I was able to get my client Ehsan from zero to three chin-ups in 3 weeks. In the next 3 weeks, he went 3 to 7. Now, we’re working on getting him over 10. (Edit: Ehsan has reached 10 chin-ups! 06/04/2012)
Before this, he’s never done a pull-up in his life.
I’ve gotten a number of inquiries on how we did this in such a short period.
Assisted pull-up machine? Nope. Bands, assistance exercises, ‘roids? No, Nah, definitely not.
Secret Russian Periodization scheme? Kinda, but not really…
Out of all the exercises, people simply have a hard time doing pull-ups. It’s the most “basic” bodyweight move – and without some sort of band/assistance, a bodyweight progression seems miles away.
When it comes down to it, understanding a pull-up is really just understanding some movement and what strength really is…
Strength is a skill
Strength is first and foremost a product of the Central Nervous System and its efficiency in activating muscle fibers. It’s not how BIG those fibers are, but how many you can recruit. Rather than a bodybuilding approach of building a bigger engine, think of strength as the ability to use more cylinders in the engine you already got.
More activated muscle fibers = more tension = more strength. And that takes practice. You’ve got to work at it.
Getting a pull-up isn’t simply a matter of ‘building up’ the muscles by feeling the burn. It’s about practicing the whole movement of pulling with perfection.
Because people don’t get this, they fail in attaining the pull-up because they’re not really ‘strength’ training. They’re not training deliberately.
Understanding the neurology behind skill acquisition and its role in strength lets us understand and design training methods for you or clients to get the pull-up or any other move.
(I say “pull-up”, but it applies to push-ups, deadlifts and especially any exercise at a “set” weight)
Strength training is deliberate practice
Acquisition of ANY skill (physical or otherwise) is attained through “deliberate” or “deep” practice. In Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin defines deliberate practice as an “activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally…; and it isn’t much fun.”
Training the CNS for strength follows the same rules as for any other skill.
Nobody benches 315lbs without practice in some kind of related activity. Even if they don’t have good ‘form’ (ex. feet up), you’ll notice that it’s smooth. Watch a 200lb newbie bench just the bar, and you’ll see that thing quiver.
In Pavel Tsatouline’s The Naked Warrior, bench press champion George Halbert goes over a common argument:
“There is a mode of thinking out there that I describe as ‘He’s not strong, he’s just got good technique.’ This is just confused thinking. … Have you ever heard anyone say ‘He is not a good shooter, he just has good technique’ or ‘He’s not really fast, he just has good technique’?”
Pavel continues to describe a study where participants’ strength increased 13 percent in three months from simply imagining contracting their muscles – “the only possible explanation for this strength gain is greater tension through increased “nerve force”.
This increased “nerve force” is simply better conduction through myelination of the neural pathway of your chosen move. Daniel Coyle explains the process in The Talent Code:
“1) Every human movement, thought, or feeling is a precisely timed electric signal traveling through a chain of neurons – a circuit of nerve fibers.
2) Myelin is the [fatty] insulation that wraps these nerve fibers, and increasing signal strength, speed, and accuracy.
3) The more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes that circuit, the stronger, faster, more fluent our movements and thoughts become.”
Strength is the myelination/reinforcement of a movement pattern.
(Side note: Gray Cook uses these principles of deliberate practice and skill acquisition/myelination to help people acquire motor control/stability through self-limiting exercise! Strength is based on stability, and uses the same myelination, but in a different way.)
Pavel explains the “rules” of his grease the groove method to strength training: Focused, Fresh, Frequent, Flawless, Fluctuating. You can see how these are in sync with skill acquisition.
Focused: I had Ehsan doing reps of JUST pull-ups well under 60-70% of his maximum ability. We never had him do over 5 reps. If he showed up with a max repetition of 3, his training program for the next three weeks would largely consist of a single rep with a couple of doubles splashed in.
Fluctuating: The total volume for each day (Sets x reps) would never be the same .
