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Pull-up Bar Exercises for Climbers

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Pull-up Bar Exercises for Climbers

schwarz-upFor years climbers have used a variety of implements, devices and exercises to train and condition their upper bodies. Originally many of these exercises came from the world of gymnastics and, although the benefits of the modern training paraphernalia of fingerboards and campus boards are well recognised, many climbers still have that gymnastic streak in them and continue to use that most simple of devices: the humble pull-up bar.

So why do we still use pull-up bars when there are so many more modern and more specific alternatives? Some may say it’s a throwback to those formative years swinging on the monkey bars at the playground as a kid, others may even say it’s a evolutionary relic from our days as apes swinging through the trees… I’m not sure, but there is definitely something very basic and simply pleasing with having a session on a pull-up bar; no crimping little edges, hanging heinous monos or slipping off high gradient slopers. Just focusing on pure power and feeling strong.

There can’t be many dedicated climbers who in the early years of their climbing apprenticeship didn’t see the classic picture of John Gill performing a one arm Front Lever. Most climbers’ first reaction was probably to be impressed and then, secondly, to go and try to pull a standard two arm Front Lever (most likely a failed attempt) and so be even more impressed by John Gill’s amazing feat of strength. I fail to see how you can’t be inspired by such a feat of beastliness.

Anyway, back on track: as well as being a general upper body conditioning tool, the occasional use of a pull-up bar can help break the monotony of repeated hangs on a fingerboard and has helped keep the sanity of many a finger-injured climbers by giving them a safer training fix. Pull-up bar exercises are also great for when access to rock is difficult, e.g. on a family holiday or when working away from home.

John GillWhat can be trained?

Arranged below are a number of exercises under the different headings of the components of ‘climbing strength’ that they address. Whilst by no means a definitive list, it should provide enough information to keep you going for a while at least! Be aware that most of the given exercises have variations that can be applied to vary the difficulty and help progress to the next level of difficulty. Some, however, are just plain hard.

Right: John Gill doing a One Arm Front Lever.

It goes without saying that you should be fully warmed up before commencing on a pull-up bar session. Also, with all exercises try to maintain good form, i.e. aim to do the exercise well, in control and in good style. The given number of repetitions of each exercise is generally low, as it is assumed the exercise will be performed for a strength work-out. If a more endurance based work-out is sort after, simply increase the number of reps and decrease the difficulty of the exercise to allow for this.

For a full-value session, keep changing what you’re working on to give your body a proper chance to recover. Also make sure you have adequate rest between exercises, for a strength work-out rest 2-5 minutes until fully recovered and for endurance obviously much less.


Power (A.K.A. dynamic power)- the ability to move between holds.

Pull-Ups: The original exercise. Always performed with palms facing away from you (as per if you were climbing). If your palms are facing towards you then these are chin-ups: flip your hands around! Perform 5-10 reps per set.

Progression techniques:

  • If you are unable to perform a pull-up, take some weight off your arms by placing a chair in front of you and place your feet on this. As sessions go by, and you get stronger, reduce the amount of weight you place on your feet until you can perform an un-assisted pull-up. To quantify this: place a set of bathroom scales on the chair and place your feet on it. Alternatively, set a sling up over the bar and attach a weight to the other end- place your feet through the sling for assistance.
  • If you are getting close to doing a pull up, then a different progression technique is to ‘jump’ into the pull-up. Gradually reduce the amount that you spring into it until you are purely pulling. Make sure you lower yourself down as slowly as possible.
  • If these are too easy…move onto the next exercise

One Armer Shoulder RollOne Arm Pull-Ups (A.K.A. one armers): As the name suggests this involves using only one arm to pull your weight up. These are difficult and, for all but mutant freaks, will require the use of various progression techniques to be able to perform one. When (trying) to perform one of these centralise your weight under your ‘on’ arm. Doing one rep is difficult, doing more is even more so. Aim for a max of around 5.

TIP: try rolling the ‘off’ shoulder across your body as you pull upwards

Progression techniques:

  • Off-set pull-ups. Use your ‘off’ arm to pull-up on a sling, towel or bungee cord. Try and centralise yourself under your ‘on’ arm and place the minimal required weight on your ‘off’ arm to perform the pull-up. A variation on this is to place a Spring Scale/Balance (think Newton Meter from school science classes) to assist with one-armers. In case you’ve not heard of these, simply attach to pull-up bar, put a sling on it and use on your ‘off’ arm. They’re really good for quantifying ‘progression’, as you can see the amount of mass (or force!) being taken by your ‘off’ arm and so try to reduce this amount with training. Alternatively pass a sling over the bar and connect the other end onto a weight, gradually reducing the mass of the weight until you can perform a one-armer without one. Perform 3-5 off-set pull-ups.
  • Alternatively, if you are getting close to doing a one-armer try the jumping progression method; simply ‘jump’ into the pull-up. Gradually reduce the amount that you spring into it until you are purely pulling. Make sure you lower yourself down (the negative contraction) under control.
  • One further progression technique is to try starting from a locked off position, i.e. 45 degrees, then 90 degrees, then 135 degrees, until in a dead-hanging position. You can lower yourself down slowly or try pulling up from that position.

weighted_puWeighted Pull-Ups: Use a weight belt. Or attach a dumbbell to a sling around your waist (can be difficult to centralise the dumbbell’s mass). Alternatively, hook a dumbbell over your feet. With these aim to perform 5-10 pull-ups. Take care with adding weight and up the ante gradually.

  • Can also be performed one-armed (with less reps).

