First Pull up program -
I am asked frequently how to improve pull ups since they are so essential to so many sports. Relative strength for your sport, increased mobility, and injury prevention are all good reasons to train pull-ups. Max pull ups is one of the ODP benchmarks for all canoe and kayak athletes. Pull-ups work several important muscles both big and small in the arms, shoulders, back and core. They are used in nearly every sport for a reason - they are an extremely effective way to train.
At Frostbite Camp this year there were about 15 athletes who could not complete any pull-ups - so the question is, “How does an athlete train pull-ups if they cannot do even a single rep?” The answer is eccentric pull-ups.
Eccentric pull ups, aka “negatives" are where you use something like a chair or stool to start at the top of the pull up and the let yourself down slow and controlled. (In fact, in my gym we call them “let-downs”). Usually athletes can do this pretty well right off the bat as long as someone counts for them. We do these in large groups on our pull up bars and I simply count for them. These are done slowly, with perfect technique and controlled.
We perform 5 second negatives and complete 5 sets of 5 reps with 90 seconds of rest between each set. The goal is for the athlete to not reach the bottom of the pull up(hanging) until I have reached 5 on my count. Absolute beginners should consider starting with 3 reps on the minute for 5 minutes. This is a potent exercise and there is no need to overdo it. Simply training this 3 times a week will produce multiple pull-ups in most athletes within a couple weeks.
Here are some FAQs:
Should I use a band for assistance? A band is not a bad tool, but I don’t recommend regular use of a band. They are great for teaching muscle memory and coordination of the muscles needed to achieve a pull-up. Also they can be used to help with rehab in some athletes. Sometimes when we do timed workouts where pull-ups are part of the workout, then a band works well. But, I have seen way too many instances of the same athlete using the same band for weeks and weeks and thus not really getting any stronger. The point is to get stronger at the pull-up and so bands should play a limited role.
What if I can’t do a negative? You should work on hanging for 3-5 seconds at the top of the pull-up, and the middle (elbow 90 degrees). Also, work your way up to hanging from the bottom position for 30 seconds. If you can hold at the top and 90 degrees for 5 seconds and hang at the bottom for 30, you can do negatives.
I am stuck at 10 pull-ups, what should I do?
You should do 3 sets of max pull-ups, and then do the 5x5 of 5 second negatives. Then work your way up to 7 second negatives. Usually this strategy will get you over 20.
What is kipping and should I do it so I can get more reps? Kipping is using your body’s momentum to propel you upward. It is an actual gymnastic skill that must be taught. It can be dangerous to your shoulder if done incorrectly. If the goal is to get strong for paddling, then kipping should not play a role in training pull-up strength.
How many should I be able to do? I recommend training pull ups year round and always trying to improve. All athletes planning to compete internationally should train pull-ups consistently in their program. More is generally better - but I think 20 reps is a good goal for females and 30 for males. In looking at the Worlds Training Squad Canoe athletes - ODP data ranged 26-46 for males and 14-20 for females.
Happy pulling!
Aaron Huston