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Nude Gratitude 2016

michelle bday 6Every year or so (with occasional deviations), I reiterate a rant on gratitude. It goes a little like this…

If we had to give everything back, if the universal plan demanded us to hand over all possessions and start again bare and raw, I would have a very under-impressive load to turn in. What we would be left with, in our stripped down, essential state, is the coveted internal real estate we should perpetually be striving to cultivate. To give and receive from this place, there is no better exchange. All else is superfluous, although possibly entertaining. As a naked, unencumbered soul, give thanks, then, for how well you can fill the world with nothing but you. The caveat to this spiritual nudity is the quick understanding that if you haven’t taken care of yourself, if you don’t have the respect for yourself to care about the condition of your system, which includes your tribes, you greatly limit your choices, possibilities, and gifts.

Naked in front of God, Buddha, Poseidon or Pan, give thanks for the better choices you’ve made and embrace wisdom for choices not yet made.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!! Eat well, be well, do well!!
scar gym day 2

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Stop Lying to Yourself

scar gym day 1

Let’s begin with a premise. Our goal in the gym is to make a better version of ourselves, or if we’re one of these fancy fitness professional folks, maybe our clients. If we can agree on this, perhaps we can agree on a foundation for programming. To achieve this upgraded human status, our training should enable better movement, which empowers greater strength.

To create a better us, our training is about skill building.

july 51I’m guessing, if you’re reading this, you’re probably on board, just like the groovy, enlightened attendees of my workshops, who nod their heads vigorously, occasionally raising me up on their shoulders to loud cheers of Huzzah! (It could happen).

When we scrutinize the output of the Fitness Industrial Complex, though, we’ll see a contrary story, usually manifested as reduced movement programming and more distraction than actual strength building. The industry’s words say one thing, their actions another. As a species, we’re increasingly masterful at lying to ourselves. The fitness culture is one of many outlets for our personal dishonesty.

acro 37Let’s remember the premise above. Enable better movement to empower greater strength, all as a foundation of building skills. Some version of this message is trumpeted enough on websites, blogs, and our instatubefacegram posts that we have made the shaky correlation that gym=improvement. Period. Do the gym. Be the superhero. No questions asked… or at least honestly answered.

What if we get specific? Let’s pick an example of a modern gym program staple and ask how it makes us better. Like, really. For reals.

Try this. Flop to the ground. Just go ahead and bend over and then fall flat. And then writhe your way back up by flexing and extending your passive spine in positions that would get you kicked out of yoga kindergarten. Maybe add a little jump once you’re up. Land and repeat. Again. And again (and again). As fast as you can.

Now come up with a case of how that is building any skill. How would this flop-and-writhe support our premise goal?

It won’t. Which means we’re lying to ourselves every time we toss modern burpees into the daily exercise stew.

I know my attack on the poorly performed modern burpee, which we’ll henceforth call a Sloppee, is old news. We’ve been on this soapbox for a while, but not without reason.

me frog lake 1When we work on improving our skills, there is a byproduct of getting tired. Through the course of fitness industrial history, it was deemed easier to sell the byproduct than the actual skill-building journey. We’re now, as a culture, distracted by our belief that getting tired is the goal. Getting tired is somehow the magic path, and the industry currently markets it under another name. Intensity. We seem to understand that intensity is part of the transformation recipe (as we’ve mentioned before), but now we’re offered this great chance to start lying to ourselves. Call it cognitive dissonance, call it brainwashing, or perhaps it is pure ignorance, but our quest for chasing exhaustion completely disregards the true correlation between intensity and getting tired.

If we put in high quality work towards learning skills, we will get tired. If we put in low quality work towards getting tired, we won’t learn any skills. Turning the byproduct (getting tired) into the goal is a failure to our bodies.

ramble, ramble

ramble, ramble

A properly executed burpee is a call to athleticism. No, really. It takes two good ol’ foundations of structure and mobility, the plank and the squat, and combines them. Through understanding key components in our movement vocabulary, we attempt to let them seamlessly flow together. Athleticism lives in the transformation of shapes. The burpee lets you practice becoming a performance changeling, morphing from one well executed shape into another, quite different, but no less important, shape.

Zen out on it. A burpee has a chance for movement meditation status, whereas a sloppee has become the slightly traumatizing experience of get-through-this-any-way-possible. Sure, one might pray during a sloppee, but usually to be done. Meanwhile, a burpee can be a little slice of self-reflection. A burpee allows for playfulness and presence. The burpee is not punishment, as movement should never be.

