T Nation

Possible to Increase Pull Up Count Without Gaining Mass


#1

Not my goal actually, my nutrition is in orden and I attemp to gain muscle but as a performance maniac I've been wondering if someone could increase their strict pull up numbers without actually trying to gain muscle mass, maybe training while deprived.


#2

During a weight loss phase you would probably see pull up numbers go up since you would lose body fat but retain your strength (hopefully), essentially taking weight off the bar (your body).


#3

I understand that, what I mean is increasing numbers without gaining mass (be it fat or muscle). For instance going from 7 to 10 or from 10 to 20 on a single set without gaining weigth or losing for that matter.


#4

[quote]Salpinx wrote:
I understand that, what I mean is increasing numbers without gaining mass (be it fat or muscle). For instance going from 7 to 10 or from 10 to 20 on a single set without gaining weigth or losing for that matter.[/quote]

I went from zero to twenty pull-ups. No weight gain. Getting stronger and getting bigger are (sort of) two different things.


#5

Absolutely. In fact, one of the easiest ways to increase your pull-ups is to lose some weight, preferably without losing any muscle. I’ve found that the best way to get better at pull-ups is to do as many as you can without wrecking yourself, avoiding absolute failure- descending ladders a few times a day work well for this if you have a bar available during the day.

When I first started doing chins I could only do 2-3 shaky reps with my chin just over the bar, and I weighed about 200 pounds (I know, sad…) I did as many chins as my elbows could take on most non-lifting days (started at around 25 a day and worked up to over 100) while losing about 15 pounds and wound up being able to do 10 fast strict chins with a full range of motion in about 6 weeks. I’m sure I gained some muscle in my lats doing this, but my overall mass went down by quite a bit, and I think I mainly got stronger at them by “greasing the groove.” And I couldn’t have gained too much, as I was on a pretty restrictive diet at the time.


#6

You both made interesting points. I see the difference between being and getting big or strong yet I thougth you had to increase your muscle mass if you wanted to do more reps since it becomes more of an endurance than a strength activity.

As far as my training concerns I do severall sets and stop one rep away from failure on each and every one of them, avoiding failure but knowing it was the last rep I could do.

In summary I aim to gain muscle but I find strength (specially bw-strength ratio) far more important.


#7

Bodyweight work is highly neurological. As a result it is much easier to gain strength/add reps without putting on muscle than with barbell lifts.

For example one of my crossfit athletes (who qualified for the Games) went from doing 13 strict handstand push-ups to doing 26 (or 28) without adding muscle mass.


#8

[quote]Christian Thibaudeau wrote:
Bodyweight work is highly neurological.[/quote]
Amazing answer as always.

Thanks coach


#9

[quote]Salpinx wrote:

[quote]Christian Thibaudeau wrote:
Bodyweight work is highly neurological.[/quote]
Amazing answer as always.

Thanks coach[/quote]

And just today one of my female crossfit athlete increased her handstand push-up max by 10 without adding weight.


#10

Why is it that bw stuff is so neurological? Most coaches just echo ‘weight is weight’…


#11

[quote]Panopticum wrote:
Why is it that bw stuff is so neurological? Most coaches just echo ‘weight is weight’…[/quote]

I’ve never heard any decent coach say that “weight is weight” when talking about body weight exercises. Moving your body through space, stabilizing it, etc requires a lot more coordination than lifting a barbell. I know plenty of very stronger overhead pressers who couldn’t do a handstand push-up. And I know a lot of bodybuilders who and row and pull a lot who can’t do a decent set of full pull-up.


#12

[quote]Christian Thibaudeau wrote:

[quote]Panopticum wrote:
Why is it that bw stuff is so neurological? Most coaches just echo ‘weight is weight’…[/quote]

I’ve never heard any decent coach say that “weight is weight” when talking about body weight exercises. Moving your body through space, stabilizing it, etc requires a lot more coordination than lifting a barbell. I know plenty of very stronger overhead pressers who couldn’t do a handstand push-up. And I know a lot of bodybuilders who and row and pull a lot who can’t do a decent set of full pull-up.[/quote]
That being said who would you say 'd be stronger? After all the ones excelling at lifting pretty much suck at bw exercises and the others don’t get the benefits of lifting weigths. Since they are different activities by strength I mean neutral activities (sports)


#13

Well I guess a fair share of Internet gurus aren’t decent coaches. Just heard it a lot: ‘your muscles don’t know if your lifting this or that, they just contract.’


#14

[quote]Panopticum wrote:
Well I guess a fair share of Internet gurus aren’t decent coaches. Just heard it a lot: ‘your muscles don’t know if your lifting this or that, they just contract.’[/quote]

So by this same token you would get the same results from squatting and leg pressing and things like that.


#15

CT, I didn’t said I believed it. I just said I heard it a lot from ‘coaches’.
Of course I don’t believe a leg press does the same as a squat. Both the stability and loading pattern vary too much.

Not to be rude, but can you please explain why bw stuff is more neurological?
You are alot more trustworthy and experienced then most online ‘experts’ so I hoped you could clear this up.
Is it spinal loading, or (in)stability? Or something vastly different?


#16

[quote]Panopticum wrote:
CT, I didn’t said I believed it. I just said I heard it a lot from ‘coaches’.
Of course I don’t believe a leg press does the same as a squat. Both the stability and loading pattern vary too much.

