Strict Pull Up Progressions – You Can Do This!

Mastering the strict pull up is a fitness goal many people would like to accomplish. Being a strength based skill, strict pull ups can be difficult to achieve, especially for women who notoriously lack the upper body strength for this movement. The following are key steps for achieving this goal:

  1. Follow a progression program
  2. Be consistent with practice and increasing the level of difficulty
  3. Use good muscle movement patterns
  4. And don’t give up, good things take time to achieve

Commit 15-20 minutes, 3 days a week to the progressions. You need to put in the effort if you want results … you can do this!!!

Level One – Your First Strict Pull Up

Always Warm Up your shoulders before doing any pull up progressions.  Examples include:

  • Arm swings – forward and reverse.  2 X 12
  • Banded face pulls – make sure to retract and depress your scapula together on every pull.  2×12
  • Shoulder rolls forward and back.  2 X 12
  • Arm punches out from chest.  2 X 12
  • Push ups.  2 X 12

Afterwards cool down and stretch out.

  • Foam roll each latissimus dorsi for 1-2 minutes.
  • Foam roll the mid back and do thoracic extensions (arms reaching overhead with thumbs toward the ground).
  • Kneel on both knees with arms extended out in front of you with forearms on a foam roller, push chest down through your arms, toward the ground.

Important Details: A proper pull up should be initiated with the scapula.

Bar Hangs with scapular retraction – This step is crucial to ensuring you know how to activate your scapula. Use a box/bench to climb and grab onto the pull up bar (use a band to assist if necessary). Hold the bar with hands pronated, i.e. palms facing the bar.

Test your ability to do scapular retractions, pulling the scapula together and down. Your body should raise by an inch or two as your back engages. You should be able to do 5 reps of slow, gradual scapular retractions, holding for 2 seconds, then slowly releasing before beginning the push up progression program.

Active Scapular Retraction 
No scapular retraction, forward rounding of shoulders.
  • Do not hang from the bar with a limp form, this will stress the shoulders and potentially cause injury. Pulling up with the arms causes the shoulders to pull forward and down as seen in the photo above.
  • A supinated grip ( palms facing the bar as done in chin ups) is a good variation to use during your progression training.
  • Do not arch the body, swing, or bend at the waist to try and get momentum. A strict pull up is slow and controlled.
  • Every pull up must be started with scapular retractions in place prior to pulling up.

Now you are ready to begin your progressions. It might take several weeks to build the strength, so be patient and trust the process.  Building the requisite muscles takes time.  Before hanging from the bar, practice this pull up variation found below:



Progressive Workouts:

Vary workouts each week by adding reps and/or weight, and decreasing band size. Constantly varied stimulus with progressive overload are the keys to building strength.

A1) Seated Strict DB Press 3 X 8 at a weight that challenges you by the 8th rep.

Seated DB Press

A2) Scapular retraction bar hangs 3 X 5 (hold 2 seconds each). Start with a band if necessary to help support your weight.

A3) Banded pull ups 3 X 8 with a heavy band down by feet so you are standing on the band.

Low Band Pull Up


B1) Accumulate 25 ring rows. Once you can do 10 in a row, lower your angle to make it harder. Eventually work toward having your body parallel to ground with your feet on a box or bench.

B2) Chin over bar holds.  Do a jumping pull up to the bar. Static hold your chin over the bar for 1 – 2 seconds, then slow lower down to the bottom position in a controlled descent over 3 to 4 seconds. This is an eccentric stimulus and is important in building strength.

Pull Up with hollow hold, feet pointed

B3) Banded Pull Ups 3 X 8  with a band looped on the top bar. Reduce the band thickness when able to do so.

Top Banded Pull Up Assist


C1) Sitting Strict DB Arnold Press  3 x 8.  Start the press at your chest level, rotate your hands from internal (palms facing in) to external rotation (palms facing forward) during the press. Pause at the top for 1 to 2 seconds.

DB Arnold Press Top

C2) Scapular Retractions bar hangs.  4 X 15 sec holds.

C3) Jumping pull ups. 3 x 8. Make sure to keep core in a hollow hold, with feet tight together and toes pointed forward. Always retract the scapula as you begin to pull.

An example of the programming with varying stimulus is below.  Remember, your programming will begin at a level that you can currently achieve, and then you will increase the difficulty as you progress :

Week 1

Monday: warm up, then do:

A1) Seated 10 lb DB press. 3 X 8;

A2) Scapular retraction bar hangs with a band. 2 X 5 for 2 seconds;

A3) Banded pull ups with thick band at feet for assist. 3 X 8.

