By Kenton Boutwell, SFG II
The chain rattled as he looped it through the kettlebell, securing it to his belt. He gripped the pull-up bar and lowered himself into a full hanging position. In a valiant effort, he pulled with all of his might, just managing to clear his chin over the bar. Sadly, the attempt was deemed unsuccessful, as he was unable to touch his neck to the bar.
This has been the disappointing tale of many Beast Tamer candidates.
If you watch my video below, you should be able to tell that the pull-up was by far my easiest lift, but this is because of my training history and this experience is not typical. The pull-up is the hardest movement for most people, especially the bigger guys and gals since they have even more mass to move.
So what are some technical keys to the weighted pull-up? In this article, I’m going to focus on the technical setup and execution of the pull-up, specifically the importance of mental imagery, strength, tension, hand placement, and respiration patterns. Perhaps these tips can help you have a better experience at the Beast Tamer or Iron Maiden Challenge.
The Proper Setup to Perform a Successful Pull-up
Begin by doing a few mental replays of yourself successfully completing the pull-up. Visualize the entire movement from start to finish. Getting stronger is about maximizing neural recruitment and contraction/tension patterns. By maximizing these patterns, you will improve your proficiency at overcoming external resistances. Mental imagery comes in handy when priming the neural system for motor unit recruitment.
Once the weight is hooked to you, place your hands on the bar. I recommend a near shoulder-width grip for maximal attempts. Too wide or too narrow of a grip may cause an uneven distribution of the load on the body. Try to be as symmetrical as possible. And don’t forget that a thumbless grip is mandatory.
Prior to training for the Beast Tamer Challenge, all of my pull-ups were performed non-tactically, including the thumb and excluding neck-to-bar contact. However, after training using the tactical pull-up requirements, I believe training tactically allows for the greatest muscle recruitment and engagement.
Once your grip is set, drop into a full hang position with your elbows locked out, bringing your legs together and crossing your feet. I like to place one foot in front of the bell and pull it back a bit before crossing the top leg over as a way to secure the kettlebell. The last thing you want is a kettlebell swinging back and forth while you are trying to finish your pull-up.
Many candidates perform weighted pull-ups with their feet and legs apart. In my opinion, this decreases the maximal tension you can produce. Your entire body should be tight and connected in order to perform optimally as a unit, and that’s more difficult when your feet and legs are not together.
Once you have stabilized the kettlebell, begin priming yourself for the big pull by slightly tensing your entire body. Next, inhale deeply through the nose and into the diaphragm while simultaneously giving yourself a quick body scan. Make sure everything feels stabilized and try to focus on the latissimus dorsi, core, and scapular regions as they are the key muscles involved in this movement. The biceps brachii are also involved, but I’ve intentionally excluded them here since most individuals are already overly focused on this muscle group. The breath, as always, is essential.
At this point, you should be ready to pull.
Execution of the Pull-up
In one explosive pulling motion, begin a tempo-based exhale through the mouth, while simultaneously pulling yourself toward the bar. Try to generate as much tension as possible throughout the body, starting in the lats and moving to the core region. Begin forcefully tensing the core musculature in an attempt to stabilize your body and optimize your position to touch your neck to the bar. Stabilization of the body is going to help keep you in a solid upright, vertical position and decrease the distance between you and the bar. The farther away from the bar you are, the harder it will be to successfully complete this lift.
You should strive to move your body in a straight line.
The latissimus dorsi activation coupled with core stabilization should get your chin just over the bar. As soon as your chin passes the bar, immediately shift your awareness to the scapula in order to close the distance between the bar and your neck. Think of squeezing your shoulder blades together as you begin forcefully retracting the scapula.
You should be exhaling (tempo-based) throughout your ascent, ideally finishing as your neck makes contact with the bar and shoulder blades are pinched together.
You can view a technical video breakdown of the pull-up here:
How to Progress Your Weighted Tactical Pull-up
At this point some of you may be thinking, “Well, that’s great info about the pull-up, but how do I progress to the 48/24kg bell?” As I stated in the opening paragraph, the purpose of this article was to focus on the finer technical points of the movement. True progression relies on having both great technique and great programming.
In terms of programming, my advice would be to build up to multiple sets of ten repetitions using your own bodyweight with perfect technique and form prior to loading the lift. The best way to learn this technique is to attend an SFB Course or SFB Certification. Once you are ready to start adding weight, factor in both higher volume bodyweight-only days (performing a higher number of total reps) and lower volume-loaded days (lower total reps).
Once you get within a bell size or two of the 48/24kg, then you will need to begin refining your programming and technical strategies, since fine-tuning will begin to make the most difference in the final stages of training. Good luck!
Kenton Boutwell is co-founder and CEO of GymCloud and co-owner of Evolve Fitness Nashville. He holds an M.S. in Exercise Physiology and Kinesiology, and is a StrongFirst Kettlebell Level II Instructor, American College of Sports Medicine certified Personal Trainer, USA Weightlifting Sports Performance Coach, CrossFit Level 1 Trainer, USA Powerlifting Club Coach, Precision Nutrition Level 1, and Functional Movement Screen certified fitness professional. He is also a USAF Veteran. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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