Pulling More than Your Weight (Part II of III)

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.

backpackThis 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)

The Program

Changes in Your Neural Network are ConstantA 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).fitness and exercise _2-8-01-01-01

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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A Single Pull Up

Originally this was going to be a single post, just like any other (originally titled “Hangin Around: Pull Up Workouts”). However, as I began to delve into the topic of pull ups, it became obvious that the wide range of challenges and abilities athletes face regarding pull ups warranted a three part series. This article will focus on the benefits of pull ups and a workout progression towards doing your first pull up. The second article will focus on adding weight to your pull up for the second phase of your workout program–the maximal strength phase. The third article will focus on doing a lot of pull ups–which is primarily a goal for the third–metabolic–phase of your training program.

Why Pull Ups Matter

So if pull ups are such a difficult, time consuming task, why focus on them? What makes the pull up worth your time?

You Need a Strong Back

Contrary to the so called “mirror muscles” that many misguided gym rats focus on, you need a Back Muscles (small)strong back to be a capable, powerful athlete. Muscles in the back are where stability for the rest of your body’s motions originate. In particular, the muscles surrounding the scapula (prime movers in the pull up) need to be stable for strong shoulders and neck, and the lumbar spine (which receives surprisingly high levels of muscle contraction during a pull up) need to be stable for powerful hip and trunk motions.

You Need a Strong Grip

WristA strong grip will be critical when you start developing your maximal strength exercises. This isn’t just to hold the weight–if it were, cross grips, straps, and a variety of other solutions could overcome the problem. There is actually something far more interesting, and far more nerdy at work here.

It turns out, your brain really likes having hands. Consequently your brain has come up with a rule to protect your hands: “I am not going to give you maximal muscle contraction, unless I know that I have strong grip.” Presumably, this is intended to prevent hand injury in primal instances, such as a striking fist.

Give it a try with a bicep curl if you don’t believe it. Try a curl with a firm, tight grip near your 1RM max. Then try the same curl with a lose grip, balancing the weight between your thumb and index finger. Your hand will either reflexively clench up, or–if you have poor reflexes, like me– you simply find your bicep is lacking the strength to move the weight. (It’s an unscientific demonstration, but it gets the point across, for more details on the science check this out)

Pull ups build grip strength for the simple fact the you are constantly hanging on the bar, both at work and at rest. Strong pull ups=strong grip. Strong grip=strong body.

Developing Your First Pull Up

Not being able to do a single pull up is a problem of :
1) maximal strength across your upper body and
2) an undeveloped muscle memory for the pull up, which prevents your muscles from firing in the proper sequence to get your chin over the bar.

For a two-fold problem, you will need a two-fold solution:

Strength Solutions

These exercises are designed to target the critical muscles that function throughout the pull up’s range of motion.

Bent Over Rows

These target the trapezius muscles which engage at the beginning of the pull up–use these if you are having trouble getting started at the bottom of the pull.

Overhead Banded Pull Aparts

These work both the trapezius muscles AND the latissimus dorsi (aka the pull up muscle). This exercise works the muscles engaged from the dead hang to approximately half way up on the pull up.

Standing Curls

BodybuilderIn any other context, this is not a really stupid exercise. However, being able to adequately engage your biceps can make the difference between making it to the bar and getting stuck at the half way point.

Dead Hangs

These go back to the original discussion about the importance of grip strength. Once you develop your pull up, you’ll find you’ll actually improve with a relaxed grip, but when you’re working towards your first repetition, you need your link to the bar to be solid.

Muscle Memory Solutions**

These are methods for performing the pull up motion at a reduced (less then body weight) load to build the movement pattern for the pull up.


