Fix Your Pullups with These Loading Methods
By Dr. Joel Seedman, PhD
Most individuals underestimate the importance of lower body positioning during pullups and chin-ups. In fact lethargic lower body activation promotes impaired neural drive to the core and upper extremities resulting in weak and sloppy pullup mechanics.
To maximize lower body recruitment and achieve ideal mechanics on traditional pullups and chin-ups you have two primary choices, specifically:
- Keep the legs perfectly straight under the torso while keeping the ankles and toes dorsiflexed, or
- Bend your knees and pull your feet back to form a sharp 90 degree angle in the knee joint without letting your feet cross. Anything in between typically results in sagging hips, drooping legs, flawed foot positioning, faulty spinal alignment, poor motor control, and compromised muscle activation.
Having noticed this trend over the years I often have my athletes perform weighted pullups using either the dorsiflexion loading method or the knee flexion loading method (although I'll periodically use several other methods I'll describe later in this article). Regardless of whether you use 5 or 100 pounds of external resistance these methods not only allow a variety of loading options but they literally force the lifter to produce incredibly strict pullup mechanics. In addition the loading protocols tend to promote improved spinal positioning and postural alignment. Here’s an overview of each.
The dorsiflex loading method is my go-to weighted pullup variation for myself as well as my athletes. There are 10 key reasons and benefits why dorsiflexion loading is such a key staple of my pullup training arsenal.
BENEFIT #1. Requires Strict Mechanics
The dorsiflex pullup method requires incredibly strict mechanics. In fact it’s an excellent diagnostic tool for examining and correcting your pullup technique.
Any cheating, wiggling, twisting, or kipping will literally cause the weight to fly off of your feet thus ensuring stricter body mechanics and a more technically sound pullup that will induce strength and size gains.
BENEFIT #2. Allows Increased Loading & Enhanced Neural Drive
A very common problem on pull-ups and chin-ups is lack of full body tension, motor control, and spinal rigidity. Most individuals look more like a limp fish dangling from a wire rather than a coordinated and athletic human physique performing a crisp movement. The dorsiflex method eliminates this issue as it reinforces the idea of producing full body tension.
In fact, the significant foot and ankle activation that’s required to hold the load with your feet, elicits a neurophysiological response known as concurrent activation potentiation (CAP). In other words activating distal segments of the body such as the feet, hands, face, and neck increases neural drive to the working extremities thereby increasing motor unit recruitment and maximizing force production. In fact, once you master the dorsiflexion loading method you’ll notice that you can handle more weight than any other loading protocol. That’s because you’ll have eliminated energy leaks and optimized neuromuscular potentiation through irradiation and CAP.
BENEFIT #3. Improves T-Spine Mobility
Many lifters have difficulty producing thoracic extension on pullups and chin-ups making the movement extremely ineffective for targeting the lats and upper back. Even if they’re able to achieve a slight backward lean (which is optimal) this often occurs from the lumbar spine rather than the t-spine. The dorsiflex loading protocol helps to resolve this issue as the feet are forced to stay directly under and in-line with the hips and low back. In fact the only possible means of creating a slight backward lean is by creating thoracic extension, which can only occur by aggressively squeezing the upper back muscles. Besides maximizing the stimulus to the lats this does wonders for postural control and spinal alignment.
BENEFIT #4. Eliminates Hip Flexion and Knee Drive
A very common cheating method you’ll see many lifters incorporate on their pullups is hip flexion or leg drive. At times this can be subtle where the individual hits a sticking point and beings to contract the hip flexors to help reach the top position. Other times this can be more obvious and blatant as is commonly witnessed with popular kipping pullups. Regardless of the severity of hip drive, flexing the hips tends to disrupt optimal spinal alignment and postural positioning.
When hip flexion is more subtle as in the first example, the end result is usually kyphotic posture and rounded shoulders. In contrast, the aggressive leg drive demonstrated in kipping pullups tends to produce excessive back arch and hyperextension of the lumbar and cervical spine as well as rounding shoulders. Both forms of dysfunction are highly undesirable and can create long-term issues throughout the kinetic chain.
The dorsiflex method fully eliminates the ability to flex the hips as the load keeps the legs in-line with the torso. As a result, the lifter is forced to assume optimal postural alignment whether they want to or not.
