Acing The IPPT

Foreword

This post is written in a surge of energy. This is something that I have hoped to address for quite some time, and it is something long-overdue. I feel that this article cannot wait to be posted, so please bear with the lack of pictures for now. I’ll be taking photos of my own training to better illustrate the stuff that I will be mentioning in the rest of this post.

Thanks for your patience and understanding!

And on to the real stuff…   

IPPT – short for Individual Physical Proficiency Test, is a term that conjures nightmares for some. Specifically, it is a terror to those who struggle to meet the passing standards, and those who are failing the cut dismally. The fact that IPPT is mandatory for all combat-fit servicemen in the army, as well as for all combat-fit and NS-liable men in Singapore, makes it a common fear that is shared by many.

In my days of National Service I was a platoon commander on the sunny island of Tekong, and one of my responsibilities as an instructor to the newly-enlisted recruits was to conduct training for the IPPT. Hence, I have developed some good practices that generate results for improving the type of fitness that is required for one to ace the IPPT, which I am going to share with you in the rest of this post.

First things first, before I launch into the details of how to train to ace the IPPT, I must say that to really be able to excel at it, to the point where the mandatory yearly tests will no longer feel like a hassle, and start feeling more like a paid workout session (there are monetary incentives for NSmen, to encourage the maintenance of individual fitness), you have to throw the mindset of merely wanting to pass, right out of the figurative window.

This is because there is the tendency for there to exist a correlation between the effort level that is put in with the aims towards which this effort is dedicated. If you’re looking only just to pass, chances are you’ll only be working so hard. But if you’re gunning for gold, odds are you’ll be busting your ass in training a whole lot more as compared to your compatriots who’re aiming to just scrape through on a mixture of minimal effort and a healthy dose of luck.

So if you’re reading this because you don’t want the IPPT to be a perennial worry at the back of your mind, I advise you to set your sights high, and aim to attain the gold standards. There’s always a margin of error for anything, and physical training, while being technical in nature, is not an exact science. Even ballistic missiles have their CEP (circular error probable). So if you’re aiming just to pass, there’s a very good chance that you may actually end up failing. But if you’re going for gold, the odds are high that even if you fail to meet the required standards, you will still end up getting a silver or a pass. In other words, buffer yourself against the prospect of failure, by working to achieve a much higher set of standards than the minimally accepted one.

Okay, that’s enough talk and foreplay.

Let us examine the aspects of fitness that is being tested in the IPPT, and the problems that most people are facing.

The 5 stations of the IPPT are:

1. Pull Up

2. Sit Up

3. Shuttle Run

4. Standing Broad Jump

5. 2.4km Run

In my time as a PC on Tekong I’ve had access to the statistics for the passing rate and standards achieved by my recruits in the IPPT, and the 3 main problem areas are the pull up, the standing broad jump, and the 2.4km run, in descending order as measured by the failure rate, and the persistence of the failure rate.

When the recruits are newly-enlisted there will be a significant number who are having issues with the 3 aforementioned stations. However, as time passes and the army training kicks in, the 2.4km run will be greatly-diminished in terms of it being a problem station. This is because the army physical training involves alot of running, for cardiovascular capacity is the cornerstone of military fitness. The recruits are doing runs every other day, sometimes even every single day, and so most will be more than able to cope with the standards that are required for the 2.4km run after 3 – 4 weeks of training in the army.

The standing broad jump will also see some improvement in terms of its passing rate, for all the running will have strengthened the leg muscles, and those recruits who used to fail the jump because of inadequate leg power will be better-equipped to pass the station. However, due to the higher element of technique that is required for the standing broad jump as compared to simple running, there will still exist a small handful of those who are unable to pass the station even at the end of BMT (Basic Military Training) – these are the trainees who are as-yet incapable of executing sufficient portions of the jumping technique in order to pass the station.

And now the pull up – this is easily the single greatest “killer” station, with up to hundreds of recruits failing it at the start of their BMT, and by the end of their time on Tekong, there will still be more than a handful who seem to find passing this dreaded station nigh-on impossible. This is probably because it requires a painful amount of exertion to be able to pull one’s full bodyweight by the strength of the arms and the back for the first time, and an equally painful amount of effort to build up the strength for multiple repetitions. So the less-motivated trainees will tend to slack off during pull up training, until it is far too late for them to improve enough to pass towards the end of their stay on Tekong.

By looking at the 3 stations of the IPPT that present most with the greatest problems, we can identify a few aspects of fitness from which most of the failures stem. For the pull up, it is the strength endurance in the arms and back. For the standing broad jump, the explosive power of the legs, and the technique of jumping. For the 2.4km run, it is the speed endurance that is the most sorely tested.

