In the winter, I changed my workouts by switching to a building phase and increased my resistance training. Part of the program that I was following included Pull Ups. I’ve done pull ups on and off over the years, always reluctantly, because they seemed to cause me injuries and discomfort. I’d get shoulder or neck pain after doing them, and sometimes headaches. I tried using a Bosu or a bench so that I’d start closer to the bar but still couldn’t find a way to do them that didn’t cause me problems later.
If you've ever tried to do a Pull Up you know that while the concept is straightforward, pull up - lower down, the actual execution is extremely difficult. It takes tremendous strength to do a pull up. I decided that I was going to try them again and I was determined to get better, to do them without causing pain or injury, and to even like them. I can tell you that I succeeded and the key was the Band Assist. I discovered these bands at the gym and watching other fitness professionals online. The Band Assist was the difference between a successful pull up and total failure. Have a look…this video was taken after 4 weeks of training 2x/week.
This video is my Pull Up after 4 weeks of training. I’m pretty pleased with myself, as you can see!
Using a stool and the band, Pull Ups became doable!
Muscles used during the Neutral Grip Pull Up
Back of the body
Trapezius, Deltoid, Teres Major and Latissimus Dorsi
Front of the body
Deltoid, Pectoralis Major, Biceps Brachii, Brachialis, Brachioradialis
Exercise Parameters & Equipment
The protocol that I followed worked on the concept of Tri-sets. Tri-sets are three different exercises performed one after another without rest breaks. They usually target the same muscle groups for all three sets.
My Program: 10 Pull Ups, 10 Bent Over Rows, 10 Pull Ups - 4 sets
Tri-sets are a higher intensity training method which will help to make gains by pushing the target muscle group beyond it’s current limit. This type of training can reduce the workout duration because there are small or no rests in between the sets. Keep in mind, the reduction to workout duration is more than offset in the increase in intensity.
When I started in Week 1, I didn’t come close to doing 10 reps! I did very low reps for the Pull Ups and lower weight for the Bent Over Rows and I was only able to complete 3 sets.
Week 1 - 3 Pull Ups, 6 Bent Over Rows (20lbs), 1 Pull Up - 3 sets (3 minute rest in between during which I did either cardio or core exercises)
But by the 4th week, I had progressed a lot!
Week 4 - 9 Pull Ups, 10 Bent Over Rows (25lbs), 9 Pull Ups - 4 sets
These bands are inexpensive and readily available. Don’t confuse these bands with the typical rehab therabands. The Assistance Bands are much stronger with heavier resistance because they have to withstand the weight of the body. A set of 5 bands has different levels of resistance. It’s good to have variation in resistance so that as your strength improves, you can start using lighter resistance.
I was able to progress steadily and didn’t experience any pain in my neck or shoulders and didn’t suffer a single headache.
The goal, of course, is to be able to do the Pull Up without resistance SOMEDAY! But for now, this variation is a guaranteed way to make gains and to hopefully avoid injury to the neck and shoulders.
Look at the attachments of this muscle! It fans out from the back of the arm to the base of the pelvis and attaches to all the lower ribs too.
One of the side benefits of this exercise is the increase in the flexibility of the tissue that connects the shoulder to the pelvis. The Latissimus Dorsi muscle runs from the pelvic bones all the way up the low back, the ribs and attaches to the arm bone. So when your arms go up over head to hold on to the bar during a Pull Up, all of that soft tissue lengthens. As you repeatedly lift your body up and slowly lower it down, be sure to lengthen your elbows as much as you can to get to your full range of motion. Over time, you’ll notice that this exercise is like a gentle mobilization of everything (fascia, muscle, tendon, ligaments, joints and bones) that sits between the two attachments.
The Pull Up is a compound exercise. It uses multiple muscles at once which makes it a very efficient choice. If you are hoping to reduce your time working out, compound exercises are a great choice. They also help to avoid overtraining and injury (when done correctly) because you’re not working on a single exercise. Compound exercises are also functional. Generally we don’t activate one muscle at a time in everyday life. We use our muscles collectively in multiple planes of motion. Exercises like the Pull Up allow us to lengthen our muscles as we strengthen them.
I hope you decide to give this exercise a try, either again or for the first time. I’d love it if you could share your experiences with me about your own Pull Up Journey and please feel free to add your own tips and success stories. Good Luck and stay tuned for next week’s post on Sarcopenia - The Age Related Loss of Muscle