Remember Pez dispensers way back in the 1990s? Those little sweets being bizarrely dispensed from the neck of cartoon characters when you tipped their head backwards? Now we all know what we’re talking about we can move on to a discussion on pull ups and why some of you keep hearing the phrase “you’re not a Pez dispenser!” when you’re on the pull up bar. What is the purpose of a strict pull up or chin up? If you answered something along the lines of the development of a vertical pull using the upper body to build strength (and potentially size) in the muscles of the back, shoulders, abs and arms. Or the protection of position while moving through space. Maybe you said the fundamental building block of higher level gymnastics. Perhaps the ability to move your body through space which can help build your capacity to move external objects. Put simply, the true test of anyone’s strength to bodyweight ratio.
Consider this picture. Sam has pulled his body towards the pull up bar and moved as high as he can whilst holding his upper body and neck in a neutral and natural alignment. His chin is way over the bar and he looks in total control. He is building strength and capacity through honest, hard work. This picture again shows Sam and the pull up bar. This time he has pulled his body upwards but has pushed his chin as high as he can so that his chin is over the bar. The dreaded chin reach. The chicken neck. The infamous Pez dispenser. He hasn’t pulled as high but has tried to trick himself and anyone watching that he is totally rocking pull ups because he can get his chin over the bar. The last time we checked within strength and conditioning, a pull up was not a measure of how low you could pull yourself but still reach your chin over the bar for a rep to count. Please note at this point that the sport of CrossFit is not being examined here, where it is totally understood that the drive to meet an arbitrary movement standard may result in some suboptimal body positions being adopted to do more ‘work’ in less time. So, how do you go about remedying this in yourself, or in your athletes while they work on their strength? Let’s say that you’re following SCCF programming and you’re completing 3 sets of pull ups for max reps. How about you have someone watch, or even video, you and only count the reps where your posture and position through the upper body remained the same from the bottom of the movement to the top (and back again!)? That should sort a few issues out straight away!
Do you want to start on one of the most effective pull up or chin up progression programmes ever devised? This programme works from the starting point of you being able to do one good strict pull up or chin up, and is almost too simple to believe. Day 1 you enter the gym and at some point when you feel warm enough you jump up on the bar and do one perfect rep. You come down, rest a minute or two and then repeat your one rep. Another minute or two of rest and you hit your final rep. That’s it, three sets of one. If you completed 1-1-1, then the next time you are in the gym you strive to do two reps on your first set, followed by two further sets of one. The following session is 2-2-1, and then 2-2-2 is the goal. Assuming you are doing this little extra programme 3-4 times a week then the volume quickly builds, as does your strength. At some point however you’ll not make the numbers that you’re scheduled to hit, but don’t worry – just stick at that particular rung of the ladder until you can before moving on. If you have more reps then feel free to start at a higher starting point, but understand that the more build up sets you have then the longer you’ll be able to make progress. Around 50% of your maximum number of reps is a good place to start. So if you’ve got 10 strict pull ups then starting with 5-5-5, progressing to 6-5-5, 6-6-5 etc is where we’d recommend starting. This programme is not something that we’ve invented however, but it was given to us by Nathan Bird from CrossFit Gymnastics, and is too good to not share with everyone. Feel free to try it out and maybe even experiment with it for other things, such as press ups, dips, ring dips, handstand press ups, ring pull ups or muscle ups – just remember to make your movements crisp and precise, because fast and shit is still shit!