The meat of the training.

Now I’ll go into the programming of the type of training that will allow you to bust free of your weaknesses in the IPPT.

Firstly, for the pull up:

Zero Fighters

If you cannot even perform a single repetition of the pull up, go back to the inclined pull up. Perform 3 – 5 sets of inclined pull ups every single day, gripping the bar tight (imagine the bar is a wet sponge and you’re trying to squeeze it dry), and pulling up as high and smooth as you can, no jerking or excessive use of body momentum. Start off with as many repetitions as you can handle in the sets, gradually working your way up to the point where you can crank out 3 – 5 sets of 25 – 30 reps per set. Maintaining a 1 second isometric “squeeze” at the top of every pull will help you develop your strength more quickly.

Also incorporate some hanging work on the bar with your full bodyweight. Again, remember always to grip tight, and hang for as long as you can manage on the pull up bar. Do this after your inclined pull ups. If you drop, hop back on and hang again, for as many sets as is required, until you hit a total of 1 minute hang-time. Work your way up to the point where you can hang for 1 minute straight without dropping. As you grow stronger pull your shoulders in and keep them tight when you are hanging. This pulling in and “locking” of the shoulders is essential for safe and strong pulling.

You will know when you are strong enough to do a full pull up. Until then, focus on building up your strength and grip. 

One to Fiver

If you fall within this range, (6 is the minimum passing standard) or if you have just worked your way up to this range of pull up reps, here’s a guide for you: perform 3 – 5 sets of as many pull ups as you can every day. Grip tight, pull yourself up smoothly, and utilise the 1 second isometric pause at the top of every pull as mentioned earlier for the inclined row.

Continue to perform your hanging grip work after you have finished all of your reps. You may want to work your way up to 2 minutes (or longer), or hang off a towel to further strengthen and challenge your grip.

Gunning for Gold

If you’re already passing the pull up and aiming to hit 12 reps or more for the full 5 station points, you need to ramp up your strength endurance. Stick to 3 – 5 sets for most of your training sessions, but push yourself once in awhile with as many as 10 sets, or go for a single set of maximum repetitions. The former will add up to longer total time spent on the bar, and the latter will force you to stay on the bar for far longer at a single stretch. All this will dramatically improve your strength endurance and go towards making the 12 reps happen, and maybe even make them feel like a breeze.

Continue to perform your hanging grip work once in awhile. If you can do 5 minutes without coming off the bar, you pretty much have the grip of a vice, which will make pull ups feel about as easy as a stroll in the neighbourhood park, at least for the first 10 or 20 reps. Alternatively you can also work the hanging into your training sets. Hang for 10 – 20 seconds before commencing each pull up set, or end off each pull up set with half a minute of hanging, or hang for some time in between some of your reps, or even in between all of your reps.

Or, if you’re enough of a stud, you can do all of the aforementioned, plus throw in some isometric freezes at different points of your pull ups for some of the repetitions, and experiment with different pulling speeds. This will truly make you a master of the pull up, and you’ll walk towards the bar with a not-so-secret smile on your face during every IPPT.    

Training Programming

Of course, the ideal scenario is one in which you can perform a structured training session i.e. 3 – 5 work sets + hanging grip work every day, or every other day. If you are a recruit you can do this at night if you have admin time, or for those of you fanatics out there, you can wake up early to hit the bars, which was what I used to do. 

However, reality is often less than ideal. So if you don’t have enough time at a stretch for a dedicated training session, you can perform a set every time you get a break from school or work, or anytime you happen to pass by a pull up bar. This will keep you fresh because you have plenty of time during the day to recover before your next break and your next set, and you may find yourself accumulating quite a respectable number of total reps done throughout the day. 

Remember, pull up is strength-based, so if you feel excessively sore or fatigued from your school or work or training, do take a break, or have a rest day or two in between your training days. Keep yourself fresh, and the reps will keep on coming for sure. Push too hard and too fast, and you may end up overtraining and under-recovering, which will set back your progress, and may even put you at risk of sustaining training-related injuries. 

You can warm up for pull ups using inclined pull ups, or even by simulating the pulling motion by flexing and bending your arms. The idea is to warm up with a similar motion under a lighter workload, which will prep your muscles and joints and prevent nasty injuries from occuring. In my time on Tekong I have borne witness to shoulders ripped or dislocated on the pull up bar, so do take care of yourself. The bar is meant to build you up, not to break you down.