A burpee is also a keen study in intensity, with many lessons about how that word might not mean what you think it means.

Discern any movement, tool, or program through the filter of our premise. Are your practices building skills by enabling better movement, therefore empowering greater strength? Make a good case if you think they are. Be willing to let go of dogma if your case falls apart. Have the goal of being honest with yourself. If you are lying to yourself, what about your clients, peers, and tribe?

july 22

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What Inspires You?

He was a big man. Not the kind of big that comes as the enviable outcome of choices made in the gym. More like his past decisions involved many foods that were probably in plastic wrap and were of colors not entirely natural. He wore these decisions as considerable extra weight. Some of his history was now unwanted aesthetic carriage.

And he become the reason I moved and celebrated movement this weekend. He was my lesson.

He was a true shining example of how training can infect our tribes as a tool of empowerment. I didn’t meet him. I simply overheard and witnessed a few choice words and actions and decided that he was my mentor right now.

He had a son, probably 3 years old. In our short time sharing space (I was behind them in a grocery store line) dad made it very clear that he was now creating a newer, different journey, one that was meant to include, educate and inspire, his son. His personal empowerment will be through his role in empowering this small tribe of family. And from within ear shot I picked up that at least part of it had to do with training, movement, and good food choices (I peaked in his cart, as I do everyone near me in line at the grocery store. Even as I try to reserve judgment, I’m usually disappointed. Not today.).

bt 11He had a goal. It was obvious and uplifting. I’m sure superficially it had to do with fat loss and wellness boosting, but those will actually be symptoms of his journey. The actual transformation, the true success, will happen if the scale needle moves a little or a lot. Someone else is involved. Someone else will learn and improve. In his mission, at least two are loved (probably more).

Living for the gym, and using the gym to live are two incredibly different things. He personified how the physical begets the metaphysical. He was, in my definition of the word, strong.

The coveted physical changes of intense movement – strength, shape, performance – are simply adaptations to perpetuate more of it. Movement is the tactile exploration of space. It is knowing where you are, and who you are, through participation.

Or at least that was the purpose for our organic machines. Sure, free will dictates you can do with it as you please, but remember that better choices now mean more choices later. Why not use it for what it was intended?

gym day 10

 

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Programming Strength, part IV: What the heck are the Foundations of Strength?

Where do we start? First, as you’ll hear me repeat at any workshop I present, let’s learn movement before we practice exercise. These days this concept becomes its own packaged category. Call it the primal natural animal trend. We sure do have a hankering for romanticizing simplicity. Or maybe we’re just trying to make a buck.

Anyway, to understand our own movement philosophy, we’re faced with a surprisingly tough challenge:

How simple can we make it?

I’m going to posit that our quest for ability (ya know… strength) means always improving our skills in how to…

* Roll
* Crawl
* Change Elevation
* Pick Stuff Up
* Put Stuff Over Our Head
* Carry stuff

Answering the question: if there is an obstacle in our way, can we get over it, around it, under it, through it or move it? Let’s start thinking “yes” to all of them. Doesn’t get more ‘primal/natural/animal’ than that.

not hardcore, just lucky... possibly the heaviest stone I ever lifted.

In reading that list, you might observe a few things. First, if we’ve had any gym experience, we’ve probably put movement ideas to some of these. Pick up stuff? Heck, that’s a deadlift. Putting stuff over our heads? That’s a press. Hold on… we’ll get there.

As you expand your mastering of the foundations, you can graduate to building a repertoire in the Major Skill Chunks we’ve mentioned before. The problem is, in our quest for cool, in our dreams of fame, or simply because we want some throbbing biceps, we often skip the foundations and work on specializing. We all know a handful of skilled athletes or veteran gym rats that are less than capable in some of the basics.

bridget deadlift1 bwYou and your creative head and passionate soul can begin defining what these mean by assigning movements to them. Shucks, you might even come up with your own foundation list. But whether it’s this one, or one of your own, if you don’t have a baseline standard, you’ll struggle for completeness. Which, frankly, might not be a goal, but remember… our purpose here is usefulness.

So the basic BodyTribe template is to teach and perpetuate these foundations, which always feed the Major Skill Chunks.

