by Carmen Bott MSc. CSCS
If there is any exercise I see missing from the majority of wrestling ‘strength’ programs, it’s pull-ups. Sure, there are all kinds of new, and in my opinion, limited variations of this staple exercise such as suspension system inverted rows and power band assisted pull-ups. However, these second cousins do not compare to the relative strength gains one can achieve with a strict, full-body pull-up.
Even if, right now, YOU CANNOT EVEN DO ONE.
Pull-ups are one of those exercises many struggle with technically and thus hesitate to master. For a heavyweight it can be tough coming off a 375 lb bench to max out at a ‘4’ measly BW pull-ups and for the female wrestler, the pull-up can appear to be, literally speaking, “out of arm’s reach.” But, since strength is a skill, a correct pull-up can be learned and achieved.
Once full-body tension becomes part of the technical equation, then the sky is the limit in gains in relative strength.
First, let me clarify the semantics of the pull-up and define its action. The pull-up is classified as a closed kinetic chain vertical pulling exercise. A traditional or tactical pull-up relies on full body strength with no swinging or "kipping" (using a forceful initial movement of the legs in order to gain momentum). Think of the pull-up as an exercise that integrates the entire musculoskeletal system. Pull-ups are just as intense for your back muscles as they are for your abdominals and your quadriceps!
So, do not let the internet fool you when you read: “It isolates the lats.”
At the local gym and even on “You-tube university” you will see all kinds of versions of the pull-up. You might see bent knees or legs dangling like they have lost their life. You will see rounded upper backs and shoulders elevated up to the earlobes. You will see super wide grips and narrow underhand grips, incorrect breathing strategies, and the use of straps. And my personal favorite – the half-a- pull-up. These are all technical flaws, if your goal is to improve your strength. The pull-up in its true form isn’t simple at all; it requires the ability to generate high levels of muscular tension and the mental focus.
During a traditional pull-up, the trunk links the upper body to the lower body through a high-tension posture called the hallow position, practiced by gymnasts. To do this, imagine hanging from a pull-up bar with your knees locked out, quads tight, your toes pulled upwards and your trunk/abdomen rock hard. Even a beginner can learn this technique through negatives or partial reps.
Now onto the important stuff right? The technical and programming details that will lead you right into pull-up greatness!
The 5 Rules for Improving Pull-up Strength for Wrestling
Rule 1: Do not train to failure. It is too hard for the nervous system to bounce back from this. Plus, I argue that in order to maintain maximal tension, one cannot push the limits. Instead, do several sets (more than 5) and always leave one, strict rep in the bank. If you can only do one rep, start with one. If you can only do a negative rep, begin there. Let the protein filaments of the muscle fibers have an opportunity to greet each other at your weakest angles – this is the key to strength! And keep at it. Don’t add those stretchy band things…
Rule 2: Vary your grip. Change from an overhand, shoulder-width grip to an overhand thumbless grip and even try a neutral grip (palms face each other). Vary these on each training session and it is also always a good idea to try doing pull-ups from different apparatus, like monkey bars at the park. To spare your elbow and shoulders, do not do wide grip pull-ups or underhand grip chin-ups.
Rule 3: Grip harder with your ring and pinky fingers. This is a gem I picked up on my own as I experimented in the gym. I found that if I applied pressure with the outside of my palm into the bar and squeezed really hard with both last 2 fingers, while maintaining an open chest posture, I could facilitate a slight external rotation of my humerus on the up phase which is a much safer and smoother motion for the gleno-humeral joint.
Rule 4: Perfect practice. Open your chest. (Do not lift your chest). Posture is key on this exercise. Keep your shoulders away from your ears on both the up phase and the down phase of the pull-up. If you cannot maintain strict form, then regress to negative again or reduce your volume. You must also lock out your knees and hold your lower body very rigid as you pull upwards. If you are doing it correctly, your legs will travel upwards as a consequence of tight abdominals and locked knees (remember, the muscle that crosses your hip joint?) A tip: Hold a foam roller between your thighs, just above your knees to encourage inter-muscular coordination.
Rule 5: Train frequently and be specific. If you want to improve on pull-ups, then do pull-ups. Sounds obvious doesn’t it? Lat Pulldowns and variations alike will not transfer well to this exercise because it does not engrain high tension techniques. You can train this lift 2-4 times per week. Two days per week, you can do more volume and make it the main focus of your training session and on the other 2 days, you can ‘sprinkle in’ a pull-up here and pull-up there.
Now, Get After it!
~ Coach Bott
Carmen Bott has been in the sport performance and fitness training industry for over 20 years and is considered a resource in exercise prescription and strength coaching for the combative and collision sport athlete population(s). Carmen holds a bachelor’s in Human Kinetics and a Master’s degree in Exercise Physiology. As a member of the International Network of Wrestling Researchers, Coach Bott’s methods are grounded in science, but it is her 20+ years of experience that allow her to transfer the science into practice.