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Pull up Training for Motocross

by Racer X Virtual Trainer


Coach Seiji, a regular contributor to this site, has turned me on to a great site on health and nutrition. It's called Mark's Daily Apple, and it's a website full of great articles on general fitness and well being, most of which apply to the motocross rider. This is one such article. - Virtual Trainer

This is a guest post from Al Kavadlo of

If you’re like me, part of the appeal of Primal living is the simplicity of it all. Modern society has a funny way of making things more complicated than they need to be. In studying the intricacies of healthy eating and proper exercise, we often get lost in the details and miss the big picture. You don’t need to know about antioxidants in order to know that blueberries are good for you. Likewise, you don’t need a degree in anatomy or kinesiology in order to implement a safe and effective fitness program. Unfortunately, much of the fitness industry is designed to make you feel like being healthy is a complicated and difficult objective. Modern gyms are equipped with lots of expensive, high-tech machinery in order to give the illusion that complicated exercise contraptions are more effective than timeless bodyweight movements requiring only minimal equipment. The irony is that many of these facilities, in spite of having three different types of elliptical trainers, dozens of different selectorized strength training stations and (my favorite in terms of the dollars-to-dumbness ratio) the vibrating power plate, lack the one piece of fitness equipment that I actually deem essential: the humble pull-up bar.

Pull-ups work your entire upper body, especially the muscles of your back, as well as your abs and your biceps. Thanks to pull-ups, I haven’t felt the need for crunches or bicep curls in years and I don’t expect to ever again. In spite of this, my abs and biceps are strong and well developed. Pull-up bar training is essential for the simple reason that gravity only works in one direction. If all you do for your upper body is push-ups and other floor work, you may develop a muscular imbalance, which can lead to poor posture, shoulder pain or worse. You need to pull against resistance as well to avoid these pitfalls.

Whether or not you are strong enough to do a pull-up, a pull-up bar is still the best piece of fitness equipment you could ever own. If you aren’t ready for pull-ups yet, there are three primary exercises that you can do on an overhead bar to help you get there: flex hangs, negative pull-ups and dead hangs.

Flex Hangs
A flex hang involves holding yourself at the top of a pull-up with your chin over the bar. It is best to start by using an underhand (chin-up) grip. Use a bench or a partner to help you get in position and then simply try to stay up. Think about squeezing every muscle in your entire body. If you can hold this position for even a second on your initial attempt, you are off to a good start.




Negative Pull-ups
Once you can hold the flex hang for several seconds, you’re ready to start working on negative pull-ups, which just means lowering yourself down slowly from the top position. In the beginning, it might be very difficult to perform a controlled negative, but with time you will be able to make your negative last for ten-seconds or longer. Once you can do this, a full pull-up will be within reach.




Dead Hangs
If you are not strong enough to do a flex hang or a negative yet, your first objective is simply to get a feel for hanging from the bar. This will build grip strength and work your muscles isometrically. With some practice, you should be able to work to a flex hang fairly quickly. Even once you can perform flex hangs and controlled negatives, it is still helpful to practice dead hangs at the end of your training session when your arms have gotten too fatigued to do more negatives. When performing a dead hang, think about keeping your chest up and pulling your shoulder blades down in order to fully engage your back muscles.

Australian Pull-ups
The Australian pull-up (also known as a horizontal pull-up or bodyweight row) is another great exercise for anyone who is working their way up to a standard pull-up. The Australian involves getting “down under” a bar that is a little above waist height, with your feet resting on the ground. Keep a straight line from your heels to the back of your head as you squeeze your shoulder blades together and pull your chest to the bar. Novices may choose to bend their knees and push gently with their heels in order to give their arms assistance if needed. When you get a little more comfortable with this exercise you can angle your heels to the floor with your feet pointed up and your legs straight. Just like the dead hang, be sure that you are not shrugging your shoulders up when performing Australians. You want to pull your shoulder blades down and back – never up. This is the case for all pull-ups. Start getting in the habit of doing this right away – it’s the most common error I see people make when performing these moves.

Pull-ups and Beyond
When you’re ready to go for the full Monty, it’s generally best to start with an underhand (chin-up) grip. Chin-ups put more emphasis on your biceps, while an overhand grip will recruit your back musculature to a greater degree. Though the muscles of your back can potentially become bigger, stronger muscles than the biceps, deconditioned individuals are more likely to have some bicep strength from everyday activities, while their back muscles will be nowhere near their full potential. With practice and patience, the disparity in difficulty between different hand positions should begin to even out. It can also be worthwhile to practice a neutral grip pull-up, which involves gripping two parallel bars with your palms facing each other. This can be a nice intermediate step between the underhand and overhand grips. The neutral grip may also be less stressful on the shoulder joints of people who’ve had injuries to that area.

