What happens when an old-school training staple meets an insane high-frequency approach? Awesome things. Check it out.
I ran into a buddy last May that I hadn’t seen since Christmas. He asked me what I’d been doing since we last hung out.
Pull-ups, I said.
It wasn’t hyperbole. From January 5 to June 10 of this year I did 13,064 of them. Since my weight fluctuates between 210-215 pounds, this was no small task and many days I questioned the potential absurdity of it.
Why did I do it? Just a personal challenge, I guess. I also knew that I’d learn a lot along the way. Pull-ups have always been part of my clients’ training programs, so while I already had plenty of data with a vast array of different techniques, I didn’t have this kind of data.
What would happen if I cranked out a seemingly endless amount of reps every day? Would I be left lying in an inferno of inflammation after a month? Or would my muscles find a way to adapt and grow?
The pull-up, like any other body weight exercise, responds best to a high frequency plan. You can get bigger, much bigger, with certain body weight exercises, but only if you do enough of them. In most cases, that’s much more than you think your body can handle.
Here are the five things I learned that will help you master this essential strength exercise.
On April 14, I was 100 days into the pull-up frenzy. At this point I’d performed 5070 pull-ups. When I started the challenge I could only do 12 full range-of-motion pull-ups. By day 100 I could do 19. That’s not a very good return on the investment.
Up to that point, I’d avoided failure on every set. In most cases I’d leave four or five reps “in the hole.” For example, on the day I had to do 70 pull-ups, I did 10 circuits of seven reps with the push-up and lunge between each set of pull-ups. Even by the tenth round I still had two or three reps in the hole.
My rationale for avoiding failure was simple: the huge amount of volume would add plenty of reps to my maximum rep pull-up performance.
When I started this personal challenge I didn’t have any specific goals other than just doing the damn things every day and adding a rep each day. I knew my arms and upper back would get bigger, and I knew my performance would increase. Beyond that, I just wanted to make them a part of my daily life and see what happened.
As mentioned, the first 100 days didn’t do much for my max rep performance considering the increasing workload. But my upper back and forearms got bigger as evidenced by my newly constricting dress shirts.
So I decided it was time to adjust the sets to boost my max rep performance. I started pushing each set to the brink, stopping only at concentric failure. On my last set for each workout I upped the ante and held the failure position, the midpoint of a rep, for 4-5 seconds to overload the smaller motor units.
This was the first time I’d taken any sets to failure in years. My max rep pull-up performance began to rise consistently every few workouts.
Interestingly, my upper back hypertrophy abruptly stalled when I incorporated sets to failure. The potential reasons are numerous. Maybe my body already added all the additional upper back and arm mass it needed to support the high frequency pull-ups?
Difficult to determine based on my “n=1” sample size.
One thing’s for certain. When I steadily increased the volume and avoided failure with fast reps, my upper back grew. When I incorporated sets to failure my hypertrophy stalled but my max reps went up. Training to failure with higher rep sets is great for endurance, but not much else.
Before I started I was well aware of the potential trauma this pull-up blitzkrieg could unleash upon my elbows. Most guys stop doing high frequency pull-ups because of an elbow injury. Sometimes the problem surfaces in the shoulder. In either case, the culprit is the same.
When you pull in the vertical plane your wrists naturally want to rotate. How much they rotate depends on your skeletal structure and soft tissue mobility. Regardless, your wrists never want to be locked in place for this exercise.
This is simple to verify. Work up to a three-rep pull-up maximum from rings and watch what your wrists do from the full hang as you train max strength – they’ll never stay fully pronated on their own.
If the wrists can’t naturally rotate, the stress goes straight to the elbow, leading to pain and inflammation. Then the shoulder will join the pain party. If you observe shoulder movement when a guy does a pull-up from a fixed bar it looks the same as when he does it from rings.
However, there are small biomechanical changes when the wrists can’t rotate. You might not be able to see a difference, but you’ll eventually feel it when an underlying dysfunction rears its ugly head as shoulder pain.
Of course, many guys do pull-ups from a fixed bar every day, or every other day, and don’t have any problems. Most often it’s because their frequency is low enough to avoid it. With high frequency training, however, you’ve got to get everything right from the start. For pull-ups, this means allowing natural wrist rotation.
Now, if for some unforeseen reason you absolutely can’t get access to rings or TRX straps, the next best option is to do the high frequency pull-ups with a neutral, fat grip. The hammer grip is easiest on the elbows and fattening the grip takes more stress off them. However, you’ll still likely run into problems, even with a fat, neutral grip, if you do enough of them.
The absolute worst culprit is the chin-up from a fixed bar. Just hang from a bar with your palms supinated and you’ll immediately feel tension in your elbows. I’ve recommended the fixed bar chin-up for years, but things change. It’s completely out of all my current training programs because it locks the wrists in the most stressful position to the elbows.
