The two most common methods of learning to do a pull up are to either use a resistance band, such as the one in the photo below, or to do “negatives”, which is where you lower yourself (slowly and with control) down from the top of the bar; “negative” being the term used to describe the reverse motion of any exercise.
Which is the more effective of the two is a pretty controversial topic in the bodyweight training world, and most advanced practitioners have an opinion one way or the other.
I’ve always been against bands for a number of reasons, and as I was giving some advice to a friend yesterday had a bit of a philosophical moment, and I think I’ve found the reason that, for me at least, bands have always felt so wrong compared to negatives.
Using a resistance band is good because they come in different strengths (thicker band = greater assistance = easier exercise) and so are scalable to a persons strength (and bodyweight). They also give people the satisfaction of actually being able to complete the exercise. On the downside, they are fiddly to use and often result in swinging around (somewhat negated if you hook your knee in instead of your feet, although I’ve always found the whole process at best annoying and at worst a monumental pain in the backside). The worst thing about them though, is that they give the greatest assist at the hardest part of the movement – when the user is in dead-hang and the band is fully stretched – which in my opinion results in people being less likely to develop the strength at this crucial range of motion.
Negatives are hard. They tax the body and they don’t actually feel like you’re getting anywhere, since you’re not completing the whole movement. However, in order to get strong (simple explanation incoming) your muscles need to be tensed. The harder they are tensed and the longer the time that’s for, the better (see, told you it was simple). So by doing a negative – jumping up so your head is over the bar, and lowering yourself slowly and consistently down to lock-out, your muscles are working, equally, at every stage of the motion for a prolonged period of time.
The thing that tipped me over to writing this post was a realisation about the end point, and you’ll have to bare with me whilst I go off on a slightly philosophical note… It’s human nature (especially in the West) to focus on the end goal of what we’re doing. Whether it’s to do the splits or nail a pull up, the intent on hitting our target is so strong that often we don’t give the process the attention it deserves. Either we try and take shortcuts, or rush through the process, or just do the minimum work (we perceive is) required to get what we want.
In strength training this is especially apparent, with a lot of people using bad quality form under the mistaken impression that they are banging out reps of a certain exercise (that oft-executed exercise for building massive arms – “the bicep curl with added hip-pop as the weight’s too heavy” being a prime example) when actually they are not increasing their strength (or their muscle mass) at all.
When doing a negative, you’re completely flipping this on it’s head – instead of focussing on the end of a technique, you’re just coming back to the beginning This, subconsciously, makes it a lot less stressful, physically but also mentally. The mind is already at peace with the fact that you’re not trying to do a full pull up, and that leaves a lot more mental space to focus on proper form, to think about engaging the correct muscles and to feel calmer in the process.
This is true of many things in life – by removing the pressure of trying to achieve a certain goal, usually one that is self-imposed – one is free to enjoy the journey. Often these goals are imposed by ourselves, and with our stubborn and rigid minds we refuse to budge from them, even though the fall-out caused by our struggle to reach them is obvious, and we suffer from the hard time we give ourself as a result of not making the progress we want (something I am definitely guilty of!).
So remember – don’t get hung up on reaching your destination, but on enjoying the journey, completing it safely, mindfully and properly, in every sense of that of that word.
And if you want a workout using negatives to help your pull ups, there’s one below ;)