BENEFIT #5. Promotes Stretch Induced Postural Alignment
Dorsiflexion is an important aspect of proper pullup mechanics particularly when using the straight leg position. In fact it helps create proper body alignment and spinal positioning. That’s because dorsiflexion of the ankles lengthens and stretches the muscles of the posterior chain in the lower body. When the gastrocnemius, hamstrings, and glutes are moderately stretched this helps to reinforce a natural arch and elongated spine.
Plantarflexed ankles often accompanied with lethargic lower body activation makes it nearly impossible to produce optimal neural firing patterns as the shortened calve position impairs spinal positioning. As previously stated, it’s impossible to properly contract the upper back or to perform correct pullups unless postural alignment is ideal.
BENEFIT #6. Promotes Greater Lat Activation as a Reult of a More Upright Position
Even with proper pullup form and rigid mechanics the legs will drift slightly in front of the body as a result of tilting the chest up and pulling the torso back. With the dorsiflex loading method, the lifter will have no choice but to assume a more upright position as the legs will be pulled directly under the hips. This promotes greater lat activation and muscle hypertrophy. Here’s why: The more upright an individual is when performing pullups (contingent upon the individual achieving optimal thoracic extension), the greater the emphasis is on the actual lats.
Allowing the body to tilt backwards during the pull-up produces similar recruitment patterns to that of a rowing movement. Although this is not necessarily a bad thing in terms of muscle function it does slightly diminish how much emphasis is placed on the lat muscles as the middle upper back such as the rhomboids, middle traps, and rear deltoids begin to play a more significant role. In contrast a more upright position will isolate the lat muscles more exclusively as the movement represents the epitome of a vertical pulling motion for which the lats are extensively used. If we’re talking bodybuilding, the lat spread and V-taper this has the potential to create is unparalleled.
BENEFIT #7. Promotes Greater Range of Motion
When it comes to upper body mechanics, the more horizontal the pushing or pulling motion, the shorter the range of motion. In contrast the more vertical the movement, the greater the range of motion tends to be. This is often why bodybuilders will use the incline press to target their chest as they believe the larger range of motion from a more upright position stimulates more growth. Similarly, the dorsiflex loading method creates the most upright vertical pulling movement you can perform thereby maximizing the range of motion. As a result you can expect greater gains in strength and hypertrophy as well as improved shoulder mobility.
BENEFIT #8. Produces Greater Carryover to the Overhead Press
Pairing opposing movements together during a workout such as a pullup and overhead press is a great way to optimize body mechanics as there is strong carryover from one movement to the other. Technically the more similar the opposing movements are to each other in terms of joint angles and body positioning, the greater this response. With this in mind the dorsiflexion loaded pullup represents the ideal movement for paring with an overhead press. That’s because the more upright pull-up position perfectly mimics an overhead press as the feet end up directly under the body throughout the movement rather than drifting slightly in front. In fact you should be able to take a snap shot of the dorsiflex pullup and overhead press and notice very little difference in body positioning and mechanics between the two.
In addition I often have my athletes pair or superset dorsiflexion pullups with overhead pressing variations not only for optimizing technique but also because it allows the athlete to handle heavier weights on the overhead press. That’s because the very similar yet opposing mechanics allows the lifter to directly work antagonist muscle groups each set. This produces optimal co-contraction of reciprocal muscles on the eccentric phase of the press thereby maximizing reciprocal inhibition on the concentric phase. In other words you’ll have more power, torque, and force production on the subsequent overhead press.
BENEFIT #9. Strengthens The Shins and Ankle Dorsiflexors
The muscles that surround the shins, ankles, and anterior tibias are some of the more neglected muscles when it comes to strength training. However, these lower leg muscles that are responsible for producing dorsiflexion are absolutely critical when it comes to maximizing athletic performance, squatting technique, postural positioning, gait alignment, and sprint mechanics. In fact dorsiflexion is one of the most neglected yet also one of the most critical activation patterns when it comes to functional movement.
However, strengthening the muscles around the anterior portion of the shins and ankles can be quite tricky as it can be difficult to devise an effective loaded-dorsiflexion exercise. Fortunately, one of the many side benefits of the dorsiflexion loading method is that it greatly taxes the anterior shin and ankle muscles while simultaneously stretching and elongating the calves and Achilles. It also requires proper foot and ankle alignment to support the load as crooked or misaligned ankle and foot mechanics will cause the weight to slip off. The combination of these factors does wonders for eliminating lower body dysfunction and faulty gait mechanics as the ankles and shins will get stimulated more intensely than most lifters will have ever experienced.
