Once you’re able to perform sets of 7+ pull ups, you can start to look at using pull ups as a maximal strength exercise by adding weight and making it a part of phase II of your training program. Once you start to do so, you’ll be entering a very elite group of athletes, able to do pull ups with more than body weight. And the best part? It’s really easy, if you do it right.
But first, let’s talk about why you would take a perfectly good, natural body weight exercise, and modify it to add weight, require equipment, and make it–essentially–unnatural. The short answer is: because you want to get strong. The long answer is: because maximal strength is a fundamental building block of total fitness. Maximal strength drives increases neural capacity, more muscular endurance, and a greater recruitment of your overall muscular ability. Remember, phase II is all about making you strong so that you can be a more capable athlete no matter what your sport. Once you cross the 7 rep threshold, you’re working muscular endurance (the topic of the next post) rather than maximal strength.
The basic question of how to add additional weight to your pull up is worth some brief discussion. There are four basic methods:
1. Hold a weight with your legs.
Hold a dumbbell between your feet or squeeze a plate between your knees. This is an easy entry level way to start adding weight to your pull ups immediately. You can also rapidly transition from weighted pull ups to dynamic pull ups.
The downside: It takes a certain amount of focus and effort to grasp the weight with your legs. This takes away from the focus and effort that you should be putting into the pull up and will limit your ability to exceed a certain amount of weight (generally 45lbs).
2. Use a belt.
This option is available for many gyms (ask for the “dip belt” so that they don’t get confused). This option is great for heavier weights and allows you to progress upward in a controlled, customizable way–you can basically put any amount of weight you can imagine on there.
Key Point: once you exceed 45lbs, it will be essential to remember to keep tight abs during the pull up motion to maintain proper alignment and avoid compressing your lumbar spine.
The downside: It takes some time to add and remove the weight, making transitions in your workout somewhat slow and awkward.
3.Use a backpack.
This has the benefits of a belt in terms of easily choosing and setting your own weight at higher levels, and the added benefit of being easily to drop the backpack and transition your workout.
The downside: The straps are right in your armpits–the primary area of motion during the exercise. Additionally, the amount of weight your can put in your backpack may be limited by its size or the quality of its construction.
4. Weighted Vests
Weighted vests give you additional weight evenly distributed near your center of gravity. You retain full, unrestricted range of motion, and can use this equipment for a wide range of exercises.
The downside: This is easily the most expensive option listed, with the price increasing the higher the weight of the vest. Secondly, your ability to customize your load is limited with weighted vests. Finally, when using a complex training protocol, many will exceed the maximum weight that you can get in a vest (yes, complex training is that effective)
A couple specific attributes to this exercise make the complex training protocol the method of choice for rapidly adding weight.
-The pull up muscles/motions are rarely practiced in day-to-day living (although many of our sports require it) and are typically “untrained”.
-Pull ups are complex and functional, requiring the interplay of many large and small muscle groups.
With these two characteristics, we can make rapid advances with neural developments–ie using complex training protocol. Personally, I’ve gone from 30lbs added weight, to 80 lbs (45% body-weight) after only 2 months of training.
How it Works
On each set, you’ll perform your heavy load reps first. You’re only going to perform 1-3 reps at 85%-95% your max ability (1 RM). Then, ditch the weight as quickly as you safely can, and go right into 5-7 jump assisted pull ups.
Jump assisted pull ups are performed by jumping off the floor catching the bar, while still traveling upward, and pulling your chin over the bar. Quickly lower yourself to the floor, and repeat.
Jumping pull ups are used here as the dynamic complement to the weighted pull ups, and take advantage of the effects of post activate potentiation.
Your first set should be the heaviest set you do. Rest at least 5 minutes in between sets. Do no more the 3 sets (I never do more than two).
Remember the rules of progression still apply:
-Try to never miss a rep.
-1-3 days in between workouts to allow adaptations to take place.
-Adequate sleep is a must.
Up next, how to do a lot of pull ups. Until then, get heavy!
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