Locked off at halfway down for "negative frenchies"

Locked off at halfway down for “negative frenchies”

These are performed starting from a position with your chin already over the bar (you get there by standing on a chair, or something) and slowly lowering yourself down to to the dead hang position. Once you’re able to perform 5-7 repetitions of these, you can further improve the exercise by performing negative “frenchies.”
These are done by stopping or “locking off” your arms for 5 seconds at the top of the bar, at the halfway point down, and 1/3 of the way from the bottom. By doing frenchies, you’ll simultaneously build the muscle memory with the eccentric (negative) motion and greatly improve strength at the three key sticking points of the pull up. Once you can do 2-3 negative frenchies, you’re ready to do a proper pull up (after sufficient rest, of course).

Assisted Pull-up

There are many, many ways to “assist” your pullups–basically reducing the difficulty to the point that you are able to perform the motion, Here’s a short list:

  • Elastic bands
  • Feet on a chair
  • Feet on a Friend
  • Barbell assisted pull up
  • Assisted pull up machine (available in many gyms)

Your first pull up and beyond…

Using the exercises above, you WILL get that first pull up. Then, only a few short days later, you’ll get that second pull up. Then within a couple weeks, you’ll be up to five. Then…you’ve got some options.

Part two and three of this series will delve into the next steps of improving you’re pull up strength in two categories: intensity and quantity.


**DO NOT resort to kipping pull ups if you cannot do a single proper pull up. Kipping pull ups have their place in a strong metabolic program, but will quickly result in injury if your shoulder is not strong enough to perform strict pull ups.


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Correcting “bad habits” for exercise

This is not an article about stretching, warming up, cooling down, eating before workouts, getting stuck in a rut, or texting while tread milling.

This is about the deeper bad habits; the ones that get you injured.

This is about compensation patterns.

What is a compensation pattern?

Shoulder painIt’s a work around to an injury.

At some point you strain, sprain, stretch, twist, bruise, hyper-extend, or break something in your body. And that hurts–for a long time (several weeks). And you don’t like not being able to move the way you want to.

Instead of resting until the injury fully heals, most of us will return to activity sooner than we technically should–but the pain still lingers. As a result the cerebellum (the section of your brain than control movement) begins to take the feedback from pain and looks for alternate solutions.

You’ve got plenty of muscles (about 650-850, depending on how many Latin words you want to use), and your cerebellum isn’t afraid to use them. It learns how to let the painful muscles stay lazy and recruits efforts from alternate muscles. A bicep starts to do the work of the trapezius (my own personal compensation pattern); the lumbar muscles correct tight hip flexors; the knee stabilizers compensation for ankle problems; etc.

And suddenly, you’re able to return to activity well before the original injury fully heals.

Bad habits/Exercise patterns

The problem lies in the fact that the muscles your cerebellum is recruiting to compensate for the lazy, injured muscles have their own job to do–sure they can help in a pinch (which is great for survival situations)– but they also need to perform their regular chores and duties.

Changes in Your Neural Network are ConstantUnfortunately, your central nervous system (cerebellum included) is designed to build habits. The more you do something, the more that pathway becomes “up regulated.” The synaptic pathways grow more branches (“dendrites”); the neurons become more excitable and you build a compensation pattern.

At the same time; your lazy injured muscle becomes a lazy healed muscle. Even after the soft tissue injury has healed, your neural pathway to using that muscle become “down regulated.” Dendritic branches are pruned. Neurons go dormant. And your cerebellum literally forgets how to use that muscle to move the way that you used to.

Now your temporary solution has become a bad habit. It’s become a compensation pattern a permeates your day to day life and your workouts and exercises.

Chronic Pain

Soon, your overworked “solution” muscles begin to protest. Why should they be the only ones doing any work around here? They’re sick and tired of picking up the slack of the other muscles.

This manifests as a new, but chronic, pain.

The source of chronic pain is not the problem. The problem is the lazy muscle that healed a long time ago, but it’s still milking your cerebellum’s worker’s comp program.

You need to find that lazy muscle and give it a kick in the ass. Reteach your cerebellum how to recruit your muscles for normal, healthy, and natural movement.

The Solution

Solving the problem of compensation patterns is a complex one.

