Utilizing Pull-Ups as an OCR Athlete

Obstacle Racing Media (ORM) has teamed up with Complete Human Performance (CHP) to bring you reoccurring tips and training advice that will help you at your next race, whether you’re trying to conquer your first rope climb or move more quickly and confidently across the Platinum Rig. This week’s training is brought to you by Alec Blenis, running and OCR coach at CHP. You can see him below at the fire jump of the first Spartan World Championships in 2011, where he finished 5th. Alec has been around OCR for over five years.

Fire Jump

Why Everyone Should (and can) Do Pull-ups:

If you had to pick just one upper body exercise for OCR training, the pull-up would be it. So many obstacles require the upper body strength that you can develop with a strict pull-up or pull-up variation. However, training for pull-ups is one area where I see a ton of mistakes, especially among beginners.

In this article, I’m going to discuss some common training mistakes that people make and some fun pull-up variations to include in your training. This will be especially useful for those of you working towards your very first pull-up, but also for more advanced athletes too.

Preparing for your pull-ups:

Warm up: For some reason, a lot of athletes will perform plenty of warm up sets before heavy squats or deadlifts but rush right into pull-ups without even considering warming up. Don’t do this. If pull-ups come towards the end of your workout, you are probably already pretty warm, so you might not need an extensive warm up, but you should still do something. If pull-ups come first in your workout, take a few minutes to warm up your core, back, and lats. Some great exercises to try here include hollow holds, face pulls, and easy ring rows.

Brace Yourself: When it comes to developing athleticism and the ability to conquer obstacles, a well-braced “hollow” pull-up is going to be most beneficial. What does this mean? When you are hanging from the bar, your abs should be tight, your glutes should be tight, and your pelvis should be tucked. If you’re unfamiliar with this position, I suggest working on some hollow holds on the floor first. Basically, your body should be concave like the photo below.

Hollow Hold

Hand Care: There’s nothing tough, hard-core, or beast-mode about ripped up or bloody hands. It may have been a great workout that tore your calluses off, but it’s going to take time to heal before you can really work hard again. Pull-ups result in more hand tears than any other exercise by far, so it’s extremely important to take care of your hands. Use chalk. Use a pumice stone. Take care of your hands and keep them looking good so that you never miss a beat.

Chalk

Plan your workout: You should never begin a training session without a clear goal in mind. Is your goal for the day to improve your strength? Do you need to improve your muscular endurance? As an OCR athlete, you may want to ask yourself what obstacle weaknesses need addressed. If you’re just randomly playing on a pull-up bar until you’re tired, stop and come up with a better plan. If you’re not sure how, we can help.

Pull-up Variations: 

We’re going to look at a couple variations of pull-ups now. Below you will find a video demonstrating each kind of pull-up, with a detailed explanation below it.


Ring Rows: Of course, the ring row is not really a pull-up at all, but this is an ideal starting point for the athlete who can’t even come close to doing a strict pull-up and for whom even banded pull-ups are a struggle. One great thing about ring rows is that it’s simple to adjust the difficulty of the exercise by modifying your foot position. At first, you may be nearly vertical when doing these rows. Over time, you should walk your feet out and approach a more horizontal position. Ring rows strengthen many of the same muscles that a pull-up does, but it is not a direct substitute. You should start here, but quickly introduce banded pull-ups and other beginner variations as you get stronger.

Banded pull-ups: A common mistake when training beginners is to abandon the bands too soon. Just because someone has successfully completed their first strict pull-up doesn’t mean it’s time to ditch the bands altogether. Even for athletes who can complete as many as 5 strict pull-ups, there is still value in utilizing an assistance band to complete sets of 8, 12, or more.