Cool down with some basic stretches. All that pulling can accumulate excessive muscular tension in your shoulders and back, which will hinder your progress in the long run, and inhibit your mobility. My personal favourite is one in which you interlace the fingers of your hands together, pulms facing the ground, and bring them overhead so that your palms end up facing the sky with straight arms. Once your hands are overhead, reach upwards, and stretch out the muscles around your armpit region, which have a tendency to become very tight from strength training.

Another good stretch post-pull ups involves grasping one hand with the other, and twisting your body towards the side opposite of the hand that is being gripped. Spread the muscles across the broad of your back outwards as you do so, and you should feel a nice stretch in your upper to mid-back.

Train hard, and train smart. The road to stardom, or rather the road to 12 or more pull ups, is longer than you hope, but definitely not as long as you fear.

And now for the standing broad jump:

The standing broad jump requires explosive leg power and sound technique.

Let us first examine how to train for the explosive leg power that is necessary for a good jump.

The Fundamentals

Your usual running isn’t going to help much, because your legs aren’t moving fast or explosive enough. You need to do sprints. My SBJ was a respectable 256cm when I was in Sec 1, and I would have hit the coveted 3m mark if not for a torn hamstring in Sec 2. Since then progress has been slow, but I still managed 281cm on the SBJ in my JC days. I was a school sprinter from Sec 1 to JC 2, and all the high-speed, explosive work that I did during my track training did my jumping ability a whole world of good.

The focus here is to build power, not just strength. No matter how strong your legs are, if they can’t move fast, you can’t jump far. I recommend 30m sprints, for 3 – 5 sets, every other day. Don’t do this everyday unless you’re a recovery machine. High intensity work burns up a heck of a lot of energy, and overdoing it past the point of recovery will only end up making you feel very sorry for yourself. And yes, when I say sprint, I mean sprint. Go all out as if there’s a tiger on your heels. Run as fast as you can. Speed is of paramount importance here.

Supplement the sprints with some actual jump work to use the power that you have developed in the specific way that is required of the standing broad jump. Jump for distance and height. Most people tend to exhibit a very flat trajectory in their jumps, which will not make them go very far. That’s why artillery cannons shelling the enemy from kilometres away need to have their barrels elevated at an angle, and that’s why good javelin throwers also cast their spears at the same angle.

The ideal angle at takeoff is about 25 – 30 degrees for the SBJ. Practice jumping up and forward, onto stable elevated platforms for multiple reps. I use these flat wooden tables at a local park for my practice. Stand some distance away, as far away as you can, and then leap up onto the target platform with the same arm swing and double-legged method as the standing broad jump. Do not do a run up, cos that’s a whole different kind of jumping that may not translate very well into improved SBJ performance.

You can do the aforementioned as often as you can, and focus more on the quality of the jumps, rather than the quantity of the jumps. A few good jumps is better than a dozen sloppy, halfhearted ones. You can do this throughout the day as you come across suitable training material. 10 – 12 jumps at a time will suffice, please don’t burn yourself out – remember, we’re training for explosive power here, not strength endurance. And please make sure the platform that you use is stable. The last thing I want is for some well-intentioned fella to break an arm or a leg with this training.

Supplementary Work

Some other stuff that works are tuck jumps and squat jumps. In the former, jump up and bring your knees to your chest, and not the other way round. I see too many people hunching and bending their body in all sorts of funny ways when they are doing their tuck jumps, in an effort to touch their knees to their chests. Touching your knees to your chest is not a requirement here, but keeping your body more or less upright and brining your knees up as far as they can go is.

For squat jumps, perform a full squat, and leap vertically upwards from the bottom of the squat position. As you land, cushion the impact by flexing and bending at the knees to return to the original full squat position, and then repeat the same motion.

For both the tuck jump and the squat jump, perform 2 – 3 sets of 10 – 12 reps in one training session. Minimise the time of contact between your feet and the ground in between all your reps. This places greater emphasis on reactive jumping, which will develop explosive power in the legs far more effectively than if you were to hop on the spot for a couple of times before launching into your next repetition. Remember, touch and go.

Training Programming

A SBJ training session can look like this:

Warm up with a light 2 – 3 minute jog.

Do 3 – 5 sets of 30m sprints.

Do 10 – 12 platform jumps.

Do 2 – 3 sets of 10 – 12 tuck jumps or squat jumps. Do not do 2 – 3 sets of both unless you are very strong, or very crazy.

Cool down by walking around and shaking off your legs, like how you would shake off your arms after a pull up set.

If you don’t have enough time to do all of the above in a single training session, do just the sprints, and save the jumps for when you have breaks during the day. Coffee break? 10 tuck jumps! Lunch break? Another 10 tuck jumps! Before you eat, of course. Unless the food sucked and you are wishing to puke it out.

