Assisted pull-ups and accessory work…both important topics I’m going to cover in Part 3 of my pull-up series.
Been dying to get your first strict pull-up? You’re in the right spot.
Alright, welcome back.
So in Part 1 you read about body position and tension – why both are crucial to getting a pretty, perfect pull-up. (My husband always says alliteration is the sign of a struggling writer.)
And in Part 2, you learned key points for getting yourself into better positions on the pull-up bar itself.
Now, for some of you, those adjustments were juuuuuust the special sauce you needed…
…while others of you might still be miles away from your first pull-up.
And that’s okay. Really. It’s not lost forever.
The Natural Human Condition is Strength
I need you to understand this:
The natural human condition is strength. It’s just that some of us have lost touch with that over the years.
But the capacity is still in you. And it takes less time than you’d probably think to find it again if you’re consistent.
This journey toward rediscovering your natural strength – dusting it off like Conan the Barbarian revealing the true nature the Atlantean sword – can feel arduous at first.
So if you don’t have a pull-up yet, don’t fret. Chunk it up. Maybe you’ll decide to make hanging from a bar for 10 seconds your goal. Or getting a chin-up. Or whatever.
I don’t know how exactly long it’s going to take you to get your first pull-up…
…because you’re different from me and everyone else.
That’s why I’m a fan of process-oriented goals, things you can control directly, like practicing your assisted pull-ups or accessory work a couple times a week. (It’s one of the reasons process-oriented goals are a key part of my Core 4 Program.)
Outcome-oriented goals, on the other hand, are the result of many factors, some outside your control.
Okay, now you know to focus your goals on what you can directly control every single week – so you don’t get pissed and quit.
Let’s look at the kind of assisted pull-ups and accessory work that’ll really make a difference your training.
It’s worth noting that I haven’t covered every single type of assist. (I don’t want this to turn into a book the size of a Tolstoy novel.) But if you draw from what’s here, you’ll have a pretty bulletproof array to pick from.
Assisted Pull-Ups & Accessory Work
(…But First, a Rant on Banded Pull-Ups)
There’s about 19 bajillionty ways to do assisted pull-ups or pull-up variations.
I’m gonna come out and say this right now (and you might hate me a little…): If you’ve only ever been working banded pull-ups and you’re struggling to get strict ones, there’s a reason for that.
Bands are okay. But too many people rely on momentum because of the elastic spring of the band….especially in the bottom of the pull-up (full arm extension).
This point is the most crucial for women who want a strict pull-up. Learning how to engage the lats and retract the scapulae (shoulder blades) is the key.
In other words, bands let you cheat on lat and rhomboid activation. #sorrynotsorry
Yes, bands are a tool. But like any other tool, they can be used correctly – like a hammer striking a nail – or incorrectly – like using a hammer to hit someone in the head. Just sayin’.
If you’re doing a workout with high volume pull-ups, a band *could* help you bang them all out…but when it comes to skill work, don’t rely on bands. Use them on occasion if you must, but work in some of these other assists.
Static Bar Hang
I don’t have a video for this one, but it’s simple. Can you just hang from the bar in a good hollow body position for at least a few seconds? If not, doing a pull-up is gonna be hard. Common sense, right?
If you’re not able to do a pull-up yet, I strongly recommend practicing static hangs like this. Build up how long you can hang for. These help strengthen your grip.
This is a good progression after a static hang from the bar. You’re working grip and biceps here. These are potent. Work up in duration.
Scapular retraction – a fancy term for pulling the shoulder blades back and down – is something that us modern peeps are terrible at doing.
We sit with rounded shoulders and hunched backs all day long.
Banded pull-aparts can do wonders to counteract that. And, they help prime your muscles for the same movement in the bottom of a pull-up.
I’m using a light (thin) band and grasping it just narrow enough so I’ve got some tension. Start lighter than you think. These are challenging.
Really focus on keeping the shoulder blades tucked down and initiate the move by knitting your shoulder blades together. This isn’t an arm pull.
This is a very subtle movement, but it directly trains the weakest point of the pull-up for most: the bottom position when you need to initiate the pull.
Basically, you’ll hang from the bar, assume a tight, hollow body position, and pull your scapulae (shoulder blades) back and down. This is not an arm pull.
Pull-Up Negatives with Assist
Place a barbell in a squat rack so that when your arms are extended, your butt just touches the ground. Make sure the bar is secure.
Use your feet as an assist to take some of the weight off your arms. Remember to get your knuckles on top of the bar and wrap your thumbs around. Set yourself into the top position. Slowly lower down, with control. Go as slow as you can, within reason.
