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When performing a pullup, what techniques would be ideal for getting higher than chin-even-with-bar?

When I perform pullups, I can get the bar to the base of my neck / my collarbone if I pull explosively in the lower part of the movement. I can do 12 pullups, and get this high on about 8 or 9 of them. But I can't pull that far if I'm moving slowly. For instance, if I start with my chin just above the bar, I can't statically pull myself any higher. So:

  • Should I focus on pulling explosively when I want to go higher
  • Should I specifically work on pulling slowly from some mid point (say, chin-just-over-bar)

When I look at different groups doing pullups some (military physical fitness tests, Mark Rippetoe's book) seem to think that just getting your chin above the bar is totally adequate. But if I wanted to perform a muscle up, I'd obviously need to get higher.

This is sort of a theoretical question at the moment for me - I got some tendonitis in my elbows trying option B, and am on a long, slow road to recovery. But I'd like to understand better how I should have trained, for when I'm better. I feel like pulling explosively was working fine, and had been for a while, and that switching to option B was what injured me. But I'd like to understand how other people do it, for when I'm recovered.

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Are you kipping on the explosive ones, or just pulling hard? – Dave Liepmann Jan 8 '13 at 22:49
Just pulling hard, I hold my legs in place so I don't kip accidentally. – DavidR Jan 9 '13 at 0:48
What is your purpose for being able to lift your collar bone higher than the bar? Once you reach that part you are at the end of the range of motion for that exercise... – Grohlier Jan 9 '13 at 2:40
@Grohlier To perform a muscle-up, like he says, or to get his chest to the bar, which many people consider to be the full range of motion for the exercise. – Dave Liepmann Jan 9 '13 at 16:10
I agree that part of the function of the lat muscle is to medially rotate the shoulder because of its insertion on the floor of the bicipital groove. However, it is more of a stabilizing muscle as the rear-deltoid, teres minor, sub-scapularis, and trapezius muscle are the active muscle that would help you get into the position being described after the end of the ROM for the lat. – Grohlier Jan 9 '13 at 20:07

If I were having this problem, I'd focus on changing most or all of my pull-up and chin-up reps to "chest to bar", and accepting nothing less. This would probably mean a reduction in how many reps I could perform. If that reduced my volume too much, I'd do one (maybe two) "chin-to-bar" sets for as many reps as possible at the end of my pull-up work.

I also expect that holding at the top for five or ten or twenty seconds, either between reps or at the end of a set, could help tremendously.

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can you describe what muscles you're using when you're holding your chest to the bar statically? I think I'm missing something there. I had been trying to use my biceps, and was focusing on pulling my biceps into my forearms to get the extra distance, and injured my elbows doing so. Was I doing it the wrong way? In that range, is the pullup still being driven by the lats / teres / rhomboids? Thanks. – DavidR Jan 9 '13 at 1:03
Proper pull-up form, as I dimly understand it, is to maximize the pull one gets from squeezing the shoulder blades together. Of course the biceps will be involved as well. – Dave Liepmann Jan 9 '13 at 2:17
+1. I had the same problem, and what helped me was reducing the number of reps in each set, and holding the top position of the pull-up for about 5 seconds. As Dave said, don't do partial pull-ups, otherwise you will just train the lower part of the movement and the imbalance will just become bigger. Instead, focus on the upper part of the movement, with static holds or eccentrics. As far as I know, the muscles involved are still the same, but your muscles get stronger within their weak parts of the range of motion. – zero-divisor Jan 9 '13 at 5:55

Your problem is the lack of strength at the very top part of the pull-up. It is normal for most people don't go that high on their chin/pull-ups anyways. I will give you several exercises to follow in order to develop enough strength for what you want.

  1. Begin with explosive pull-ups, try remaining at the top position where the bar is touching your collarbone. Try it both with the pronated and supinated grips(in other words with the pull-up and chin-up grips). Hold it for a good amount of 5 seconds then release and do another repetition using momentum to get there. Repeat this for 4-6 reps per set. 3 sets.

  2. Once holding this top position for over 10 seconds gets easy start focusing onto negatives. Basically where you release the position but in a very controlled manner up to your chin. Then pull yourself explosively(from this position or from the starting pull-up position), using momentum, to the top position again and release slowly. Repeat this for 6 repetitions per set.

  3. After #2 gets easy, add some ankle or other type of weight to your body for the negatives.

  4. If you have rubberbands attach them to the bar and "step" into them so they can help you for a slow and controlled pull-up. Try decreasing the assistance of the bands once you reach 10 reps. If you don't have any bands use a chair. Move it further and further away as you are gaining more and more strength.

These are direct exercises for developing this strength as I call them in my tutorials. Developing additional strength will be much easier if you use some assisting exercises as well. The top part of the pull-up specifically engages the top part of your lateral muscles. Working them will help you increase the strength needed for your goal. Working them in a specific manner which resembles the pull-up motion will do miracles for you. Attach rubberbands above you to the point where they end hanging just above the top part of your head. Now focus on the ending motion of the pull-up. Grab the rubberbands in a pronated(pull-up) grip. Pull them for 12 reps, 3 sets. Do this after you are done with your pull-ups being your first/direct exercise.

Also, if you are experiencing elbow tendonitis, wait until it's gone before you start with this program. I had the most severe elbow tendonitis and had to go from one doctor to another doctor for a whole year before it got better. All because I did not rest when I had to. If you have any questions fire away at me!

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Great answer, but why would someone who can do 12 pull-ups use a band for assistance? – Dave Liepmann Jan 9 '13 at 23:19
I thought it might not make sense the way I wrote it. What I meant is to place the band in a way where it helps him just for the very top part. :) – Arthlete Jan 10 '13 at 6:23
May not be strength. Might be flexibility in the shoulders. – Megasaur Jan 12 '13 at 8:37

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