Pull-Up Power: From No Reps to Getting Over the Bar with 36kg

Ah, the trusty pull-up. Once a staple of every child’s PE class, it has fallen by the wayside as physical education in schools has declined. So even though pull-ups are still one of the best exercises you can do, for many people they’re nothing more than a distant memory of being yelled at by a drill sergeant-like PE teacher in a dusty old gymnasium. That’s how it was for Jen Meehan when she became reacquainted with pull-ups at a StrongFirst SFG Level II certification in 2013. (Pull-ups and the pistol are now part of the SFB.) Yet between then and now, she has not only gotten back on the bar for bodyweight pull-ups, but progressed to a 24kg weighted rep when she tamed the Iron Maiden Challenge in 2015, and can now pull a 36kg bell for two consecutive reps. In this interview, Jen shares how she went from zero bodyweight reps to adding weight, the accessory exercises that developed her core and grip strength, and the mental techniques that propel her pull-up feats.

What motivated you to try weighted pull-ups?

I saw some strong ladies doing weighted pull-ups at an SFG Level II certification and thought, “I want to do that.” When I first started, I couldn’t do any. But with patient work on the fundamentals, I progressed to a few shaky bodyweight reps. My confidence and skill improved with more practice, and, once I could do ten solid reps, I started adding weight. I’d decided to work towards getting 24kg as part of the Iron Maiden Challenge.

JenMeehan_Weighted_Pullup

There are a lot of pull-up programs out there. What’s your go-to plan?

I experimented a lot before settling on a three-day-a-week plan: 30-20-10, for a total of 60 pull-ups per week. That might not sound like many, but when you’re doing quite a bit of volume and starting to add weight, you need a lot of recovery.

The first day I’d complete 30 bodyweight reps. That could be three sets of 10, or 13, 10, and 7—anything as long as I got 30 total. The second day, I’d do a 20-rep scheme, such as four sets of five. One of my go-to sessions was a warmup set, five reps with the 16kg bell, two sets of five at 18kg, and the final set of five at 16kg again.

Then on the third day, I’d reduce the volume, but increase the weight to do 10 reps. This involved sets of one or two in which I really focused on using tension techniques and maintaining the integrity and quality of each repetition. I might start with two reps at 20kg, another two at 24kg, two one-rep sets at 28kg, one rep at 32kg, another at 28kg, and the final two back down to 20kg. I’m still using a version of this plan today, and it has helped me to pull-up a 36kg bell for two reps.

Click to view in Instagram (new window).https://www.instagram.com/p/Bs6MMUFh9E0/

When you started adding weight, did you notice any technique issues and if so, how did you correct these?

When you add weight, the tendency is to start looking up, particularly at the top when you try to get over the bar. If you do this, you begin to peel away from the bar, losing the hollow position that keeps your body linked up—a must for solid pull-ups. Think about what happens if you look up while planking: your tension decreases. Same goes for a pull-up—it’s a moving plank that goes over the bar.

Placing the weight on my foot helped me nail the required hanging hollow position. I focused on pulling my toes up to the ceiling while keeping my glutes tight and my rib cage connected to my hips. Plus, it prevented me from using any leg momentum to get over the bar. By taking away any freedom to compensate, I earned my strength with a solid groove. If you have linkage, there is no leakage.

Working on my set-up has also been crucial. You need to secure the belt properly and decide what feels good as far as chain length. This is something that varies, so find your strongest set-up.

After playing around, I found that my best spot was to have the bell above my knees, in what I call the “nest” of my thighs. That creates the feeling of being in the hollow hold. As the weight got bigger and heavier, I had to adjust the chain length again because the bell would hang below my knees. Some days all I’ll do is experiment with my set-up, get used to hanging from the bar, and make sure everything is where it’s supposed to be. When you come to test yourself with a heavy bell, you don’t want any doubts about where it will go. Become one with the bar.

When you were training for the Iron Maiden Challenge, how did you work in the press and pistol?

They were part of my three-day plan. For the first day, I would do high rep sets of single-leg squats and hold a light weight in each hand to help me counterbalance. The second day, I did higher reps, such as four sets of five reps with 12 or 16kg. For my 10-rep day, I’d maybe do two reps each of 16, 20, 24kg, and 28kg. If I did heavy weighted pull-ups one day, I’d do my higher volume single-leg squats as well because I don’t respond well to doing all my heaviest stuff in a single session—unless it’s testing day!

The same thing applied to my pressing. I usually used double bells for my volume day—say four sets of five reps with 16kg. For the 10-rep scheme, I’d do heavy singles, moving up from 18 to 20 to 24kg. Sometimes I’d perform three sets of 10 single-arm presses with a 12kg bell to build endurance. As with the pistols, I didn’t do heavy presses and pull-ups both on the same day.

With all three of the Iron Maiden lifts, I got to a point where what I had planned to do on a specific day didn’t matter if I wasn’t feeling right. Say I was going for two pull-ups with a 24kg. If I did the first one and something felt off, I’d drop to 20kg for the second. You must listen to what your body is telling you. Sometimes you need to regress to progress.

When a beginner comes to you asking for help getting to weighted pull-ups, what progression do you have them follow?

