Scaling Pull-ups with Bands: An Improved Method

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Using band assistance is a common method of scaling pull-ups, and while it makes the movement accessible to a greater range of people, it’s an imperfect solution. We’d like to propose a different method of scaling, which should help to remedy some of these issues.

But firstly, a disclaimer. We don’t believe there are inherently bad exercises. We think there are better or worse exercises, and that these exercises exist on a continuum, but to a point, any exercise is better than no exercise. That being said, we hope this alternative is closer to the ‘better’ end of that continuum.

The Problems with the Current Method:

First, the problems with the traditional banded pull-up. What are the problems we’re trying to solve?

A traditional banded pull-up offers variable, non linear, accommodating assistance. Because the band is more stretched at the bottom of the pull-up, it helps you more here, and helps you less at the top.

This effect is amplified when consecutive reps are completed with a band, because a rapid lengthening of the band on the eccentric portion of each rep means the band is storing elastic energy which catapults the individual into the midpoint of the next rep, bypassing the need to control the initiation of movement.

Incidentally, a kipping pull-up has the same biomechanical effect. This means that the muscles involved in initiating the pull-up don’t have to do as much work, while the muscles involved in finishing the rep with the chin over the bar have to do relatively more work.

Either the band provides too much assistance at the bottom of the rep, meaning the important muscles involved in scapula stability are neglected, or the band provides not enough assistance at the top, meaning the individual is unable to get over the bar – once again meaning the scapula stabilisers, particularly those involved in scapula depression are not trained.

These two issues mean the flexors of the elbow (primarily the biceps) are biased towards, while the muscles of the back are biased away from and neglected.

The band gives most assistance where it’s most important to develop strength (in scapula depression and retraction). Biomechanically, the band provides assistance directly opposite to where the pull-up needs it, in opposition to both the descending strength curve and correct scapulo-humeral rhythm.

Going from a traditional band assisted pull-up to a pull-up with no band uses different muscle activation patterns, and for both musculoskeletal health and speed of progression, scaling should (where possible) emulate the activation patterns of the desired end result.

So the problems we need to solve are three-fold:

  1. We need a constant level of assistance throughout the entire range of movement.
  2. We need to remove the elastic energy stored in the band on consecutive reps.
  3. We need to mirror the muscle activation patterns of the goal movement – a full pull-up.

These three points need to speed up progression and reduce injury rates.

Other Methods Currently in Use:

Now, there are other methods of solving these problems, including the use of negatives or eccentric focussed training, and static or isometric based training.

These techniques are powerful in their ability to strengthen the pull-up, but they fall short in allowing accessibility to athletes who wish to train this movement with intensity or for time as is often the case in CrossFit.

Recreational exercisers have time constraints, and often an inability or unwillingness to add in extra accessory work. So not only do we need to speed up progression and reduce injury rates, but we need to do it for a population of exercisers who are outcome driven to complete more work in less time.

A Solution:

We’d like to offer up one possible solution which ticks the boxes.

For the set-up, the individual stands on a box under a pull-up bar so, when standing on their toes, they are in the desired position for the top of the rep – either with their chin over the bar, or with their chest touching the bar depending on the type of pull-up they’re completing.

Then, from the top of the box, they measure 50cm up, and place a band between the uprights of the rig. It doesn’t have to be 50cm, but it does have to be a consistent distance every time the pull-ups are completed so load can be standardised and progression can be measured. We’ve found 50cm to be optimal.

The individual then simply stands on the band with their feet together, lowers to a hang and lifts their feet the smallest distance possible off the box. They initiate the pull-up, progressively extending the legs as they complete the movement so the distance between feet and box stays constant.

In our trials, the ability to stay just above the surface of the box is surprisingly intuitive and most individuals pick it up after less than five reps.

The mid point of the rep is with the chin over the bar, or chest in contact with the bar, and the knees locked straight. Then the endpoint is back in a full hang with feet still hovering off the box.

This method solves our problems:

  • It gives a constant level of assistance throughout the entire range of movement.
  • It removes the elastic energy stored in the band on consecutive reps.
  • It mirrors the muscle activation patterns of the goal movement – a full pull-up.
  • And it works for a population of exercisers who are outcome driven to complete more work in less time.

Dan Williams's picture

Dan Williams

Dan Williams is the Founder and Director of Range of Motion. He is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist and Exercise Scientist with a Bachelor of Science and a Bachelor of Exercise Rehabilitation Science. Dan is a CrossFit Coach (at CF Games Level) and four time CrossFit Regionals Athlete.