Pull-ups are tough, there is no way around it. This basic demonstration of athleticism requires a high level of relative strength which can be challenging to develop for some clients. Nevertheless, with the right plan, your clients can build the strength needed to do a pull-up.
Don’t let the fitness blogs lie to you, there is not one pull-up progression that works for everyone.
The first step to that pull-up isn’t an exercise, it’s an assessment. You need to figure out why the client cannot do a pull-up first, before starting a progression. This assessment can be as simple as having the client attempt to do a pull-up or as detailed as this three-part assessment.
Once you’ve conducted an assessment and identified the limitation you can begin a progression. Here are two common reasons for why clients can’t do a pull-up and progressions to fix each.
One common reason that clients cannot do a pull-up is that they lack the motor control needed to depress the scapula and engage the lats. This presents itself as rounded shoulders and shrugging when trying to do a pull-up or a failure to pull their shoulders down away from their ears or bending at the elbow during an active hang on the bar. Alternately, these clients can perform a pull-up but do so with an overreliance on their upper trapezius.
These clients need to learn how to engage the right musculature to do a pull-up. It is common for clients to struggle to engage the lats, rhomboids, and lower trapezius. To teach them to do this program exercises that are high in volume and low in intensity. (Learn how to manipulate volume and intensity here.) These include straight arm lat pulldowns, horizontal rows, scapula pull-ups, banded horizontal rows, etc.
A. Horizontal Single Arm Band Row @2113; 10-12 reps x 3 sets, 60 seconds rest
B. Straight Arm Lat Pull Down @3131; 10-12 reps x 3 sets, 60 seconds rest
C1. Scapula Pull-Ups @1012; 8-10 reps x 4 sets, 60 seconds rest
C2. Hollow Body Hold; 60 seconds x 4 sets, 60 seconds rest
Only after demonstrating proficiency in these exercises can the client progress on to building the strength for the pull-up.
Starting a client who needs to develop motor control on a strength progression, as explained below, is a recipe for developing compensatory movement patterns and an increased risk of injury.
The second common reason clients can’t do a pull-up is that they are lacking the strength to overcome their own bodyweight.
To build that strength you need to reduce the intensity of the movement by removing some weight. Gravitron or assisted pull-up machines are perfect for doing this because the movement is still a pull-up just with less weight. If one is not available, focus on slow eccentric pull-ups, partner-assisted pull-ups, and add bands if needed. These clients also need to focus on accessory pulling work to build their strength such as lat pull-downs, horizontal rows, curls, and cable rows.
A. Eccentric Pull-Up @50A3; 3-4 reps x 4 sets, 2 minutes rest
B. Gravitron Assisted Pull-Up @20X0; 6-8 reps x 3 sets, 2 minutes rest
C1. Single-Arm Dumbbell Row @30X1; 10-12 reps x 3 sets, 90 seconds rest
C2. EZ Bar Bicep Curls; 10-12 reps x 3 sets, 90 seconds rest
Increase intensity (weight) and decrease volume (reps) over time for this client until they build adequate strength to perform their first pull-up.
While lacking motor control or strength are both common roadblocks for getting that first pull-up the reason your client cannot do a pull-up is unique to them. Understanding progressions and limitations to pull-ups aren’t enough.
To help your client the way you’ve always imagined you need to be able to understand their unique situation during the consultation and assessment. Learn our systematic assessment and become the coach in your gym when you download our free Coach’s Toolkit.