Once you get the hang of full overhand pull-ups, there are still many challenges ahead, including the muscle-up, which involves pulling (and then pushing) your entire upper body up and over the bar, as well as the elusive one arm pull-up. In fact, there is much more that can be done a pull-up bar than just pull-ups. The bar can be used for dips, hanging leg raises and countless other variations on these moves.

That's it for now, until next time, good luck with your training and remember, if you have a question, log on to the Virtual Trainer Expert Forum and have your question answered by a panel of experts. In addition, be sure and check out the Racer X Virtual Trainer archive section. Your complete one-stop information zone for motocross fitness. VT Signature

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  1. Gravatar
    kevin June 14, 2012 at 7:55 am

    +1 on pull-ups. I bought the p90x pull up bar which fits in a doorway and offers 5+ grip types for pull-ups - it's awesome. One tip for those who want to get some extra reps... hang (loop) a resistance band off your pull-up bar and fit it under your shoes to help you pull your self up. I'm about 205lbs so I often use it when I'm fatigued and can't pull myself up anymore... especially for wide overhand grip. Once you get used to pull-ups you'll love em!

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    Racer X Virtual Trainer June 14, 2012 at 9:32 am

    I'm not a big fan of the door way pull up bars. But if that is all the room you have then they are great. I bought a Stud Bar Pull up bar and love that thing. They actually make the resistance bands you are talking about specifically for assisted pullups.

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    Eddie Casillas June 14, 2012 at 3:03 pm

    Seriously, Pull Ups for Moto? Wrong answer. Well except for the horizontal pull up but otherwise stay away from the pull up. side note. Do not do the horizontal pull up like the guy in the picture unless you want to pump up like a ballon. You want to place a bench, a plyo box or similar item under feet and set the bar height so that the start position has you hanging with you body parallel to the floor. The rep only counts if your chest touches the bar and your body remains straight. Hold your arms in the attack position with wrist straight. At no time should your wrists bend when pulling up to the bar. If you can do 15 your doing good.

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    Brandon June 14, 2012 at 6:02 pm

    @ Eddie I don't think pull-ups will affect a racer negatively at all. I increased my pull-up regimen this season because my shoulders would get pretty tired 3/4 through a moto. This season, my muscular endurance increased dramatically! I'm definitely sold on lots of pull-ups in my workouts. Although I don't disagree on the horizontal pull-ups, they are great too especially cause they mimic how we use our upper body on the track.

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    eddie casillas June 14, 2012 at 10:13 pm

    Brandon the cons outweigh the pros when in comes to pull ups with regards to a motocross racer. Unless you have strong glutes, great hip extension range of motion, great thoracic extension range of motion and excellent wrist range of motion. Your are setting yourself up for low back stiffness, shoulder impingement, arm pump to name a few.

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    Brandon June 14, 2012 at 11:25 pm

    I think it would be pretty hard to find many top guys NOT doing vertical pull-ups as part of a routine. I have seen workout videos of Canard, Stewart, even Carmichael doing pull-ups, but hey maybe they or their trainers don't know what they're doing.

    I wouldn't say to only do this exercise because then I would agree with your argument, but if other exercises are mixed in especially stretching for flexibility, I think it will help a ton.

    As for the arm-pump mine was just about eliminated after doing more pull-ups, forearm and grip endurance are keys to doing lots of pull-ups just like a long rough moto.

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    Coach Seiji June 15, 2012 at 7:14 am

    I agree with Brandon, I think the pullup is super simple, basic, requires hardly any equipment and can be scaled with "cheater" boxes or step, bands, etc. I also agree with Eddie on the horizontal pull up picture, wrists should always be "flat", avoid being extended or flexed, just keep them in neutral anatomical position which is basically straight or "flat." All my guys have done both vertical and horizontal pull ups, scaled to their strength/ability/injury status and all of them have benefited and we have zero incidence of any arm pump or similar negative effects.

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    Coach Seiji June 15, 2012 at 7:34 am

    Forgot to add...anytime a moto athlete can extend shouders/elbows and flex shoulders/elbows in the vertical and other non-moto riding position planes, in a pain free range of motion, is good for just health. I think that if you just ride and do little else, you lose these "normal" and healthy ranges of motion in your joints and soft tissues. I have had several athletes come to me, sometimes very young, and they can't raise their arms over their heads really without extending their spine. This isn't healthy in my opinion and if you can incorporate these motions and positions into your off bike training without causing injury, good for you!