Your body is just as valuable as any million-dollar athlete’s. I won’t let any athlete do pull-ups from a fixed bar, and I wouldn’t advise you to do it, either. The risk is not worth the potential reward. Use rings for pull-ups.
One of the biggest lessons I learned is how resilient the upper back muscles are to high frequency training. They can take a lot of abuse, and be trained to recover very quickly. It’s pretty cool when you can do 100 pull-ups on Monday, 101 on Tuesday, and 102 on Wednesday without any residual soreness or fatigue.
Don’t get me wrong, performing pull-ups daily caused soreness during the first week or so. But after a few weeks I could feel my upper back muscles were fully recovered. Well, except for one spot.
There’s a tie-in area on the posterior portion of your shoulder where the teres minor, lats, and rear deltoid converge. This area is just behind your armpit and it’s often painful to the touch, even in people who don’t do a ton of pull-ups. However, when you start doing a ton of pull-ups it’s the area that’ll hurt the most. You’ll feel the stretch pain as soon as you hang for the first rep of the day.
I didn’t add any extra soft tissue work during this time, except for this rear shoulder tie-in. Lie on your side with your arm outstretched overhead to open up the area. Roll a tennis ball, or golf ball, over the sore spot for 30 seconds on each side every night. It’ll hurt like hell. It will also free up the tissue and allow water and nutrients into the area to hasten recovery, so tough it out until the area no longer hurts.
Over the last few years many coaches have recommended keeping the shoulder blades pulled down in the full hang position. This forces you to lean back and keep the arms slightly flexed. By design, the shoulder blades don’t want to stay depressed, nor should they.
However, there’s another group that advocate full scapular elevation in the hang. They think it’s best to let the shoulders shrug all the way up to the ears to activate the lats and lower traps. They even post videos of extreme scapular elevation and depression with the arms straight and locked to train this motor pattern, a motor pattern we never replicate in real life.
As we pull in the vertical plane the elbows want to flex during scapular depression. That’s why it’s difficult for people to perform pure scapular depression with their arms straight. Our nervous system is hard-wired for scapular depression and elbow flexion to work together.
In 1997 I attended a seminar of an unnamed certification course by an unnamed biomechanics expert who advocated training scapular depression with the arms locked. A few years later he reneged on that exercise in favor of a more functional pulling technique where the scapulae and arms can work in perfect harmony.
Luckily for me and a couple other strength coaches who attended that event, we never took his inane advice in the first place.
So where should your scapulae be positioned in the full hang? Somewhere between full scapular elevation and depression. The shoulder blades need to elevate to increase recruitment of the lats and lower traps, but they shouldn’t elevate so much that you lose strength and expose the tissues to excessive stretch forces. Reverse the movement from the position that feels most natural.
It seems that the forearms would get wrecked with so many pull-ups. They were sore the first week and then the local muscle recovery quickly caught up to the new demand.
Nevertheless, I recommend doing one forearm stretch each day. Get on all fours with your arms straight and palms flat on the ground. Next, externally rotate the arms (turn pinky fingers toward midline of body) so the inside of the forearms face forward with your palms flat on the ground. You’ll feel a stretch in the wrist flexors when you find the right position. Hold that stretch for 30 seconds for one or two sets each night.
The biceps were a non-factor throughout the journey. After the initial soreness during the first week they went along for the ride.
Someone who can already do at least 10 of them. If you’re a guy who can only do one or two pull-ups you’re not too weak, you’re too fat. Lose that gut and watch your pull-ups skyrocket.
If you can do one set of 10-15 consecutive reps, shoot for 50 total reps each day. If you can already do 25 or so, go for 100 each day, if you have the time. The bottom line is to do as many as you know you can find time for each day until you get bored to tears.
If you’re going to start doing pull-ups every day, do them from rings, TRX straps, or anything that allows your wrists to naturally rotate. If that’s not an option, stick to doing them two or three times per week with a fat, hammer, or pronated grip. Don’t even think about doing daily pull-ups from a fixed bar.
It’s common to think this is due to a lack of strength, but it’s most often due to excessive tightness in the shoulders and T-spine. Stretch and mobilize those areas and you’ll increase your elevation.
Yes, and you’ll be glad you did. Do pull-ups every day until you reach your max rep goal, or until your back and arms have added enough muscle to consider the plan a success. At that point, revert to max strength pull-ups for low reps.
I’m sure every red-blooded T Nation reader can think of several more, shall we say, enjoyable things that they could do every day for five months other than pull ups, but sometimes you have to go against the grain and try something new, different, or downright crazy.
I’ve always been a fan of both high frequency training and pull ups, so it was only a matter of time before I started pushing the envelope on both fronts. My five-month odyssey into vertical pulling insanity taught me a lot about how far the body can really be pushed, and how current training dogma could use a little dose of higher-frequency programming. Plus, my back and arms grew. How can anyone complain about that?
Follow the guidelines above and see what kind of changes you can make in five months!