Setting the lowest bar, and then raising it

In programming, we often set benchmarks… be able to squat double bodyweight or toss a baby 100 feet or punch through a walrus hide with your pinkie. A good observer might see correlations between certain benchmarks and a general increase in potential. Dan John says if a woman can deadlift 275 pounds, the performance world opens up to her, for instance.

acro 1But building a foundation means defining what the base will be before we ever  begin to dream of what the advanced benchmarks are. So to simplify all this, decide what you believe foundation skills are, or borrow mine above. Yup. For free. No certification required.

If you’re a trainer, this means asking yourself what everyone in your tribe should be able to do and continuing to improve upon. Then decide what the lowest foundation is that you’ll accept. In other words, what should everyone in your tribe, no matter what, be able to do? This isn’t an entrance exam, though. It simply means if they’re not there, you, as their movement sherpa, have some work to do.

Then you can build levels. If they can do the foundation skills at level A, how about B? You might discover that some folks can level F a certain skill all day, will being barely proficient at a level B of another skill. Guess where their weak points are? Which is why, surprisingly, you might find it isn’t always the beginners you have to worry about. Specialized athletes often skip this basic foundation concept for something more shiny, like a bigger clean and jerk or higher Girevoy Sport numbers, while bypassing some basic skills in the process. This leads to unbalanced potential.

So we’ve mentioned the Foundation Skills. Here I’ll explain them and then offer what we believe level 1 should be:

sandbag gino 1bwRoll: This means ya have a basic knowledge of engaging the ground. This is surprisingly hard for even advanced athletes who haven’t played this way in a while. Level 1: just a simple backwards and forwards cradle roll, holding onto the knees.

Crawl: Being able to move on all fours. Level 1:  an actual crawl on the hands an knees.

Change elevation: Go up and down. The  level 1 standard here is to be able to get up and down off the floor, get in and out of a chair, get up and down from a 36″ plinth or box (not jumping, just getting on and off it), and a good 30 second hang from a bar.

Pick something up: This is the skill of picking something up (what did you expect?). Level one: be able to pick something up. In this case, weight doesn’t enter the equation with any importance. Simply knowing the proper mechanics is the goal. If you ever watch powerlifting competitions, you may notice many have skipped level one, letting the weight on the bar trump useable skill. Oops.

Put something over head: Now the first thought you may have is ‘overhead press.’ Sure, but for a big chunk of our society (both fit and unfit) they lack the correct shoulder and back prowess (be it weakness or tightness) to pull this off safely. So other options like club work might be more appropriate for level 1.

Carry something: This sounds pretty basic… and it is. For you geeks who bore your clients to tears, this is loaded terra-based upright biomobile kinetics(tm).  Heck, just be well versed in all the potential ways to actually carry stuff. The foundation of this is to have at least one option under the belt.

windmills valeris jason 1bwAlways continuing to grow in proficiency in these will add to our Major Skill Chunks, and skipping any of these will be a noticeable gap in overall ability.

Now you’ve probably already begun assigning movements to this list. Pick something up? That’s a deadlift, you say! You wouldn’t be wrong. Now your next goal is to choose the movements you feel best represents each foundation. So many choices! Get moving. Are you a collection of exercises, or are your movements actually improving your skills. Ya know, the ones that make the 23 hours a day outside the gym considerably better.

bhamA 4

 

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Age and the Holistic Athlete

me stones 1

Movement is good, but sometimes ‘training’ isn’t. The brain invented training. The brain conceived the workout. The brain created this thing called exercise, and all the various categories it goes by (and all the various cliches it thrives on). The body has no idea what these things are. It just wants to move. This is where the body knows better than the brain. Are we listening?

I’m officially in my mid-forties (44-46, if you’re keeping track), I’ve graduated from my early forties (41-43), and am steamrolling towards my late 40’s (47-49). August, as my birthday month, has traditionally also been my competition season, as in the last 15 or so years I’ve decided to take gravity to the mat and enter some weightlifting, powerlifting, or strongman meets to celebrate the new signifier in our human dance of chronology (Redwood Empire Open this weekend!). And every year I strive for another kilo or two on the bar, and so far, I’ve been successful.

me jerk compNow this flies in the face of our accepted idea of aging, which seems to promote a ‘slow down and die already’ concept of accruing more years in the calendar bank. It begins with our culture’s craving for peaking in our 20s, having all of our possible athletic prowess out of the way by the time we pass the quarter century mark. Our sports-centric, win-at-all-costs ‘play’ system desires our warriors to be their best before they’ve even experienced much of what the world offers. Too many stories have crossed my ears that began with “in college I…”

Then the downhill ride begins… and is supposed to continue in momentum for the next 40-80 years.  At this point I should have at least 19 years of declining shimmer. Decay and rust should already have quite a hold on my joints, and atrophy is the only acceptable outcome for these ancient muscles.

