How to Build Insane Pullup Strength for Dragon Boat

The pull-up is the true test of an individual’s strength-to-bodyweight pulling ability, a quality that is very important for all paddle sports.

This explains why the pull-up is an essential dry land training exercise used by pretty much all competitive paddlers, and it is a common way for many teams to test pulling strength.

In fact, much research has been done on the pull-up and how well gains in pulling strength carry over to paddling performance.

Unfortunately, many people are simply unable to do a single pull-up when they begin training it. Going from zero to one can feel like an impossible task, but with the right programming, is totally achievable for most people.

Others will find that after some dedicated training, they're able to do a few, but end up plateauing and unable to progress.

The following article will provide a step-by-step progression model to get you going from zero to hero.

Whether you can’t do a single pull-up, or if you’re able to rep them out like no tomorrow, people of all strength levels will find something useful in this article.

Table of Contents

Proper Pull-up Technique

Before training for your first pull-up, you need to study up on proper technique.

This will not only help prevent injury, but it will actually allow you to lift more weight.

By nailing down good technique right from the beginning, you can avoid creating any bad habits that will be hard to overcome down the road.

Here is a great video explaining proper pull-up technique:

Technique Tips and Mistakes to Avoid

1: Gripping the Bar Too Loose

Having a good grip is crucial because it is the only point of contact with the bar where all the force is transmitted during the ascent. Many people overlook this important factor, leading to ineffective pull-ups.

To ensure a strong grip, use an overhand grip and make sure your hands are secure and won't slip during the pull movement. This grip technique allows you to produce more force and reduces the distance you need to ascend by nearly 1 centimeter. Additionally, a secure grip instills confidence and a feeling of strength.

Bar grip is too loose.

Overhand bar grip. Much stronger.

Before starting your pull-up, use a box or step to comfortably reach and grip the bar. This setup helps you establish a solid grip, ensuring you can perform pull-ups more effectively and safely.

2: Use Your Legs! (without kipping)

Keeping your legs in a consistent position during a pull-up is essential for maintaining proper form. If you start with your legs straight, they should remain straight throughout the movement. Alternatively, if you begin with bent legs, ensure there is no change in the knee angle during the pull-up.

But how can your legs help during a pull-up? Your legs should be tightened and pulled backwards, engaging the glutes. This engagement is crucial because the glutes and lats are connected through fascia, a type of connective tissue. Tightening the glutes enhances the contraction of the lower lats, thereby increasing pulling strength.

By combining the initial pull with the contraction of your legs and glutes, you can significantly boost your initial pulling strength. This tension should be maintained throughout the pull phase, except at the top part of the movement, where you can shift lower body tension forward by slightly lifting the legs up to help get your chin over the bar.

3: Bend the Bar

It's beneficial to imagine bending the bar as if you wanted to snap it. This mental cue helps maintain proper scapula positioning throughout the exercise, which is crucial for effective performance and injury prevention.

Focus on feeling the weight on your outer fingers, near the pinkie, rather than distributing it evenly across the entire hand. This technique ensures better grip and control. Notice how the calluses are more prominent on the outer fingers, indicating the correct pressure distribution.

4: Don't Look Down... Look Up

That is a crucial point to remember, as it helps maintain proper scapula positioning. Hanging and looking upwards at the bar facilitates better scapular retraction when the pull begins.

Before starting your pull-up, look up at the bar. This simple action not only ensures proper form but also enhances your confidence. By visually focusing on the direction of your movement, you create a mental guide that helps you complete the pull effectively.

Which Grip Should I Use?

There are three main grips you can use when doing pull-ups.

  1. Supinated: palms facing towards you. This variant is often called the chin-up.
  2. Neutral: palms facing towards each other.
  3. Pronated: palms facing away from you.

Contrary to popular belief, there is not too much difference between each grip.

The supinated grip, because the palms are rotated towards you, will be able to activate the bicep the pectoral muscles more than the other grips.

The pronated grip limits the amount the biceps and pectoral muscles can contribute to the movement. While they are still active, the back muscles will step in to do more of the work.

The neutral grip is right in the middle—you’ll get more biceps and pectoral recruitment than the pronated grip and more back muscle recruitment than the supinated grip, but not as much as if you were to strictly do supinated or pronated respectively. Typically people are able to lift the most weight/do the most reps with this grip.

There is no “best” grip. In terms of paddling, it would seem like the best grip would be pronated because it recruits slightly more back musculature, but a case could be made for the neutral grip being preferred because the grip angle matches how you would grip the paddle with your bottom hand.

In reality, it doesn’t really matter what grip you choose. Just pick one off the bat and you can always switch your grips up to keep things fresh later.

How Wide Should I Grip?

There are three main grip widths:

  1. Narrow: hands at or within shoulder width.
  2. Medium: hands at or slightly wider than shoulder width.
  3. Wide: hands much wider than shoulder width.

Generally speaking the narrower you grip, the more biceps and pectoral muscles will be recruited. The wider you grip, the more lat activation will occur.

Going narrower also increases the range of motion.

For the beginner, there really is no need to go super narrow or wide. The best grip to start off is medium grip shoulder width or slightly wider than shoulder width.

This is because not only does this grip not preferentially recruit more muscle groups over others, but it also has a long range of motion which means you are doing more work every rep compared to a wider grip. Not only that, but most people are typically stronger using a medium grip versus a narrow or wide grip.