Some final words on this: when jumping, especially for the tuck and the squat jumps, land lightly. I cannot possibly over-emphasise this. Most people I see land like dancing elephants, and the ground shakes. Literally. When you sprint, land lightly as well. Your footfalls should be barely audible, if not altogether silent. When your feet are landing loudly, it means that you are landing hard. If you are landing harder than you should repeatedly over sustained periods of time, your joints are going to pay the price. That’s why you get so many recruits with ankle and knee complaints.

Jump like a tiger, land like a feather. Pretty nifty saying, eh? You may not believe it, but I came up with it on my own.

Moving on to the 2.4km run:

I have a friend who is an avid marathon-runner, but he could not manage a consistent IPPT gold because of his 2.4km timing. This is because the 2.4km run requires speed endurance if you were to hit the sub-9:45 timing that is required for the gold standard. You need to run fast over a fairly long distance, so it may not suffice if you are used to running at a slower pace, even if it’s over a much longer distance.

The Facts

Let’s break it down:

2.4km, when done on a standard 400m running track, gives you 6 laps around the red road. To hit the gold timing comfortably, I suggest you give yourself a buffer time of 14 seconds, which means you need to be able to complete the entire run in 9 minutes and 30 seconds. This means that if you were to maintain a constant pace throughout the run, you need to be able to do 1 minute and 35 seconds per 400m lap. This is a pace that can be quite daunting to most people who have not undergone the specific training that is required to develop such speed endurance.

So how to train your speed endurance? For those of you who are in the army, no worries. The AGR (Ability Group Run) and the Speed Training sessions are an excellent combination for you to develop your cardiovascular capacity and your speed endurance. Put in your best effort during training, and I assure you that the 2.4km run will not pose a problem to you.

Training Programming

For those of us who have left the regimented training, I suggest the following mode of training, which I feel is the most effective and time-efficient:

You don’t have to run everyday, especially if you already have a solid foundation, and are looking just to maintain it.

For me, I get away with running only once a week most of the time. I alternate between longer distance runs (up to 5 or 6 kilometres) at a constant pace which is one that is as fast as I can manage throughout, and shorter distance runs (about 2 – 3km), in which I will either maintain a constant speed that is as fast as I can handle, or alternate between fast and slow intervals (about 150m jog, followed by 150m fast run, followed by 150m jog, and so on until the full distance has been covered).

Note that I wouldn’t recommend an all-out sprint during the fast portions of your interval runs – this will make you very tired very quickly, and unless you are an elite athlete in tip-top shape, you probably wouldn’t survive the experience, let alone be able to benefit from it. Instead, I suggest running at about 70 – 80% of your top speed – open up your strides and maintain a steady cadence that you can feel pushing you into the anaerobic threshold. This is what we call “striding” in track circles. By pushing the anaerobic threshold I refer to the feeling when you know you are incurring an oxygen debt, when your lungs can’t quite keep up with the intensity at which your body is being exerted. Push this threshold, but don’t go overboard, or you may very well just collapse and require resuscitation.

In my opinion, running 2 – 3 times a week is good enough. If you’re training for the 2.4km run, keep your running distance between 2 – 5km, and cycle the different types of run – go fast and constant at times to simulate the actual test, and go at alternating fast and slow intervals at other times to hit the speed endurance from all angles. You may want to go for a longer and slower run occasionally to break the monotony and work on the cardiovascular system in a different way. I recommend a minimum of 1 rest day in between your runs, because most of us have work or school which makes us more tired, and demands more recovery time.

Warm up for your runs by starting out at a slower pace, and picking up the speed only when you feel your circulation quicken in response to the heightened physical activity. Cool down by walking and doing deep breathing. You may want to stretch out the leg muscles as well after your training.

Mixing It Up

It is also a good idea to run on different surfaces and even different gradients. Parks are excellent places to run in, with natural terrain and slopes which will force you to work harder and become faster and stronger as a result. Running on uneven terrain makes you learn your footing and positioning, and strengthens your joints, making them more injury-proof. Don’t fall into the trap of exercise linearity, mix it up with different types of running to improve your all-round performance. Cycle between different types of work to keep things fresh, and to keep the progress coming.

You can supplement your running with some leg strengtheners. Some of my all-time favourites are bodyweight squats, one- or two-legged, walking front and rear lunges, and standing calf raises, one- or two-legged. These few exercises will build great strength in your leg muscles, and make running more of a breeze. For these exercises, you can do them after your runs (psychos will do them before and after their runs), or just on their own, in a session or throughout the day in single or multiple sets, depending on the availability of time and space.

