First thing’s first: You can’t let your ego keep you from reaching your true potential. When trying to improve your pull-up, it is often the case that you will have to take 10 steps back to move 20 steps forward.
I remember a few years back when I first heard about the Beast Tamer Challenge. I was so fascinated by the idea of it. I have trained weighted pull-ups since I started training, so I saw it as one of my strong suits. So I started to train for the Challenge, but with no real attention to detail. I didn’t have access to a beast (48kg) at the time, but I managed to work my way up to a double 24kg pull-up.
The only problem was, I did not touch the bar. I thought this would be an easy fix: I just have to touch next time. I’ll tell you what, 2 inches never seemed so big. In order to rebuild strength in the new pathway, I had to drop down to just bodyweight for a while until the new pathway felt normal. I even had to cut back on my reps. Where I could do repeat sets of 12 the old way, I had to drop down to sets of 6-8, which was very humbling. Then, slowly, build back up.
During my journey back to a beast pull-up, I scoured just about every StrongFirst article and earned my SFL and SFB Instructor credentials-all of which were pivotal in helping me find a route that helped improve my pull-ups. I have since applied these methods for many others, and it has worked for them as well.
Method No. 1: Tactile Feedback (Physical)
First you have to start by restructuring your pull-up so that you make contact. Once you have created this new movement pathway, never ever do another pull-up that is not done to this new standard. So for a while, err on the side of caution. You want to make sure you hit and make contact every time.
The idea of tactile feedback/proprioception is huge. I read an article a few years back, when I was restructuring my pull-up, that emphasized the importance of hitting this spot, basically making a mark wherever that spot may be on you. Whether it’s the top of your chest or your neck, you want to smash that spot often.
I love grease the groove for this purpose. One perfect pull-up done multiple times with ease throughout the day. This “easy” manner will help your body remember success and will allow for strength to be built on top of a good foundation. If you work to failure, your body will remember failure. You want your body to remember success only. For this reason, I have people stop two pull-ups less than failure on any given set of bodyweight pull-ups.
When doing weighted pull-ups, I like to follow Pavel Tsatsouline and Dan John’s method discussed in Easy Strength. It is to do a mixed rep/set scheme that equals 10 reps or less. For example, 5×2, 2×5, 3×3 etc. Once you are reintroducing load to your pull-ups, keep each set lighter than what you think you could have done. If you think you can do 5×2 with a 24, use a 20kg bell and work on staying explosive. Save maxing out for competition (Beast Tamer, Iron Maiden or TSC.)
Method No. 2: Intent to Explode (Mental-Increase Neural Drive)
The second method that drastically helps to improve your pull-up is “intending to explode”. I read the idea of neural drive in Stu McGill’s book The Gift of Injury. In it he mentions how you want to have as much neural drive when you are deadlifting, and in order to do so, you need to think about exploding. Did somebody cue kettlebell swings? Talk about a great warmup for deadlifts (thanks Oliver Mosley) but that is for a different time.
Neural drive is making the nervous system more efficient with its communication with muscles. Essentially being able to get the muscles to produce “more” force. You want this to be all the way turned up when you train. This really helps to prime the system. I like to apply this to the pull-up.
In order to achieve this for the pull-up, I say always fast, always successful. If you have not gone to a StrongFirst Bodyweight Course or Certification, I highly recommend the two. During both you will learn many drills and cues for creating as much tension as you can and applying that to the pull-up. This will help with neural drive. Being able to get your muscles to contract “harder” is exactly what you want. The ability to get the most out of what you have.
Therefore, during reps that are light you should move the weight as if it is max effort. Every time you do a pull-up, act as if you are trying to fling yourself and the kettlebell through the bar, and through the ceiling. When you feel your speed drop off, go down a bell size for your remaining sets. Like (Master SFG and StrongFirst CEO) Fabio Zonin says, “the set-up is the first rep,” and part of that set-up is having intent. You have to be thinking about success and you have to think “explosive”!
Combining these two skills together make for a powerful and explosive pull-up. Make sure to have the bar strike the same spot over and over again and make sure to keep your intent explosive. Both of these strategies take time and patience to develop. You will also need to put your ego in check, as it will want you to speed ahead and try to progress faster than you should.