Can't Do One Pullup? Stay Positive

Posted on 04 Sep 2009 17:18

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Or..How to Do Your First Pullup

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By Eric Troy

Countless articles have been written about pullups. MOST of those articles are assuming one has the ability to do at least a couple of pullups already. For those that can't even do one, which are MANY, well, that room is so silent you can hear a pin drop.

And when someone does speak up…it's questionable at best.

Negative Advice

Something about body weight training seems to make people forget that gravity does not care if you are lifting your body weight or a weight training implement. Gravity will act on each and not give you "points" for "doing the right thing". Especially when you do the wrong thing.

Pullups are one of the best exercises you can do, no doubt about it. But when you can't pull your body up one time you have a conundrum. You either get a lot stronger or you get a lot lighter. Without getting weaker in the process.

Which leads me to the why. The reason many people can't do a pullup is NOT just weakness. They are overweight. Those people need to be very careful with a common piece of advice regarding the first pullup: negative pullups.

Concentric and Eccentric Actions

First a refresher. The part of the pullup where you go up is the concentric portion of the exercise. During this part of the movement the muscles are said to be undergoing a concentric contraction which means that the muscle is able to generate enough force to overcome the resistance and thus shorten.

The opposite of the concentric action is the eccentric action. This is the part of the pullup where you go back down. During this part, the muscles are elongating. We also call this the negative. The muscles control the descent by generating just enough muscular tension to slightly resist the weight but not to overcome it. Remember that the muscle is still contracting or attempting to contract. It is just not shortening. This is why I prefer the word "action" to "contraction".

Muscles are very resistant to lengthening. Basically, you can perform an eccentric movement with a heavier weight than you can perform it's concentric. The force capability may be up to 160 percent greater, perhaps due to elastic properties in the muscle. During the eccentric phase the tension generated can be extremely high compared to muscles maximum tetanic tension capability.

This active lengthening of muscles is just as important as the shortening of muscles. A great deal of any muscles daily activity is spent lengthening in this way. And it is thought that eccentric contractions have much to do with developing muscle strength.

The use of negative repetitions in strength training is common practice for this very reason. For instance, a bench presser might use "forced negatives" with a weight that is greater than his maximum bench press to take advantage of the greater muscle tension that can be achieved.

Most of the muscle soreness or DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) we get is associated with the eccentric part of our exercise. Less widely known, however, is that injuries are more widely associated with the eccentric as well.

Remember the "greater tension" thing? We are dealing with physical structures that can withstand only so much tension. This means that negative only repetitions need to be used with caution. Although the force of an eccentric increases with velocity (opposite to the concentric) the tension generated is independent of velocity.

One of the most common pieces of advice for achieving the first pullup is to use negative pullups. The same people who would never advise someone who can only bench 150 to put 200 on the bar and perform negative repetitions advise an overweight individual to do negative pullups to develop the muscular strength to enable them to eventually do an actual pullup.

They seem to forget one basic fact:

It's too much weight! There is a very strong chance of injury with this practice and this advice should not be given out to a mass audience.

Fortunately, many individuals cannot even do a negative pullup so they may desist without an injury. But it only takes one failed attempt to get a pretty bad muscle pull, or worse.1

I can't give any universal guidelines on when and when not to do negatives. The mechanics of different movements differ so much that what may be perfectly legitimate and safe for you with one movement is prohibited in another. Generally, you can get away with more using the large muscles of the legs than you can the smaller muscles of the arms, provided stability is not a major issue and end range of motion is not compromised.

If you are severely overweight and you cannot do a pullup AT ALL, meaning that you cannot achieve any movement, then I'd advise against jumping right to the negative reps technique. In that case band assisted pullups might be a good choice and weightloss would be the way to go. But there is always more than one way to skin a…to get something done.

