If you’re expecting me to (in this post) talk about how if you’re unable to perform a pull up or chin up, you can use slow 8-second eccentric lowering as an effective way to increase your chin up specific strength – My question to you is: Why the heck would I waste your time talking about stuff you’re already well aware of and have heard time and time again? And, if you weren’t aware that, if you’re unable to perform pull ups on your own, you can use eccentrics to improve your pull up strength, you are now.

Put simply, in the Performance U training approach, we like to perform eccentric chin ups (of pull ups) for 3-4 sets of 3-5 reps at 8 seconds per rep.

That said, my goal with this post is to share with you my two training tips for pull up deficient (i.e. for those who’re unable to perform pull ups w/o assistance) who’re looking to work up to the ability to perform chin ups and pull ups on their own (i.e. w/o assistance). Also, in this post I’m going to share with you my 3-tier hierarchy of chin up assistance methods and share with you why band assisted pulls ups are at the bottom of list.

1. My single best tip for improving chin up/ pull up performance.

Put simply, pull up and chin up performance is determined by your relative strength, which is how strong you are in relation to your own body weight. So it stands to reason that the more extra body weight you’re carrying (i.e., body fat), the weaker you’ll feel and the less work you’ll be able to complete. It’s like putting on a weighted backpack – You’ll do a lot fewer reps with the weighted pack on than without it. Plus, like many people, you may not even be able to complete a single full pull up rep without assistance.

That imaginary backpack represents the real-life performance limitations of carrying around an extra 5, 10, 20, or more pounds on your body. And, when you lose the extra fat (remove the weighted backpack), your relative strength automatically increases, which means your chin up and pull up performance potential automatically increases. It’s for this non-negotiable reality that my single best piece of advice (that I rarely, if ever hear from other trainers and coaches) to those wishing to improve their chin up and pull up performance is to get leaner by lose that extra bodyfat.

Speaking of fat loss, you can now pre-order my book Strength Training for Fat Loss, published by Human Kinetics, here at Amazon. The book will be released in stores on March 25th.

Strength Training for Fat Loss

2. Pull ups with bands are overrated.

Put simply, if I have access to a gravitron machine, I’ll pick that every time over using superbands for someone who needs assistance on chin ups and pulls while they’re working on dropping extra bodyfat. The rationale for this is because bands, by their nature, help you less and less the closer you get to the bar (as you pull yourself up), whereas the gravitron machine provides consistent assistance throughout the entire range of motion.

In other words, if you need assistance to perform chin ups and pull ups, you don’t just need that assistance at the bottom when you’re just hanging from the bar, you need it throughout the entire range of motion, especially in the middle of the range of motion (when your humerus is parallel with the bar), as that’s when it’s the most difficult because it’s the point in the range of motion when the lever arm (i.e. moment arm) is the longest. However, when using band assistance, you get the most help at the bottom, when the band is most stretched, and, as you pull yourself up, the stretch in the band is progressively reduced, so the band helps you less and less as you pull yourself up. Not to mention, if the band offers you sufficient assistance at the top of the range of motion, it is helping you far too much in the bottom and mid-range of the chin up or pull up.

Now, I’m well aware that many people don’t have access to a gravitron machine, which leads me to my second choice for improving vertical pulling strength while working to reduce bodyfat: the Lat Pull down machine.

I go with lat pull down machine over super bands for improving chin up and pull up strength for the same reason I like graviton, which is because it offers consistent resistance throughout the range of motion. In addition, both the gravitron and lat pull down machine allow for smaller adjustments in the weight load involved, whereas with super bands you have a more limited number or different thicknesses to work with, each having drastically different resistance profiles that are very difficult to quantify.

We still use band assisted Pull ups!

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Don’t get me wrong, I feel that super bands are absolutely an effective way to add assistance to those who’re looking to work up to performing chin ups and pull ups without additional assistance. And, we’ve used them as an assistance tool on many training occasions in the past, and will continue to use them in the future when the training situation calls for it.

Plus, super bands are the most cost effective, space friendly and travel-friendly means of adding assistance to chin ups and pull ups. So, I’m certainly not saying that people shouldn’t use super bands as a means of adding assistance, so make sure that you don’t confuse me saying they’re “overrated” for me saying that “they don’t work.”

By saying they’re overrated, I simply shared why I feel that band assisted pull ups may not be the “top” method for improving chin up performance, as they’re often touted to be; how using other methods can also be helpful, while also sharing my hierarchy of pull up assistance methods, if I have access to all three.

