The Pull-Up Project

The case for developing relative strength prior to chasing absolute strength gains. 

I am a steadfast believer that an athlete has to be able to handle their own bodyweight in order to progress into more advanced training methods in order to develop absolute strength and power. 

Bodyweight strength, contrary to what you see on Instagram, consists of movements where an athlete is subjected to managing their own bodyweight through a controlled range of motion while performing a strength movement.

When discussing strength there are two sub-categories: Absolute and Relative.

  • Absolute Strength refers to an athlete’s ability to move a maximal external load.  This is identified as one rep max strength and for most athletes this is the benchmark for being “strong”.
  • Relative Strength is an athlete’s strength as it relates to their bodyweight.  This form of strength can also be termed ‘original strength’ and is tested through pull-ups, push-ups, planks, and other bodyweight variations.

For athletes of all ages, but especially athletes new to strength training, it is imperative that the training emphasis focus on relative strength prior to developing absolute strength.

As I’ve mentioned in countless other articles, it is my opinion that young athletes are done a disservice with their strength training.  For most athletes, when they walk into a high school weight room or private performance center they are introduced to traditional strength training methods with a barbell and dumbbells.  While this style of training is imperative for an athlete’s development of power this should be reserved for an individual who has the capability to express relative strength at a high level.

For me, I believe that the pull-up is the best measuring stick for relative strength and should be a benchmark for the success of any strength and conditioning program.

If is my philosophy, that if an athlete cannot perform at least 5 quality pull-ups they should not be allowed to do any form of absolute strength training.  This foundation of relative strength will provide the posterior stability needed to allow the athlete to build absolute strength in a safe manor and one that will increase their strength potential over the duration of their athletic career.

So, how do you go about developing relative strength for an athlete who struggles with the pull-up?

To start, you have to understand the dynamics of the movement as the pull-up is one of the most butchered movements and one that the majority of athletes don’t truly know how to perform.

First off, the starting position is a challenge to get into.  With athletes hanging from the bar their scapula is upwardly rotated and protracted which puts the prime mover (latissimus dorsi) in a compromised and mechanically disadvantaged.

In order to correct this, the athlete needs to be taught to retract and depress the scapula prior to initiating the movement.  If the athlete fails to do this the prime mover will then become the biceps which are weaker than the lat’s and not the intended training area.

For all athletes starting out with the pull-up, during the first phase, which should last 2-3 weeks, the focus should be on going from the hang position to the initial phase of scapular retraction and depression.  This will teach the athletes how to initiate the movement using the lat’s which will set them up for success through the entire range of motion.  We refer to a retracted and depressed scapula as “packed”.

Also during this phase, you will want to begin to incorporate both isometric holds as well as slow eccentrics to directly strengthen the lat’s.  This also teaches the athletes how to keep the scapula “packed” during the entire range of motion.

Typically, I will break a three week pull up phase into six separate training sessions where we will train the pull up.  The way it will breakdown is listed below…

Session 1:

  • Hang to Scapular Retraction              2X5
  • Pull-Up Iso Holds                                  3X10 seconds

Session 2:

  • Hang to Scapular Retraction              2X8
  • Pull-Up Iso Holds                                  3X15 seconds

Session 3:

  • Hang to Scapular Retraction              2X10
  • Pull-Up Iso Holds                                  2X15 seconds
  • Eccentric Pull-Ups                                2X4 w/ 5 second eccentric

Session 4:

  • Hang to Scapular Retraction              2X12
  • Pull-Up Iso Holds                                  2X20 seconds
  • Eccentric Pull-Ups                                2X6 w/ 5 second eccentric

Session 5:

  • Hang to Scapular Retraction              2X15
  • Pull-Up Iso Holds                                  2X25 seconds
  • Eccentric Pull-Ups                                2X8 w/ 5 second eccentric

Session 6:

  • Hang to Scapular Retraction              2X15
  • Pull-Up Iso Holds                                  2X30 seconds
  • Eccentric Pull-Ups                                2X8 w/ 5 second eccentric

Once you have built a base level of strength in the isometric and eccentric movements and you have taught your athletes how to initiate the movement you can begin to incorporate full pull-ups into your programming.

Of course, once you have built the strength required to perform full pull-ups you still will want to program some varied tempos in the isometric and eccentric portions in order to continue to develop greater relative strength.

For your athletes who continue to struggle with pull-ups past this point you will want to continue to focus on building up the strength in their back through high volume rows, banded pull downs, and isometric pull-up holds.

If you commit to building relative strength in your athletes before chasing absolute strength you will set your athletes up for both greater long-term training success and a healthier athletic career because they have the foundation to express absolute strength.

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