Unless I knew something about you I would only advise negatives for those who can at least do three or four reps of pullups; hopefully more. Negatives, in this case, would not be a way of achieving the pullups but a way of getting in more muscular work to increase the numbers. This is the way negatives are usually used, as an adjunct to training, not as the primary means. Obviously, if you cannot do a single rep with a given weight you simply choose a lighter weight. No need for negatives. But since you cannot instantly change your body weight you need a new way to progress.

I've outlined a two part system to allow one to progress to full pullups (or chinups - palms facing you - which are easier)2 Actually a "two-fold" system would be a better way to describe it as both "parts" are equally integral to its success.

Most of the time these types of system use a progression from one part to the other. Here, both parts will be done at the same time, although not the same day.

The First Part:

The first step is to begin to develop more pulling strength in the arms. People tend to focus on the back and especially the lats role in pullups since this is the target muscle of the bodybuilder. The arms, a much smaller muscle, are the weak link and nobody ever achieved a pullup by doing, for instance, lat shrugs.

Enter the inverted or "supine" row.

Sometimes called a "body row" a supine row can be thought of as a horizontal pullup and it looks exactly like the opposite action of a pushup. The supine row is, in itself, a great movement for strength trainees and can be used as one of the row variations that you would normally use in your training.

For specific instruction on row technique referr to Mike Robertson's article, Row Right: Get More Bang for you Back. All row technique is basically the same. The only difference here is that the resistance is bodyweight (and of course the subjective difference of hanging from something).

Although this is all about pullups I want to give you as many pointers and instruction as I can about the supine row. If you are going to do something at my prompting, I want you to be able to do it right. Perfecting the supine row is a good thing in itself. I'm sure you'll love the exercise.

Below is a video of a basic supine row by Joe DeFranco (he uses the name Inverted Row). The body is hung horizontally below the bar and the feet are supported on a box. A bench can be used or whatever is available. In the video, his feet are a tad higher than the rest of his body, which is fine, but the feet are usually at the same level as the line of the body.

Supine or Inverted Row

The supine row is made less difficult by placing the feet lower than the chest. Then, to add difficulty the feet are elevated on a bench or other platform. This progression is shown in the video below. The first position shown is with the feet on the floor. Note that if this is too difficult you can bend the knees at first so that the feet are flat on the floor. Then slowly straighten the legs as you progress.

Then, you will move on to having the feet elevated. Difficulty can be increased up to a point by elevating the feet even more. However at some point a weight vest or some other means of adding more weight will be needed (this should not be necessary for the sole purpose of achieving your pullups).

Another option if even the feet on the floor option is impossible is to use a bench, swiss ball, or other means to lessen the amount of body mass being pulled. Instead of the feet being on the bench as in the feet elevated version, the lower legs, or thighs, or even buttocks can rest on the bench. Then to increase difficulty move the bench down closer and closer to the feet. Some may find a swiss ball to be a better pivot point for this method. Use whatever you are most comfortable with. A swiss ball imparts a bit more stability challenge but it is insignificant compared to the lessening of mass.

A pronated grip is preferred, both palms facing your feet in this case. At any time during this system you have the choice of attempting a chinup which should be slightly easier for most individuals. Although I have consistently written of pullups in this article, it doesn't matter if your first one is a pullup with a pronated grip or a pullup with a suppinated grip (palms facing you), which is technically called a chinup. A chinup counts! Once you can do a chinup you can begin adding reps to your chinups and this will lead to a pullup.

The last thing to try is to switch to a suppinated, palms facing you, grip.

The supine row progression:

1. Start with the most difficult setup that will still allow you to do at least two sets of 4 or one good set of 6. If no version allows you to do this many…then you'll start with the easiest and do whatever you can do.

2. Work up to around 3 sets of 5 or 6 GOOD reps before moving on in difficulty. This shouldn't take long at all. The object here is not to manage a great many reps at first but to increase the relative difficulty of the exercise. However, if you move on too early your technique will tend to suffer. We want to "own" each level a bit before moving on to the next

3. Once you've reached the level of feet elevated supine rows, continue adding reps and sets while you are working on the other part of your pullup plan. Adding reps and sets can be done in many different ways and I won't go into suggestions here since much depends on your starting point. If you need ideas ask.

