OCR - A NEW WORLD
At the start of 2018, I joined an 8 week Obstacle Course Race prep class at CKO Jersey City. Every Saturday morning for eight weeks, we met up and did various workouts to prepare for the upcoming race.
For some perspective, prior to 2018, my athletic career consisted of playing soccer from 1998-2010 and playing basketball from 2004-2010. After high school, I played intramural soccer for a season and then that was it in terms of sports. I did cardio and basic workouts pretty regularly during college from 2010-2014 and thanks to going to school and living in one of the most expensive cities in the country, my daily food intake consisted of a bagel for breakfast, a $5 pizza special for lunch and some type of microwavable food or cereal for dinner. I was living the dream!
While I luckily missed out on the freshman 15, I was not so lucky when it came to the full-time 15. You know.. that weight you put on once you start your sedentary full-time job. Working out became a thing of the past and my immediate go-to when I was done working became Netflix or other online entertainment while snacking. Glad those days are over!
Anyway, so after around three and a half years of that sedentary lifestyle, it was questionable whether I could run a mile without stopping. And my grip strength was non-existent. Part of the 2018 OCR training consisted of doing Murphs. Looking back, my "pull-ups" were more like jump-ups - I'd jump up to the bar so that my chin would be over the bar, then jump down. Repeat 100 times. I don't even think my arms felt any of it!
After a few weeks of training, we went to a playground in the middle of February where I was excited to show off my newly acquired grip strength by going across the monkey bars. I couldn't make it a single bar and a second grader happily showed me up by flying through them multiple times. Show off.
I suppose I was a bit naive at the time thinking I'd magically have the ability to traverse the monkey bars after working on grip strength a day or two each week for a month. But with low expectations to begin with, I wasn't too bothered!
The obstacle course race came in April and unsurprisingly, I couldn't do much in the realm of grip strength or upper body strength. I could not climb the rope, I couldn't get through the rig/monkey bars. I also couldn't get over any of the walls. The heavy carries were my jam though!
This lit a fire within me and I knew I wanted to get stronger. I also knew working on upper body and grip strength once or twice a week was not going to cut it.
MY JOURNEY TO PULLUPS
Toward the end of May, I moved to a different apartment and received a membership to Base NJ - a super nice gym in Jersey City that happened to have a workout area with some monkey bars. Eight bars offered unlimited possibilities for what I wanted to accomplish.
From May 20th onward, I was at the gym every single day for hours and on those bars for a portion of that time. This is not an exaggeration. I was on the bars every day until my hands would hurt. Hanging from the bars, moving across the bars both forward and backward, hanging hip touches, etc. I bought rings from Amazon and would hang the rings up and just go from one to the other and practice hanging from one at each time, similar to the movement of moving through rings in an obstacle course race. I bought a set of nunchucks, cannonballs and bungees from Amazon and would hang those up, too. I didn't consider any of this working out - it was just fun for me and I was happy to keep pushing myself to see what I could do. Scrolling through my instagram, you'll find a lot of videos from 2018 showing different things I did during this time to be more confident with hanging.
I would also use the strength machines like the lat pull-down and assisted pull-up machine. Those probably did help with maintaining and growing my grip strength and some general strength, but when I decided I wanted to be able to do pull-ups, the assisted pull-up machine had to go.
In July, I really wanted to learn how to climb a rope without my legs and a trainer and friend at Base NJ suggested negative pull-ups. 10 negatives a day for a week. At this point, I had close to 2 months of consistent grip work on the bars. I could also do a pull-up or two using my legs to help with the momentum as I would move upward. I could not do strict pull-ups though.
I still have the text I sent him on July 11th - "Did the 10 negative pull ups tonight btw. That sh*ts harrrrd ugh the last couple were rough but I can definitely tell it's working the right muscles for the rope tho." Doing negatives for that week opened so many doors for me in terms of upper body strength. I truly believe negatives are the way to go when proactively working toward doing strict pull-ups.
Fast forward to August 17th and I was doing five sets of four pull-ups with a minute rest in between on rock climbing holds. I continued to working grip strength and upper body strength almost every day and it was that consistency that led to incredible results in a short time.
MY ADVICE TO YOU
If you are working toward knocking out clean reps of strict pull-ups, here is my advice:
1. Make sure you have adequate grip strength. If you don't have decent hanging strength, it will make pull-ups more complicated. I was on the bar for around 45 seconds when I reached my PR of 15 strict pull-ups. If you can comfortable hang from a bar for a minute, I would say you are definitely ready to move on to pull-ups. I also recommend hanging hip touches or hand switches to help spice up your grip strength training, too.
2. Make sure you have a solid strength foundation. I no longer lift weights regularly, but back in May 2018 I loved using the upper body fitness equipment at the gym, especially the lat pull-down machine regularly. Lats are key for doing pull-ups, so having a good foundation there will help significantly. Scapular pull-ups can also be helpful at this stage to learn how to engage the muscles you use for the initial pull-up motion.
3. Once you feel like you have a good grip and strength foundation, it is time to be purposeful with your pull-up attempts. Keep in mind, I am not a trainer and I am speaking from my own personal experience here. I think assisted pull-ups, whether with a band or using a machine, can help build strength in general, but I think there could be issues going directly from assisted pull-ups to unassisted strict pull-ups. I say this because I was not able to go from the assisted pull-up machine straight into clean pull-ups. It was being consistent with the negative pull-ups that got me to the point of doing multiple reps and multiple sets of clean pull-ups.
4. Focus on form from the beginning. Like almost any movement, if you learn with bad form, it will be a lot more challenging to correct it down the road. Watch pull-up videos on youtube so you know which muscles should be contracting and when. For example, right before the upward movement, you should feel your muscles engage to prepare your movement upward. And ALWAYS make sure to fully extend when you come down from the pull-up. At the start of each rep, you should feel your muscles engage and at the end of each rep, you should feel them disengage. This may mean you might only be able to get sets of 2-5 reps at first, but with pull-ups, quality over quantity is important!
5. Be consistent. Just like runners who do running streaks, pull-ups are also an exercise you can do every day if you are not sore from the prior day and mindful of the quantity that feels good for you. I can comfortable do 50 pull-ups every day without feeling it from the day before. This has come from a lot of strength building over time and consistency. I started at around 20 pull-ups a day early last month to get back into things and have slowly increased my training load since then.
If you're looking for a portable pull-up bar - one you can take with you while traveling! - check out Duonamic. These portable holds fit in doorways and are perfect to continue your training on the go. Use stephitup at checkout for 10% off!
GRIP STRENGTH INSPO
Here are five of my favorite grip strength routines from my first few months of training!
WHERE AM I AT NOW WITH PULL-UPS
I am working toward 20 strict pull-ups this year. I just hit 15 for the first time in July and I am PUMPED!
WHAT ARE YOUR PULL-UP GOALS? HOW MANY CAN YOU DO?
Leave a comment below and let me know!
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