to improve your lifts in the gym and your times on the trail.

If you should have any specific questions please shoot me a message and I'll be happy to try and help out. If any of this information was insightful, helpful or funny please share it with a friend!