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Pull Ups For Over 40s

How 40 Somethings Perform Pull Ups

Steve's 46 yr old back

Is it possible to build a solid back in your 40s?

This back is 46 years old and it's mine. Weightlifting and pull ups are largely responsible for the way it looks. Nothing fancy has been used in it's creation just heavy pulling from the floor and from an overhead bar. Was I conscious of the mind muscle connection? Well mostly not at all I was more worried about getting the bar up or pulling myself up to the bar.

Can you do this? Damn right you can. There is no magic formula but I like to think that a solid framework goes a long way to speeding up your journey. Below I'll outline steps that have helped many of my clients on their way to hitting their first pull ups.

Pull ups are widely considered to create a nice taper to your upper body by building the latissimus dorsi muscles at the back of the ribcage. You can check out the video below to see how they operate and how they work with the other muscles of the upper back.

The body likes to work as a unit and if there's one takeaway point I'd like to make here is that it can be a fruitless endeavour to constantly strive to isolate every muscle independently to build a physique. For one thing it's almost impossible for other muscles not to want to join in the party and help and two, it's just not an efficient use of your time. 

Back Anatomy


Hollow Body 

Let's discuss the hollow body position and why on earth has this got anything to do with pull ups? Ok, this is the shape I'll want you to make whilst holding on to the bar as this shape allows you to activate your core muscles and keep tension in the body. 

There are some other ways to perform pull ups that you may have seen in they gym such as crossing the legs behind the body but this will rob you of the much needed tension that you can create in your core. It also allows you, if not encourages you to lean back thereby creating a semi-vertical row which is a much stronger pulling position.

Much better to develop strength with proper form at the beginning as progress will be much more authentic.

Sets and Reps

3 Sets x 1 min hold


Scapula Pulls

Gaining control over your shoulder blades is s crucial step in the pull up journey and one that is largely ignored by many coaches. How the scapula moves around the rear of your body not only helps with pull ups but also plays a major role in creating stability in the shoulder joint.

The easiest way to describe this exercise is that it resemble an inverted shrug and you can do it whilst standing up with your arms straight overhead. Shrug your shoulders up as far as possible and without bending at the elbow suck your arms back down into your shoulder socket. 

When you are at the bottom of the pull up I want you to be in an active hang ie you've pull your shoulder blades down and back to ensure that the shoulder joint is stable and that there's no loss of tension or sag in your upper body before you begin to pull. 

Sets and Reps

3 Sets x 10 Reps


Negative Pull Downs

Negatives or eccentric movement offers the opportunity to perform a movement that you're not currently strong enough to perform concentrically (or in the positive phase). There is conjecture over whether or not it actually builds more strength than concentric movements however it's my experience that they certainly provide a stimulus that you'll miss out on if you avoid them altogether. 

Performing the movement is quite simple. Get to the top with your chin over the bar and lower yourself under control to a count of 5. Perform 3 sets 3-5 reps. Some trainees find the top part of the movement difficult whilst others struggle at the bottom. Wherever you're finding it tough aim to focus more on this area and slow your descent in this segment. 

Sets and Reps

3 Sets x 5 Reps (descend to a count of 5 secs)


Middle Portion Pulls

This part of the movement is the next progression on from negative only pull ups and are essentially partial reps on the middle two quarters of the movement. 

Perform them as follows. Get to the top of the movement and then drop down to approx half way. Pull one quarter above the midpoint and lower to one quarter below the midpoint. This involves both concentric and eccentric parts of the movement in the strongest range and prepares you for completing the movement in it’s entirety. 

Moving above the halfway or sticking point is crucial if you want to benefit from this stage. Otherwise it's just an excuse to do half a pull up and none of the foundations will be built. 

Sets and Reps

3 Sets x 10 reps - Aim to increase the portion of pull up completed.


Top Down Pull Ups

Pull ups from the top down? Why bother using this movement at all? Well here's where we get to utilise stored elastic energy to assist / minimise inertia at the bottom of the movement. The bottom of the pull up is where most people struggle to create the appropriate tension to propel them upwards.

This movement looks just like a normal pull up but feels completely different.  The Top Down Pull Up where you start at the top position and complete the movement all the way down and all the way back up in reverse order to that of a normal bottom up pull up. 

As stated above this capitalises on the stored elastic energy in the muscles and connective tissues to minimise the inertia at the bottom of the movement and blast your way back up again. You’ll be able to do this before you can perform a pull up from the bottom up.

Sets and Reps

3 Sets x 10 Reps


Next Steps

Now you're ready to give pull ups a decent shot. You've paid your dues and put some solid work in on the basics and so now it's time to get under the bar and pull yourself up and over the target mark.

But why stop here? Once you've achieved your goal of pull ups the next mountain to climb is the muscle up. You are now addicted my friend, hang on you're in for an exciting ride. 


Final Secret.... Shhh

If you haven't guessed already feel free to message me for the final secret...

About the Author Stephen Devine

Steve not just a skilled Crossfit Coach, but a top-tier CrossFit Competitor who's ranked in the top 1% worldwide in the 2023 Crossfit Open! And this is despite spending six weeks on crutches following surgery to fix a broken ankle just a year ago. He's Qualified as a Crossfit L1 Coach, Crossfit Gymnastics, and is also a qualified Olympic Weightlifting Coach.

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