10 Tips, Exercises and Progressions to Improve your CrossFit Pull Ups

The expression ‘CrossFit Pull Ups’ is used in the context of this article as an umbrella term to encompass the wide variation of pull ups that appear in CrossFit workouts. Some of these tips, exercises and progressions are general, and others are specific for certain forms of pull up. At the basis of everything, there needs to be good movement and strict strength, as without either of these two pillars, your CrossFit pull ups will fail, or worse, you will get injured.

CrossFit Pull Ups – Which Progressions Should I Use?

Using a band?

Well at the bottom of the pull up that is when the band is most elongated therefore making the hardest initiation of the pull up the easiest part, also the thicker the band the more tendency there is to start swinging, you may feel like you’re doing pull ups because your chin is going over the bar but you’re not going to build any real strength. Fine for wods and getting your sweat on, not for pull ups if you can’t do them yet.

Jumping pull ups?

No, just no.  You’ve deleted the entire start of the movement, even if you can lower down slowly you’re still not initiating the movement yourself, your body isn’t learning anything.

Ring rows?

Yes, a phenomenal fundamental exercise that should be performed by everyone BUT in relationship to a pull up, the direction is totally different, a ring row is a horizontal pull, the pull up is a vertical pull.

Tip 1 – Beginner Pull Up Progression

Here is a great example of a pull up progression, and guess what, it’s no different to what you would see in the kids classes, for some reason as adults we can’t be seen to be going for the simpler option, but truthfully if you’ve never done these before those gains are just sitting there waiting to be had! Check it out:

Yes it sucks but you have to be committed to get the pay off. Strict, kipping or butterfly, to be successful with workouts you need to master all of these different CrossFit pull ups.

Ring Exercises To Build Strict Strength for Pull-Ups

Do you want to crush kipping and butterfly pull-ups when they show up on the board?

Maybe you’re still on your journey to your first pull-up.

Either way, what is the secret sauce to more pull-ups?

upper body strength pull upsSource: RX'd Photography
train hard!

Build your strict strength.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s absolutely technical elements that you need to work on to be efficient with kipping and butterfly pull-ups. Let’s dig a little deeper though. What’s the limiting factor for most people when we see 50 pull-ups on the board?

Why do technical breakdowns happen?

From the athletes I work with on-site, I can tell you that a majority of the time, the answer usually leads back to building a strong base of strict strength. If you’re not strong enough, all your technical abilities will start to diminish once you start approaching your threshold. And I’m not sure about you, but I’m not a fan of feeling like a flailing fish trying to get my chin over the bar.

Banded Pull-Ups and Ring Rows are great tools for building your strict strength, but should absolutely not be the only things in your toolbox. Sure, if it comes up in a class workout, you may use these as scaling options.

But what are you doing outside of the workout to prepare your body to handle high volume gymnastics?

Tip 2 – Strip the skill away

That means we can put kipping and butterfly in our back pocket for now. Let’s focus on developing the structures necessary for efficient pull-ups:

  • Strong lats
  • Stable shoulders
  • Death grip
  • Core of steel
  • Spidey-sense-like body awareness

This doesn’t necessarily mean we always have to hop up on the pull-up bar. The phases of strength I like to think about when it comes to gymnastics movements were pointed out to me by Dave Durante.

They’ve stuck with me ever since:

  • Phase 1: Creation of body shapes
  • Phase 2: Static and controlled movement
  • Phase 3: Dynamic action
  • Phase 4: Routines, complexes, and sequences

The following exercises are focused on improving Phase 2. If you find yourself skipping phases or focused too much on dynamic action (kipping and butterfly pull-ups), you’ll be surprised with what can happen when you start feeding your weaknesses with the earlier phases.

  • Hang on to the bar longer
  • Perform large sets unbroken
  • Reduce and prevent shoulder/elbow pain
  • And much more

Tip 3 – Ring Face Pulls Progression

The Ring Face Pull is a favorite of mine due to the engagement you can feel in throughout the entire upper back. It’s a great pulling variation that allows you to wake up the muscles that will be necessary when you hop up on the bar.

Perform 4 x 6-8 reps with a 2112 Tempo.

