Who would’ve thought that a major sticking point for CC practitioners could happen so early on during training? I’m talking, of course, about step 2 of the pull-up routine, or what perhaps some of you might think of as “the dreaded horizontal pull.” Vertical pulls against the doorframe seemed so easy, and you confidently mastered that step in no time flat. Now, you suddenly find yourself stopped dead in your tracks by the horizontal pull, barely able to squeeze out a handful of reps of this exercise. What to do to keep progressing?
The first step when you get stuck at any stage of your CC progress is to always check what the program creator himself, Coach Paul Wade, has to say. The book suggests you do the exercise from an object that reaches up to your hips, but many people find this height too challenging. If this is you, start your progress on this exercise with an object that reaches up to the bottom of your breastbone. Simply grab a chest-high bar and reattempt the progression as outlined in the book. My favorite surfaces to do this from are outdoor park equipment bars and the Smith machine at my gym, as it can be adjusted to sit at a variety of different heights.
But what if you don’t have access to a park, or maybe you don’t belong to a gym? No problem! Read on below for a few tips on how you can find easy solutions to smash your horizontal pull plateaus …
You can easily make some additions to your home pull-up (see my previous article on how to select an appropriate pull-up bar) and make yourself an adjustable height bar from which to do you horizontal pulls from. Even the most un-mechanically oriented among us (like me) can construct the following device. All you will need is:
- A chain from your local hardware store. You’ll want it to be long enough to reach your hips, as well as sturdy enough to support your weight (most hardware stores list the total poundage that each different type of chain they carry will support). I like to play it safe and use materials that support 50-100 pounds more than my bodyweight, as I may place that much more load on the chain as I pull it and move it around. Stick with the sturdier chains – the last thing you need is your equipment breaking as you’re hanging from it!
- A piece of pipe about two feet long. You may use galvanized pipe or PVC. Alternatively, you may purchase a grip bar like those used in gyms and pictured here. I would suggest going with the shorter varieties if you go this route.
- Two carabiner clips. One should be large enough to be clipped onto your pull-up bar, the other large enough to allow you to thread the pipe through it. As with the chain, make sure that your carabiners are rated to support an appropriate amount of weight.
Having purchased these materials, construction of the device is now simple. All you need to do is clip one carabiner onto your pull-up bar and attach the top link of the chain to that same clip. Then, let the chain dangle, and attach your second clip to the bottom link. Finally, thread your pipe through the bottom carabiner (or clip your bar onto it), and voila! You now have a device that looks somewhat like a trapeze hanging from your pull-up bar. The beauty of this lies not only in how easy it is to build such a device, but in how you may at any moment re-hook your bottom carabiner at higher or lower links in the chain to give you more or less of a challenge on your horizontal pulls.
That sounds too complicated – Give me something else! Solution #2
Don’t want to build my contraption? There are other ways to get around your step 2 sticking point. If you only have access to a hip-high surface from which to do your pulls, modify the exercise so that your knees are bent and your heels are closer to your glutes. The closer your heels are as your pull, the easier the exercise becomes, because you can recruit your leg muscles to help you drive up. Try to see if you can meet the progression standards with your heels closer to your glutes. Once you reach progression, pull your heels away from your body, maybe in increments of one foot farther away at a time, and try the routine all over again. The ultimate goal is to meet the progression standard as the Coach lays it out: with your legs straight out in front away from your body.
If you want to explore this option and just modify the exercise while still pulling from a hip-high object, I personally use and recommend the Ultimate Body Press dip bar. It’s easy to grip, and you can do other exercises from it such as tricep dips and even ring pushups (if you purchase the pushup accessory). It’s a little pricey, but worth the investment if you want a reliable object from which to do a variety of calisthenics exercises from.
A few notes on Pacing
Another thing to think about is how you are pacing yourself when it comes to this (or any other challenging) exercise. Are you taking too short of a rest period between sets, or are you attempting to add one too many reps each time you train?
If so, you may be hurting your progress. The answer to your dilemma is to SLOW DOWN. I add only ONE rep per set of horizontal pulls I currently do. I take three to five minutes rest between each set of pulls to ensure that my muscles are better recuperated (though not cold) when I attempt the next set (anything more than five minutes and your muscles may start getting cold). Try it for yourself and see if longer breaks and slower pacing unlock gains.
A few notes on Progression
Between all these ideas, you should be able to modify the exercise to allow you some decent progression. But does that mean you need to stick with horizontal pulls for months on end until you can finally do them as the Coach says?
Absolutely not! I like to alternate s2 and s3 (jackknife pulls) not only for the sake of adding variety to my routines, but also because these exercises hit the back muscles from different angles. As the Coach says in his free, downloadable Super FAQ, you may begin working jackknife pulls as soon as you master even a modified version of s2 horizontal pulls. If you complete your modified s2 and can then meet the beginner standard on s3, super! This means you’re ready to incorporate jackknife pulls into your calisthenics program. What this does NOT mean is that you should stop practicing and perfecting your horizontal pulls. Instead, I like to work on jackknife pulls during one pull-up workout, and then revisit (a progressively harder) version of my horizontal pulls next time I work the back. This way, I continue progressing on the earlier stages of my pull-ups, hit the upper back from a variety of angles, and keep working up the steps toward harder versions of the pull-ups. The progress you will see in both s2 and s3 will keep you motivated to train hard!
Your body is a lab, and you are its chief scientist
Ultimately, what works for me may not work for you. The key is always to start easy and make the exercise progressively more difficult. Calisthenics teaches us to experiment with different methods, positions, and tools in our never-ending quest to make an exercise challenging, yet attainable. However, you should always follow one simple rule if you expect to see progress on this exercise. That is to always pull from the same surface. If you pull from a fat bar at the park that reaches up to your stomach one week, then pull from a thin, chest high object the next time, you won’t be able to accurately gauge progress on the exercise. As any good scientist would do, keep the conditions of the “experiment” (your workout) as constant as you can, and only change one “variable” (moving on to a different surface and/or height) when you have met the progression you sought using your current surface.
These are just my tips and insights on this exercise, and I’ve seen good progress following the guidelines I’ve laid out here. Currently, I’m at 3×13 on horizontal pulls, and I’m pulling from a hip height object with my legs straight out in front of me like the book suggests. I’ve only added one rep per set per week, and thus far, I have increased my pulls week by week and do not feel close to a plateau. That said, I’m always on the hunt for tips to make my own workouts more effective. So I ask you all: Have you met the 3×30 standard on s2 pulls yet? What do you do to progress on your horizontal pulls?
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Mike Escobar is a teacher, fitness enthusiast, and martial artist. Exercise and nutrition are two of his biggest passions. He holds a second degree black belt in a mixed martial arts system and a blue belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.