Want To Get Pull Ups? Bands Aren't The Answer!
Pull Ups are a great upper body exercise and something of a status symbol in the gym. They are also a great functional movement that most serious athletes should be able to perform. Unfortunately a large number of gyms push beginners toward assistance bands where they languish in pull up purgatory for months without improving. The truth is, bands create more problems than they solve.
Why Use A Band At All?
There are two major reasons that bands are used in the gym
1. They allow someone who can't do a pull up to mimic the movement for learning purposes
2. They allow beginners to complete high rep pull up workouts
I think that the first reason is pretty valid. If you've never done a pull up before, it can be useful to go through the full range of motion so that you have an idea of what the movement should feel like. This should only be one piece of an athlete's overall training regimen on the road to their first actual pull up though.
Many athletes that I've encountered use the band for the second reason. They want to be able to complete prescribed high rep pull up WODs and the band allows them to do this. In theory, an athlete would start with the thickest band possible (providing the most assistance) and work their way down over time until they were not using a band at all. Thus the band should allow them to eventually start doing un-assisted pull ups without having to completely change the movement during a workout. Two birds one stone right? Wrong.
What Actually Ends Up Happening
Very few people progressively ween themselves off of bands in any acceptable amount of time. Usually an athlete gets to a band thickness that feels comfortable and they stay there. Even if they want to get a real pull up, they get addicted to the speed element of the workout and don't want to slow down. The result? Strong and otherwise capable athletes slogging through months and even years of pull up focused workouts without being able to do one real pull up. A damned shame if you ask me.
Why Don't The Bands Work?
The ineffectiveness of band assisted pull ups has a lot to do with physics. At the bottom of the pull up, the band is stretched tight and thus has a large amount of stored energy to propel the athlete upward. As the band shortens however, the potential energy decreases and the athlete must use more of their own strength to complete the movement. Translation: the band never allows you to gain strength in the first two inches of the pull up. For most athletes, when we tell them they can't use bands anymore the first two inches of the pull up is impossible. If you help them past the first two inches they can usually get themselves the rest of the way over the bar.
Potential For Injury
Band assisted pull ups can be dangerous on top of being ineffective. When doing regular pull ups, your body will eventually become fatigued and you'll need to rest before physically being able to perform more reps. With band assisted or jumping pull ups, the concentric (upward) portion of the movement is made easier, but the eccentric (downward) movement remains just as hard. The result is that an athlete can end up doing many more eccentric movements during a WOD than their body is capable of handling. This has the potential to lead to serious injury, such as rhabdomyolysis, as happened here. While most high rep banded pull up workouts don't end in injury, this is still a risk that shouldn't be ignored. For more questions on the risks posed by too many band assisted pull ups, ask a doctor!
Solution? Use The Buddy System!
If bands aren't the best way for an athlete to progress toward a real pull up, then what is? One solution would be to use a gravitron - it gives the same amount of assistance through the entire range of motion, so it eliminates the "first two inches" problem of the bands. If you don't have access to a Gravitron, the low tech equivalent is to grab the pull up bar, cross your legs underneath your butt and have a friend assist you by holding your feet. As you get stronger and are able to pull more weight up, your buddy will naturally provide less and less assistance.
When Should I Work Out With My Pull Up Buddy?
There are a ton of different programs and rep schemes available that are effective in building real pull up strength. Most of the people that we interact with have seen great success doing 3 sets of 3 buddy pull ups every day or every other day. In about ten days, athletes that couldn't pull themselves up an inch after months of banded pull ups were able to struggle through one real pull up. After three weeks they were banging out five or more consecutive pull ups. Also, these athletes were able to do both kipping and strict pull ups which was an added benefit.
What About The MetCon?
Ring rows are an effective and underrated substitute for pull ups that can provide a brutal full back workout if performed correctly. In fact, I would argue that twenty ring rows can be a tougher workout than twenty pull ups, especially if your feet are elevated. People look down on ring rows because they look easy, but they are really much harder than band assisted pull ups.
Some of our friends continued to use the band for MetCons and worked on their pull ups before and after class. Once they were able to do two or three consecutive pull ups without the band, they picked a few WODs with a low number of pull ups and did them bandless. After a couple of months they stopped using the band completely. Success! Don't let this confuse you though - they didn't progress to thinner bands, they built themselves up using buddy pull ups.
What Should I Use A Band For?
Just because I'm not a fan of using bands for pull up training doesn't mean that I don't think they have a place in the gym. Bands are a great tool for stretching exercises to increase mobility and joint function. The coaches at our gym program five to ten minutes of band stretching at least two or three times a week. For a great resource on stretching and mobility in general check out mobilitywod.com
1. Find yourself a pull up buddy
2. Work like an animal
3. Send us a video of your pull ups once you get them