Making the Impossible Possible: My Journey to a Strict Pull-up

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Well, I’ve done it. After months of hard work, frustration, and tears, I achieved the dream: I got my strict pull-up. This was a moment I’d dreamed about almost since Day One of CrossFit. It’s something I worked on day in and day out for almost a year and a half. It’s something I wanted more than anything else, and something that seemed beyond my grasp more than once.

But I am nothing if not stubborn and determined not to give up (although I came close after 15.2). And on Friday, March 27, months of hard work and dedication came together and that first pull-up happened.

“It Wouldn’t Be a Quick Process…”

I started off working with three bands…I had the double-whammy working against me of being heavier and lacking the necessary upper body strength.
Background first: I set my sights on pull-ups almost from the get-go. I started CrossFit in September 2013. In October, I had my first one-on-one skills session (included with our membership at Alchemy). I said I wanted to work on getting pull-ups. It’s been so long now, that I can’t exactly remember what Coach Duncan said at the time. I think he told me that it wouldn’t be a quick process (we have joked several times over all these months that it’s a good thing I didn’t know at the time just how long the process would take). But he didn’t discourage me. He didn’t laugh at me. He just assessed where I was at, saw where I wanted to get, and came up with a plan to help me get there.

I started off working with three bands. You read that right. THREE. I had the double-whammy working against me of being heavier and lacking the necessary upper body strength. But I dutifully did my homework and worked on my pull-up program three days a week for months. Still no pull-up. I should add, throughout this process, that I had strict (pun somewhat intended) orders from Coach Duncan that I wasn’t allowed to kip pull-ups until I had the strength to do one strict (even though Jess has tried more than once to get me to do so).

Over the many months, there were many tweaks to my program. Somewhere during last summer we added in ring rows to work on developing strength at the bottom of the pull. Duncan reminded me not to cheat and swing with the bands; otherwise I wouldn’t be developing strength and wasn’t really doing myself any favours.

I re-tested my pull-ups several times, and had made some improvements, but it seemed like towards the end of the summer, things were stagnating. I was not where I wanted to be. Then last fall, I was about to do my first competition. We knew pull-ups would make an appearance. So, Duncan said he would make an exception to his rule and teach me to kip for the competition.

One morning, we set to work on learning to kip those pull-ups. I should add that this was right after I had first successfully climbed the rope (after almost 6 months of work), so my strength was clearly coming along. With Duncan watching, I tried strict. Clearly no go. Then I tried getting my hips into it, to kip things. Nope. Then he took a video of my shoulders (I kid you not). Then we had somewhat of a lightbulb moment. I wasn’t using my lats. You know those giant muscles on your back (see accompanying diagram) that are the main ones involved in a pull-up? Nothing. Not activating. No wonder pull-ups seemed so hard!latissimus-dorsi

About Those Lats

This is where I got the nickname Lazy Lats, and a whole new set of pull-up homework: lat pull-downs. We literally looped a band over the pull-up rig and put a 15 pound bar through it. Then he had me sit down on a box underneath pulling the bar down. You have no idea how many times I had to explain to people what I was doing. I definitely looked a bit ridiculous, but I didn’t care. Like everything else CrossFit-related, I didn’t take myself too seriously and chose to have a sense of humor about it. Plus, in the long run, I knew that this exercise would help out in isolating the muscles that were slacking off. I didn’t get a pull-up for that competition (which ended up being ok), but I felt encouraged that we knew what the problem was and were on the road to fixing it.

Over the fall, I also recruited more help for, as I called it “Team Lat Activation”: the two health professionals (one chiropractor, one massage therapist) that I see regularly for Active Release technique. (Our gym membership includes one free ART session a month which is so awesome and I find so helpful, plus I get benefits through my work so I’ve been going more regularly). Lisa and Mandy were great at working to find out what was going on, what wasn’t working (and why), and giving me stretches, mobility and activation exercises to help things out.

When it came right down to it, pull-ups are a body weight movement. The simple, hard truth is that if I weighed less, a pull-up would be easier.
My pull-up program underwent more tweaks over the fall. I kept up with my lat pull-downs, ring rows, and banded pull-ups (reps/bands changing from time to time). We added jumping pull-ups to get my muscles used to the movement pattern. Duncan also came up with “bottom half” pull-ups, (which are just what they sound like), where he had me working at a greater difficulty (ie less assistive bands) on the bottom part of the pull. Eventually I graduated from the lat pulldowns and moved on to reverse dumbbell flies (again, I looked SO cool….it’s a good thing I don’t take myself too seriously).

I worked away at those pull-ups as hard as ever. Progress came, but slowly. I was getting frustrated. Then in November, Duncan made the suggestion we talk about nutrition. When it came right down to it, pull-ups are a body weight movement. The simple, hard truth is that if I weighed less, a pull-up would be easier.

I could write another article totally devoted to nutrition and that whole process, but for now, I’ll just say a couple of things. 1. Working out is the easy part, but focusing on what you’re eating (or not eating) is HARD. It’s totally worth it, but requires willingness to be disciplined and put in the work. 2. It makes a HUGE difference. Not just in your weight and how you look, but how you feel and for your workouts. And, after a month of hard work, by December I was down to a strict pull-up with just the red band (the super-skinny, tiniest one available). That unassisted pull-up was within my reach.

The new year came. More pull-up work, more tweaks to programming. Now, instead of having pull-ups programmed a few days a week, they were showing up in every day of my programming (mind you in slightly lower volume). And Duncan also started telling me specifically which difficulty of bands to work at. At first, the difficulty seemed challenging and a little ambitious, but I’m glad now that he did that, as I think it really pushed me and increased my strength.

I was coming along, and thought I’d be getting a pull-up in time for the Open. I re-tested right before it started. Still Nope. Then 15.2 happened. I don’t need to rehash it here. But, suffice it to say, after all my hard work, it felt like a devastating failure. I had come so far, and gotten so close, but I just wasn’t there yet. I was so frustrated. So angry. At that point, I honestly considered asking Duncan if we could just take a couple of weeks off of working on pull-ups — that’s how upset I was.

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