These are the rules, so I am told regularly with a vehemence that is almost holy. But there is one thing we tend to forget a bit too easily…

handstand art park 1There are so many possibilities at movement that we can spend our entire lives learning something new every single day, therefore never ‘peaking.’ Feel free to pick something to groove on for a while, but remember that there are so many options that our curiosity could be constantly tickled. We never need to Peak as a human unit. We never need to stare at upcoming chunk of years as a perpetual rot of the system. In fact, that’s kind of sick. We’re the only mammal that limits itself like that. My 12 year old cat is well past middle age, yet no one told him he’s supposed to retire from being a moving, exploring creature. Aging is a mind game far before it is physical, and all other animals seem to know this except us. Infinite wisdom be damned.

snatch night 14bwAdding a kilo here and there allows me to keep my chops sharp (an almost archaic turn of phrase these days). But strength athletics is simply part of the foundation of my movement skills. If ya know a thing or two about my programming, these skills are simply catalysts for other skill training, allowing me to have some power and umph to put towards, well, anything I want. Remember… unlimited possibilities.

Did you know I suck at swimming? I mentioned my semi-fatal samba with H2O in an older post, and since then, water and I have had a passionate, but strained, relationship (a common theme in my life). Water and I are far from strangers, as I’ve been participating in it’s pleasures forever, from snorkeling to cliff diving. But these can all be deceptions, faked competency in the water. They require little swimming ability. Really. So my comfort level in the drink is limited to things that require either unlimited floating (snorkeling) or a quick in-and-out (diving). Covering distance with any speed has led to some interesting scenarios, usually soul-crushing panic attacks only witnessed by very few unlucky folks. Just a few years ago I barely made it out to an island in the river and back without finding, and then changing, religions several times, and in the words of Justin Sullivan, praying to any god that would come.

me frog lake 1Recently I’ve been to the island several times. Even through the winter I continued to swim regularly, mostly using the flaying breast stroke technique. I look like a drunk, legless moose trying to paddle with wings, but where I am not yet perfecting technique, I am overcoming fear. I am calm in the water. Still not great for distance, but better. That was one of my biggest movement gift to myself in the past years. And I’m far from peaking, and even farther from declining.

Here’s a lesson. It takes less work, if directed properly, to continue steady progress than ya might think. If tomorrow means better than today, striving for huge leaps and bounds sets you up for a mountain that will be too tall to climb eventually. Sure, I preach Better trumps More, and it gets trumpeted all over social media when I mention it, but it surprises me at how few apply the idea.

park planche 1Training is the organization of movement into a system for progress. This is where brain and body can learn from each other to create the best path. Brain listens to body’s wants and needs and then uses it’s calculating intelligence to create a path of physical education. Learning through moving and learning while moving and moving to learn. This is also why a ‘program’ of randomization makes little sense in a grand scheme of things.

Physical education. It’s not your high school PE class.

me stone pile 1But this is also why training and movement are not synonymous. At 46 years old, I can impress party goers with a few movement tricks, and can compete on a semi-competent level in various forms of strength athletics. I get better at these things every year, adding more tricks to my palette and more pounds on the bar. I can play harder now than I could 10, 15 or 20 years ago. Not because I’m a super amazing athlete. Far from it. In fact, it was being a skinny-ass book worm musician in my early 20s, sort of an anti-athlete, that helped me avoid planned obsolescence of my physical abilities. I didn’t peak young and am making a conscious effort to never do so.

Don’t read this as ‘do not progress.’ I think we’ve made a case for progression and peaking being two different things.

We’re a smart bunch. Why do we either peak young, or have to re-introduce movement back into our lives after avoiding it for many years since we were children? How about a middle ground, where we continue to embrace child-like play, that curious, exploratory passion for movement, into the years where we’re told to chose between two movement options: either play sports (oh, and win, win, win), or quit being childish and therefore stop moving entirely.

Go ahead, talk among yourselves. What would a good middle ground be? How do we promote movement as a lifetime of progress, creativity and education?

me log press 2Let’s overturn the current construct of movement-as-exercise. The embodied athlete knows that the journey trumps the outcomethat the big picture means learning from the small pictures. If we’re listening to the body,  then ya don’t have to win the workout.

