The CrossFit Catalyst Pullup Progression

When we say that CrossFit is ‘scaleable,’ what we mean is that you can modify the exercises so that anyone can do them, and still have a fantastic workout. We’re famous for our intensity, but helping people progress makes us the best in the fitness world. On the wall at the Park, you’ll see about a dozen green posters to help you decide how to best ‘scale’ each exercise in your workout.
One of the more intimidating exercises we use often is the Pullup. In almost no other exercise are you required to move your entire body weight from one point to another unsupported. Its benefit parallels its difficulty, and few newcomers can do ten – if they can do one at all.
We start with a prone pullup, or ‘body row’ – on your back – with low gymnastics rings. Lying on a mat, reach up to rings hanging over your shoulders. You should be barely able to reach them, so that your muscles have to stretch (this will help you.) Bend your knees and be ready to push down on your heels.
Start pulling by lifting your hips first, pressing your heels, and then pulling your torso up until the rings (or your knuckles) touch your chest. Keep your elbows tucked in. The prone pullup is great for building strength.
The next step is to add a bit more challenge to the prone pullup by doing them with your legs straight. When you can do 10 prone pullups without a break, move up to the next step: balance on your heels instead of bending your knees, and pull all the way up to the rings. This adds weight (your legs) to the pullup and makes it harder.
Only when you can do 10 nonstop will we move to the next step, which starts you on the path to vertical pullups, hanging free from the bar. A negative pullup will help you overcome the toughest part of the full pullup: generating pulling force at the elbow when you have a small joint angle. While the body row is great for building strength from the hanging position, you’ll need to be strong when your forehead is close to the bar and you no longer have a mechanical advantage.
Jump from a box until your chin is above the bar; lower yourself to a slow 5-count; rest until you can do another. If you drop too quickly, don’t count the repetition.
The next step is knees-to-elbows. While this position isn’t part of the pullup progression, it helps prepare you for the kipping pullup by forcing you to practice good timing in the kip, and driving your knees upward in preparation for the final pull over the bar. It’s simple to learn, and will be covered in greater depth in a future instructional.
Finally, the kipping pullup. We use the kipping pullup – a cross between a gymnastics kip and a bodybuilding pullup – to increase total-body activation. Like a burpee, you’ll have to move your body a great distance every rep. You’ll also recruit more force from your trunk, and be able to do far more than you would on strict pullups alone. You’ll put out more total work per rep by using your whole body.
Starting with the basic head/shoulder pattern of the knees-to-elbows exercise, you’ll attempt to pull yourself up explosively as your knees pass under your body. This levering of your legs will create upward momentum to help in the bottom position, and you’ll only have to ‘close the elbows’ to get your chin over the bar. Drop quickly back down to maintain your kipping rhythm; it also helps to push back and away from the bar at the top to get back into the levering motion.
The dead-hang pullup. The toughest of all, you must start with arms fully extended and muscle your way over the bar with a minimum kip. As you move upward, your body will automatically position itself to provide greatest mechanical advantage – your knees will rise, your trunk will tilt backward – and that can’t be avoided. This is the ‘holy grail’ of pullups, but isn’t typically used in METCON workouts because it’s too slow and requires too much rest between reps.
While it looks impressive, the pullup is completely scaleable to any level, and provides great physical stimulation. If your workout ‘practice’ or ‘regime’ doesn’t include pullups,  you’re missing out on an exercise that can make a HUGE difference.