5 Tips to Get Better at Strict Pull Ups
The ultimate bodyweight movement that even good athletes struggle with: pull ups. Getting your first strict pull up as a beginner is a huge accomplishment, but stringing multiple reps together is arguably just as huge. It can take time and some dedicated progressions to get there.
Pull ups are at the crux of human evolution. Our arboreal primate relatives build nests in trees to keep away from predators and scavenge for fruit—how do you think they get up there? Any regular rock gym member will agree, climbing is in our nature. The most basic and effective climbing movement is the pull up.
So, why are strict pull ups so hard??
Your lower trunk holds the largest muscles in your body, your glutes and legs. The muscles of your upper trunk, your arms and back, have less mass. It takes a ton of effort to generate enough power against gravity to move all that posterior chain weight through space using only your upper body. Basically, you’re heavy.
One of the great things about practicing pull ups is that you don’t need a ton of equipment, just a pull up bar. And barely that. A low-hanging branch in your nearby park could work, just make sure it’s sturdy enough to hold your literally heavy ass.
Check out our tips to improve your pull up strength and technique so you can start repping them out like a true monkey/gymnast. The goal for most of these movements is to spend more time under tension in the challenging parts of the pull up. The stronger you get at each progression, the more efficient your pull ups will be.
It’s Time for You to Hit 10 Unbroken Pull-up Reps
5 tips for better strict pull ups
Pull Up Grip
For all of these pull up exercises, you should be using a double overhand grip positioned just outside shoulder width with your thumbs wrapped around the bar, not on top. There’s a time and place for thumbs on top, but it’s not for strict pull ups.
1. Dead Hang for 1:00
Also known as a passive hang, the dead hang from a pullup bar may look like nothing is really happening, but set a timer for just one minute and see how long you can make it. When your forearms and shoulders are screaming, you’ll know for sure there’s more to it.
Hanging from the bar for as long as you can challenges your grip strength, stamina, and overhead mobility. Relax your shoulders and start with :20-:30 seconds at a time. Don’t underestimate the dead hang. Take your time to build up to one minute.
2. Work on Scap Pull Ups
From the dead hang, activate your scapula by pulling down on the bar, squeezing your shoulder blades, and moving your shoulders away from your ears. Don’t let your legs and back get loosey-goosey. Keep your core tight and maintain a hollow body so your feet are slightly in front of you
Holding this tensed position is called an active hang and it’s the very first part of a strict pull up.
You don’t just use your arms when doing pull ups. Your “chicken wings” or scapula muscles in your upper back are some of the primary movers. Being able to control them on their own is necessary for effective pull ups.
Move between passive hang and active hang by relaxing your shoulders, then pinching them together again. Now you’re doing scap pull ups.
3. Do Holds & Negatives
Use a box or bench to jump up into the top position of a pull up with your chin over the bar and your elbows bent. Again, keep your core tight and don’t let your back arch or your legs swing. Point your toes for extra credit. Hold this position at the top of the pullup for as long as you can, then lower down into the negative.
For the negative, slowly lower down from the hold position with a 3-5 second count. (This is considered the eccentric part of the movement.) Keep the negative slow and controlled through the entire movement all the way to the bottom of a dead hang—straight elbows and relaxed shoulders.
If you can master holds and slow eccentric negatives, you can master strict pull ups.
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4. Use Bands to Lighten the Load
If you have access to a thick or wide band, you can lighten the load on your upper trunk (“the load” being the rest of your body). Loop the band around your pull up bar and pull it through itself, then tighten. You’ll be left with one loop hanging securely from the bar that you can slip your foot or knee into for extra support.
Step into the free-hanging part of the band, then work on getting in a ton of volume on your strict pull ups. The band will let you do more pull ups than you can manage unassisted, which feels great and gets you in the mental headspace of stringing together more reps.
Bands are good tools, but use them sparingly and don’t rely on them forever. Ultimately, you’ll get stronger without it.
5. Segmented (Partial) Pull Ups
If you can do one or two strict pull ups, segmenting them is an excellent way to work on the weakest parts. Remember, your weak points are what prevent you from stringing more pull ups together.
Chunk the pull up into three segments:
- To work the end of the pull up, jump to the top with your chin over the bar. Lower just a few inches until your eyes pass the bar, then come back up. Repeat for reps.
- For the middle of the movement, jump to the top of the pull up again, but this time lower down until you’re about halfway. Come back up to about eye-level with the bar, then repeat. This is probably the trickiest spot for most people, since it’s the most mechanically disadvantaged.
- Work the very bottom of the pull up starting with a scap pull. Pull yourself a little higher, then lower back down into a full dead hang.
You can also do segmented negatives if you have some extra sticky spots. Drill the segments for long enough and get ready to PR your max strict pull ups!
Happy Pulling, Heroes!
Lily is TrainHeroic’s Marketing Content Creator and a CF-L1 with an English background. She was a successful freelance marketer for the functional fitness industry until being scooped up by TrainHeroic. An uncommon combo of bookish, artsy word-nerd and lifelong athlete, Lily is passionately devoted to weightlifting, CrossFit, yoga, dance, and aerial acrobatics. Find her showcasing her artist-athlete hobbies on IG @lilylectric.