FMS testFunctional exercises target stable movement patterns and isolate problem muscles, and recruit and strengthen them. This is why they should constitute the first step of a train plan, and why they are the focus of Phase I of the Central Training Program.

However, in circumstances where you are have a hard time finding the lazy muscle that needs to be reinvigorated there is an interesting treatment called Muscle Activation Technique (MAT for short) that runs about half the cost of a standard physical therapy session and is about four times more effective.

Specialists trained in MAT used specific tests to isolate and diagnose the lazy muscles. Then using a quick massage at the base of the muscle, the specialist “activates” the neurons that are failing to fire.

After MAT you’ll have homework. The MAT specialist will provide some specific exercises to activate and strengthen your lazy muscles and build upon the work accomplished during the session.

If you’ve got a chronic injury it’s worth a try–it’s spooky how effective a single session can be.


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6 Do’s and Don’ts of a Successful Training Program

We Do: Set specific and exciting goals.
Modern training programs are capable of incredible achievements for athletes of any age. Don’t lower your hopes or expectations.
Make your goals something that truly excites you and makes you want to get out of bed in the morning.Otherwise, what’s the point?

Amazing Results demand  the best training techniques.

Amazing Results demand the best training techniques.

We Don’t: Work without purpose. This means don’t exercise with knowing what you hope to get out of the deal. Strength? Ability? Looks? Mobility? Independence? Confidence? All worthy goals of an overall exercise program.But you should take it a step further–to the exercise level. If you’re working deadlifts then you should understand the adaptations associated with deadlifts: high neural strength, full body load, minimal mass gain. Is that what you want? If you’re working the human flag you are developing neural control, muscle memory, and extraordinary levels of isometric core strength.You are putting time and energy into your training program. Know what you want to get out of it.
We Do: Embrace techniques that lead to rapid improvement in fitness.Often this techniques focus on the Central Nervous System because of its complete control over all other systems in the body and the incredible benefits we can get from neural plasticity–the ability of the brain to rapidly adapt and change We Don’t: Struggle with the point of diminishing returns. You can rapidly achieve 80-90% of your athletic potential within a surprisingly short timeframe (we’re talking weeks, not months).At this point you have a choice. You can either:a) Struggle for months and years with that last 10%, tweaking and refining your training program and specializing in that athletic endeavorb) Do something else. Something new and different. Build another skill, capability, strength, talent, sport, or program on that high level of ability.We choose B. Take the easy win. Mix it up and keep things fun.If you find your one true sport, and choose A. We can only get you to that 80-90%, then you’ll need to take on a specialty program for your specific endeavor. ( Generally speaking, only professionals need/want this level of specialization)Positive graph
We Do: Subscribe to the definition of fitness created by Crossfit’s Coach Greg Glassman:“Increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains.” We Don’t: Over specialize.There’s no reason to confine yourself to one sport or activity.The basics of functional, strength, metabolic, and motor training are versatile and transferable enough that we can apply them to anything–whether it’s a lifelong passion, or just a passing flirtation.
We Do: Prepare appropriately for strength training, correcting pre-existing issues before they have a chance to sabotage our training program. We Don’t: Avoid Strength.Strength is essential to our existence as athletesStrong is Fit
We Do: Create training programs that allow for the natural cycle of Work, Play, Rest.If you are here, then you are trying to get fit for something. We full intend to give you the chance to enjoy that something, and then recover for your next training cycle.Mountain biker We Don’t: Toil constantly, 365 day a year, in our training program. If you are looking for personal punishment (rather than an effective workout program), then you’ll have to look elsewhere.
We Do: Constantly study the science of fitness.We refine our program and format based on what we learn, what studies prove, and what our own tests conclude.This isn’t about beliefs or branding. This is about developing the best training program of your life. We Don’t: Entrench in dogma.Any Personal Trainer or Coach that acts like they know everything is compensating.Challenge assumptions, review the information, draw your own conclusions–and then test and refine.Box Jumps



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Maximal Strength: Body Weight Exercises take on the Barbell

Initially, it’s hard to imagine how body weight (BW) exercises could be used to build maximal strength. How can BW exercises possibly compare to a 500lb deadlift?