Cliffnotes on the supine row:

  • Do not lead with your head. Try to project your chest toward the bar while keeping the chin slighlty tucked.
  • Keep the body straight. Don't sag during any portion of the movement, including at the bottom, which is where many people let the butt sink. Stay rigid.
  • Read MR's Article as I suggested above…

Long notes on the supine row:

  • Notice in the video above that the instructor cues the trainee to "keep the neck straight". A frequent tendancy is to lead with the forehead causing you to crane at the neck and project the chin. Endevour to keep neck neutral the chin slighly tucked. This will move your neck into slight flexion and keep you from protracting the chin and extending the neck.

I should note that if you try to break this habit by thinking "don't crane your neck" you will just end up creating unneeded and harmful tension in your neck and you can actually end up tending toward doing it more rather than less. The trick is to cue yourself with what you SHOULD be doing. So just think in very simple terms such as "chin tucked" or "neck neutral" - whatever brings about the proper mental image. Notice that this is the instructors approach in the video. He doesn't tell the trainee what NOT to do, but what TO do.

I have always found that looking slightly up with the eyes while tucking the chin during this row helps cancel out the tendancy to lead with the head. So try that as well.

  • You should try to touch your chest to the bar on every rep. You may find this very difficult to do at first. This is a matter of flexibility and scapular retraction strength. It is perfectly acceptable to stretch out the pecs and anterior deltoids before performing the rows, so long as you do not plan on doing chest oriented movements such as bench press.

Doing the row movement correctly involves retracting the scapula. If you find this too difficult or you don't feel that you can retract the scapula correctly, some remedial scapular work may be needed. Such is beyond the scope of this article but if you need resources, as always, COMMENT And ASK below.

Another aspect of being able to touch the bar is the speed of the movement. Those last few inches can be the hardest part of the row. Many trainers instruct a "slow and controlled" movment. We have a conundrum here.

At first, since you may not be able to perform the movement with a lot of vigor and gusto AND since to maintain good form, such a keeping the body straight, you will want to keep the movement somewhat slower, those last few inches may seem impossible.

So you can do two things:

Once you have become reasonably proficient in the mechanics and body position, try to consciously increase the "explosiveness of the movement. This is strength training. We don't ever do exercises purposely slow..,even the "slow" lifts. Those last few inches will be much easier to achieve if you accelerate more at the beginning of the movement.

Again, you should have already read Row Right by MR.

Yet another way to work on your explosivity here is to set up your supine row in such a way that your body is DELOADED on the floor between each rep. Relax for a count before exploding up toward the bar. However this is just an aside for perfecting the rows themselves. DO NOT use the deloaded method as a primary part of your pullup progression. You are not going to be doing pullups with your feet on the floor so you should not do most of your rows with your back on the floor.

Supine Row Progression

The Second Part

The only reason this is called the second part is to organize this article (not my strong suit I know). Both parts, as stated above, are done simultaneously. For instance, you can do the first part in the beginning of the week and the second part later on in the week.

Although both parts could be practiced more in a "grease the groove" approach3 I am assuming first, that you would like to be able to schedule this with your normal workouts and two, you just want to be able to do pullups, not become a slave to them and kiss the floor every time you approach a pullup bar.

Enter the Partial

A partial is a rep done without full range of motion. Here we will use partials in two different ways, at the top and from the bottom. The advantage here is that the pullups muscles are being used and despite the fact that a partial range of motion does not transfer fully to a full range of motion there are improvements in a few degrees around the joint angle you work at.

At the top:

These are the most important and useful partials in working toward the pullups. They will teach and enable you to get the full range of motion with the chest to the bar or as close to the bar as possible while getting a good deep retraction and depression of the scapula. Therefore, partials from the top should always be done first.

