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How To Improve Your Pull-Ups For the CrossFit Games

Posted by: Emily Beers

With the worldwide Open approaching quickly, we have no idea what Dave Castro will serve up; however, we’re willing to put money on one thing: chest-to-bar pull-ups in high volume!

Gymnastics coach Louise Eberts
Gymnastics and CrossFit coach Louise Eberts

We caught up with gymnastics coach, Louise Eberts, who works or has worked with many high-level regional and CrossFit Games athletes, such as Emily Abbott, Alex Parker, Mitch Barnard, Jeremy Meredith and Brittany Brown to name a few—to find out what kind of last-minute gains are possible.

Eberts Tip #1: Accept where you’re at and hone it in

Six weeks out isn’t the time to learn a new kind of kip, Eberts advised. If your butterfly chest-to-bar pull-ups aren’t competition ready, abandon them from now until the Open and focus on improving your kipping efficiency instead.

“Practice the type of pull-up you’re going to use during the Open,” she said.

Eberts Tip #2: Muscular Endurance

While major pulling strength gains are tough to make between now and the Open, muscular endurance can certainly be improved in just a few weeks.

Eberts recommends doing pull-ups outside of your conditioning workouts.

“During the first week, pick a number you can complete a set that doesn’t take you to failure. If you normally can rip off 10 to 12 pull-ups in a row in a workout, but then they break down, pick a slightly lower number than that. And then hit that four times with about 30 seconds rest in between sets,” she said. The following week, build on this number.

 “Try working with a slightly higher number the next week,” she said. And then the following week, add some fatigue to your set—something like adding six burpees before your pull-ups, since you’ll need to get used to doing pull-ups fatigued.”

This doesn’t mean you need to abandon your pulling strength work, though. 

"I don’t think there’s any harm in continuing your strength work during this time. Throughout the Open, it’s ok to have a day where you’re still working on strength components, but now isn't a great time to focus just on strength. That’s what June to October or November is for,” she said. “But you can definitely focus on maintaining what you have during the Open.”

 Eberts Tip #3: Pacing

One of the most important things to focus on during the next few weeks is pacing. If you know a set of 20 reps is going to crush you, don’t do 20 reps. It’s important to know how you’re going to break up your sets, Eberts said.

Practicing old Open workouts is a great place to start, she added. Learn your pace and be OK with where you’re at. Knowing your pace will help you maximize your score more than anything else!

For example, if you practice the OHS and chest-to-bar pull-up workout from both 2014 and 2015, you should focus on how you’re going to break up your pull-ups. If grip strength is your limiting factor, then you probably want to consider smaller sets of pull-ups, she said.

“It depends on your capacity,” she added. “If the OHS feels light and you have good grip strength, then you can probably hold your numbers a bit higher on the pull-ups—even unbroken. But if you’re doing regular pull-ups and aren’t doing butterflies, then you probably want to keep it to smaller sets. I have seen girls get through way further in (15.2) by doing their pull-ups one at a time (than when they did bigger sets).”

The important thing is to get to know where you’re at between now and the Open.

Eberts Tip #4: Improve Efficiency

It’s not too late to make your pull-ups more efficient, Eberts said. 

“Play with the speed of your pull-ups. If you find yourself pausing at the top, try to get rid of that habit,” she added. “You’re more likely to make technical changes than strength gains at this point. Try to find someone who can watch and correct you. Maybe they'll notice something like you’re at the wrong angle when you're pulling."

The biggest "wrong angle" mistake she finds is athletes become too horizontal, especially during chest-to-bar pull-ups.

“Try to keep your body more vertical, as opposed to laid back. This often comes from the cue to push off the bar. But it’s just a tiny push, not a massive heave, and people misconstrue that and end up in a really bad position. A big cue that has helped a lot of people is to keep your chin forward. This will help keep you more vertical.”

 Good luck, and may the pull-up gods be with you!

Posted by Emily Beers on

Emily Beers, hailing from Vancouver, crosses bridges by being not only a CrossFit athlete, but also a journalist. She has been a regular contributor to the CrossFit Journal since 2011. She qualified and competed at her first CrossFit Games as an individual athlete in 2014.

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