But the lat pull-down and pull-up provide differing challenges (open vs. closed-chain), therefore there’s little carryover between the two exercises.

Although this 2009 study published in the JSCR investigating the Relationship of 1 repetition maximum lat-pull to pull-up and lat-pull repetitions in elite collegiate women swimmers and concluded that “the seemingly analogous exercises of pull-ups and lat-pulls were not highly related and should not be substituted for one another in a training regimen,” the researchers are basing this on the fact that they found a positive correlation between total body mass, lean mass, and body fat percentage and 1RM lat pull-down, whereas the same variables had a negative correlation with pull-ups.

In other words, that study found it wasn’t that the strength in one exercise (the pull up or the lat pull) didn’t carryover to the other analogous movement, they found that as body mass increased, so did lat pull down strength, whereas, in the pull up, as body mass increased performance went down.

In short, the more you weight, the more strength in the lat pull down it’s likely you’ll have (because it gives you a greater anchor), but the more you weight, the less pull ups it’s likely you’ll be able to do (because pull ups are a relative strength exercise). So these results reinforce what I said above (in Tip #1) about the impact of bodyweight on pull up performance, which is why reducing bodyfat is the top priority in the Performance U approach to improving pull up (and chin up) performance. But these results do not demonstrate that strength gains made in the lat pull down fail to carryover to strength improvements in the pull up.

Also, the results of another 2009 study, also published in the JSCR, showed that “Maximal strength performance in each lift (lat-pull and pull-ups) in each sex could be predicted using the analogous muscular endurance exercise or body composition components.” In other words, this study found that Pull up and Lat Pull downs are indeed related, as performance in one is a strong predictor of performance in the other.

In addition to the science, Mark Buckley, founder of FMA, points out that to say idea that lat pull down strength doesn’t help pull up strength because lat pull downs are an open-chain exercise, whereas pull ups are a closed-chain exercise is to say that performing reverse hypers (open chain/hip torque strength) will not improve your Deadlift (closed chain/hip torque) strength. Mark also points out that things here aren’t likely to really be this black and white, as even though we have open/closed chain incompatibility between the two movements – we often see reverse hypers successfully being used as an assistance exercise to the deadlift (and squat).

What about the reduced abdominal muscle involvement when using the Gravitron and Lat Pull Downs?

If you’re concerned that the abdominal strength involved in performing pull ups is being neglected by using the graviton and/or lat pull downs because there’s no body-sway to control (like when doing pull ups), let me remind you that 1) as stated above,we ALSO use eccentric pull ups, which gives us a specific abdominal strength carryover to the pull up, and 2) we’ll also do plenty of other abdominal strength/stiffness training exercises that carryover to pull up performance nicely – like Medicine ball Roll Outs – in the programs while working to build up to performing unassisted pull ups.

In short, the abdominals are in no being way neglected throughout the build up to an (unassisted) pull up training process, as they get both general and specific exercise applications. (Note: Go here to learn more about general and specific exercises.)

Lastly, it’s important to remember that this post is about those who are pull up deficient; it’s not about those who can already do 8 pull ups and are looking to take that number to 10 reps. With this in mind, when it comes to strengthening  muscles to help you develop the ability to complete your first (unassisted) pull up, our main focus is on the upper-body pulling musculature (lats, biceps, etc.) because those muscles are the primary muscles involved in performing pull ups and chin ups.
In other words, the primary limiting factor in performing pull ups is the (relative) strength capability of your upper-body pull muscles, not of your abdominal muscle, as it’s common sense that the strongest abs in the world ain’t getting you above the bar if you’ve got no strength in your upper-body (and you’re carrying around some extra body fat to boot).

Final Words

In this post, I shared with you the techniques used in the Performance U training approach to helping the pull up deficient become capable of performing unassisted pull ups, along with the science and rational behind it.  Now, whether you agree with the training approach or rationale shared here or not is cool either way. And, for those who greatly disagree with the thought process and training approach shared, I hope this post inspires you to write your own blog post or an article sharing your thoughts and approaches on the subject.
Lastly, Happy New Year!!!
References:
1. Halet KA, Mayhew JL, Murphy C,Fanthorpe J. Relationship of 1 repetition maximum lat-pull to pull-up and lat-pull repetitions in elite collegiate women swimmers. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Aug;23(5):1496-502.

2. Johnson D, Lynch J, Nash K, Cygan J, Mayhew JL. Relationship of lat-pull repetitions and pull-ups to maximal lat-pull and pull-up strength in men and women. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 May;23(3):1022-8.