Fresh: Though he was always rushed, I reminded him to take 3-5 minutes of rest. The nervous system takes more time to recover than pure muscular training. This let him be fresh for the next set and allow him to focus.
Frequent: I had him doing pull-ups each day in his 4 day strength program.
Let’s have a closer look at some of the things I did to help Ehsan get the pull-up and how you can apply some of these principles to your training.
It’s highly demanding mentally
If you really strength train, you’ll be hard pressed to have your earbuds in. Between 1-5 reps, you’ll be concentrating on squeezing the most tension out of your body. At times, you’ll be focusing on body cues: keeping your chest out, butt squeezed etc. It’s a mental workout.
“Specificity + frequent practice = success”
Using bands or assisted machines isn’t specific. People get lazy with these methods and still try to pull with a sloppy, disengaged core. They’re not training the “pattern”.
“If you want to get good at pull-ups, why not try to do… a lot of pull-ups?”
Good idea, Pavel. What’s more specific for an exercise than THAT exercise? If it’s out of your ability to do a pull-up, find something that uses similar movement patterns. For example, an inverted row works the same muscles of the pull-up and engages the core. Forget doing curls.
For something to qualify as deep or deliberate practice, it’s gotta be repeatable. So focus on just doing the move you want to get better at. You’ll be firing that circuit a lot.
Flawless: Don’t fail. While it’s not only good, but necessary to struggle to obtain skill, for strength, don’t ever fail a lift.
“Skill is myelin insulation that wraps neural circuits and grows according to certain signals.” Don’t send the wrong signals. You’ll be myelinating nerve pathway you don’t want.
For every “wrong” signal you send out, it’ll take just as much, if not more “right” signals to undue the damage.
“Chunk it up”
At first, I had Ehsan doing Negative Chin-ups. This means doing only the eccentric or lowering portion of the move. This was not only because I hate bands and assistance, but it allowed him to focus on mastering only a part of the actual whole move with HIS weight.
Once he was able to do full pull-ups, I still had him ‘chunking’. I split the move into two parts and told him to first focus on “packing the shoulders” before doing the pull.
This “shoulder packing” involves getting the shoulder blades down and back and never letting your shoulders near your ears. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got the best training program if your movement is screwed up.
If someone has trouble with an exercise, chunk it up! Depending on your athlete’s weakness in the range of motion, a deadlift can be split up into its lock-out top portion or the bottom portion of getting off the ground. Perhaps they’re not effective in recruiting muscle fibers at that range. Let them get better at it.
For a bench press, consider doing floor or pin presses through weakest range of motion. For purely strength, chunking has great applications. If someone is weak through a range of motion, put them there and let them work through it for a while.
Breaking down and working on the end ranges of motion proves useful, especially for push-ups. If they can strengthen the bottom of the push-up in an isometric hold, as well as the top position, everything in between seems to fall in place (*hint* female clients). For Ehsan, I specifically told him focus on “fighting” with tension in his negative chin-up from 90 to 135 degrees of his arms.
For movement issues, regressions can be used to chunk up the pattern rather than the range of motion.
Start with Dan John’s batwing row, chest supported on a bench to establish a pulling pattern before implementing it with a seated row.
A Crossfit thruster can be broken down and worked upon in its two parts: the squat and the press. If the squat has some difficulty, check out the hip hinge and get them to trouble shoot that.
It isn’t much fun
True strength training may seem boring, but that’s what qualitfies it as ‘deliberate’ practice. Doing the same thing over and over again isn’t much fun either. Nor is never hitting a 1RM or AMRAP record for a couple of weeks. Most of the time you may not even go close to what you really can do and will have to cut your workout short. There isn’t much variety but it gets results because it’s specifically designed to improve performance.
Remember that training for a pull-up is just like throwing a ball – but instead of trying to get more power, you’re going for strength.
Use a bit of brain power in your workouts and notice the difference. Train smart and you’ll go far.
References and resources:
How does this influence your strength training now? What will change? Comment below if you have questions.