Strict Pull Ups

I heard that someone proposed a CrossFit bodyweight exercises course in the same vein as the CrossFit Kettlebells or CrossFit Gymnastics course, ridiculous right? Well while I agree that most bodyweight movements are pretty simple that doesn’t stop people from demonstrating a number of not so desirable variations of these movements.

The strict pull up is a movement that is often expressed poorly and that is the topic of this post.

When taking a session with strict pull ups I like to start with a pair of simple unloaded drills.

Drill A)

Step 1: Place your arms up in the air.

Step 2: completely bend at the elbow.

Step 3 stretch with the neck and push the chin skywards. – This is NOT what I would call a strict pull up.

If pull ups were all about getting your chin over the bar then giraffes would be better at them than gorillas!

Drill B)

Step 1: Place your arms up in the air.

Step 2: With your hands still pointing upward pull your elbows to your ribs and your shoulder blades together and down

Step 3: Observe that no neck movement is needed to have the chin clear the bar – a great pull up.

Now in CrossFit we have an arbitrary start and finish point for prescribed movements and in competition the method an athlete uses to get from start to finish is their own business.

But in training a strict pull up should be another opportunity for the athlete to demonstrate good positions and posture despite some fairly large forces trying to pull them out of position – Gravity and the big internal rotators(Lats and Pecs).

Gravity can be overcome with the Elbow flexors (Guns, Bicep group) as per air drill A detailed above and this is a legitimate way to have your chin clear the bar in competitions. In my experience athletes that are elbow flexing before they extend their shoulders end up with a heap of elbow tendinopathy. This ties in neatly with KStar’s loading and tensioning rule.

Performing the pull up like Drill B is my preferred approach but many people don’t like it because they will have to go back to the bands for a while as their strength improves.

One way to accelerate the strengthening process would be to add accessory lat push downs with the bands or cables (I like a reverse grip to inhibit internal rotation) and accessory bicep curls with a bar or dumbbells.

I have talked before about how we hate on these movements too quickly sometimes.

I would be doing more banded pull ups and lat push downs with my athletes that have strict pull ups that are elbow dominant.

For Athletes struggling to get pull ups at all I would do the above and some bicep work because the ability to close the elbow prevents the lat driven pull up mutating into some type of front lever (not easier!) Why not just do more banded pull ups? Grip strength may be an issue as can be discomfort when holding onto the bar.

Overcoming the internal rotation forces is trickier because it relies on athletes understanding a desired internal focus – external rotation, rather than the usual external focus – chin over the bar.

Read more about internal vs external focus here.

I will cue athletes on the strict pull up to try to bend the middle of the bar backward as they pull in an effort to make the internal focus more relevant but ultimately the bar won’t bend so some athletes will struggle to get their heads around it.

External foci are easier for the athlete to attack so I was instantly drawn to this exercise by Mike Boyle: The X-Pull Down

In a CF Gym we can recreate this set up with two bands attached to the pull up rig about 4-6 m apart like a traditional cable cross over.

When I was doing this in Townsville one of the owners, Rob Innes proposed that we could do the same sort of thing in a body row and the Rob Row was born. (Also Rob Rose is a NBL legend from Townsville who owns a restaurant close to the CFTSV City Box – useless fact.)

In a Rob Row the body row is set up from a seated position under the rings and the right hand grabs the left ring thumb pointing left and the left hand grabs the right ring thumb pointing right. The rings are rowed to the chest so that the arms uncross, the little fingers end up on the sides of the chest and the thumbs finish pointing out again.

The external focus is now about thumb and hand position changes and while the plane in which we are working is different acquired strength and awareness of external rotation may carry across to the Strict Pull Up more easily than in the bend the bar cue.

What about kipping pull ups? Watch these drills by Dusty and these observations by Kelly.

So that is it. Get good at strict pull ups before kipping pull ups and make sure that you are not trashing your elbows by being gun focused or trashing your shoulders by being all rolled in up there.

We do a lot of pull ups in CrossFit and it isn’t the program that breaks people it is poor execution of movements – for heaps of reps.

6 responses to “Strict Pull Ups”

  1. CrossFit Red Bluff says :

    The Rob Row adds the twist of the ring to create the external rotation you talk about (with the rings moving from a straight line to parallel). If we are doing the normal ring row with external rotation, I.e. the rings being parallel to each other rather than in a line as shown wouldn’t the same thing be achieved? What does right arm to left ring/left arm to right ring add?

    • coachingmci says :

      Yep a normal ring row with external rotation will do the job. You could cue thumbs in to thumbs out. My goal with the Rob Row was make the external rotation a bit more obvious and because the start position is a little more internally rotated there is slightly more external rotation range (more even if you start thumbs down). After we have done Rob Rows a few times and people get it then we can cue the external rotation on regular ring rows and hopefully on strict pull ups.

  2. Charlie Jones says :

    Was that Bryce and Wadeo I saw on that video at Dogtown? Cartons I’m calling it right now! On a more serious note, great article, I’m keen to get down to the box and see what I’m doing. I don’t get sore from pull ups per se just missed pull ups or missed MUs in particular, they sting like a bugger!

  3. Craig Massey says :

    I liked that very much Brett.
    And I’ve linked and copied it to the BX forum at

    Let me know if you’d prefer that I not.

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