5 Unconventional Exercises To Strengthen Your Pull-Ups

5 Unconventional Exercises To Strengthen Your Pull-Ups

Note from Zach: Big thanks to Meghan Callaway for writing this KILLER guest article. If you want to really dive deep into strengthening your pull-ups then I highly recommend checking out her "ULTIMATE PULL-UP PROGRAM". 

 

The pull-up is such an empowering, effective, and fun exercise to perform. I could probably spend all day talking or writing about my passion for pull-ups. As a coach, one of my favorite experiences is to witness someone performing their first pull-up ever, or watching someone string together multiple reps for the first time. Very few exercises, no matter how technical and advanced, replicate these feelings.

As I’ve discussed on many occasions, the pull-up is a full body exercise and must be trained accordingly. Many people fail to achieve pull-up success as they focus solely on their upper body. In order to blow your pull-up performance out of the water, or even perform your first rep, upper body strength, scapular and shoulder controlled mobility, lumbo-pelvic stability, and even lower body strength matter.

When some people train with the intention of being able to perform their first pull-up, or even their fifth, they stick to pull-up regressions or regular pull-ups. Other people neglect pull-ups and pull-up regressions altogether, and perform other upper body strengthening exercises that are in no way specific to the pull-up. To be clear, while performing pull-up regressions/regular pull-ups is absolutely necessary and is the most specific method to tackling pull-ups and mastering pull-up technique, there are many unconventional exercises that will improve your overall pull-up performance. Many of these exercises have nothing to do with an actual pull-up, or even a regressed variation of a pull-up.

Without further ado, here are 5 of my favorite unconventional exercises that will improve your ability to perform pull-ups.

 

1) Single Leg Isometric Glute Bridge + Kettlebell Lowering

This exercise strengthens the muscles of the glutes and anterior core, trains the body to resist the extension of the spine, develops lumbo-pelvic stability, and scapular and shoulder controlled mobility. This advanced exercise teaches you how to generate full body tension, something that is vital if you hope to be able to perform one or many pull-ups.

Coaching Cues:

  • Set yourself up as you would during regular glute bridges. Lie on your back on the floor. Tuck your chin, and keep your neck in a neutral position.
  • Place your shin in a relatively vertical position or else your hamstring will take over.
  • Hold a dumbbell, weight plate, or kettlebell, and extend your arms so the weight is directly above your chest.
  • Before you go, take a deep breath in through your nose (360 degrees of air around the spine), brace your core (3-4), tuck your ribs towards your hips (close the space in your midsection), and squeeze your glutes. This will dramatically increase your lumbo-pelvic stability.
  • Now extend your hips by pressing through the mid to back portion of your foot and squeezing your glutes, NOT by arching your lower back. This is extremely important. In the top position, your body should form a straight line from your knees to your shoulders.
  • Extend your other leg so it is in a vertical position, straighten your knee, and point your toes towards you (dorsiflex). If you lack the hamstring flexibility you may keep your knee in more of a bent position, but whatever joint angle you adopt, maintain this angle for the duration of the exercise.
  • Keep your muscles in the moving leg relatively relaxed as this will prevent the leg from dominating the movement, and will force the muscles of your anterior core to work harder.
  • Before you perform the leg lowering movement, repeat the breathing and rib tuck pattern described above. Now contract the muscles of your anterior core as hard as you can, and slowly lower your leg and arms to a range that allows you to maintain proper form, slowly exhaling through your teeth the entire time. Once you hit your end range, return your leg and arms back to the starting position, slowly inhaling as you are doing so.
  • For the duration of the exercise, do not allow your hips to drop. Aside from the moving leg and arms, your body should remain in a fixed position. Do not allow your lower back to hyperextend or ribcage to flare, and do not allow your ribs, hips, or spine to rotate.
  • Make sure to engage the glutes and anterior core muscles on both sides of your body.

Regression:

Make this exercise easier by using less weight, by decreasing the range of the arm and leg lowering movement, or by just performing the leg lowering movement.