The following is a variation I’ve heard of on the grapevine and have no experience of in practice. It’s allegedly used by Micky Paige, so I guess it’s only really applicable to those who find one-armers easy (!):

  • Pull into a one-arm full lock, with a dumbbell in your ‘off’ arm, slowly release your lock-off. Increase the size, and weight, of the dumbbell until you find the right one: i.e. you can’t hold yourself in a locked-off position. Once you’ve released your lock-off, i.e. you’re in a one arm dead-hang position, let go of the dumbbell and do a one armer. Nails. The purpose seems to be so that you’re already tired by the time you come to do a one armer.

Static Strength

Static strength (A.K.A. lock strength)- the ability to hold positions and lock-off holds

Lock-offs: As the name implies, this involves locking your arms at different angles and holding your body in that position for 3-10 seconds. Try performing with different angles of lock i.e. 135 degrees, 90 degrees, 45 degrees and full lock. Vary the difficulty as per pull-ups by either removing weight by using a chair or adding weight with a dumbbell or weight belt.

French Pull-ups: Lock at each angle for 3-5 seconds, but instead of coming off the bar in between locks, just pull into the next locking position. For every set going up (i.e. starting at 135 degrees and going to full lock) do another set coming down.

One Arm Locks: The same as above. Vary the difficulty as per pull-ups by adding or removing weight. Alternatively, perform off-set hangs with the ‘off’ hand on a sling/towel or Spring Balance, again trying to minimise weight on the ‘off’ hand.

  • Typewriters. Choose an angle to lock-off at. Travel to one side and lock-off at that angle, but trying to centralise your weight under that ‘on’ arm and take as little weight on your ‘off’ arm as possible. Hold for 3-5 seconds. Travel to a central position and the same angle of lock-off. Hold for 3-5 seconds. Travel to the other arm and perform the same lock. Repeat this at different angles of lock.

Deep Lock, is the ability to lock-off further than Full Lock. As you might infer this is a more advanced technique and, although it is very good at maximising your reach, it has a tendency to cause injuries if care is not taken! To train this pull to a fully locked-off position for 2-3 seconds and visually mark the point in front of you on the wall, pull deeper (mark the spot again) and pull deeper again. With time the ‘visual mark’ will get higher up the wall.

World CupCore

Core strength helps with keeping your feet on when climbing on steep ground, holding swings and re-placing your feet, staying ‘tight’ and in control and climbing in a stable manner.

Leg Raises: Hang from the bar in a vertical position (deadhang or choose an angle of lock-off). Raise your legs from vertical to horizontal, i.e. 90 degrees. Can be done with either legs bent at the knees (easier) or straight legs (harder). Difficulty can be increased by attaching, or hooking, weights onto your feet. Do 7-15 reps in a set.

L-Hangs: From a vertical hanging position raise your legs into the position that you bring your legs up to when performing Leg Raises, i.e. form an L shape between your legs and your abdomen. Can be done with either legs bent at the knees or straight legs. Perform at different angles of locked-off arms. Difficulty can be increased by attaching, or hooking, weights onto your feet. Hold an L-Hang for 10-20 seconds per set.

‘Core send-me’: This exercise requires the help of a friend…and having not too smelly feet. From a vertical hanging position on the bar get a mate to hold out a hand and you have to reach up and touch the hand with you foot/feet. Go back to vertical and they move their hands and repeat. Try and maintain good form with this one and carry out exercise in control.

Ice Cream Makers (detailed in the link below): Although these have a silly name, they’re a good progression technique to Front Levers from L-Hangs. Start hanging in a vertical position from a bar. Pull to a 90 degree two arm lock-off. Try and raise your body up to horizontal position (remember to suck your bum in), instead of holding the position let your body come back down to vertical and then try and pull to horizontal again. At first only perform one or two repetitions with long (>5 min) rests in between attempts. It takes time to recover fully which can be used to work other parts of your upper body (just remember to rest that core!).

Front-levers: As per Ice Cream Makers, except when in the horizontal position hold it for as long as possible, aiming for 5-15 seconds, difficult (!). Various progression techniques are well documented for this, a good tutorial is given here:

Front Lever cheating/progression tips: If you’re getting close to performing a Front Lever, but can’t quite hold one (or simply want to hold the position for longer), try pinching the front of the pull-up bar with your thumbs. This takes some of the strain off your lower back, making Front Levers easier to hold. The same principle can be use to great effect on a fingerboard; instead of using your thumbs, utilise the palms of your hands to ‘pinch’ against the board when pulling on a juggy sloper.

Assisted front-levers: these help with holding front levers for longer periods. Pull into a front-lever position and have a friend hold out an arm under your ankles and rest your legs on their arm. Try and take as much of your own weight as possible and try and have your ‘assistant’ provide as little pressure as possible. This progression method can be quantified by instead of using a friend to hold your legs up, using a ladder instead with either scales on them, or arrange a weighted sling in between the ladder’s A-frame.

General Beasting

Combinations of any of the above exercises put together are good fun and can be made into a good general work-out. My favourites are French-Typewriter style pull-ups in an L-Hang position. Pull into an L-Hang and count 3-5 seconds on the right, 3-5 seconds in the middle and 3-5 seconds on the left. Go back and forth 2-3 times in a set. At each side (as per Typewriters) try to centralise your weight under your ‘on’ arm and take as much weight as possible off your ‘off’ arm. Perform this exercise at different lock-offs, i.e. 135 degrees, 90 degrees, 45 degrees and full lock.