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
- Begin with your back from head to tailbone against the wall.
- Flatten out your lower back (slight posterior pelvic tilt)
- 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.
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...
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.