BENEFIT #10. Involves Loading That's Conducive for Drop Sets and Strip Sets
The dorsiflex loading method is the single most effective method for performing drop set finishers or strip sets on pullups. Once you reach failure or close to it, simply drop the load from your feet and continue performing as many bodyweight reps as possible. This can all be accomplished in one seamless fashion without the hands ever having to leave the bar, making it a brutal high intensity protocol. The pain is extreme but the results in terms of growth and strength accruements are worth the momentary discomfort.
Dorsiflex Weighted Pullups
- Dorsiflex Pullups with Kettlebells & Dumbbells -
The dorsiflex loading method is most easily performed with either kettlebells or dumbbells. Although they provide a very similar stimulus to each other the kettlebells require slightly greater motor control and also force each shin and ankle to work equally and independently. Both methods are also conducive for handling very heavy loads well in excess of 100 total pounds (provided the shins and ankles have been adequately strengthened).
Dorsiflex Loaded Pullup with Barbell
Once you’ve become comfortable with the dumbbell and kettlebell variations of the dorsiflexion loading method, the next progression is to use a barbell. Besides being more challenging particularly when it comes to stabilizing the load, the barbell provides several unique benefits.
First, there is literally no room for cheating, excessive momentum, twisting, or body shifting. Any deviations in form or technical breakdown and the bar will tilt or fall off the feet.
Second, if the individual aggressively dorsiflexes the feet and curls the toes upward, the bar will sit quite naturally on the top of the foot. As a result, the stimulus to the feet, toes, and ankles is very intense yet highly effective for eliminating dysfunction in the lower leg and ankle complex.
Lastly and most importantly the barbell variation is the single most effective diagnostic tool for assessing how symmetrical your pullup technique is. If you tilt your hips, shoulders, or core to one side, pull more with one arm, or initiate the pullup by favoring one side of your body, the barbell will immediately begin to tilt uncontrollably. Even the slightest asymmetrical pulling technique will produce a significant teeter-totter effect immediately exposing and magnifying dysfunctional pulling mechanics. Learn to keep the bar completely parallel to the floor with no signs of wavering and watch your body symmetry and postural alignment improve immensely.
On a side note most individuals may want to start with an EZ bar as the crevices in the bar provides stable contact points for the weight to lock onto the feet. In addition, EZ bars as well as smaller pre-set straight bars may be more conducive for confined settings where a 7-foot Olympic bar may not easily fit. Keep in mind the longer the bar the more difficult it will be to stabilize. Even the smallest deviation in form will be magnified and show up as a large tilt when using an Olympic bar.
Dorsiflexion Plate Loading
Small weight plates such as 10’s and 25’s will also suffice by simply placing them flat on the top of the feet. Although it requires even stricter form, this method typically limits the total loading as it’s impractical to load more than one or two plates in this fashion. Here’s one of my NFL athletes Jarius Wynn demonstrating it with a 25 lb plate as he uses very strict and precise form.
Knee-Flexion Loaded Pullups
- EXERCISE OVERVIEW -
Although the straight-leg dorsiflexion method tends to require slightly greater motor control, many lifters prefer a bent leg position when performing pullups and chin-ups. In fact taller individuals may not have a choice in the matter as a straight leg position may not be possible without the feet hitting the floor and sacrificing end range of motion. Although there is nothing inherently wrong with a bent leg position it often contributes to lethargic muscle activation particularly if the lifter does not keep the lower body tight and rigid.
This often manifests itself in a sloppy half-bent, crossed-leg position where the lower body is practically dormant and void of any significant muscle recruitment. This disconnect of the lower body promotes energy leaks and lethargic activation patterns up the kinetic chain, ultimately compromising force production and torque in the upper extremities.