Wednesday: warm up, then do:

B1) AMRAP (As many rounds as possible) of Ring Rows until fatigue.

B2) Chin over bar holds. Jump up, hold 2 seconds then slow lower. Do 5X

B3) Band from top bar pull ups with one or two legs in loop. Do AMRAP, rest and do 4 more.

Friday: warm up, then do:

C1) Seated DB Arnold press 10 lb DB press. 3 X 8

C2) Scapular Retractions bar hangs.  4 X 15 sec holds.

C3) Jumping pull ups. 3 x 8.


Enjoy the process and the final results will come.

CrossFit Definitions, Acronyms and Abbreviation

Have you ever been confused about your workout when the chalkboard says:

Today’s WOD:


DL 225/155


This handy guide will explain what CrossFit abbreviations are.  In the example above, this workout is a “couplet” meaning two  movements . The clock is set and the athlete begins doing 21 Dead Lifts, followed by 21 Hand Stand Push Ups. Without resting they go into 15Dead Lifts, 15 Hand Stand Push Us, and then into 9 repetitions of DL’s and HSPU.   The 225 number is the DL weight for men as Rx’d (as prescribed) while women doing Rx would lift 155 pounds. Many athletes cannot lift the Rx weight or do an Rx movement, so they scale the weight or movement and still get an intense workout.

Every correctly completed movement is counted as a rep.  A “No Rep” means the movement was not performed to standards and will need to be redone.   The athlete can then record their workout time as their score.

Many foundational CrossFit workouts are called “The Girls”  because they have a girls name, such as “Diane,” which is described above.  Hero Workouts are named after fallen soldiers, police officers, firefighters and other public safety officers who were CrossFitters that died in the line of duty.

AMRAP-As Many Reps As Possible, usually in a specified time.

ATG: Ass to Grass, as in squat with butt below parallel.

BP: Bench press.

BS: Back squat.

BW (or BWT): Body weight.

CLN: Clean.

C&J: Clean and jerk.

DL: Deadlift.

DU: Double Under. When the jump rope goes around the person two times for every one jump.

FS: Front squat.

GHD: Glute ham developer. Posterior chain exercise, like a back extension.

GHD Situp: Situp done on the GHD bench.  

HSPU: Hand stand push up. Kick up into a handstand (use wall for balance),bend arms and push body up by locking out arms.

HSQ: Hang squat (clean or snatch). Start with bar “at the hang,” about knee height. Initiate pull. As the bar rises drop into a full squat and catch the bar in the racked position. From there, rise to a standing position.

KB: Kettlebell.

KTE: Knees to elbows. Similar to TTBs described below.

MetCon: Metabolic Conditioning workout. 

MP: Military press.

MU: Muscle ups. Hanging from rings you do a combination pull-up and dip so you end in an upright support.

OHS: Overhead squat. Full-depth squat performed while arms are locked out in a wide grip press position above (and usually behind) the head.

PC: Power clean.

PR: Personal record.

PP: Push press.

PSN: Power snatch.

PU: Pull-ups, possibly push ups depending on the context.

Rep: Repetition. One performance of an exercise.

Rx’d; as Rx’d: As prescribed; as written. WOD done without any adjustments.

RM: Repetition maximum. Your 1RM is your max lift for one rep. Your 10 RM is the most you can lift 10 times.

SCALING: Reducing the prescribed workout for a beginning athlete or until the movement is learned by decreasing weight, or modifying movements. ie if unable to do a strict pull up, use bands to assist in pull ups until strength is gained to complete as RD’d.

SDHP: Sumo deadlift high pull.

Set: A number of repetitions. e.g., 3 sets of 10 reps, often seen as 3×10, means do 10 reps, rest, repeat, rest, repeat.

SN: Snatch.

SQ: Air Squat.

SU: Single Under. The jump rope passes around the person one time for every one jump.

Tabata – a high intensity interval workout inspired by Dr. Izumi Tabata where an all out extreme intensity is done for 20 seconds followed by 10 seconds of rest. This cycle is repeated for 8 rounds or 4 minutes total.

TGU: Turkish get-up.

TTB: Toes to bar. Hang from bar. Bending only at waist raise your toes to touch the bar, slowly lower them and repeat.

WOD: Workout of the day.