Banded pull-ups with pause: If you’ve been progressing towards a strict pull-up using bands for assistance, you may find that the hardest part of a strict rep is breaking from a dead hang. Because a band offers the most assistance at the bottom of a rep, banded pull-ups don’t develop much strength in the dead hang position. So, if you’re progressing towards a strict pull-up using bands, you’ll need to focus some extra energy on this position. One simple and effective way to do this is to implement banded pull-ups with a pause. All you do is pause in a dead hang position for 3-5 seconds per rep. Whenever implementing banded pull-ups, I recommend at least a slight pause at the bottom to help develop the strength needed to break from a dead hang. Also, don’t forget to move up to the next band when you’re ready! Go ahead and purchase multiple bands with varying degrees of assistance. Use a different band when the goal of the workout is different. Trying to improve strength? Use a less helpful band. Training muscular endurance? Use a more helpful band.

Negatives: Negatives and weighted negatives are great pull-up variations but, in most cases, are overused, especially by beginners. Imagine telling someone who wants to increase their bench press from 95 to 135 that you’re just going to have them do negatives with 135 until they reach their goal! They certainly have their place, but don’t neglect other variations liked banded and jumping pull-ups by devoting too much time to negatives. That said, don’t be afraid to add weight for negatives, even if you struggle with strict pull-ups. You can safely and effectively do negatives with weights as heavy as 20% greater than your one rep max, so if you can do one strict pull-up, you may want to add about 20% of your bodyweight to slow negatives for maximum benefit, but this should just be a small portion of your total training.

Pronated vs. supinated grip pull-ups: pronated-supinated-grip
Most people find it easier to start with a supinated grip as you’re able to recruit the biceps more in this position. However, this doesn’t mean that the supinated grip is a beginner variation. It’s important to routinely train both grips, and even neutral grips for well-rounded athletic performance. Close underhand grip pull-ups are great for developing the strength you need for rope climbs and heavy hoists, while overhand pull-ups will help you prepare for wall climbs and monkey bars.

Jumping pull-ups: Jumping pull-ups offer many of the same advantages and disadvantages as banded pull-ups. Like banded pull-ups, jumping pull-ups are not very effective at developing strength near full extension, but they offer the advantage of being a convenient and effective exercise that can easily be worked into body weight circuits without additional equipment. For an added bonus, try variations like burpee pull-ups mixed into a circuit. Jumping pull-ups are generally safer than kipping pull-ups for beginners (advanced athletes can do kipping pull-ups just fine with practice), so these are my preferred option for new athletes in workouts like Cindy and Fran that involve a lot of pull-ups.

Weighted pull-ups: Once you can do at least 3 strict pull-ups, it’s time to start thinking about adding weighted pull-ups into your routine. You don’t have to be an elite athlete or pull-up monster to do weighted pull-ups. Even if you’re just adding 5-10 pounds for sets of 3, that’s great. Treat pull-ups like other exercises, implementing heavy singles, triples, sets of 5, 10, and more. Don’t get bored by only doing bodyweight sets all the time!

L pull-ups: To further engage the core while also working the back and lats, try pull-ups with your legs lifted. The easiest variation is with your knees tucked towards your chest. A more advanced variation is a strict “L” pull-up. If you feel like you are good at pull-ups but struggle with obstacles like Spartan Race’s Herculean Hoist, then this is a pull-up variation that you should try. Many obstacles require you to engage your core and even legs while pulling up your bodyweight (or pulling down on a rope), so pull-up variations like this are great at replicating the sort of challenges you’ll face on race day.

Monkey bar simulation: For the advanced athlete looking to get better at monkey bars, rigs, or even progress towards a single arm pull-up, this monkey bar simulation is a great way to develop the shoulder stability, grip strength, and body control needed for those challenges. To execute the monkey bar simulation, simply get into a dead hang position, then tap your right leg with your right hand, then your left leg with your leg hand, and repeat. For an even more advanced variation, try touching opposite hand to opposite foot. Once you’ve got this down, you can start working on single arm banded pull-ups, negatives, and eventually, single arm weighted pull-ups!

Remember, you should treat pull-ups like other exercises. Don’t allow your training to get stagnant by doing the same thing every week! And make sure you check out Complete Human Performance!

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Charles Harper

Social Media Dude at Obstacle Racing Media
Charles is an avid runner and general klutz. He was terrible at running in high school and is trying to fix that while in his 30's. He is kind of hick-ish and has a man crush on Ryan Atkins and Atkins' dog, Suunto.
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