How can I get better at pull ups?
Let’s first discuss what I would consider as a proper pull up. A proper pull up is one in which you start hanging from a bar completely vertical with arms straight at the elbows with an overhand grip. The pull begins with engaging the latissimus dorsi (lats) to lock the shoulders in place and continue the pull until the chin is over the horizontal plane of the bar without reaching with the neck. Then returning back down to the start in the same way.
I realize that is a very specific description but that is for good reason. The simplicity of saying go from under to over the bar allows for a lot of different muscles to compensate for lack of shoulder mobility and the lats not doing their job.
A good indicator that you are not using the proper muscles is the lack of ability to turn the head from side to side throughout the entire range of motion of the pull up.
If this is not possible then you do not own every inch of the pull up and we need to work on the proper progression. There are multiple ways to accomplish this but the key will be for you to pick the progression that works best for you and practice it until it is easy.
Progression 1: The rings
The rings can be used in multiple different ways to help you improve your motor coordination and strength for a pull up. Modifications on the rings include ring rows and squat assisted pull ups. Ring rows will help you learn to engage the lats properly but will be done in the horizontal plane of motion and not the vertical. As ring rows become easy we can work them toward a more of a vertical plane until we get to the squat assisted pull up. The squat assisted pull up is just that, squat directly under the rings so your pulling motion is straight up and down and use the squat as much or as little as you need to make the movement difficult. Some may have a hard time making these harder so you can move to a single leg squat. If you use the single leg squat I would recommend alternating feet so that you do not consistently pull only to one side.
Progression 2: Bands
If used properly bands can give you multiple ways to progress your pull ups. The first way is using the band as the resistance. Tie the band up high and either sit or stand directly under the band. Reach straight up and grab the band and pull down similar to a lat pull down machine. The focus here should be on the lats engaging from the initiation of the movement all the way through the finish. This is a great way to accumulate lots of reps with the proper engagement and movement pattern.
The other way is by using the bands to assist in the pull up. With a band tied on a pull up bar step a foot into the band and stretch it completely until you are hanging straight under the bar with legs extended. Always engage the lats first and continue to pull with the shoulders in an efficient position until the chin is above the bar and then return back to the start. The keys to gaining strength and motor pattern improvement is to go at a pace that does not allow you to bounce out of the bottom of the band and control the movement for the entire range of motion.
Progression 3: Negatives
A negative is the controlled lowering portion of the movement. In a pull up the negative would be going from the chin over the bar down to the start position. These are done in a slow controlled manner and should be done the entire range of motion. I see a lot of these being shorted a few inches from full lock out at the bottom and that is where most need more work. This progression could be done with either of the two progressions listed above or on its own. The focus should be to maintain a good shoulder position and lower yourself as slowly as possible. Rep ranges here should be kept small as the negative will create the most soreness of the progressions listed.
These are just a few of the ways in which you can progress to a pull up. Play with them and find out which one works best for you at your current skill level and practice them multiple times per week or use them instead of the pull ups in a group workout. Talk to your trainer or coach if you are unsure of which ones to use.