Once you’re comfortable with this, move to a pull-up bar.
Once negatives with a foot assist become too easy, it’s time to move to the bar.
Get up to the top of a pull-up however you need to – I did kip here but only because I was tired after filming all these drills! – and slowly lower down. Again, this works the eccentric portion of the pull-up. Potent medicine, so be cool.
Narrow Grip Pull-Ups
Changing your grip position up can help a bunch. Here, I’ve got a narrow pronated (overhand) grip. This grip allows me to use a bit more bicep for the pull.
Chin-Ups (Supinated Grip Pull-Ups)
Here, I’ve switched to a chin-up or supinated grip. This helps recruit even more biceps than the narrow grip pull-up. If you want the grip progression from part 2, click here.
This is an interesting pull-up variation. Hang a hand towel over the bar. Grip both sides and pull up. The towel pull-up uses more biceps.
If you’ve been nailing your strict pull-ups and want more of a challenge, try doing them on the rings. If you recognized this as the first step of a strict muscle up, you win 1 million bonus points!
Pressing strength is just as important for building shoulder stability as pulling. Work different presses into your weekly routine.
Options include: dips (bench – shown here, static bar, or ring); push-ups (remember that perfect technique from Part 2); and shoulder press (dumbbell, kettlebell, barbell). Yes, pulling is critical, but so is pressing.
Rows are another awesome way to incorporate pulling. Perform these with a bench of free-standing (shown here). Really focus on initiating the movement by retracting your scapulae and keep the elbow pinned close to your body.
A waiter walk is simply walking with a weight overhead in one hand. But focus on doing it right, staying tight and maintaining a solid body position. Other variations: farmers walks, using a kettlebell, etc.
How Many Times a Week…
…should you do this stuff?
Glad you asked. It depends.
In my Core 4 Program, strength training is three times a week. Within those workouts, assisted pull-ups and accessory work shows up on most days.
If you’re pretty fit and strong, and you’ve been working assisted pull-ups for a while, you can probably handle more frequency and volume than a newb.
Remember, the muscles in and around your shoulders are much smaller than those of your lower half. (Team Thick Thighs, you feel me on that.) They’re faster to fatigue. And we – as modern humans – sit in shitty, rounded positions all day.
So, it’s hard for me to prescribe an exact amount of accessory work that’s prudent for every person on the Interwebz right now.
Generally speaking, I recommend 1-2 times a week doing some kind of assisted pull-ups and / or accessory work.
Don’t go freaking crazy, doing so much that you overuse your muscles and fail to recover. Allow at least 1-2 days between sessions where you work pull-ups.
How many reps and sets?
Let’s say 2 to 3 sets of 3-12 reps each.
That might look like:
- 3 sets of 3 chin-ups
- 3 sets of 12 banded pull-aparts
- 2 sets of 5 pull-up negatives with a foot assist
- 3 sets of 10 hollow rocks
Again, that varies widely depending on the movement. If you’re doing negatives, for example, those are hard AF. And very fatiguing. You probably won’t get much more than 3-5 reps unless you’re already very strong.
Above all else, use your common sense! But remember, just hanging from the bar once every few weeks isn’t going to get you to a pull-up faster.
A Note on Kipping
This may not make me popular, but IDGAF:
Kipping dozens and dozens of pull-ups a week without the foundational strength to do strict pull-ups is a disaster waiting to happen.
Your shoulders are taking a beating. It’s only a matter of time until you get hurt.
In case you don’t know what a kip is, it’s basically where you swing your body to generate momentum, allowing you to do more reps.
Regular Kipping Pull-Ups
Butterfly Kipping Pull-Ups
Kipping itself isn’t the problem. It’s a valid movement with a specific purpose.
But until and unless you have the underlying strength to support and pull your own weight, I don’t recommend you add kipping to your routine.
Assisted pull-ups and accessory work will help you build the strength to achieve your first pull-up.
You’ll want to start with a strong hollow body position, plus a realistic grip width for your level. (Wide grip is much harder.)
The key to a strict pull-up is learning to activate the lats and other muscles around the shoulder blades. In other words, to initiate the pull-up, you can’t just rely on arm pull.
Start practicing some of the drills and other accessories listed in this post on a weekly basis so you can build up your strength, body awareness, and neuromuscular patterning.
When you get your first pull-up, come back and let me know. Better yet, take a video, post it to Instagram, and tag me at @steph_gaudreau!