This is a huge pet-peeve of mine. Top 5 for sure. Anyone who has worked with me, surely knows this. Seeing an athlete doing pull-ups with bands hurts my soul. There is a better way!
Coaches, stop handing out crutches just for the sake of making it easy. Easy for the athlete and easy for yourself. Anyone can say “just use a band”. Instead, why don’t we think about the movement, how to properly regress it, and come up with a plan of action.
I’ll even give you my pull-up progression at the end of this post.
It’s apparent that I have a problem with band assisted pull-ups, but let’s take a deeper look into why.
Athletes Rarely Progress from the Band
Using a band will assist you in performing the movement. However, the assistance isn’t consistent throughout the movement. The band is going to give you the most help at the very bottom of the exercise and continually less as you pull yourself higher. There is a chance the band isn't giving assistance at all at the end of the movement, which is a common place for people to need help. This might not sound terrible, but ultimately the band isn't helping you progress like you want it to.
Another reason progress is rarely seen is, in order to get better at doing a pull-up you need to be able to handle your own weight throughout the entire movement. Having a bunch of assisting tension is not helping you to feel your own weight or helping your body become comfortable handling its weight and posture through different ranges of motion. Grip strength is often a limiting factor in pull-up performance so by using the band you’re not adequately training this aspect of the exercises either.
The final issue I have on this topic is the inability to properly track your progress. Maybe you did 5 reps today and only 4 yesterday. Did you get stronger or did you create more momentum on your decent which then propelled you higher and made the movement even easier? It’s hard to tell for the athlete as well as the coach. Using a thinner band is certainly a progression, but we still run into the same issues and very rarely does anyone progress from a band of any resistance to no band at all. They never actually gain the strength at the end ranges of motion, as they are usually getting too much or not enough help in those positions.
It's Not the Same Movement
Doing a Pull-Up with a band is not the same as doing a pull-up. The band changes the mechanics. The band is aiding in a direction opposite to the force being placed on it. This means that band can propel you upward or horizontal depending on how you’re pressing into it. This can also lead to improper mechanics during the movement. Many individuals will begin pulling with their arms before they properly set their back and the band will only exacerbate this issue. Another common mistake is to elevate and protract the shoulder in an attempt to “pull harder”. This is not only less effective but can also lead to injuries.
The ability to stabilize the scapula is extremely important in developing your pull-up, but also for overall shoulder health. Many exercises require a stable scapula, and an inability to properly stabilize will put the athlete at a higher risk of injury. In order to finish your pull-up properly you need to be able to depress and retract your scapula while pulling your elbows down and behind you. Many times, the band is not providing enough assistance during this portion of the lift to adequately help an individual who lacks the strength and coordination to do this. This can put athletes into a position where their scapula are elevated and protracted, their elbows are facing down and in front of the body, and the bar is being pulled into their neck rather than their chest. At this point we're training the body to move inefficiently and we're hindering progress.
The band is ultimately tricking you into thinking you’re progressing. In reality, it’s preventing you from developing strong and stable scapula, properly engaging the correct muscles, and developing a full range of motion.
It's Really Not Safe
Using band for pull-ups is not safe. If you’ve ever tried to get into a band for this purpose, you know what I’m talking about. It can be extremely awkward and uncomfortable. Then after you complete your exercise and you are tired, you have to try and get out of this thing. It is not uncommon for the band to slip off and pop you in the face while trying to dismount. Bands occasionally break as well. This can be scary, can hurt, and can lead to falling off the bar.
Now that everyone is clear as to why they need to ditch the bands, let’s go over alternatives. Any solid strength and conditioning program should have a good amount of direct back exercises incorporated. The biggest issue I have seen with this is intent. Many people do the prescribed sets and reps of rows, and inverted rows, and face pulls, and every other “back” exercise, but they don’t actually push themselves. They are completely content with using the 30lb dumbbells for the rest of their lives! Going through the motions on major movements is never a good way to see progress. Before I get into a Pull-Up specific progression, it’s imperative to understand the importance of pushing oneself on all back work. A Pull-Up progression might get you there, but it’s a lot more likely if you are putting effort into the horizontal pulling and shoulder work as well.