The knee flexion loaded pullup resolves this issue as it involves a 90 degree bent-leg position while aggressively activating the posterior chain to keep the weight from falling off the legs. As a result the knee flexion loaded pullup represents the ultimate exercise for crushing the entire posterior chain from head to toe (back, glutes, and hamstrings). In fact, the intensity of hamstring and glute activation can be so brutal that most lifters will feel as though they’re about to cramp in their backsides when first attempting these. Similar to the CAP effect associated with the dorsiflexion loading method, the knee-flexion loading elicits a similar potentiation and irradiation response, as you’ll notice increased neural drive from head to toe.
This method also promotes incredibly strict form as the loading parameters minimize hip flexion, knee drive, wiggling, and kipping. In addition flexing the hamstrings to 90 degrees while hanging rigidly from a pullup bar eliminates kyphotic posture and spinal flexion by creating a mild natural arch throughout the back. This promotes optimal t-spine extension and greater lat activation. The additional benefits of knee flexion loading are quite similar to the dorsiflexion method. This includes a more rigid and upright position and the elimination of any cheating or compensation strategies. The key difference is that instead of taxing the shins and anterior tibialis muscles, the hamstrings and glutes get crushed. The only downside to this method is you’ll need a training partner to assist you in placing the load on your legs.
It’s also important to highlight that in order to maximize the aforementioned benefits of the knee-flexion loading method, the feet and ankles have to be dorsiflexed as this is essential for achieving ideal activation of the posterior chain.
Knee Flexion Weighted Pullup with Barbell
The most challenging yet also the most effective protocol for implementing the knee flexion loading method is using a barbell. Similar to the dorsiflexion version involving the barbell, there is literally no room for cheating, excessive momentum, twisting, or body shifting. Any deviations in form or technical breakdown and the bar will tilt or fall off the legs.
In addition the lifter will have to keep a strict 90-degree knee bend with the legs glued tightly together from the knees to the ankles. You’ll also be required to dorsiflex your ankles and feet to angle your legs in such a way that keeps the heels at the same height as the knees. If you go into plantar flexion, lose ankle positioning or begin driving your knees forward even slightly, the bar will roll off your calves. This requires a very high level of motor control from head to toe while simultaneously exposing even the slightest imbalance or misalignment.
Knee Flexion Weighted Pullups & 3 Variations
Although the barbell variation of the knee flexion loading method provides the most benefits, similar results can be achieved using chains, dumbbells, or weight plates.
The chains are actually the most conducive for learning the movement as the weight tends to set very naturally on the legs with less chance of dumping the load.
The plate variation requires more precise 90-degree knee flexion to keep the weight from sliding off. It also promotes stricter mechanics than the chains or dumbbell variations as excessive momentum or cheating can cause the weight to easily slide off the legs.
The dumbbell variation has it’s own unique benefits. It hits the adductors and inner thighs as the lifter will be forced to squeeze the knees forcefully together which in turn increases irradiation and CAP, ultimately leading to enhanced force production. However there’s less of a balance and stability component. In addition, the lifter can choose how much emphasis they want to place on the hamstrings by determining the exact placement of the dumbbell. The lower the dumbbell is towards the feet and ankles the more the hamstrings will be engaged, whereas a higher placement near the upper calves will allow greater loading but less posterior thigh activation.
Knee Flexion Pullups with Hanging Band Technique
The hanging band technique (HBT) is one of my favorite methods for improving lifting mechanics as the oscillating kinetic energy produced from the hanging loads increases proprioceptive feedback and body positioning. Unfortunately this technique is often limited to barbell movements as it can be difficult to incorporate into other exercises.
Although the oscillations won’t be quite as extreme or direct, applying the HBT method to pullups produces a similar effect, which improves sensory feedback and overall pullup mechanics. It also helps to eliminate excessive momentum as jerky motions will cause the weight to bounce and drift in an uncontrollable fashion. Although it can be incorporated with the dorsiflex loading method (by hanging the band from the toes), most individuals will be better suited to the knee-flexion protocol as this keeps the weight from hitting the floor unless of course they have access to a very high pullup bar.
- Pullups with Accommodating Resistance -
Utilizing accommodating resistance for upper body pulling movements is rarely advocated as the increased tension towards the top of the movement doesn't precisely match the strength curve of the muscles like it would on pressing movements. However pull-ups and chin-ups tend to be a rare exception as most individuals struggle pulling from the dead stop bottom position.