Move more than train, play more that exercise. ‘Let the body’ far more than ‘make the body.’ In my roughly 13 years of competitive weightlifting (16 years powerlifting), I’ve upped my total the sum of what the specialized youngins will get in a year. But I’ve racked up a handful of other groovy skills that enable me to enjoy movement beyond the gym. That total means little without the transfer to real life. I don’t live for the gym, I live beyond it. Training is purposeful intense movement to allow an even greater world of purposeful movement, even if the purpose is simply just to fucking MOVE!

Strength athletics are simply a small part of my potential. Not my net worth. Competition is a bench mark of my journey, not the end result.

My child self is made better as an adult through training. With a tad of grown-up wisdom (do better, not more), it isn’t a challenge to progress every year while engaging longevity, sans the danger of pushing extremes I don’t have to. Don’t get me wrong, I play on the edge during training, just not with reckless abandon or unnecessary volume.

me-tgu-terri-6bwAnd think of this. If, at 46, I can add pounds to my bar or skills to my body with far less volume than a kid in their 20’s… why are they working so much? They’re often doing 2 or 3 times the workload without 2 or 3 times the progress. Every workshop I teach is full of folks my junior who could out workout me. But I could out play them. My skill chunks are always increasing, while their volume is simply making them workout masters. Funny enough, with my limited time in the gym, I can still usually hold my own with their workouts as well.

But being an athlete isn’t defined by time in the gym. If you can do less in the gym for more in life, shouldn’t you? Trust me… you can.

 

 

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When Fitspiration Goes Wrong

what's excuse

Content versus Intent

If you haven’t seen this meme circulating around the social media by now, good for you. This one hits pretty close to home, as in she is local and barely a degree of separation from me. By all accounts, she’s a very nice woman (I’ve heard this from several of her friends). Her intent, which is well documented in several forms of media, was admirable. But the execution, the content, is where the trouble began.

Until something socially detonates right before our eyes, many of us haven’t discovered that the big worldwideweb receives and processes information considerably different than our immediate social peer group. In other words, no matter what you meant or how you want something to be perceived, when dealing with the internet you’d better apply some lubricant to this particular rule of friction: content trumps intent. Period. In other words I began by giving her the benefit of the doubt; that she simply didn’t understand the implications of her content. But the content overwhelmed whatever her intent was.

In this case, there was no lubricant. The friction caught fire. The content was poorly chosen words, and whatever the intent was went up in flames and smoke.

The picture alone would have succeeded in the intentions better. Less shit storm, more high fives. Part of her response to the backlash from this meme would have made more sense if it was just the image sans words.  In the aftermath she wrote “what you interpret is not MY fault. It’s yours.” In the case of the intent of an image, this is often very true (although not a lot of compassion or responsibility in that response, which is simply adding fuel to the fire).

What's your excuse, maggot?

But add some loaded text, and the fault becomes very clear, despite intent. Oh, those words. Is there an instance in your mind where you can remember those words being used in a positive manner? They are shaming words. They’ve always been a matter of blaming someone for not achieving something. They’re mean-parent/mad-boss/grumpy-drill-sergeant language. And motivation through shame is NOT empowering, despite what the fucked up fitspiration movement has been trying to perpetuate. Ya can’t wink or nudge playfully in a meme like this, especially when these words are very loaded for most (not some, but MOST) people.

Let’s isolate the words without context.  Has “what’s your excuse?” ever been positively motivational? On it’s own as a sentence, it is a poor choice of words for inspiration. But in context with the picture… BOOM! Exponential explosion.

For instance, this wouldn’t make sense, despite the intent…
inspiration-sign

In Maria Kang’s meme, the entire package says (again, despite her intent) “I am an ideal… why aren’t you like me?”

Simply put: “what’s your reason for not being like me?”

Shame, blame and judgment. Again, despite good intentions, this type of language says the viewer is being judged for not meeting the standard set by the photo. If you find blame motivational, what does that say about your relationship with your body? As a former bulimic, it might behoove her to understand the importance and impact of language like this.

But here is ultimately what I’m getting at…

If you are motivated by a body shape, by an aesthetic ideal, or by shaming language, that might say something profound about your relationship with your body worth looking into. You’re probably being motivated by a complete lie. The lie of ability, the lie that such a body can actually accomplish anything or that it is IMPORTANT IN ANY WAY.