As with any progression, this is not a perfect science but rather a guide. Knowing the athlete and understanding their weaknesses will help guide you more than blindly following a progression. There will be times when you can completely bypass steps of the progression altogether. Sometimes things just click for the athlete and their progress skyrockets. Sometimes they’re strong in a certain range of motion already and you realize you can move faster than anticipated. Pay attention to the athlete and make adjustments based on what you’re seeing and what they’re telling you.
In order to perform a proper pull-up, the athlete must be able to start from a dead-hang position with an overhand grip, set their shoulders by depressing and retracting them, begin pulling their body towards the bar without generating momentum with the lower body, and continue pulling until the chest touches the bar. There are a couple of ways to give yourself a mechanical advantage. Changing the grip can allow for greater involvement of the biceps muscle which makes chin-ups and neutral grip variations slightly easier. Allowing a slight kip in order to gain momentum will also make the exercise a little bit easier.
I’m writing this assuming you have access to a Lat Pull-Down machine. If you do not, you can use a band (Not for Pull-Ups!) tied to the bar, sit on the ground and perform a lat pull-down with the band. With both of these variants be sure to grab the implement, set your shoulders by pulling them down, back, and together, and then begin to pull until the implement touches your chest. Aiming for your chest and not your neck or collar bone is extremely important. As you’re pulling you’re also expanding your chest and squeezing your shoulder blades together more and more. Learning to control your scapula through the entirety of the exercise is monumental in order to learn to properly perform a pull-up.
Dead Hang + Lat Pull-Down
The next step in this progression is to hold yourself from the pull-up bar, in a dead hang with pull-up grip, for as long as possible. After failure, immediately move to the Lat Pull-Down and complete reps until failure as well. Going until failure is not the only option, but I think it's important to really push yourself during this stage of the progression. I also like to add core and lower body movements to the hang in order to tax the grip a little bit more and force the scapula to stabilize during slight movements.
Isometric Hold + Negative + Lat Pull-Down
Once you can hold your own bodyweight for 30 seconds it’s time to move on to holding your bodyweight at different positions. The next step would be to begin holding at the top of the pull-up rep. In order to get to the starting position, you can jump, climb, or be assisted. To start, chest should be in contact with the bar, shoulders depressed and retracted, and elbows pulled behind the back. The goal is to stay in this position as long as possible. Once you can’t anymore, you want to lower as slowly as possible until your arms have completely locked out. Once arms have locked, you can release the bar and move onto Lat Pull-Down reps. Continue this progression until you can hold yourself at the top for 15 seconds, and your total rep time is over 30 seconds. The goal here is create a lot of time under tension during the isometric and negative portion on the bar and then follow it up with the concentric action at a lighter weight via the pull-downs.
Isometric Hold + Negative + Partial Rep
Once you have progressed from the last step, the goal is to start working on concentric action with your own body. We are repeating the steps from above until our arm are completely locked out. Once locked out, reset the shoulders by depressing and retracting and try to pull yourself to the bar as hard as possible. You might not go anywhere but the act to trying to pull is extremely important for the progression. It’s also ok to use your lower body to generate a little bit of momentum.
Once you have gained adequate control over your own body weight, adding some external weight can help expedite the progression. My suggestion is to add enough weight to reduce the full rep time to less than 10 seconds. Use the same methods as above in order to continue to progress. Utilize the isometric holds if/when possible as well as the partial reps at the end range of motion.
It’s time for the real thing. Ideally you would begin with a completely strict pull-up, but I’m ok with a slight kip to get you going. Over time we want to minimize the kip and still work on lowering yourself in a slow and controlled manner.
Keep in mind this progression is not an exact science and there will be times when you may need to go out of order or skip steps. It’s also very common to use multiple steps at the same time. Knowing the athlete and where they’re at will give you huge insights into what they need to progress. This is just a basic framework.
Pull-ups should be a staple in your programming and/or personal workouts. In my opinion, they are the most important upper body exercise. Being able to properly perform pull-ups will go a long way toward creating a stronger, more powerful, and healthier athlete. I hope this post has given you some tool or even something to think about when it comes to performing and programming Pull-ups.