Get Better at Pull-ups

tension pull-ups | kourtney thomas fitness

I’ve already shared my #1 Tip to Master the Pull-Up. (I’ll repeat it below, just in case you forgot.) But Tip #2 is definitely as important. Really, it should probably be tip #1a, it’s that important. This tip allowed me to go from two or three solid pull-ups to three sets of seven. So, combining Tips #1 and #1a, we need to practice tension.


This is a little trick I learned at last year’s Women’s Fitness Summit from the bodyweight and kettlebell Master, Coach Karen Smith. (Fun side note: Karen told me she wanted my arms!) I will probably butcher it a bit, but the main idea is that, in order to get up over that bar, you have to create muscle tension. (And Karen explains that a bit more in this article on Girls Gone Strong.)

Have you ever seen cheerleaders, or been one? Flipping and flying through the air, building pyramids so high my heart rate goes up because I’m sure they’re all going to fall and die. But they don’t. They never do. Wanna know why? Because they know how to create tension. And I’m not talking about team drama. No, they know how to contract and control their muscles to make their bodies rigid, which makes them easier to lift and toss.

And that muscle contraction and control will help you in your training too.

I often hear some version of, “I want to be able to do a pull-up/more pull-ups” as a new client goal. It was mine once too. And until I did two things, I was stuck for a long time.

#1 – You have to practice.

There’s no other substitute. Just like with any other skill, you have to spend more than two minutes once a week practicing it to get better.

Action item: Add pull-up or chin-up practice to your workouts three times a week. You can incorporate pull-ups into your workout, or you can designate a certain amount of time at the end of your workout strictly to practice. Even better, you can do a combination of both throughout the week.

#1a – Learn to create more tension.

This is the game changer. And you’ll have to practice it too, but basically, don’t be a floppy old fish under that bar. Get tight.

Action item(s): During all of your pull-up and chin-up practice, practice that tension. Especially through your abs, contract your muscles before and as you lift your body. Big key? Flex your feet hard, toes toward your face. Then pull.

So, it would look a little like this:

Grab bar or handles. Lower to starting position. Engage shoulders, blades in your back pockets. Flex those feet. Engage your abs. Breathe, pull, squeeze. Lower again, keeping your tension.

If you’re able to keep that tension, you will feel it. No doubt. First, because your chins and pulls will start to improve markedly. Second, because your abs will be sore! Try it. Just try it once and see how it goes.

Chin-ups and pull-ups are so fantastic. Not only are they an amazing strength exercise, they are also pretty damn good for building size. (Which is my jam, as we already know.) And they are definitely a great performance goal! But they are not easy, and they take practice. You can get strong and you can build size doing other assistance exercises, and sure, they will have some transfer to pull-ups. But there is absolutely no substitute other than this exact pattern. There is no other exercise to simulate it. If you take the time to master it, you won’t be sorry.

There may be some tension in life that we don’t want, but this? We do. Give it a try and let me know how it goes.


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