Progression:

Make this exercise more challenging by using more weight, or by increasing the range of the arm and leg lowering movement

2) Tall Kneeling Single Arm Bottoms-Up Presses

This exercise strengthens the muscles of the anterior core and trains the body to resist the extension and lateral flexion of the spine, develops lumbo-pelvic stability, scapular and shoulder controlled mobility, and grip strength. While this is a vertical pressing movement, it hones in on many of the elements that are integral to optimal pull-up performance.

Coaching Cues:

  • Get into a tall kneeling position and have a very slight forward lean in your torso. Position your knees so they are approximately hip to shoulder width apart.
  • Before each rep, take a deep breath in through your nose (360 degrees of air around the spine), brace your core (5-6), tuck your ribs towards your hips (close the space in your midsection), and squeeze your glutes. This will stabilize your pelvis and spine.
  • Grab the kettlebell by the horns and press the kettlebell overhead.
  • “Row” the weight down to the starting position with control. When you are “rowing” the weight down, draw your shoulder blade together and down (bring your shoulder blade in towards the spine and down towards the opposite hip). In the bottom position, your elbow should remain at approximately a 45 degree angle with your torso.
  • For the duration of the exercise, your head, torso and hips should remain in a stacked position. Do not allow your lower back to hyperextend, ribcage to flare, or your torso or hips to rotate.
  • As for your breathing, exhale after you have initiated the press and the kettlebell is traveling away from your body. Inhale and reset as the kettlebell is returning towards your body, or pause in the starting position and inhale/reset there before the next rep.

Regression:

Make this exercise easier by using less weight, or by using a dumbbell in place of the kettlebell.

Progression:

Make this exercise more challenging by using more weight.

3) Overhead Loaded Barbell Carries With Hanging Kettlebells

This advanced loaded carry variation develops lumbo-pelvic stability and trains the body to resist the extension, lateral flexion, and rotation of the spine. This innovative and effective exercise also develops shoulder and scapular stability (your shoulders and scapulae are in a relatively fixed position), grip strength, and upper and lower body strength, and has a tremendous carryover to the pull-up. The unstable nature of the hanging kettlebells makes this exercise significantly more challenging than traditional overhead loaded carries that involve dumbbells or even a loaded barbell.

Coaching Cues:

  • Set a barbell up in a squat rack, or start from the floor. Attach a band to 2 separate kettlebells, hanging the band from either end of the barbell. If you are starting from the ground, deadlift the weight up, then clean and press the weight into the starting overhead position. Proper lifting form matters.
  • Before you go, take a deep breath in through your nose (360 degrees of air around the spine), brace your core (6-7), tuck your ribs towards your hips (close the space in your midsection), and squeeze your glutes. This will stabilize your pelvis and spine.
  • Now press the barbell so it is overhead and your arms are in a vertical position. Your elbows should be extended (not hyperextended).
  • Draw your shoulder blades together and down (bring each shoulder blade in towards the spine and down towards the opposite hip). This will help stabilize your upper body and will keep your arms from swinging. Keep your arms in an overhead position.
  • While maintaining this full body position, walk 25-50m, turn around, and return to the starting position. The turnaround will be the most challenging component of the exercise. If space permits, you have the option of walking in a longer, straighter line and not turning around.
  • For the duration of the exercise, your head, torso, and hips should be in a stacked position, and your pelvis level. Do not allow your lower back to hyperextend, ribcage to flare, or torso, spine or pelvis to rotate.
  • For the duration of the exercise, keep taking deep breaths into your belly through your nose (360 degrees of air around the spine), slowly exhaling through your teeth.

Regression:

Make this exercise easier by using less weight (barbell and/or kettlebells), or by walking a shorter distance. You may also decrease the length of the hanging bands as this will make the kettlebells more stable.

Progression:

Make this exercise more challenging by using more weight (barbell and/or kettlebells), by walking a greater distance, or by increasing the length of the hanging bands.

4) Single Arm Hanging Leg Raises

The single arm hanging leg raise will help you take your pull-ups to a whole other level. This extremely advanced exercise develops anterior core strength and lumbo-pelvic stability, upper body strength, grip strength, and shoulder and scapular stability (shoulder and scapula are in a fixed position). This exercise teaches you how to generate full body tension, something that is vital if you hope to be able to perform one or many pull-ups. Personally, I think that the shoulder and scapular stabilization requirements are the most impressive feature of this exercise.

