Updated October 23, 2023
Have you always wanted to do a strict pull-up but struggle to get your chin over the bar? Strict pull-ups require a lot of upper body strength and can be pretty challenging when you’re first starting out. The good news is that anyone can do strict pull-ups with proper training and progressions.
This 5-step plan will take you from zero pull-ups to strict pull-up hero. By focusing on grip, shoulder, and back strength through active hangs, scapular pulls, and negative pull-ups, you’ll build up your strength and be cranking out strict pull-ups in no time.
Ditch the Bands
Serious about getting those unassisted pull-ups? The first step to mastering strict pull-ups is to ditch the bands and focus on bodyweight exercises. While bands can be useful in some situations, they reduce the amount of strength required to do a pull-up. The hardest part of a pull-up is at the bottom, where bands give their helpful oomph to reach the top, and this means that your muscles are not being appropriately trained to meet your goal. To build up your strength, start with easier progressions that use your body weight alone.
Ring rows or negative pull-ups will be your new go-to moves during pull-up WODs until you’ve mastered the pull-up (we’ll get to ring rows and negative pull-ups in a bit, but first, there are some skill moves that help build grip and lat strength).
Focusing on bodyweight strength and progressions will prepare your muscles, joints, and tendons for the demands of strict pull-ups. While it can take time, building a solid foundation of strength will allow you to achieve your first strict pull-up and many more.
Once you’ve ditched the bands, start building up your hang time. This means grabbing onto a bar and hanging with arms extended for as long as possible. Active hangs help strengthen your grip, shoulders, and joints to prepare you for pull-ups.
Start with hanging for 30-60 seconds and build up from there. Try to hang for a total of 2-3 minutes over a few sets. The longer you can hang, the stronger your shoulders and grip will become.
Building up your hang time is a vital part of the progression for strict pull-ups. Strong, stable shoulders and a firm grip will allow you to easily pull your body up to the bar. Work on increasing your hang time over the course of a few weeks before moving on to more advanced progressions. With regular practice, your hang time will quickly improve.
Scapular pull-ups, also known as scap pulls, are a great way to build strength in your upper back and shoulders. To do a scap pull, grab onto a bar with an overhand grip and hang with arms extended. Then, retract and depress your scapulae by drawing your shoulder blades back and down (your arms should remain straight). Your body should move slightly upward as your scapulae move.
Scapular pull-ups help strengthen your serratus anterior and rhomboid muscles, which assist in the upward motion of pull-ups. They teach you to engage your back muscles which many people struggle with when first learning pull-ups.
Aim for 2-3 sets of 10-15 scapular pull-ups, holding briefly at the top of each rep. Be sure to keep the rest of your body still as you move your scapulae. Start with fewer reps and build up as your strength improves.
Mastering scapular pull-ups will help ensure you have complete control and engagement of your back muscles during strict pull-ups. Combine scap pulls with your hang time training for the best results.
Once scapular pull-ups become easy, you can move on to more advanced progressions like negative pull-ups. But don’t rush the progression – spend several weeks building strength with scap pulls and hangs first. With consistent training, you’ll develop the necessary strength and muscle control for your first strict pull-up.
Negative pull-ups, or eccentric pull-ups, help strengthen your muscles through the lowering phase of a pull-up. To do negative pull-ups, jump up or use a box or band to get into the top position of a pull-up with your chin above the bar. Then, slowly lower yourself down in a controlled manner until your arms are fully extended.
Take 3-5 seconds to lower your whole body. The slower you lower down, the more difficult it becomes. This helps build strength through the full range of motion in the opposite direction of a standard pull-up.
Aim for 3 sets of 3-5 negative pull-ups. Step up onto a box (or chair/stool if at home) to get into the starting position. Lower yourself as far as you can control – it’s better to stop higher up than lose form.
Negative pull-ups are much more manageable than regular pull-ups but still very effective for building strength. They teach your muscles and nervous system the proper movement pattern, which helps achieve your first strict pull-up.
Note: Eccentric work, such as negative pull-ups, can be very taxing on your muscles, leaving you extra sore, so start this exercise slowly. Refrain from combining eccentric pulling work with WODs involving similar movements.
Combine negative pull-ups with scapular pull-ups and hang-time training. Spend a few weeks focused on negatives before attempting a full strict pull-up. The stronger you get, the slower you’ll be able to lower yourself. This indicates you’re ready to start pulling yourself up!
With practice and consistency, negative pull-ups will help you build the strength to perform a strict pull-up with control and good form. Be patient and work at a progression level that challenges you – you’ll get there with time!
Ring rows are a great progression exercise for building strength in a pull-up’s bottom range of motion. To do ring rows, set up suspension trainers or gymnastics rings at an angle that allows you to do 3 sets of 8-12 reps. Grab the rings with an overhand grip and hold yourself in a straight line from knees to head.
Keeping your body straight, pull your chest up to the rings by drawing your shoulder blades back. Squeeze your back muscles at the top and slowly lower back down with control. That’s one rep.
Ring rows work your muscles through the full range of motion (unlike banded pull-ups, it’s not easier at the bottom of a ring row). Start with a foot position where you can perform 10 ring rows without stopping. Then, as you become stronger, move your body closer to parallel with the floor.
Be sure to maintain a straight line with your body and avoid swinging motions. Engage your core, and don’t lock out your elbows at the bottom. Go until your chest touches the rings on each rep.
Ring rows are a very effective progression, providing an intermediate step between scapular and negative pull-ups. They allow you to build strength in a horizontal pulling motion before moving into vertical pulling.
Once you have begun incorporating these skill movements into your routine, try to get one or more strict pull-ups at the end of each week. It may take several weeks, depending on your strength level, but as long as you consistently perform the movements above, you can rest assured that you are building the strength necessary to master the strict pull-up.
Hey! What about kipping??…
While there is certainly nothing wrong with kipping, it was intentionally left out of this guide for 2 reasons:
- The first and most obvious reason is that kipping is a more technical move that should be learned after you’re able to do standard strict pull-ups. There are many “moving parts” in a kipping pull-up, and having a solid strict pull-up foundation to build on is essential.
- Also, without first building up the strength necessary to perform at least one (but ideally five or more) strict pull-ups, kipping “can” put you at a higher risk for a shoulder injury. Kipping involves momentum generated by an explosive hip extension. The strength developed by mastering the strict pull-up will make kipping easier and safer by allowing you to control the motion and momentum generated by your hips.
So, let’s work on those strict pull-ups! Try the techniques above and see how many unbroken, strict pull-ups you can do after 6 weeks.