Later she wrote “start celebrating people who are a result of hard work, dedication and discipline.” Yes, but what result are you talking about? Lean body mass? The result of hard work should be skill, empathy, tribal empowerment and strength. She’s proven none of those things. So far it just seems that her 6 hours a week in the gym are to post pretty pictures. Is there benefit in that result? I’m willing to make a case that pictures of lean bodies don’t prove shit. Add boastful and shaming language (‘why aren’t you like me?”) and the ‘result’ is actually kind of ugly.

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Do Better: the story of Intensity

wod mock 2I’m seeing a lot of posts of various workouts with hundreds of reps. One recent example was a workout of 200 air squats/100 KB swings/50 pushups/50 box jumps, then repeat for half of everything, for a grand total of 600 reps. That’s a lot. Is there a point?

Not a lot gets through my old, calloused cranium, but the lesson that seemed to lodge in that orbiting ball of spam and lime jello known as my brain was that quality trumps everything. Why do my athletes improve? They work on doing things better. And since our path for holistic usefulness places a great deal of importance on the carry-over from workout to real life, it is important to recognize that the quality of life often has a direct correlation with the quality of your training… but not so directly with the quantity.

staff 2bbwIn fact we should take a look at the essential alchemy that helps us put a big check in the ‘yes’ category when asked if we are useful. The magic goop that puts glitter on our unicorn horn is Intensity.

This ain’t new gospel from my pulpit. In fact the premise of Bodytribe is the quest for intensity as a game, and life, changer. Strength is ability. Physically, it’s the ability to overcome obstacles. Metaphysically… well, basically the same thing. Face a challenge and deal with it. And, as with mastery of anything, we practice it. Our physical training is simply creating challenges and then slapping them around to make them our bitch. Or at least attempting to.

Therein lies a dilemma. Our limited time on this big blue party fun ball is already rife with challenges. Why would anyone want to create more challenges? Why would we want to purposely put real physical obstacles in our own way, simply to move them? Because it is a skill, this obstacle crushing. And to improve our skills, we should practice.

jump funston 1bwThe good news is that we can have a blast doing it. And the outcome, says those around us, is an increase in our mate-able worth (I believe I called it ‘fuckability’). Oh, and the real big news? There will be ass kicking in the future. Your tribe gains a super hero, if you chose to use your powers for good (and you will… that’s why I like ya).

So why is volume not always the answer? Isn’t Volume intense? Hold on, my friends, we’ll be there soon.

Have ya heard this one? “Everything in moderation.” I call shenanigans. Switch Moderation for Balance. They’re not synonymous. Moderation doesn’t address homeostasis. Balance does.

Moderation would be always living in the middle of the ends of the spectrum, between nothing and too much. But life exists out on the ends of that spectrum, and Balance is knowing how to play on either ends of the spectrum equally, thus never letting the spectrum tilt. In the movement and strength world (and, frankly, everything), Intensity is key, essential to creating change, but must be balanced with the recovery of mind and body. Moderation would be watering down the intensity instead of Balancing it.

staff 29bwBut what is intensity? Don’t google this one. It won’t quite solve the riddle. I see the strength athletes with their hands up. Calling on one of them would get me an answer about percentage of 1RM. Intensity for them is the all out effort of a max effort lift.

But the metcon junkies are going to counter this with a power output proposition. And the yoga contingent will pitch a case for focus and awareness.

And yes, someone will make a case for volume. Doing a lot of something sure does feel intense, right?

You are all right, but it’s a math question, and none of you showed your work. Well, metaphysical math, but Intensity is a formula nonetheless.

The amount of investment X the level of challenge. That’s right. Investment times challenge. Simple, right?

Now we’re masters at busy-ness, which is a bunch of investment in unchallenging things. And many of us have strangleholds on walking away from giant challenges, maybe after a half-ass effort. Those, obviously, fail at being transformative. According to our formula, no intensity.

But the examples of intensity you answered with earlier – 1RM, focus, metabolic meltdown – all plug into our equation with a net sum of a high intensity quotient. So yes. Intensity can come from volume. High numbers represent a big challenge, and by meeting that challenges with a super revved purpose, your investment x challenge formula will definitely ring in the red zone. Beware. Not all intensity is the same

wod mock1Can intensity be abusive? Heck yes. Its transformative powers can turn metal into gold or shit into a bigger pile of shit. I’ve oft quoted the legendary Tommy Kono as saying practice makes permanent. If you’re finding your intensity through practicing a volume fest of crap, guess what you’re making permanent?