There is a collection, however, of BW exercises that drive muscle tension and demand as high a motor drive as any of the powerlifts. There are even some advantage to using these exercises over traditional weight room exercises for maximal strength.

Advantages: Disadvantages:
  • Highly transferable strength: Maximal strength bodyweight exercises demand high awareness of one’s center of gravity, proprioception, and the interplay of your muscles throughout the movement pattern. In many ways, these exercises will simultaneously drive the adaptions of Functional Training (Phase I) and Metabolic Training (Phase II)
  • High barriers to entry: No one can just walk up to a stop sign and perform a perfect flag without practice. Even seasoned Pilate instructors will need to work a progression before they can perform a perfect font lever. These exercises take time to build proficiency and require a high degree of preexisting strength to perform. (Unlike weights, which can be progressively loaded.)
  • Can be done anywhere: this is a big benefit for the road warrior or the gym-o- phobe (yes, I just made that word up). All of these can be done without a gym membership or an olympic weight set.
  • Work smaller muscle groups: In order to achieve a maximal strength exercise with only your body weight and gravity, you have to select and isolate smaller muscle groups than you would use with weight room exercises. The overall result is a smaller total muscle recruitment.
  • Mimics many Sports Movements: The degree of mastery over your own body, built by these motions benefits many athletes, from MMA fighters to rugby players to rock climbers

There are three methods for using BW exercises for maximal strength:


Take an exercise that traditionally uses both arms, or both legs, and reduce it to one limb. The result tension on the single limb is more than merely double that of it symmetrical exercise, because your one arm, or leg now has to accomplish the task a balance and stabilization–which is much easier with two limbs that can generate counter pressure.
Top exercises include:

OSLOne Legged Squat

AKA “pistols,” this is the only maximal strength BW exercise presented here that works your legs, and to some degree your posterior chain (if you know of any others, please let me know in the comments). Balance and good form and critical on this one.

One Armed Pushup

Seen this one in the movies? Looks pretty easy? Think you can do one? Good luck.
Once you’ve finished your slice of humble pie you can start working on a series that progressively isolates one arm to build you towards the one armed push up.

Learn the One Armed Pushup Progression Here

One Armed Pull up/Chin up/Muscle up

Pulling yourself up by one arm is a gold standard for arm bodyweight strength (one arm muscle ups are platinum). With focus, and patience, you can get there–and join the very small percentage of the population with this incredible display of maximal strength.

Learn the One Armed Pullup Progression Here


Because of the overall length of your body, you are capable of generating tremendous amounts of force on your core using only your body weight and leverage.

Mastering front levers, back levers and flags also give you an awesome party trick, appearing to levitate your body through mind control (which is actually what you’re doing.

Front/Back levers




Oddly enough, you’ve spent most of your life upright. Consequently, all of your muscles are highly trained and capable for motions and activities that are right side up. When you turn you body upside down, you begin to challenge your body in a way that your system isn’t fully used to and demand high maximum forces of contraction in the primary muscle groups.

Woman doing handstandHandstand Pushups

This is actually one of the more accessible of the max strength BW workouts due to the common use of a wall, a bar, a post, or something to assist in balancing your legs/body.

A very worthy goal is to remove the wall a support/ balance your weight independently.

InveHangin Aroundrted Situps

This requires some equipment–some way to fasten your feet in place while you hang upside down, along with a sturdy bar to hang from. There a multiple products available for use.

Beyond building strength across your core, there are many proponents of incorporating inverted exercises for other benefits such as back alignment and improved blood flow. But that discussion isn’t what we’re interested in here.

Here we’re concerned with ridiculously strong muscles- and the this exercise generates very strong contractile forces in the abs to build strength.

I never said these would be easy. But, provided you have corrected any injuries and movement pattern issues–all of these lie in the realm of possibility, and make for interesting side goals within your workout program.

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