Pull ups or Chin ups, are one of the best exercises for building upper body strength, and are also included in almost every fitness testing battery for hockey players.
It is also an exercise that can be a bit of a challenge for hockey players, as the typical "thick frame" and focus on the lower body size/strength can leave many players struggling to pull their weight. This is especially true for our female hockey players, who are often judged heavily by provincial/national/college programs on their chin up numbers.
This said, with a few simple tips, it's not uncommon for our players to add 10+ pull ups to their best in an off-season. Here we'll explore some of typical tips for players focusing on improving their pull up numbers.
Step 1 to Getting More Chin Ups: Eccentric Loading
Whether you can barely do a single pull-up, or you can bang out 20+, the eccentric work or "negatives" (the lowering portion of the movement) is a great way to add strength and size, and to provide a base to build upon.
All of our athletes typically do a ton of eccentric work in the off-season and even without doing a single full pull up (only focusing on the lowering portion), this phase is where most people see the biggest improvements.
How can you implement this in your training? The easiest way to do this is to set a bench below the pull up bar, and essentially jump up to get your chin over the bar, and focus on lowering yourself as slow as possible (typically 5-6 seconds). For someone who can only do a few pull ups, learning to master your own body weight with negatives is an excellent way to get started.
In order to get the most out of eccentric work, they should be so heavy that you can’t really pull yourself back up (hence the bench). For some stronger athletes this means adding weight, and a lot of it. We often have our elite college/pro players adding over 50 pounds to their body either through weight vests or chains around their shoulders to make it so heavy that you have to fight as hard as you can to control the weight as you lower yourself. The benefit here for someone that is already good at pull ups is that it will be such a new strength stimulus (as opposed to more of an endurance stimulus with 15 reps) that the muscles involved will be forced to develop.
Why does this work? This technique is so effective as you can handle such a greater load for the eccentric (lowering) than concentric (pull up phase) that we can overload the muscles creating a much greater stimulus for growth. The concept of eccentric loading has been thoroughly studied and is summed up nicely in this meta analysis (Source 1). We typically do these in the off-season because there is a greater muscle damage following eccentric work so they tend to leave you feeling more sore than usual however if hypertrophy is the goal they can be done all season long.
Step 2 to Getting More Chin Ups: Reps, Reps, Reps
Once the base is set from an eccentric focused phase, the key factor will be how many reps you are performing.
Quite simply, if you want to do more pull-ups, you have to do more pull-ups.
There are a few ways to go about this. In the gym you should be trying to fit in a few more reps each week compared to the previous week in order to create an overload for your body to adapt to. This can mean adding an extra rep per set, or adding more sets, you just have to gradually do more and more. A simple way to make doing a ton of reps a little more exciting is to change the grip, moving it slightly wider with the palms facing away from you to make it harder. I would advise against going super wide however unless you have very mobile shoulders as the wide grip can sometimes cause discomfort for hockey players.
Since many people have a pull up bar at home, another great way to ramp up your pull up numbers is through the “grease the groove” method, popularized by Pavel Tsatsouline. This simple technique, has an athlete do a couple of reps (approximately a third of their max) several times throughout the day every day. So if you have a bar under a door at home, it means doing a few reps every time you walk under it. Although it will not be particularly taxing as the sets are pretty easy, over the course of the week you will end up doing a ton of reps.
Sure we have some "hacks" to getting more chin ups, but at the end of the day if you want to get better, the most important thing is that you are forcing your body to adapt to more stress.
Step 3 to Getting More Chin Ups: Add a Weight Vest
If you are new to training, or struggle with pull ups, your bodyweight will provide a powerful strength stimulus, and simply doing more reps will be your ultimate key to success. However as mentioned previously, if you can already do a ton of pull ups (10+), your bodyweight may be more of an endurance stimulus than strength stimulus.
While this is also important, it's good to change the challenge from "endurance" to "strength" to elicit a different stress response from the muscles used. This is why we often recommend our elite players to add some sort of load (typically a weight vest).
Again, we are stimulating the muscles to grow bigger, and contract harder, in a new way by adding a weight vest. Although when preparing for a fitness test your focus might be more on the endurance side of things, if your goal is to get stronger and bigger than the weight vest is your friend.
An easy option if you want to be training the entire spectrum is to do a heavy set with weight close to failure to provide a strong strength stimulus and then remove the weight for the next few sets and focus on volume.
Step 4 to Getting More Chin Ups: Staying Lean
A player that weighs 220lbs obviously has to generate a lot more force than a 160lbs player to pull themselves up.
Whether it's dominating your team's fitness testing with impressive chin up numbers, or on-ice speed/agility, carrying extra fat is counterproductive. While the majority of our players gain weight over the off-season, we're always focused on adding productive weight (muscle mass) and eliminating extra fat.
Chin ups can be a useful barometer for assessing strength-to-weight-ratio, in which players who are overweight typically perform far worse when having to pull their own weight. Therefore, larger players should focus on shredding unproductive pounds to not only enhance their chin ups - but all areas of their on-ice performance.
The best example of this is Zdeno Chara, who at 37 years old and 255lbs, won the chin-up competition at Boston Bruins fitness testing camp with 37 chin-ups.
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There are a ton of ways you can go about improving your pull up numbers, but these 4 are simple yet very effective and can certainly help you crush your pull-ups for fitness testing.