We’re organic machines. We come out of the factory (so to speak) unfinished, but with a ton of built-in software and potential. We differ from manufactured machines in that we create ourselves. Intensity can turn us into the super high performance vehicles for an equally amazing set of components and programming. But we do share something very important with manufactured machines…

Abuse it and lose it.

In other words, Intensity as abuse does create change. It breaks the machine.

There are many malleable factors to physically create intensity within a workout… speed, movement selection, position, time, duration, distance, load and, of course, volume. When I see 50+ reps of a movement within a combo or WOD, it usually indicates that volume was the ONLY factor changed to increase intensity. There are often way better choices. A rep is not just a rep, so adding more of them might often be the last thing to consider. There are too many effective ways to eek the most out of the rep(s) before choosing to do more of them, whatever the goal. If you can do 50 reps, that’s your body saying okay, we got this, now let’s change the fucking challenge already. Heck it was probably saying that at rep 20.

Using the original WOD mentioned at the beginning, there are many far more important things I’d want to know about my athletes before I want to know if they can do a total of 300 air squats. High volume through repetition should be quite low on the Good Coaching priority list.

clean and jerk 1bwKeep in mind, the Holistic Athlete strives for usefulness. Coaching that athlete means understanding Purpose.

We’ll delve into more of this soon, especially about Intensity as your best friend and most brutal mentor. The three stages of our movement journey, Initiation, Engagement and Embodiment, are all based on the quest for intensity as a transformative tool. Yup, sometimes intensity looks like a very heavy object, other times a grueling collections of tasks. But sometimes stillness, reflection, play or understanding are all concepts with very intense properties.

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A lotta Tabata

Yes, 20 seconds doing something challenging with only a 10 second rest before the next round, and repeating this about 8 times, seems like it is rooted in some serious groovy brain-tank science. And even if it isn’t, it’s still pretty effective, eh? This process, this procedure, this protocol, even has a cool name, like a hardcore brand of motorcycles…

Tabata. Damn that flows off the tongue. Say it… ta…ba…tahhhhhhh.

But you’re no stranger to the fact that all this 20/10 stuff isn’t actually THE Tabata protocol, right? If this is news, let me explain…

tabata 1bThe year was 1996. “Macerena” toped the charts in Australia (among other places). Some guy named Kaczynski was arrested and his cabin packed up and moved. And in Japan, a man named Professor Izumi Tabata decided to upend the concept of steady-state heart rate training (what we’ve labeled “cardio” as if no other exercise uses your heart and lungs) by showing intensity, not duration, is the key to improvement. He was sort of the Mike Mentzer of the VO2 max world, being a major influence in what was often generalized as High Intensity Interval Training (yup, H.I.I.T, not to be mistaken for Mentzer’s H.I.T.).

Truth is, he was simply quantifying a protocol that a Mr. Irisawa Koichi created as head coach of the Japanese speed skating team. Yup, it was originally a drill for speed skaters, and the good coach wanted to hone its effectiveness, so he presented it to Professor Tabata (who, by the way, called it the IE1 protocol) to give it a thorough going over. Well, we know the outcome of that, don’t we? Hell yeah, it works.

Or does it?

Sure, the infamous 20 seconds of hell followed by 10 seconds of rest seems to kick our asses 6 ways to Friday, but although those time segments are an integral part of the protocol, there was something actually more important that we seem to have forgotten about.

VO2 max testing: making anyone look ridiculous for decades

VO2 max testing: making anyone look ridiculous.

VO2 intensity almost beyond conceivable limits.

The ENTIRE point of this concept is to rev the engine so hard that it couldn’t possibly run for any length of time before blowing a gasket. 20 seconds seemed to work. And after 10 seconds of ‘rest’ (read: not dying), ya rev it right back up. Now what kind of numbers are we talking here? After testing the figure skaters, and trying it on stationary bikes (at speeds I can only imagine), the magic zone seemed to be 170% of VO2 max.

Um… huh? How can something be more than the max? Well, here’s the quick version: Get the Watts you’re at during a VO2 max test, and then crank it quite a bit higher during the execution of the protocol. The goal is to aim for the equivalent of 170% of your max VO2.

For the record, that’s seriously intense. It was a drill used for world-class athletes. And even then often introduced for only 3-4 rounds before eventually ramping up to the ultimate goal of 8 rounds.