For the leg strengtheners, I recommend 20 – 25 repetitions, for 2 – 3 sets on a light day and 3 – 5 sets on a heavy day. The resultant soreness will take time to dissipate, so it’s a good idea to keep a rest day in between your leg training, unless you have a fetish for the feeling that microtrauma to the muscles causes (don’t laugh, I have friends like that). Of course, for the one-legged variations of the aforementioned exercises, cut the reps by about half, unless you are that much of a stud. Sometimes it can be fun to blast your legs with a single high-rep set, e.g. one set of 100 bodyweight squats. This challenges and develops strength endurance in the legs, which is needed for the 2.4km run. But don’t overdo this, unless you are looking to turn your legs into piston-driven bionics, or unless you have built yourself up to the level where a few sets of 20 – 25 repetitions of leg work is no more strenuous than picking your nose.

Okay, and what of the sit up and the shuttle run?

Don’t worry, sit ups tend not to be an issue, except for a very few select individuals, who have either moved very little in their lives, or who suffer from some medical disorder. The most of the rest of us should be able to ace the sit up station without much dedicated training. I haven’t done a single sit up in years, except when I was forced to (and man did I hate it), and still I can easily break 50 reps in the 1 minute time frame given during the test. Your abs should already be getting a good workout everytime you run or do your pull ups (where they tense to keep your body from swinging), and for most of us I don’t think there is a very real need to be doing endless sit ups to prep for the IPPT, unless you are specifically gunning for the sit up record, which I think stands at about 80-odd a minute.

As for the shuttle run, the sprinting that you should be doing for your SBJ will cover the speed that you need. For the turning and the coordination, just practise the actual thing now and then, and you should be more than fine for this particular station.

My Way

Let me end off by sharing with you my own training routine with regards to the IPPT:

Monday

About 30 pull ups in total, split among 3 to 5 sets.

2 – 3km run, fast and constant pace, or intervals.  

Tuesday

About 30 pull ups in total, split among 3 to 5 sets.  

Wednesday

About 30 pull ups in total, split among 3 to 5 sets.  

Thursday

About 30 pull ups in total, split among 3 to 5 sets.  

Friday

About 30 pull ups in total, split among 3 to 5 sets. 

5 – 6km run, fast and constant pace. 

Saturday

About 30 pull ups in total, split among 3 to 5 sets.  

Sunday

About 30 pull ups in total, split among 3 to 5 sets. 

Of course, I train other things as well, which carries over to my IPPT performance to some extent. Those of you who know me or have seen me will know that my pull ups will come at the end of a front lever set, and I’ll be doing stuff like handstands and tuck planches as well. I rarely hit my legs nowadays outside of my 1 – 2 runs a week; I don’t feel as if they need that much work for what I want to achieve. Sometimes I’ll throw in some squats and lunges and calf raises and jumps, but that’s pretty much about it.

I know this has been a long post, but I hope to cover as much as I can on so crucial a topic. For those of you out there who are not so sure how exactly to go about training for your IPPT on your own, this can be a starting point for you. Train hard, train smart, and above all, train safe.

All the best for your IPPT!

~ This post is written by Lionel Ng, part-time Personal Trainer & full-time Fitness Enthusiast. ~

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Scapular Control & Trunk Tension

I believe that scapular control and trunk tension are subjects that I have written about previously, but never together.

Today we shall examine why a combination of these 2 principles form the basis for the effective and efficient execution of most strength-based movement patterns that are expressed through the upper body.

Let us take a look at some classic bodyweight strength-building exercises for the upper body. The first 2 movements that spring to mind are the pull up and the push up.

Who are the guys (or gals) that you see struggling with these 2 exercises? They are mainly people whose shoulders are shrugging up in the pull up, and those individuals whose shoulder blades are excessively retracted during the push up.

I have covered the general cues for the scapular (shoulder blades) in an earlier post, so I shall not go into them again in any great detail here.

Just a quick summary for those of you who haven’t caught my previous article on the relationship between upper body strength and scapular positioning:

1. The scapulae should be depressed and retracted for most hanging/pulling movements such as the front lever and the pull up.

2. The scapulae should be depressed and protracted for most pushing/pressing movements such as the planche and the push up.

3. When you become proficient at a particular movement you may be able to perform it with any shoulder positioning, although the general cues that I’ve outlined above in the previous 2 points optimises your strength and power output.

So let’s go back to the 2 examples that I’ve highlighted earlier on: elevated shoulders during the pull up and retracted shoulder during the push up.