How to Progress

Here's a step-by-step progression scheme to get you to your first pullup and beyond!

Step 1: Dead Hang

The first step to getting your first pull-up is to simply practice hanging from the bar.

If you can’t hang from the bar easily for more than 10 seconds, practice doing a few sets of dead hangs for as long as you can without letting go until you are able to do so.

Once this is achieved, you can move on to the next step.

Step 2: Scapular Pull-ups

The second step is practicing scapular pull-ups.

Scapular pull-ups train something called scapular depression, which involves pulling the shoulder blades down and together. This is an essential movement in the pull-up as the athlete must depress the scapulae to initiate the movement.

To practice this exercise, start by hanging from the bar with the arms fully outstretched. Then, focus on pulling the shoulders down away from the ears without bending the arms, holding the contraction for a few seconds then relax.

Once you are able to do 5 clean repetitions with a 3 second hold for each, it’s time to move on to the next step.

Step 3: Banded Pullups

The third step is using bands to practice going through the full range of motion of the pullup exercise, but at an easier intensity.

Many guides out there exist that claim to help you get your first pullup, yet what they prescribe are pulling movements like dumbbell rows, lat pulldowns, or body rows. If the goal is to just get your first pullup, these movements are a waste of time. This is because of the law of specificity--you must practice the movement you want to get better at. Focus on cutting out the fluff and practice what actually matters, and you will progress twice as fast.

Start by looping a band over a bar, then looping the other end around your foot or your knee. Alternatively, if you are doing pullups in a rack with a pullup bar at the top, you can set the safeties at an appropriate height and loop the band around them, then step onto it.

The band will pull up on your body effectively decreasing your bodyweight or the amount of weight you have to lift, making it easier.

Note that the longer the band is stretched, the more assistance it provides.

To progress on this exercise, gradually move from thicker bands that provide more assistance to thinner bands that do not provide as much assistance. Alternatively, if you only have access to a few bands, you can start by looping the band around your feet, and once that gets too easy, you can then loop it around your knee. If you're looping the band around the safeties, you can gradually move the safeties lower down which will reduce the assistance. Alternatively, you can grab a weighted dip belt and begin attaching external load while still working with the band.

Step 4: Isometric Holds and Negatives

An isometric essentially means holding a static position for a duration of time. Examples of pure isometric exercises include all the plank variations.

But isometrics can be incorporated into other movements as well and are a powerful way to build strength.

Grab the bar and jump up to the top and hold your chin above the bar without lowering. Not only is this training the most difficult portion of the lift, but it also allows you to get a very powerful contraction of all the pulling muscles, stimulating muscle growth.

Aim to hold your chin above the bar for 2-3 seconds before slowly lowering yourself back down.

Studies show that during the lowering phase of the lift, also called the eccentric or negative portion of the lift, a person can lift approximately 120% more weight compared to the concentric or lifting phase.

This is why you will also aim to slowly lower yourself down over 3-4 seconds, rather than just simply letting gravity pull you down.

Aim to do single repetitions of an isometric hold at the top followed by a controlled negative back down. Take long breaks of 3-4 minutes between repetitions. The aim is to build quality time under tension which can’t be built over multiple repetitions of isometrics and negatives because they are simply too taxing.

Once you can do 1 clean repetition of ~5 seconds at the top, and ~8 seconds controlled lowering back down, you are ready to crush your first pull-up attempt!

Step 5: Bodyweight Pullups

Assuming you’ve done everything by the book up till this point, you’ll be guaranteed to be able to do your first pull-up—maybe even a few!

At this point, the goal should be to build volume with just your bodyweight. Slowly add more reps and more sets over time.

Once you can do at least 5 clean reps, you are ready to incorporate the next step into your training.

Step 6: Adding Weight

Once you start repping out your bodyweight, you will find that your own bodyweight starts to feel lighter and lighter, until eventually it simply does not challenge you as much as it did before.

This is when you can start to incorporate added weight.

Most gyms have a pull-up belt that you can use to add weight in the form of plates. This is the easiest and most recommended way to add weight.

But if your gym doesn’t have this, then you might want to consider buying your own pull-up belt. Other methods of adding weight, such as straddling a dumbbell between your feet or adding weight into a back pack, make it very limiting in terms of how much weight you can add.

At this point, your progress is only limited to how many plates your gym has. You can keep progressing by adding more weight until eventually your bodyweight feels like air.

Don't bother with high repetition work if your goal is to increase maximum reps with your bodyweight. Progressing the weighted pull-up is the best way to increase your maximum bodyweight repetitions.

Step 7: Incorporating Variation

Once you hit that 15-20 bodyweight pull-up gold standard, you will have to get a little more creative with your training to keep improving.

At this stage, you can incorporate variation into your training.

You can switch up the grip type and grip width to keep things fresh and hit the muscles at different angles.

You can also incorporate variations like paused work (either at the top or halfway), alternative grip types and widths, heavy partials, banded with weight to overload the top, or heavy negatives. This is guaranteed to bust through any weighted pull-up plateau.

At this stage, if you want to specialize in going for the most bodyweight reps you can do, one protocol that we’ve seen athlete use with great success is dedicating a set period of time to do as many reps as possible within that period of time. For example, try to do as many reps as you can within 10 minutes. Take note of that number and then when you repeat the workout, try to beat it. This is a great way to prepare for a max rep pull-up test.

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