Scaling the Pull-up
By Coach Sara Carr
Pull-ups are vital to CrossFit. They have been in every single CrossFit Open and show up in a majority of the benchmark workouts (i.e. “Cindy”, “Fran”). If you did Elements at CFNYC, we taught you the strict pull-up in Class One. Most members who walk into the gym cannot do a pull-up without assistance and need to learn how to scale them. However, usually people have no idea how to do this.
How you scale a pull-up will require you to think about what the purpose of the workout is and the right scaling should provide the appropriate intensity for that specific workout. Ultimately, your pull-up scaling should improve your pulling strength in a progressive manner to get you off of the bands permanently.
Before you start scaling your pull-ups for a WOD, it is imperative that you know what your maximum repetitions for pull-ups are (i.e. 10 unassisted strict pull-ups vs. 3 assisted with a green band). If you don’t know this, grab a few bands and determine the thinnest band that you can perform one full range of motion (ROM) pull-up. Don’t be afraid to combine bands either. You may not be able to do one with a green band, but you can do 5 with the black band. See if you can do one with a green and blue combined. If you are brand new to CrossFit, you may not realize how quickly you have improved your pull-ups, so don’t be afraid to test this every few weeks.
You can scale pull-ups in several different ways.
1) The easiest version is a jumping pull-up. This allows you to use your legs to get your chin over the bar and complete a large volume of reps quickly. These can be used to maintain intensity in a short workout, but will generally not help your pulling strength. We do not recommend that beginners perform jumping pull-ups in the majority of their workouts for this reason.
2) The next step up is a ring row. These can be used as a sub when you need to complete a lot of volume and be able to continue moving without resting. Volume is relative depending on your experience with pull-ups prior to starting CrossFit. Ring rows may be appropriate for many of your first workouts.
3) Next, you can use bands. Bands essentially reduce some of your bodyweight that you have to pull up to the bar. They also assist you in the hardest part of the pull-up, which is why it is difficult for people to get off the bands.
Black bands are the thickest and take off the most weight. Green bands are going to be the “medium” weight. Blue bands take off very little weight and will be the “heaviest” or most difficult version. Once you are using only one blue band you are very close to achieving an unassisted pull-up.
4) Finally, we will occasionally have you do partner assisted pull-ups. With these, you can have a fellow athlete hold your feet and you can push off of their hands as much as necessary to complete the movement. These are great for when you are trying to transition off bands and starting to attempt unassisted pull-ups.
I have a few rules with pull-ups.
1) Always complete full range of motion for each pull-up. This means that the arms are straight with shoulders in line with the ears at the bottom. At the top of the pull-up the chin is all the way up and OVER the bar breaking the horizontal plane.
2) Absolutely no kipping on the bands. These will do nothing to increase your pulling strength.
3) No kipping pull-ups at all until you can show me at least 3-5 strict pull-ups. Learning the kipping swing is fine, but no pulling until you have built up the proper strength and shoulder stability to perform the pull-up correctly.
Scaling will change depending on the WOD
Every WOD has a different purpose. Some are focused on intensity, or endurance and volume, others on strength. Let’s take a look at three different benchmark WODs and talk about how to scale pull-ups for them:
1) “Fran” (For time: 21-15-9 reps of Thrusters (95/65#) and Pull-ups)
This WOD focuses on intensity. You should aim to do all 45 thrusters and 45 pull-ups in under 5 minutes. The movements should be mostly unbroken in order to feel the true effects of the WOD. If you are new to CrossFit and need tons of bands to get through that many pull-ups or have not yet built up any kind of pulling strength and endurance, I would suggest jumping pull-ups.
This will allow you to keep moving quickly and still complete the volume. Intermediate athletes should choose a band that will allow them to do large, full ROM sets. Another option here is to scale the volume to 15-12-9 and move a little bit slower with “more difficult” pull-ups. However, the intensity will drop slightly so I generally prefer people do a lighter, full volume version.
2) “Angie” (For time: 100 Pull-ups, 100 Push-ups, 100 Sit-ups, 100 Squats)
This is a much longer WOD which focuses on your endurance and for most people, volume. My suggestion here is to start with a band that you can do about 10 pull-ups with before failing. Start with sets of 6-7 reps taking short breaks in between. When you can no longer complete 3-4 at a time and your ROM is starting to suffer, add another band. You should aim to complete all 100 pull-ups in 7-8 minutes. For athletes who really struggle with pulling and are working to increase their strength, I recommend dropping the volume down to as few as 50 reps and using a lighter band. Again, this will drop the intensity a little bit and move the focus to more strength than endurance.
3) 5×5 weighted pull-ups
This is an example of purely focusing on strength. If you cannot do them unassisted (and strict), you should use the lightest band possible that you can do 5 full ROM reps. Alternatively, this is a good workout to do partner assisted pull ups without a band. They should feel difficult, similar to doing a set of 5 heavy back squats.
Pull-ups in Training
Most of the time, we do not program benchmark workouts. We prefer to have you use the benchmarks to test your progress after periods of training. Most days, when the workout doesn’t have a name or testing designation, I usually suggest athletes scale pulling volume instead of adding extra bands in order to increase their strength. For example, the WOD could be 10 rounds for time of 2 deadlifts and 10 pull-ups. I would recommend using the smallest band possible and cutting the pull-up volume down to 5-7 reps per round.
Once you have started to be able to do unassisted pull-ups, you should be incorporating them into workouts as much as possible. It is understandable that you may still have to use bands or ring rows on occasion. However, I see too many people using bands as a security blanket.
Always pick a minimum number of unassisted pull-ups you would like to do for the day and don’t add in a band unless you can no longer complete full ROM. This is really important: If you can no longer complete the required ROM, you are not doing a pull-up! Either learn to scale your volume or add in a band when you have hit pull-up failure. While the designation of “RX’D” is nice, if you aren’t doing the movements to full ROM it is no longer “RX’D”. In the long term, chasing that designation at the expense of form will only hinder your ability to improve your pull-ups.
If you have had a heavy week of pulling or your hands are torn up, you can always feel free to substitute ring rows. They are great accessory work for all athletes, no matter what skill level, and they can be as difficult or as easy as you choose to make them. If you want a “heavier” ring row, elevate the feet. If you are doing more volume and want a “lighter” ring row, move your feet back so you are less parallel to the ground.
There is no incorrect way to scale your pull-ups as long as you keep in mind the goal of trying to permanently get off of the bands and maintain the purpose of the WOD. The best way to learn proper scaling is to keep careful records of your training. Always write down if the WOD felt too easy or too hard, if you used too heavy of a band, if you were able to do the pull-ups unbroken or if you were doing one at a time and had to add an extra band. When in doubt, ask your coach! One of our primary jobs is to offer advice on how to safely and effectively scale movements.
Finally, if you have been doing CrossFit consistently (3 or more days per week) for over a year and haven’t noticed significant progress in your pulling strength, something is wrong. Come see me at the box, send me an email, or talk to a coach you trust. You may need to start doing some accessory work and change how you scale your WODs. We are always happy to give advice and teach you how to add in extra work in an intelligent way.