Many individuals can actually handle additional loading on pullups and chin-ups once they move past the dead stop position. In fact this is one of the many reasons why many lifter short-change the movement by not completing the final 2-3 inches of the stretched position. Once an athlete gets the pullup started by completing the first several inches they tend to be able to complete the remainder of the movement. Unfortunately using added resistance or external loading can make it overly difficult to initiate the movement from a dead stop position making it impossible to use significant additional weight.
By adding chains to the feet this deloads the bottom portion of the movement allowing the individual to use primarily their own bodyweight to start from the dead hang. Once the lifter builds up just enough momentum to power through the sticking point of the movement, the chains begin to kick in. This adds increased tension and overload in the top contracted position where the individual will be able to hold a strong isometric contracting thereby inducing incredible strength and hypertrophy gains.
For instance, in the video below, I’m having my figure athlete Leslie Petch use more total weight than her 1RM pullup. However, because the bottom is deloaded she’s able to forcefully drive through the movement and overload her muscles at the top with an external resistance she would typically not be able to handle.
In addition because the contracted position is so heavily overloaded, the top of the movement feels like a variation of an overcoming isometric where the lifter is unable to pull any farther even with maximal effort. Besides creating incredible levels of intramuscular and mechanical tension both of which are critical for growth, this also helps to ensure that the individual does not over-pull at the top. This is a common problem on pullups and chin-ups as many individuals try to pull themselves up excessively high (chin over the bar) which can promote faulty movement patterns. Instead, pull to the point where your mid to upper chest is several inches from the bar. If you use a significant load with the accommodating resistance pullup you’ll be forced to terminate the concentric phase at the ideal position.
Depending on the height of the pullup bar as well as the height of the individual, the knee-flexion loading method (using chains) can also be implemented as a means of providing the same accommodating resistance.
Trap Chain-Loading Pullup Technique
- Pullup for the Viking Warrior -
The key for the trap chain-loaded pullup variation is to have the chains hang straight down in the front of the torso by draping them across the neck and traps. Besides looking like a Viking warrior, there are several benefits of this loading protocol.
First it helps reinforce the idea of leading with the chest rather than the chin or head. Many individuals try to bring their chin over the bar which reduces stimulation to the back and promotes postural dysfunction of the cervical and thoracic spine. The loading placement of the chains tilts the body slightly backward which targets the middle upper back and promotes a tall chest. In fact the movement feels like a combination pullup and rowing exercise. For individuals who suffer with poor posture and forward head tilt, this can do wonders for their pullup technique and postural alignment.
The improved postural mechanics also has a direct impact on shoulder health. Most importantly it becomes almost impossible to over-pull at the top of the pullup and use excessive range of motion. This is a common issue for many lifters as they feel compelled to pull themselves as far over the bar as possible which can damage the shoulder joint and reduce muscle activation. Instead they should stop once their back muscles can no longer fully contract. This is typically at a height where the bar is still several inches above the chest. The trap-chain loading protocol promotes proper range of motion with an ideal stopping point.
The combination of the chains tilting the lifter back as well as the load being placed on top of the traps keeps the lifter from reaching with their chin or letting their chest sink (a common pullup mistake made by many lifters). In addition the backward lean of the torso promotes greater retraction and external rotation of the scapula thereby eliminating unwanted internal rotation and protraction. As a result this variation almost completely eliminates anterior shoulder drift as it’s almost impossible to let the shoulders roll up and over.
Finally, having the chains loaded on your upper traps provides a form of external palpation and increased sensory feedback as the lifter will have greater kinesthetic awareness of where his or her shoulders are throughout the movement. This produces a similar effect to having someone’s hands placed on the shoulders which helps remind the lifter to keep the glenohumeral joint packed and centrated.
If you’re looking for a unique yet brutal pullup variation try this dead bug pullup with dorsiflexion kettlebell loading as demonstrated by my awesome client Leslie Petch. This variation also torches the core and spinal stabilizers which helps promote optimal body alignment and vertical pulling technique. In addition, the offset leg positioning produces slight rotational forces that the lifter will be required to resist throughout thereby creating additional tension to the anterior core, transverse abs, quadratus lumborum, and obliques.