Not to be rude, but can you please explain why bw stuff is more neurological?
You are alot more trustworthy and experienced then most online ‘experts’ so I hoped you could clear this up.
Is it spinal loading, or (in)stability? Or something vastly different?
[/quote]

The more a movement requires a complex coordination pattern, the more neurologically demanding it is. The more advanced bodyweight exercises (pull-ups, ring dips, handstand push-ups, front and back lever for example) not only require muscle contraction to move the body but also to maintain proper leverage and position and also to make micro-adjustments during the range of motion.

So basically…

  1. GROSS MOVEMENT PRODUCTION: this is basically when the prime movers in the exercise produce the force to move the body up in the body weight exercises (in BWT exercises you are almost always moving up since you are lifting your body against the gravity). In an ideal world your body would be a fixed object and you would simply have to pull yourself up in a straight line, which would make body weight exercises no more neurologically demanding than cable/machine exercises. But sadly it’s not the case. You must actually fight to maintain proper leverage during body weight exercises and to adopt the optimal pattern.

  2. POSITION/LEVERAGE MAINTENANCE: during most bodyweight exercise, because of the weight distribution of your body in space it will tend to shift position slightly in the air, during the execution of the exercise. As such the body must modify the motor pattern on the fly to tense muscles to bring the body back to an optimal position. You can call this “course correction”. And as muscles fatigue at different rates depending on their implication in the exercise, the adjustements your nervous system has to make tend to change slightly on every single rep of every single set. So it’s much harder to create a complete motor pattern that would allow you to cruise through the movement.

  3. MICRO-ADJUSTEMENTS TO CREATE THE OPTIMAL PATTERN: while the shortest path between two points is the straight line, with body weight exercises it doesn’t always work like this. Many advanced bodyweight movements are actually curves at some point. This is to put the strongest muscles in action at key points in the range motion. For example if you want to do a strict muscle up you can’t pull yourself up in a straight line, you must actually rotate your torso back as you go up to put your mid back muscles in a stronger pulling line as well as put your body in a better position to transition into the bottom portion of the dip phase. These circular/rotational movements are complex since you need to move your body in space without having a solid foundation to exert force against. With barbell lifts you are grounded (either on the bench or floor) which makes it easier to make body position changes. But with bodyweight exercises you must create your own foundation by tensing certain muscles to act as fixators. This is a pretty complex coordination pattern.

For all these reasons, executing a solid bodyweight movement is a lot more demanding than free-weights and machine exercises.

Of course here I’m talking about the more complex bodyweight exercises. A push-up or crunch isn’t really neurologically demanding.


#17

[quote]Salpinx wrote:
maybe training while deprived.[/quote]

That is pretty dumb in pretty much any situation


#18

CT mentioned co-ordination- I don’t know exactly what I’d classify as neural vs what I’d classify as technique (there’s a lot of overlap there,) but I do think that pull-ups/chins are more technical than is immediately obvious.

An awful lot of things are going on when you do a pull-up/chin, so there’s a lot of things that can limit your ability to do them. As an example, grip strength can limit you, until it gets enough better enough that something else limits you. A lot of being able to display muscular strength comes down to overcoming inhibitory effects that protect you from injury, especially injury to connective tissue. But… since you don’t want to injure yourself the best way to do that is to strengthen the connective tissue. Hanging from a bar, or lifting yourself to a bar, is a great way to do this.

Another possible limiter is your ability to hold a good hollow and do the rep explosively without swinging excessively. This requires and builds a lot of “core” strength. So maybe that limits you for a bit until you get it down.

Maybe even breathing is the problem for a while. When I strated doing chins I just didn’t breathe at all during my sets. Once I passed about 7 reps that stopped being an option, and I had to learn to breathe properly while staying tight.

And of course things that are clearly 100% neural, like maximally recruiting motor units and properly co-ordinating the firing of motor units between muscles can also be a limiting factor. As can muscle mass itself.

I think one of the reasons that things like pull-ups/chins improve so readily with practice is that there are so many limiting factors, and you tend to cycle through them as one improves and another takes its place as the limiting factor. Compare something like a Preacher curl, where there are just a few- you can only improve each so quickly, so you run out of room to improve very soon.

Of course the question has been raised: “Have you really gotten stronger?” I think the answer is clearly “Yes.” You used to be able to do 3 chins, now you can do 10, so you are clearly stronger in that movement. On top of that, you have removed limiting factors that aren’t muscular strength (and size if you want it,) allowing you to train for that with Chins where before you couldn’t.

You’ve also improved your grip (the tendons and ligaments in the hands and forearms are important and overlooked limiting factors in many exercises and are ignored by many lifters,) improved your ability to hold your spine in rigid extension (the carryover to squats and deadlifts should be obvious, and vice-versa,) and just generally become a lot better than the you who could only do a pull-up or two.


#19

[quote]Christian Thibaudeau wrote:
Of course here I’m talking about the more complex bodyweight exercises. A push-up or crunch isn’t really neurologically demanding.[/quote]

You know, I have come to think better of even the generic push-up than I used to. My co-workers started doing them together a while ago, and I joined in, more for solidarity than anything else. I did around 50 the first time I tried them (the first time I’d done a push-up in years.)

My first thought was “This is kind of useless- if I can do 50 it isn’t going to make me stronger or better.” But after I did them a couple of times I realized that they were great as a “moving, and less boring, plank.”


#20

Thanks CT!

Bw stuff is pretty cool and practical, and now I understand alot more of the science behind it.
Seems like strength-skill would be THE way to go (couch pavel cough) because of the skill component involved.
Probably I will use HSPU and Pull ups as assecory work. Having beastly strength and the skill to some of it show it off seems great.