For people who are new to these 2 exercises and who have not strengthened and conditioned their scapular complexes sufficiently, inadequate scapular stabilisation and control can be a real problem.

When your shoulders shrug up during the pull up instead of being neutral or depressed, your lats (the large wing-like muscles that line the sides of your back from armpit to waist) tend to become disengaged, and that makes it extremely difficult for you to generate much pulling force on the bar, seeing as how the lats are the powerhouses for most of our bodyweight pulling movements.

When your shoulders blades are protruding from your back during push ups, the excessive retraction usually relates to a sagging bodyline, and makes it harder for you to engage the muscles of your chest optimally in the pressing phase of the movement. When the scapulae are out of whack with the rest of your body, your upper body musculature becomes inefficient, as alot of these muscles are actually attached to the shoulder blades.

The other important facet concerning strength-based upper body movements is the creation and maintenance of trunk tension.

You will invariably find that keeping your abs and glutes slightly tensed during exercises like the pull up and the push up makes them easier to perform. If you are new to this technique you may find it unfamiliar and hence uncomfortable at first, because your body is a creature of habit and you will often feel some mild discomfort doing something that you are not used to doing initially.

But once your body gets used to expending that certain amount of energy to tighten your trunk, you will find that many bodyweight movements become easier to perform, because it is far easier to move something rigid, as compared to shifting a sagging mass of loose muscle and tissue.

You may be able to get away with minimal trunk tension and sloppy scapular positioning on some of the “easier” bodyweight movements, but as you progress to the more advanced stuff that are mechanically disadvantaged in terms of leverage, a combination of sound scapular control and voluntary trunk tension becomes a must. Most of the time for alot of these moves your entire body down to your legs has to be tensed about as rigidly as a board for you to even have a hope of holding the positions.

If you can hold a front lever or a planche with loose shoulders, sagging abs and legs that flop around in the wind, I take my hat off to you, for truly you can claim to have achieved absolute mastery of these movements, with monstrous strength to boot. 

For the rest of us mere mortals, we have to rely on scapular control and trunk tension to attain these gravity -defying moves, to keep our all-too-human flesh aloft with the refined application of muscular effort and mental focus.

So whenever you are performing bodyweight strength moves that involve the upper body, always remember to keep your body taut and your shoulders accordingly tight for the movement that you are executing, and you will be able to optimise your strength and power output, to make these moves as easy as they can ever be. 🙂

~ This post is written by Lionel Ng, part-time Personal Trainer & full-time Fitness Enthusiast. ~

The Things That You Didn’t Know About Pull Ups

When I was a platoon commander on the sunny island of Pulau Tekong during my days in full-time National Service, one of my main jobs as an instructor was to ensure the physical fitness of the recruits who were placed under my charge.

My constant self-training in the gym and at the pull up bars had resulted in my being labelled as “the fit guy”, and I enjoyed a certain amount of fame for some of the acrobatic feats that I could perform on the chinning bar. Hence I was naturally, and regularly, subjected to many questions and requests for pull up tips and advice.

You may or may not know of the things that I’m going to cover in this post, but I hope that among the stuff that I’m going to share with you here you’ll be able to find something useful for your own pull up training, or for training your friends or clients in this bodyweight strength movement.

Alright, let’s start off with the basics.

How do you know whether you, or your trainee, is ready to attempt the full pull up?

The answer is simple and straightforward. If you cannot perform an active hang for a good 30 seconds or more, you have no business attempting a full pull up.

What do I mean by active hang? By active hanging I don’t mean for you to hang off from the bar by just hooking your fingers over it and with your shoulders loose in their sockets.

By active hanging I mean for you to grip the bar, squeezing it firmly as you would if you wanted to wring the water out of a wet sponge, and with your shoulders well pulled in.

How to train up your grip and shoulder strength for the active hang? Perform scapular pull-ins, or what we call straight-arm pulls in the army. This will strengthen your grip and teach you how to engage your scapulae optimally for the pull up, which is a movement that requires the depression and retraction of the scapulae.

Once you can perform a good solid active hang for half a minute or more, we can start talking about achieving the full pull up.  

Of course, it is best that you first build up a foundation of pulling strength from exercises that require you to move less than your full bodyweight. One example of such an exercise is the inclined row, or what is more commonly known here as the inclined pull up. Once you can perform 3 sets of 30 inclined rows with good form, pulling your chest to the bar on every repetition, you should have developed a level of pulling strength that will stand you in good stead to attempt the full pull up.

How to grip the bar for the full pull up?

There are 3 ways of doing it.

