BY PAMELA GAGNON AND ZACHARY LONG WITH JEFF TUCKER of the CrossFit Journal
“For the CrossFit athlete or novice CrossFit enthusiast, one extremely important element is necessary for success in gymnastics skills: prerequisite strength.”
CrossFit Gymnastics subject-matter expert Jeff Tucker has spoken this truth many times.
Strength is essential to gymnastics. It allows both continual development of skills and virtuosity of movement in body-weight training. Beyond that, strength is an asset that reduces the chances of injury.
If we begin work on any skill prematurely—before building prerequisite strength and control—we will ultimately slow down our progress and needlessly risk injury. As stated in Part 1 of this series, shortcuts do not exist in gymnastics, and skipping steps creates poor training habits that will result in frustration in time.
For long-term development of the pull-up, athletes will be best served by strict strength progressions first. Kipping should not be the first step.
Upon developing competency and strength in the hollow position detailed in Part 2 of this series, it is necessary for the CrossFit athlete to build the strict strength necessary for common CrossFit movements such as pull-ups, rope climbs and muscle-ups. This strength is a requirement before we add momentum to these and other movements.
“Strength and form before speed.”—Jeff Tucker
When appropriate muscular strength and control are not present, the body must find other means to dissipate the forces generated by momentum and leverage, and the forces are directed to muscles and connective tissues that are not prepared to handle them. This can result in injury.
For example, if an athlete lacks strength in the upper body—to include the hands, arms, shoulders and back—when performing a kipping pull-up, forces created during an uncontrolled descent are transferred to the tendons and ligaments, as well as the labrum. These tissues are not meant to bear these forces, and the athlete is creating a recipe for injury—either acute or due to strain accumulated over many months.
From the “CrossFit Specialty Course: Gymnastics Training Guide”: “Injury occurs due to the traction of the biceps and labrum pulling off the glenoid. The same thing sometimes occurs when an athlete kips above the plane of the bar but lacks the appropriate strength to control the descent.”
To develop the necessary strength and control for proper pull-ups, we first need to learn the “active hang”: We hang from the bar in the hollow body position with tension while contracting the appropriate muscles. As simple as this exercise sounds, it is surprising how common it is for athletes to place tension on their ligaments and tendons instead of the appropriate muscles in the hang position. The shoulder joint, a ball-and-socket joint with a large range of motion, is inherently unstable, and we don’t want to encourage excessive mobility.
To perform the active hang, grab the bar, wrapping the thumbs around for a solid grip. Then “pull” down on the bar while keeping your body hollow. This downward pull while maintaining extended elbows will lift the body upward. To build strength in the shoulders and lats, you can work “active shrugs” in this position by performing small pulses up and down with the elbows locked. We want to pull from the lats, not the pecs, to ensure we activate the muscles we will rely on when we get to kipping.
Guideline for sets/reps for shrugs in the active hang:
Beginner 3 x 5-10 reps
Advanced 4 x 12-20 reps
(Not for time; this prescription is also great for building grip strength.)
Reinforcing the foundation, we encourage athletes to regularly practice hanging while maintaining the hollow position we worked in Part 2 of this series.
Grip strength is also a prerequisite for effective pull-ups. The better your forearm and grip strength, the more consecutive reps you will be able to perform. Grip strength can be built in many ways, but a few favorites include barbell wrist curls for the forearms and simply squeezing a tennis ball. In the prescription below, quality matters, not quantity, so rest if needed to ensure quality reps.
Guideline for sets/reps:
On a clock, work for 30 seconds then rest for 30 seconds for 4 minutes
Alternate between dumbbell wrist curls and tennis-ball squeezes
After we can perform an active hang with the correct muscles engaged, we want to build strength to perform a strict pull-up. Commonly, we see coaches and athletes using resistance bands for assistance when working on pull-up strength. While bands can be a good tool, they have a huge drawback many don’t recognize: They provide significantly more assistance at the bottom of the pull-up. We often see diligent athletes who are simply unable to progress past band assistance because they are not building strength throughout the entire range of motion.
The following drills will help the athlete develop strength through the complete range and move closer to acquiring unassisted strict reps.
Toe-assisted pull-ups are a great starting point for strength development. Set a box or other stable object underneath a pull-up bar so the athlete’s chin is above the bar when standing on the box. While holding the hollow position, the athlete then lowers by bending the knees (which will hang off the box in the front) and controlling the descent with the upper body. The legs should be used only as needed for assistance.
Once at the bottom, the athlete begins to pull back up while staying in the hollow position and using his or her toes as a “spot” to provide assistance to complete a full repetition. It is very important that the legs only provide as much assistance as is needed to complete the prescribed repetitions. The shoulders must also remain active in the bottom so athletes learn the control that is required for success in more advanced progressions.
Video: Toe-assisted pull-ups
We typically suggest a three-three-three tempo when doing toe-assisted pull-ups, meaning the athlete pulls up for a three count, holds the top position for a three count and then lowers for a three count.
Guidelines for sets/reps:
Day 1: 5 x 1 rep
Day 2: 4 x 2 reps
Day 3: 3 x 3 reps
Day 4: 2 x 4 reps
Day 5: 1 x 5 reps
In this prescription, the exact rep numbers will be dependent on each athlete’s strength. For stronger athletes, consider adding a rep to each day’s load in the first week—Day 1 would be 5 sets of 2 reps, for example. In other cases, coaches might have an athlete perform 2 strict single reps on Day 1, then perform 3 toe-assisted singles to complete the day’s work. Each week, try to add 1 rep to each day’s prescription. If you can’t, repeat a cycle and try to add 1 rep to each day in the following cycle.
Eccentric pull-ups (doing only the lowering portion of the movement) are also a great tool for developing pull-up strength. To perform eccentric reps, the athlete will jump to a pull-up bar so that the chin is above the bar, then lower for five seconds while maintaining the hollow body position. During eccentric contractions, muscles create more force than during concentric contractions, and this allows many athletes to control the descent even when they cannot do a full pull-up. Eccentrics are also a great tool for developing strength and health in the tendons.
It is imperative you start small and work for quality rather than quantity when performing these strength pulls. Listen to your body so you don’t push beyond a level of safety, which could put you in danger of rhabdomyolysis or injury.
Once you have mastered these assisted movements and are ready to do strict pull-ups in a hollow position without assistance, you can perform a concentric rep and then do eccentric work by lowering under control for five seconds.
Video: Strict pull-up
The development of strict pull-ups while maintaining the hollow body position will allow for the best application of pull-up strength to high-level skills such as the muscle-up.
As the “CrossFit Specialty Course: Gymnastics Training Guide” reminds, the shoulder can be an area of concern if there is a “lack of strength and endurance in the shoulder muscles, which must stabilize the joint during dynamic movements.”
Make sure you build prerequisite strength before you move to kipping, which we will cover in the next article in this series
About the Authors:
Zachary Long is a doctor of physical therapy, CrossFit coach and director of Thebarbellphysio.com.
Pamela Gagnon is a lead coach for CrossFit Gymnastics, a coach at Rising CrossFit Ballantyne, a two-time CrossFit Games masters athlete and a former collegiate gymnast.
Jeff R. Tucker, or “Tucker” to those who know him, is the subject-matter expert for CrossFit Gymnastics. He is the CEO and founder of Global Sports Xtreme (GSX) in Fort Worth, Texas, and he has a passion for teaching gymnastics.