This actually helps eliminate a very common problem on pullups namely excessive lumbar arch. While it’s important to maintain a slight natural curvature of the spine during pullups many individuals attempt to keep their chest out by simply allowing excessive lumbar extension to occur. Instead the lifter should be producing extension through the t-spine while keeping the lumbar spine in a relatively neutral position (which involves a mild not excessive arch). This deadbug pullup variation helps the lifter find this optimal position as it’s nearly impossible to over arch the low back. As a result the t-spine must take up the slack resulting in massive tension to the lats not to mention enhanced postural positioning.
I recommend starting with no additional load. Once you become comfortable with the movement and can perform 10 perfect reps with bodyweight (5 per side) you can incorporated additional loading by placing kettlebells on your feet. This not only adds greater load to the upper body during the pull but it further targets the muscles of the abs and core as the dead bug and alternating leg protocol are essentially resisted.
Sprinter Pullups and Chin-Ups
If you’re looking to spice up your pullup workout while also taxing your lower body try performing the sprinter pullup as I demonstrate along with my awesome client Leslie Petch and NFL athlete Julian Williams.
On a side note, you’ll notice I’m using the longitudinal the trap bar method on the first variation which provides additional mediolateral instability requiring the lifter to pull with symmetrical form to keep the bar from tilting to one side.
Besides being brutally intense, the sprinter pullup has 5 unique benefits.
1. Sprinter pullups and chin-ups work both the anterior and posterior portions of the hips and thighs due to contralateral hip flexion and hip extension. In fact, these are unusually intense on the hip flexors, glutes, and hamstrings, making these very conducive for working similar muscles involved during sprinting
2. The combination of 90 degree knee flexion with contralateral hip flexion and hip extension not only crushes the lower body but it locks the spine and core in very aggressively. As a result it forces the lifter maintain near perfect upper body mechanics and postural alignment throughout the pullup if in fact they keep their hips and legs in the perfect sprinter position. It’s as if the sprinter position prevents any form of cheating, compensation, or postural aberrations.
3. One of the most common problems on pullups and chin-ups is knowing just how much extension you’re supposed to incorporate to achieve a good lat contraction and upper back squeeze. Too much extension and you’ll place excessive tension on the lumbar spine. Too much focus on keeping your core braced and you’ll often run into issues associated with shoulder protraction, forward head tilt, and slight spinal flexion, all of which make it impossible to optimally contract the upper back. So how do you find that balance between spinal extension and anterior core tension?
Although there are a number of cues to help this, the sprinter pullup is literally one of the best techniques I’ve used for helping people find that optimal balance between extension and flexion. That’s probably because one hip is driving maximally into flexion while the other is pulling maximally into extension thereby producing an equilibrium effect of sorts where the spine is locked in between the lower extremities. It also helps create a bracing effect around the entire spine producing heightened levels of concurrent activation potentiation and irradiation. In other words expect unprecedented levels of full body tightness and intramuscular tension as well as increased neural drive to the rest of the body.
4. Besides crushing the upper body, core, and legs, sprinter pullups are a great diagnostic tool and corrective exercise for sprinting mechanics. Simply observe the athlete from the front, sides, and back and any aberrations in the hips and lower body including alignment and mobility issues will become immediately exposed. In addition, because the legs are holding an isometric contraction the ability to both diagnose and correct these issues is quite simple as the coach can easily cue and re-position the athlete.
5. Over-pulling and using excessive range of motion in the top position on pullups, chin-ups, and lat pulldowns is one of the most common mistakes. Instead of attempting to pull your head over the bar or pull the bar below chin height, the optimal range of motion for any vertical pulling movement is somewhere between 90 degrees (forehead level) and lower chin level. Beyond this ROM the lifter will be forced to compensate in some form or another typically with either shoulder protraction, shoulder internal rotation, spinal flexion, reduced core activation, excessive lumbar extension, or cervical flexion (forward head tilt).
Fortunately the sprinter pullup helps resolve this almost immediately as pulling significantly beyond 90 degrees with the arms causes the lower extremities to move out of alignment. That’s because the body acts as one calibrated system where each area impacts all others similar to a ripple effect. In other words, when one area moves out of alignment and creates dysfunction it impacts all other areas producing various forms of serial distortion patterns. Stay tuned for my large book on eccentric isometrics coming out in mid 2018, which will provide further detail on this topic.
If you’re looking for a program that teaches you how to incorporate unique pullups and vertical pulls into your routine, check out my Complete Templates Series.