(Here’s an article that does a great job explaining how to read tempo prescriptions).

Tip 4 – Single Arm Ring Row Progression

We know how beneficial the classic Ring Row can be for improving your pulling strength. I’m a huge fan of unilateral movements because we can individually address R/L imbalances while also involving movement in a different plane of motion.

To scale the difficulty of this, you can walk your feet past the rings to be more parallel with the floor (harder) or walk further away from the rings for a more upright position (easier).

Perform 4 x 6-8 reps with a 2112 Tempo.

Tip 5 – Supinated Ring Row Progression

High volume gymnastics can take a toll on your elbows and shoulders. The goal is to mitigate this as much as possibly by addressing potential holes in your game.

Your grip is one of them.

A lot of what I did with Olympic Weightlifting and CrossFit was with a pronated grip. Think about how you would perform 5 repetitions of a Hang Clean or 10 repetitions of Toes To Bar.

If we become deficient in the following grip variations, not only might you start experiencing aches & pains, your performance will suffer:

  • Neutral Grip – Closed (ex. Farmer’s Walk)
  • Neutral Grip – Open (ex. Pinch Grip Carries)
  • Supinated (ex. Palm facing towards you if you’re hanging on a pull-up bar)

The Supinated Ring Row is a phenomenal way to challenge and support your development.

Perform 4 x 8-10 reps at 2112 Tempo.

CrossFit Pull ups – Putting it all together

I invite you to spend 15 minutes before or after the rest of your training to work towards improving your strict strength for pull-ups. You’d be surprised at how quickly 15 minutes adds up over 5 days, 4 weeks, or 2 months.

Tip 6 – Improve your strict pull-ups

Begin with improving your strict pull ups: wide grip, chin ups, rope pull ups, weighted, etc. Improved overall strength will be your advantage and could possibly save you from injuries that can occur during fast, explosive swings and hanging movements.

If you’re a beginner, scale them with ring rows, place your feet on the box and do eccentric pull ups. More about progression comes in the last paragraph.

Chest to bar pull ups.

Tip 7 – Develop and learn to control the (explosive) kip during CrossFit pull ups

Efficient kip is what will get you through higher volume of crossfit pull ups. Start swinging your feet backwards and forward, from global extension to flexion (hollow position), while maintaining tension throughout your body.

Kipping is about coordination, controlling the movement and keeping it in a certain, efficient rhythm which creates weightless momentum when you can “pull” yourself up with using less strength than with a strict version. The power generators in this phase are the hips and the core, and the explosiveness of the kip depends on the force produced (with it). Chest-to-bars need a stronger kip, more power generated to bring your body higher.

See Carl Paoli’s video for bar kip progression.

Tip 8 – Tighten the glutes and core more

Using the hips means engaging the glutes, large powerful muscles, consisting of gluteus maximus muscle (considered to be one of the strongest muscles of the human body), gluteus medius muscle, gluteus minimus muscle and tensor fasciae latae muscle. They enable us to bend and straighten the hips and produce the explosive jumping power, or in our case, the explosive “kipping” power.

Besides keeping our spine stabilized and our movement under control, core’s task is also to generate more power within the movement. Tight core will enable you to produce a higher power when kicking down and up with your legs during pull ups.

Tip 9 – Move elbows behind the back

Don’t allow your neck to break (or your head to fall back at the top of the movement). As Carl Paoli says keep it in a neutral position. At the finish position elbows go behind the back (pull them all the way back) which allows chest to touch the bar.

Tip 10 – Work more on your engine (and tactics)

Kipping or butterfly chest to bar pull ups come usually in a higher volume with bigger power demands (longer range of motion), incorporated in MetCons which also include some form of weightlifting. Improving your metabolic conditioning will also help you last longer: get tired later and therefore give you more control over your pacing and workout itself.

Mat Fraser recently stated that Rich Froning is simply amazing at knowing himself and how to pace throughout the movement. Observe yourself more how your react to certain MetCons and learn to pace your performance properly. Like Jason Khalipa states in the video below you don’t to peak up at the first round and shut down in the second.

For more tips on how to improve your Crossfit pull ups, this is a great place to start: 

Why You Don’t Have Strict Pull Ups Yet

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