To do the partials at the top you will use any type of platform, bench, or chair you need to stand on so you are placed at the top or a few inches from the top of your full range pullup.

The first thing to do is start with a few inches below full range and see if you can pull yourself up to the finished position. If this is easy then add an inch or two by squatting slightly or using a lower platform and see if you can do it again. So, the idea here is to find the LOWEST position you can muster and do a full pullup from this position.

If you can do a partial in this way, skip to step two below, if not, continue reading:

You may find that you cannot do a full pullup from such a position. In that case place yourself at a height so that you are close enough to the finished position so that you can simply perform a static hold at this position. During this static hold you should be concentrating on continuing to pull into the bar and getting a full contraction of the lats and scapular retraction/depression. Basically, your partial is a static. Hold for 3 to 5 seconds (if you can). Rest, and repeat.

You can add time to these holds or "reps" or both. After a few session try again to do a partial pullup from a slightly lower position. Keeping working on it and checking on it until you can move down a bit and do the partials.

Step Two (Partials at the top)

Once you can do a partial at the top you will undergo a simple process of adding reps and adding depth (that is, doing your partials from a lower and lower height). There are no hard and fast rules here. simply continue to add reps to your partial while frequently attempting to do some reps from a lower height.

Once you can do reps from a lower height you can start from this height but still move back to the higher position for extra work, if needed. The goal is to go lower lower so try to do as much of your work as possible from the lowest position possible.

Focus on many low reps sets rather than a few moderate to high rep sets. Use moderate rest periods between sets. If you need more rest, take more rest. Try for around 20 to 24 reps a session of partials at the top, again, starting with the lowest position possible and finishing higher, when needed. Remember, you are not trying to become great at any one level, only to move on to the next lower level.

From the Bottom:

By now this should be self-explanatory. You will start from the bottom and simply move yourself as far up as you can, resulting in a partial rep. This is much easier to manage since on every rep you will go as high as you can.

Start from a "dead hang". This means that the arms are in a fully stretched position. There is not a great deal of tension left in the shoulders and the elbows are fully extended (not flexed or bent). Even if you can't move and inch getting used to being in this position will pay divedends later on…including your grip, which is a surprisingly large obstacle for many when performing pullups.

The partials at the top are the priority exercise here. Partials from the bottom should be considered "icing on the cake". Here you will handle reps and sets a little differently. Instead of focising on many low rep sets as in the partials at the top you will perform a few sets to failure. In this case, failure simply means you cannot "for the moment" perform another rep.

We do not need to worry too much about recognizing failure. Suffice it to say that when the last rep takes a huge effort you will know you have reached failure. Most people have enough body awareness to know when they do not have another rep left in the tank without taking an unreasonably long rest period, which may only result in one or two difficult reps being performed anyway.

However, since you are only doing partials, they're must be a qualitative rule. So when doing the partials from the bottom you MUST try to have your last rep as high as the first rep. I will give an example:

Set One (partials from the bottom)

1/4 way up x 3 - last rep to near failure (one to two reps left in you)

Set Two

1/4 way up x 3 - last rep takes all you have left and the effort is very great to get the last inch or so

You may have heard that one should never work to failure. Don't worry about it. It will NOT harm you to work your pullups to failure in this way for one set in a week and in fact will help you. Remember, you are not to work BEYOND failure and push yourself with cheating or jumping reps. You simply reach momentary muscular failure and you're done.

The partials at the top and from the bottom should eventually "meet in the middle" so to speak. You may have already accomplished your first full pullup or you may have to move beyond that before you are able to do one. You should trying a pullup or a chinup as often as you like as long as such action, in the face of failure, does not discourage you greatly. You WILL get a pullup. I've never known anyone, no matter how difficult, that was not able to eventually reach a pullup. And some of those people are now performing pullups with barbell plates strapped to their bodies.

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