One exercise that I am repeatedly asked about by my female clients is simple - PULL-UPS! For most, this is their end goal - developing enough strength to pull their body weight over the bar. The pull-up is one of my favorite exercises because it is an absolute powerhouse of an exercise, recruiting muscles from the upper body, back and core.
However, building to a pull-up is not always easy! I like to work in a series of progressions. Here is one of my favorite progressions to build strength to perform a full pull-up:
The negative is one of the best ways to build the strength in the full range of motion for a pull-up. Focusing on the slow descent of the movement is called eccentric training. When we commonly think of any exercise, most think of the concentric movement - an example being a bicep curl. In a concentric movement, the muscle shortens.
Eccentric is simply the opposite. In an eccentric movement, the muscle lengthens and relaxes. As in a pull-up, controlling the lengthening of the muscle as you slowly lower down from the bar allows for strength gains along the full range of motion. All of the muscles of the back fire and perform the movement, just as they would in a concentric pull-up.
Larger Strength Gains
If you find that you do not have the strength to perform a single pull-up, performing a negative from the bar is the best way to develop that strength. A recent study showed that the human body can sustain 1.3x the amount of force eccentrically than concentrically. That adds up!
Increased Muscle Mass (read: more strength!)
Similar published studies have also shown that muscle is built (hypertrophy) primarily through the eccentric loading phase.
Here's what happens. Muscle is made of fibers. Those fibers fall under two types of categories: fast twitch & slow twitch fibers. These fibers are completely happy to co-exist exactly how they are until someone puts a stress on them. In this case, the stress is exercise. As the fibers get fatigued, they adapt to become stronger and more powerful. This results in muscle growth. Through muscle growth, you develop strength and power.
I like to tell my clients that your body is an incredibly lazy machine, because plot twist: IT IS. The body's primary focus in rebuilding these fibers is to make it as easy as possible the next time that it experiences this stress. It wants to work as absolutely minimally as possible. This is another reason why people commonly hit plateaus (and a discussion for another day!) because they stop applying the stimulus that is needed to adapt!
So here's what we have so far. Negative pull-ups allow for controlled eccentric movement, which allows for greater muscle growth and strength. Still with me?
How do I do a negative pull-up?
1. Start by setting yourself up on a box, bench or J-hook, so that you can step to the top of the bar. You want to start with your head over the bar, hands slightly out from your shoulders, core tight.
Tip: Do not jump up to the bar. We want to focus on controlling the energy on the descent, not wasting energy getting to the top!
2. Slowly lower yourself down from the top of the bar, exhaling while maintaining a tight core. The movement finishes when the arms are fully extended in a dead hang position at the bottom. Repeat for 3-4 reps.
Chin over bar, core engaged.
Dead hang, arms fully extended.
Beginners: Focus on increasing the "time under tension." That is, the amount of time it takes you to go from above the bar to the dead hang position.
Advanced: For a more challenging negative, hold your legs out in front of you in a 90 degree "L-sit" position. Focus on the slow and controlled descent, maintaining tension as well in your core and not allowing your legs to drop.
Note: Because of the increased stress on muscle in this exercise, it is best to limit repetitions. Keep the total reps under 6, instead focusing on increasing the duration of the hold.
Hope this helps with your pull-up progression! If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment below!