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    Racer X Virtual Trainer June 15, 2012 at 7:40 am

    Eddie you have got to be kidding me right? For the general athlete all the way up to the top pros, some form of pull up training should be a part of their program. You say, "Unless you have strong glutes, great hip extension range of motion, great thoracic extension range of motion and excellent wrist range of motion....." Well as an athlete YOU SHOULD have these things. If not then you need to work on those areas and proper pull ups can help with those weaknesses.

    As far as picking apart the Australia pullups "form", I applaud Seiji for being able to spot the bent wrist in the pic. But, in my defense, I was just trying to show what an Australian pullup is NOT the best form to use. This article was not about teaching proper form. I don't think proper form can be taught in an article. It has to be demonstrated and taught in person. I grabbed a screen shot from the video so readers wouldn't be wondering what the exercise looks like.

    Eddie, "Do not do the horizontal pull up like the guy in the picture unless you want to pump up like a ballon." Come on man, comments like this are as crazy as saying "lifting weights causes arm pump." There is no way that doing one exercise like this (using correct form or not) will DIRECTLY give you arm pump. Arm pump is caused by so many factors that to say one exercise will cause it is crazy and just perpetuates false information that ripples through out the motocross community.

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    Joel Younkins June 15, 2012 at 8:48 am

    At the end of the day, pull ups are a general exercise. They should not be labeled as a special strength exercise for any sport unless the there is a specific reason for pull ups being apart of the program. In Eddies defense, a vertical pull and the amplitude of the pull up is not in the sport of motocross. However, like I said for majority of the time this will be a general movement in someones program. So yeah, not everyone can or should do pull ups and some will be just fine. Everything has a place and time..

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    Racer X Virtual Trainer June 15, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    Joel - "a vertical pull and the amplitude of the pull up is not in the sport of motocross." I would say almost NO exercise in the gym is in the sport of motocross. Maybe a squat/row combo and isometric contractions of the core but that's about it. Certainly not the dead-lift or pushup, or rowing, cycling and running for that matter.

  12. Gravatar
    Joel Younkins June 15, 2012 at 2:49 pm

    Tim- Right! I was just referring to the direction of the movement in its transference to the sport. Just making a point that it should be classified as a general exercise which is what most of training is for anyone in a gym, which is cool and will give majority of people benefit. I think I'm going off in a whole other direction of this topic...sorry!! Haha

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    Racer X Virtual Trainer June 15, 2012 at 3:04 pm

    Joel it certainly is a general exercise that's for sure. I actually hate the term "sport specific" when used in context with training in the gym (for motocross that is). Nothing in the gym is sport specific. Riding the motocycle is sport specific :)

  14. Gravatar
    Joel Younkins June 15, 2012 at 4:05 pm

    Sport Specific isn't actually what I was referring to but yeah "sport specific" has been one of the biggest misused marketing tools in america

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    Coach Seiji June 15, 2012 at 6:40 pm

    I purposely do movements that aren't "specific" to riding moto. In my mind you can build a better rider or you can build a better athlete and I am trying to build a better athlete. Part of that is having good function overall and healthy joints. The riders get plenty of horizontal plane flexion/extension etc. on the bike and I do supplement strength/muscular endurance in the same planes, but I think it's equally important to work planes and ROM's that aren't being used on the bike. This is to build a better athlete, a more durable athlete and most importantly to me, a healthier overall athlete. Think about it, if you crash, you are going to need some ROM/strength in planes not used riding and well, you are going to have a life after riding.

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    Eddie Casillas June 15, 2012 at 8:54 pm

    Tim don't want to get carried away so I will try and keep it simple. 1st functional movement. movement that your body is designed to do. 2nd sports specific movement. Movement that your body goes through during sport. Movement found in moto. I am generalizing here. Hip extension, hip flexion, knee extension, plantar flexion T spine extension, shoulder abduction, shoulder horizontal abduction, shoulder extension, cervical extension, cervical flexion. Now list some exercises that fulfill those movement demands and address strength, endurance, power , stability and mobility. "exercises" lifts such as Deadlifts, pushups and rows mimic the movements found in moto and should be included in the training program.

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    Racer X Virtual Trainer June 16, 2012 at 6:07 pm

    See, wasn't that easy Eddie. Now that is a constructive comment. Thanks!

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