My first goal is to get them to at least ten bodyweight reps before we add any weight. To do that, we start on the ground with the hollow hold, which was essential for me and is still something I practice a lot. First, I’ll have them just do the exercise itself, and once they’ve got it down, we’ll move on to them holding a dowel to mimic gripping the pull-up bar. Then we’ll progress to standing, and after that to the bar itself, where we’ll work on hand position and grip, hanging, and replicating the hollow hold. Then, they practice. 

JenMeehan_Hollow

Other training techniques I use to build strength and confidence are ring or TRX rows, flexed-arm hangs, active negatives, and assisted chin- and pull-ups. Inverted rows improve your grip and elbow drive while helping to perfect your plank from a suspended position. Flexed-arm hangs and active negatives give someone the feeling of being over the bar (rather than always under it), build isometric and eccentric strength, and increase the endurance needed for pull-ups. Chin-ups and assisted pull-ups (where I place my hands on the lats and guide the student over the bar) are also great SFB tools to put in your toolbox. 

Once they’ve got ten clean bodyweight reps, I’ll have them put a small weight on their foot. If for some reason that hurts, we might progress to using the belt right away.

Then it’s a matter of getting used to some volume while we slowly increase the weight. I have other people use the same three-day approach I’ve found to work well. Once they can get to four sets of five reps with say 8kg—which could take several months—then we can see how 10 or 12kg feels on the heavier days. If someone wants to be able to get up and over the bar with a really heavy weight, they need to realize that the key is in the volume over time. You’ve got to spend a lot of time in the trenches with the non-PR bells to achieve the heavy pull-up. 

As you started testing your pull-up with heavier weights, how did you improve your grip strength?

I did a lot of carries. I’d carry a pair of 20 or 24kg bells for distance—nothing crazy like trying to walk a mile, which would just have fried my central nervous system—but just going until maintaining my grip felt uncomfortable. I’d also do farmer and suitcase carries with lighter bells for longer distances. Doing static bottom-up holds and front squats also helped, as did deadlifts.

How has doing weighted pull-ups transferred to other exercises?

It has made me super strong all over because I’m using the full body tension principles and techniques taught at StrongFirst courses and certifications. I can deadlift 300 pounds and swing a big bell without having to train these movements daily. Weighted pull-ups also enable me to do bodyweight exercises like one-handed pushups pretty easily. Some people seem to think that focusing on pull-ups will make you weaker in other patterns. I’ve found the opposite—it actually transfers to everything if you’re consistent with your training.

Jen_Meehan_Deadlift
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https://www.instagram.com/p/BxF1PRaBf8e/

Which mental techniques do you use to get over the bar with a heavy bell?

I often say that getting out of my own way is the biggest obstacle. If you think you can’t do it, then you almost certainly won’t—there’s no time or place for negative self-talk. Just like the body adapts to a new exercise, the mind also needs to adapt. Be kind to the mind!

I have to trust my training and give it my best effort, and if for some reason I don’t make it, that’s OK. It is a journey. The more time I spend with the bar and bell, the less intimidating it becomes. Working on rituals, the fine details, and imagery have set me up for longterm success on this pull-up journey.

I spend a lot of time visualizing so I’m more confident during testing. Part of the mental side is going through my routine of putting on my belt, checking the chain length, nailing my hand placement, and feeling the bar. Then I use what I learned from the first day of the SFG I certification: belly breathing. I take two to three deep belly breaths to calm any nerves and prepare my body for pulling the heavy bell. If I’m already in a fight-or-flight state when I begin, I’m setting myself up to fail, whereas if I control my breathing, I’m cool, calm, and collected. Then I just get tunnel vision and attack the bar.

What’s your next big goal?

Now that I’ve got two reps with a 36kg bell, my next target is a 40kg pull-up. It may take a few months or years, but if I stay committed and consistent, it will happen. I’m putting in the work and the weight is starting to budge, so I’m confident that I’ll get it sooner or later. A “small but mighty” goal before that is to get four reps with 28 and 32kg. I’ve already got three of each, but I want to increase that number. 

How would you encourage someone who isn’t sure they can do a bodyweight pull-up, let alone a weighted one?

That was exactly me when I started! Now, I’m a 43-year-old, busy mom of three who can do a pull-up with a 36kg bell. StrongFirst has enabled me to discover what my body is capable of, and it can do the same for you. If you follow a path, commit to doing the hard work, and are patient, you can get to wherever you want to be. And you’ll learn a lot of valuable lessons along the way.

The best place to start? Well, that’d be at the beginning. I strongly suggest a one-day bodyweight course to learn the skill of tension. If you’re already a fitness professional (or an experienced bodyweight enthusiast), then the SFB is for you. You’ll learn all the skills you need for your eventual heavy pull-up.

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Jen Meehan
StrongFirst Certified Team Leader, Elite Instructor
Jen is a StrongFirst Certified Team Leader and Elite Instructor. She is passionate about helping students of all levels achieve their goals, improve their strength, and move better! She is determined to help you find the right training program to fit into your busy lifestyle. Jen encourages you to train with a purpose and train for life! In 2009, Jen earned her initial kettlebell instructor qualification and became a Certified Kettlebell Functional Movement Specialist in 2010. In September 2013, Jen attended StrongFirst Level 2 in Philadelphia and earned both her level 1 and level 2 certifications. Since then, she completed the SFL and SFB. Jen is also a certified Youth Fitness Specialist.

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