1. Finger Grip – This is done by gripping the bar at your second knuckle, which is located at the midfinger.

2. Palm-Finger Grip – This is done by gripping the bar at the base of your fingers, where they meet your palm.

3. Palm Grip – This is done by gripping the bar at the top of your palm, which should place the first row of your knuckles directly over the bar.

So which way is best?

There is no absolute answer to this. Find out which grip feels stronger and more comfortable for you. However, with that being said, I’m a big advocate of all-round training, so I always recommend my clients and pupils to train all 3 types of grip. Don’t limit yourself unnecessarily, because bars of different diameters and textures will favour different grips. So work on all 3 to ensure that you’ll always be on top of your game.

What are some of the pros and cons for each type of grip?

1. Finger Grip – This may be the most comfortable grip that induces the least amount of calluses on the hands, which can be a painful process. However, the finger grip can be weaker than the other 2 types of grip because it is harder to flex the forearm with the bar positioned at your fingers, which will reduce your pulling strength and leverage. I’ll adopt this grip for very thin bars.

2. Palm-Finger Grip – This being an in-between strikes a balance between the finger grip and the palm grip. The palm-finger grip is relatively easy to set up, and it offers more leverage than the finger grip although it is less comfortable. This grip is less painful than the palm grip, but it does not provide as much leverage as the latter. I’ll adopt this grip for bars of moderate thickness.

3. Palm Grip – This may be the most painful grip, and will induce a great amount of calluses on the hands. However, the upside is that the palm grip is arguably the strongest of the 3 different grips, offering a great deal of mechanical leverage and facilitating powerful forearm flexion that will increase the pulling strength. I’ll adopt this grip for thick bars.

Another common question on the grip: thumb above or below the bar?

Placing your thumb above the bar should give you more pulling power by facilitating forearm flexion, but with that being said it is difficult to set up a palm grip (and sometimes even a palm-finger grip) with your thumb on top of the bar. I personally prefer the greater security and stability that results from placing my thumb below the bar when gripping it. In my opinion the thumb is made to be an opposing digit for a reason, so let’s make use of it, especially when the bar is wet or slippery.

For those of you who want to know why placing your thumb above the bar will facilitate greater forearm flexion as compared to placing your thumb below the bar, try this:

Make a clenched fist with your thumb curled up under the rest of your fingers. Then flex your fist downwards powerfully, as far down as it will go. This is known as a “gooseneck” pose, which is used by bodybuilders and models to display forearm development.

When you feel that your fist is “jammed” and can’t be flexed downwards any further, take your thumb out and position it alongside and in line with the rest of your fingers. You will notice that you can now flex your fist downwards just that little further, and greater forearm flexion is achieved.

Or you can do the reverse: Make a clenched fist with your thumb alongside and in line with the rest of your fingers. Then flex your fist downwards powerfully, as far down as it will go. Now in this position try taking out your thumb and curling it up underneath the rest of your fingers. You should find it impossible to do so, unless you haven’t been flexing your fist downwards fully, or you were born with an anomalous biological structure in your hands, wrists and forearms which enables you to perform full forearm flexion even with your thumb placed below the rest of your fingers. I congratulate you if you find yourself in the latter category.

So thumb above or thumb below? I’ll leave that up to your own discretion.

Next question: What’s the difference between a supinated (“reverse”/underhand), pronated (“normal”/overhand) and a neutral grip?

Let’s go through these 3 different ways of gripping the bar:

1. Supinated Grip – I find that this allows you greater use of your biceps in the pulling motion. The supinated grip also facilitates the creation and maintenance of abdominal tension, which helps to stabilise the body better as it travels through the air during the pull up. So for those of you with melon-sized guns and relatively weaker abs, you could choose to start off your pull up training with the supinated grip. 

2. Pronated Grip – I find that most beginners find this the most difficult grip to perform for the pull up initially. My guess is that it requires greater coordination and control of scapular movement, which tends to present great difficulty for the novice. However, I am of the opinion that everyone should work towards performing pronated grip pull ups, due to the greater engagement and activation of the muscles across the back and the lats, which will translate into greater pulling strength and higher consecutive reps down the road.

3. Neutral Grip – This gripping method is best performed with the hands placed on 2 separate and parallel bars of the same height, such as that found on the horizontal ladder (monkey bars). Both palms will be facing inwards. It is not very convenient to use this grip on a single bar, as the hands will then be at different distances to the body. If the supinated grip is analogous to a dumbbell curl, and the pronated grip to a reverse curl, the neutral grip will be your hammer curl. I find that the neutral grip engages and activates the biceps more than the pronated grip, but comparatively less of the lats and back. The lats and back engagement and activation in a neutral grip is superior to that in a supinated grip, with relatively less achieved for the biceps.