Coaching Cues:

  • Grab onto a ring and adopt a neutral grip.
  • Before you go, take a deep breath in through your nose (360 degrees of air around the spine), brace your core (3-4), tuck your ribs towards your hips (close the space in your midsection), and squeeze your glutes. This will stabilize your pelvis, spine, and legs, and will prevent your body from swinging.
  • Without bending your elbow or initiating the movement with your arm, use the muscles in your mid and upper back and draw your shoulder blade towards your spine and down towards the opposite hip, and lift your body a few inches. Keep your body in this position for the duration of the exercise.
  • Straighten your knees, contract your quads and hamstrings, and point your toes towards you (dorsiflex). You may cross one ankle over the other.
  • While keeping your entire body in a fixed position (aside from your legs), take a deep breath in through your nose (360 degrees of air around your spine), brace your core (5-6), tuck your ribs towards your hips (close the space in your midsection), and squeeze your glutes. Now slowly bring your legs up so they are at least parallel to the ground, and lower them to the starting position. Make sure that your knees and ankles remain in a fixed position.
  • For the duration of the exercise, keep your core muscles braced, ribs tucked towards your hips, and glutes engaged.
  • For the duration of the exercise, your head, torso, and hips should remain in a stacked position. Do not allow your lower back to hyperextend or ribcage to flare, as this defeats the purpose of the exercise.
  • Use a range of motion that will allow you to maintain proper form for 100% of your reps. As you become fatigued, your range of motion might decrease, but maintain your form. This is extremely important.
  • Do not use any momentum, or allow your body to swing. Aside from your legs, your body should remain close to still.

Regression:

Make this exercise easier by performing the double arm variation.

Progression:

Make this exercise more challenging by increasing your range of motion.

 

 

5) Contralateral Bird Dog Single Arm Row Combo

This deceptively challenging exercise strengthens the muscles of the anterior core and glutes, trains the body to resist the extension, rotation, and lateral flexion of the spine, and develops lumbo-pelvic stability. This advanced exercise teaches you how to generate full body tension, something that is vital if you hope to be able to perform one or many pull-ups.

This exercise also strengthens and builds the muscles of the mid and upper back, and to a lesser degree the arms, and develops shoulder and scapular controlled mobility (and stability on the planted side), particularly as the resistance increases. If you are performing this exercise correctly, the muscles in your mid and upper back, not your arms, should be doing the majority of the work.

**This exercise is significantly tougher than it looks, so start out using about 1/3 of the weight that you would to perform regular bent-over rows.

Coaching Cues:

  • Kneel on a bench. Position one hand so it is directly below your shoulder, and grab onto a dumbbell or kettlebell with the opposite hand. Like a bird dog, extend your leg that is on the opposite side of your body as the rowing arm so it's backwards and is parallel to the ground. Keep this leg flexed, and foot dorsiflexed.
  • Set your body so your head, torso, hips, and leg are in a stacked position, and maintain this position for the duration of the exercise. Do not allow your lower back to hyperextend, or your ribcage to flare. Conversely, do not allow your spine to go into excessive flexion. Make sure that your torso and pelvis stay square to the floor and that they do not rotate. Keep your chin tucked and neck in neutral alignment.
  • Before you initiate the row, take a deep breath in through your nose (360 degrees of air around the spine), brace your core (6-7), tuck your ribs towards your hips (close the space in your midsection), and squeeze your glutes. This will stabilize your pelvis and spine and will allow you to focus on your upper body.
  • Keep your grip relatively loose, and initiate the movement by using the muscles in your mid and upper back, not by pulling with your arm.
  • Stop the rowing movement when your elbow is in line with your side, or slightly past. Lower the weight with control, and make sure that you keep your shoulder from collapsing, and do not use excessive momentum. If you do you will find that you will lose balance.
  • Exhale after you have initiated the rowing movement, and then take another deep breath in through your nose (360 degrees of air around the spine) as you are lowering the weight to the starting position. You also have the option of holding your breath for the duration of the rep and exhaling and re-inhaling before the next rep.
  • Reset and repeat before each rep.

