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The pull up is a simple yet complex exercise commonly found in many dryland programs. It’s simple because it’s a fairly natural movement requiring very little conscious thought. The complexity lies in how many things must go right during the movement, even if we’re unaware of them. Indeed, back muscle strength is often insufficient to add pull ups, as research has shown no correlation between lat pull downs and pull ups in female college swimmers (Halet 2009).

One proven way to improve pull ups is to simply do a lot of pull ups. The Marine Corps takes thousands of kids each year with limited training backgrounds and has them cranking out pull ups by the dozens within weeks at boot camp. That said, in swimming we can’t spend hours per day doing pull ups, as doing so would impair swimming. For dryland, time and energy efficiency are paramount. Progressions and regressions take on added value in this setting. (see, Dryland Mistake: Exercise Progressions and Regressions)

This is not a tutorial for a magic pull up progression, but instead to show how certain regressions and progressions may complement the main lift (the pull up in this case). By having a catalog of related exercises, swimmers in the same training program can accomplish similar objectives despite unique individual abilities. A single training group may have swimmers who can do seemingly endless reps while others can barely get their chin above the bar on a good day.

Below is a five level progression and regression scheme. It is not the only way to organize training but simply one example of how exercises can be progressed and regressed.

  1. Positioning: Muscle length (shoulder ROM) and muscle tension (planks). First prerequisite is having sufficient shoulder mobility to safely lift the arms overhead (shoulder flexion, thoracic spine extension). Though virtually anyone get their arms on the bar, joint mobility restrictions may distribute stress in biomechanically unfriendly ways. Develop muscle tension by performing planks. The pull up is essentially a pulling motion in a vertical plank. Trunk instability may result in energy leakages during the movement.
  2. Horizontal pulling: The inverse row (a Swimming Science favorite) is one horizontal pulling exercise that flows logically into pull ups (see Dryland Mistake: Inverse Rows Part I and Part II). Bilateral overhead pulling via pull ups involves greater shoulder stress than horizontal pulling and may be inadvisable for some swimmers. Though inverse rows are unlikely to transfer directly to pull up strength, they train the muscles and joints similarly. The simplest way to progress and regress the inverse row is to alter the body angle. You can also progress the exercise by doing one arm rows and performing the exercise with a weight vest, among many other variations described in the earlier Swim Sci posts. 
  3. Flexed arm hangs: A flexed arm hang is supporting your weight with the chin over the bar. It is essentially the end phase of a completed pull up. The progression from the flexed arm is negative pull- ups, where you slowly lower the body downward. You can also regress within negative pull ups by having a partner support your body on the descent.
  4. Assisted pull ups: A few ways to perform these…Old school assisted pull ups are to perform pull ups with a spotter/helper to support part of the lifter’s weight (teaching tip: support the swimmers from the waist, not the feet. If you support them at the feet, they are likely to develop a faulty movement patter). You can also place one foot on a chair if training alone, but it is easy to cheat though by using too much assistance. In modern coaching, bands can provide the assistance, but make sure you get bands designed for this purpose; don’t ruin your lightweight bands! 
  5. Pull ups:
  6. Weighted Pull-ups:The natural progression from pull ups is to perform weighted pull ups, by using a weight vest, weight belt, kettlebell hooked on the foot, or a backpack. You can regress weighted pull ups by performing weighted flexed arm hangs and negatives pull ups. One arm pull ups are another progression, but have a quite demanding learning curve and their own unique set of progressions and regressions. These are probably not a realistic time investment for most swimmers unless they want to impress the girls team during dryland workouts.

Although these are presented as different levels, you never permanently graduate from one level to another. You need not live in one level. All variations can fit into a program if you utilize progressions and regressions.


  1. Halet KA, Mayhew JL, Murphy C, Fanthorpe J. Relationship of 1 repetition maximum lat-pull to pull up and lat-pull repetitions in elite collegiate women swimmers. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Aug;23(5):1496-502.

By Allan Phillips. Allan and his wife Katherine are heavily involved in the strength and conditioning community, for more information refer to Pike Athletics.

Dr. John Mullen, DPT, CSCS world-renowned physical therapist and strength coach.
  1. December 7, 2012

    Nice blog you have written wonderful content. It’s very useful for me.

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