There is actually another grip variation, what we call the “mixed grip” in the army. This involves having one hand in a pronated grip and one hand in a supinated grip. However, I personally feel that this gripping method should be adopted only as a supplement or for variety in your pull up training; you should not endeavour to make this the core staple of your programme in any way.

And now moving on to the question of grip width: how far apart should the hands be spaced on the bar for optimal pulling performance?

I will not attempt to break down for you every single type of grip width in the continuum, for there is far too many for me to elucidate within the extent of this post. However, I will go through a few of the more common variations: 

1. Close Grip – This is where the hands are touching, or almost touching.

2. Shoulder Width – This should be self-explanatory. The wrists and elbows are roughly in line with the shoulders.

3. Wide Grip – This is where the hands are spaced more than shoulder width apart. I shall focus on the “double shoulder-width” standard where the angle at the elbows when the latter is bent to the point that the chin exceeds the bar is about 90 degrees.

The first and most obvious difference between the 3 different grip widths that I’ve outlined for you above (less than shoulder width, shoulder width, more than shoulder width) is the distance that you have to pull to get your chin above the bar. The wider your hands are spaced apart on the bar, the less you have to pull for your chin to get over it. This is physics so simple, you probably won’t even recognise it as science.

However, although it seems then that it is most prudent to space your hands out as far apart as possible in order to reduce the range of motion that is required, ultra-wide grip chins can be extremely difficult to perform due to the greatly reduced mechanical leverage. The exact biomechanics that underpin this phenomenon eludes my limited abilities of articulation, but it should be clear to you that this isn’t an approach that should be taken to the extreme.

My guess is that super-wide grip chins require so much in the way of shoulder stabilisation that you will expend alot of muscular effort and energy to maintain safe and proper shoulder positioning, and hence greatly reduce the amount of strength left for you to exert upon the actual pulling portion of the exercise.

So which grip width is best?

Again this is up to your own judgement. People of different body types and proportions will prefer different grip widths. Experiment to find out what is most suitable for you, in terms of ease and comfort of performance. However, it is my advice for you to include all types of grip width in your training, to develop weak areas. Your own preferred grip width should form the mainstay of your training routine, but do the others once in awhile to fix up any weak links, so as to improve your overall pulling performance.

I will share with you a few last tips and tricks for the pull up:

1. Lift your head and look up towards the sky as you are pulling, and nearing the bar. This will allow greater engagement of your lats and back muscles and facilitate the necessary depression and retraction of the scapulae, which will confer greater pulling strength.

2. Keep your abs slightly tensed throughout a set. This will stabilise your trunk and reduce unnecessary swinging of the torso, which will hinder the pulling motion. It will be tiring to do so at first, but as your body gets used to creating and maintaining the necessary level of core tension you will be able to perform your reps more efficiently, without the need for additional effort to counter uncontrolled and excessive swinging of the body.

3. Grip the bar by squeezing it as you would when drying a wet sponge. Think about how you would pick up a heavy object from the floor. Would it grip it tightly or loosely? The answer should be obvious, and instinctive. Your hands are the only points of contact with the bar, and keeping a firm grip will facilitate your exertion, and enable you to “channel” your strength effectively. The grip is the limiting factor and often the weakest link in the body for the pull up due to the smaller size of the muscles involved as compared to the lats and back and bicep muscles. So grip tight, and you’ll be able to pull hard

4. This one is for safety’s sake: Maintain full control over the entire range of motion. Do not explode upwards or let your body drop down too quickly if you’re a beginner. Chances are you’ll jerk or wrench your shoulder and elbow joints, because they haven’t been conditioned for the increased demands of the new exercise. Pull up smoothly, and lower under control. Unless you’re a pro in competition, greater speed = less control = greater chance of injury. So stay safe, and stay under control!

5. Last tip – power breathing. When you become more proficient at the pull up you’ll be able to maintain a steady breathing rythm. In the beginning when you are struggling with a few reps, “pack” your breath into your body before every pull with a deliberate inhalation under strong mental focus. As you pull up release the air in your lungs as required; the exhalation should occur naturally as you exert. You may not get this now, but try it out, and you’ll experience the increased pulling strength as a result of this power breathing technique.

The full pull up is an excellent upper body strength builder, and it should feature as the staple of any upper body pulling work. Get good at this exercise for massive strength gains in the muscles of your arms and back.

  

That’s all for now folks, I’ll update you guys again if and when I do come across any new material for the pull up! 🙂

~ This post is written by Lionel Ng, part-time Personal Trainer & full-time Fitness Enthusiast. ~