Regression:

Make this exercise easier by using less weight.

Progression:

Make this exercise more challenging by using more weight, or by performing the ipsilateral variation.

 

  1. Landmine Deadlifts (if you want to use this)

This deadlift variation strengthens and develops the muscles of the posterior chain. This exercise also develops grip strength, shoulder and scapular stability (your shoulders and scapulae are in a relatively fixed position), and lumbo-pelvic stability. Having a strong posterior chain will stabilize your pelvis and lower body, thus improving your overall ability to perform pull-ups. This deadlift variation is much less technical than many other deadlift variations, and can be done by people of most fitness levels and abilities.

Coaching Cues:Set up a barbell so it is lengthwise. You may anchor the barbell against a stable surface like a wall, weight plate, or box, or you may use a landmine attachment.

  • Position your body so the front of the barbell is an inch or so from your pelvis. If you execute the hip hinge and lockout to perfection, the end of the barbell should not strike your body.
  • Adopt whatever foot stance works best for you, and have a very slight bend in your knees.
  • Form a tripod base by placing your weight on the mid to back portion of your feet, and keep your toes down, particularly your big and baby toes. These parts of your feet should remain in contact with the floor for the duration of the exercise. You can pretend that you are suctioning or screwing your feet to the ground.
  • Keep your elbows straight, arms rigid, and squeeze them into your sides. Pretend that you are trying to crush something in your armpits. During the hip hinge, your arms should graze the inside of your thighs, and during the lockout, your arms and hands should remain tight to your body. The bar and your arms should not travel ahead of your body.
  • Before each rep, take a deep breath in through your nose (360 degrees of air around your spine), brace your core (7-8), and tuck your ribs towards your hips (close the space in your midection).
  • Now hinge/push your hips backwards as far as you can. Pretend that a rope is attached around your hips and is pulling them backwards, or that you are trying to push your glutes backwards into a wall that is behind you.
  • When you feel a mild stretch in your hamstrings, return to the starting position by driving through the mid to back of your feet and squeezing your hamstrings and glutes. With this, and any hinging movement, lower does not necessarily mean better. Lower yourself by hinging your hips back, not by rounding your back, dropping your chest down towards the floor, or squatting down. Even if you don’t feel a stretch in your hamstrings, stop before you feel your back round.
  • Lock out at the top by squeezing your glutes, hamstrings and quads and extending your hips/extending your knees, bracing your core, tucking your ribs towards your hips, and driving your arms into your sides.
  • For the duration of the exercise, your head, torso, and hips should remain in a stacked position. Do not allow your spine to hyperextend or round. Keep your neck in neutral alignment and chin tucked. Do not look up.
  • As for breathing, exhale as you are returning to the starting position, and inhale when you are in the top position before you initiate the next rep
  • Reset before each rep.

Regression:

Make this exercise easier by using less weight.

Progression:

Make this exercise more challenging by using more weight, by adding band resistance, or by performing negative reps and taking 3-5 seconds to hinge your hips back.

 

Meghan Callaway is a strength coach from Vancouver, Canada. She has over 14 years of experience coaching elite athletes, post-physical therapy rehabilitative-strength training clients, to the everyday person who is looking to feel, perform, and function at a higher level.

Meghan believes that working out should be fun, empowering, and effective, and is extremely passionate about helping her clients achieve their unique goals. Meghan definitely uses an individualized approach with her coaching and training programs. Meghan has become somewhat known for her love of pull-ups, and other advanced bodyweight exercises. To Meghan, these exercises represent play and freedom, and she loves to teach others how to perform these exercises.

Meghan has an extensive athletic background, and has played competitive soccer for 27 years. She also grew up playing ice hockey and baseball on boys teams.

Meghan majored in kinesiology at the University of British Columbia. She is a published writer and blogger, and loves to share her knowledge and passion through her writing and on podcasts. 

Website: http://www.meghancallawayfitness.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/meghan.callawaypt

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/meghancallaway/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/fitfaststrong

Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/user/meghanc12

 

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