Now this is where the research was focused. The metabolic adaptations were as good (if not better) than the more traditional ‘aerobic’ stuff done for a much longer stretch at 70% VO2 max. So 4 minutes (well, 3:50) with off-the-chart effort in spurts was having the same outcome that folks were expecting from much longer sessions. That’s cool, right?

(By the way, it was NEVER tested for fat loss… as that was never a concern for Tabata. Keep that in mind next time ya read the hype).

So let’s recap. Was the goal of Tabata muscle exhaustion? No. And this is important, because for a VAST majority of movements being done in the name of Tabata will either beat the muscles into tapping out before the VO2 can get anywhere near that high (and making multiple consistent rounds a joke), or the range of motions in the movements are too big to get enough reps in to see much VO2 action (even super sloppy reps, which seems to be the NEW Tabata Protocol).

Wanna go nowhere fast and destroy your posture while doing it? Try one of these!

Wanna go nowhere fast and destroy your posture while doing it? Try one of these!

What can be done to truly hit that VO2 benchmark? Very few things. In fact, beyond stationary cycling (or the god-forsaken postural nightmare that is the airdyne), hill sprints and, if ya have the skill, skating… there ain’t much. Most everything else is a battle against gravity in a way that will still be challenging, but it simply won’t get that oxygen consumption and heart rate stratospherically high in that short period of time.

And another common misuse of the Tabata, in its pure form, is multiple cycles. After that 4 minutes (8 rounds), you’re done. And I mean you are done. You peel your body off the ground and go home (well, the original protocol had a small, lower intensity cool-down, but short and of no real exertion). You don’t do another intense 4 minutes… simply because you can’t.

In other words, if you CAN do more, it wasn’t what Tabata intended.

Gotta Tabata

So, this trend of putting multiple ‘Tabata’ drills back to back into 12, 14 or 16 minute sweat fests, or simply using movement choices that can’t actually produce the desired intensity, prompts the question if these are allowed to use the name “Tabata.” These are fun workouts, and tough to be sure, but, and I’m just thinking out loud here, multiple “Tabatas” or sub-par VO2 “Tabatas” defeat the original purpose… and concept.

This isn’t saying that a new protocol can’t emerge, but calling anything more than a single 4 minute Tabata a ‘tabata’ is ignoring the concept of intensity. Remember, the whole point of the Tabata was to create an IMMENSE amount of intensity in a short period of time. So multiple 4-minute drills, or drills that elicit muscle exhaustion before crazy high VO2 numbers, might mean that, again, they’re not actually Tabatas. You wouldn’t hop on a leg press and call it a Squat, would ya? (please say no).

Oughtta Tabata?

Why Ayn Rand wasn't a bodybuilder.

Why Ayn Rand wasn’t a bodybuilder.

Sort of reminds me of the confusions of the hey-day of Mike Mentzer’s High Intensity Training. Although HIT has fallen out of favor for most folks pushing weights these days, his concepts of intensity should be considered. His sets were meant to be done to FAILURE, which means, simply, you COULDN’T DO ANOTHER REP, even if a gun were placed to your head and a knife at your throat (have I been watching too much Dexter?). Whether there is validity in this or not isn’t the point. The point is how this was mistakenly interpreted by many practitioners. They couldn’t push themselves that hard, so they started adding volume to achieve the wiped-out effect, completely nullifying his entire concept.

Not a Tabata?

That sort of seems to be what might be happening to the concept of Tabata. Now the 20 second/10 second concept does make for a lot of interesting possibilities, and can be utilized in more than just the arena of hardcore intensity, but can it be called Tabata if you’re not trashed after 4 minutes and your VO2 hasn’t flown to distant planets? Might that be like calling 2 sets of almost-failure sets HIT simply because they were the same set and rep scheme, without any real consideration of intensity.

A Shot o’ Tabata

Does it matter? Well,  if it doesn’t taste, smell or look like a rose, instead it just has some petals sort of resembling a rose, then it ain’t a rose, by any other name or otherwise. There doesn’t seem to be any research supporting sub-crazy “Tabata” drills, so we simply have a new protocol on our hands, one that seems groovy, offers a decent challenge, but without any documented outcome resembling the effects the true Tabata, the IE1 protocol. Maybe we should consider another name… the Protocol Inspired By Tabata. Or, of course, the Protocol Formerly Named Tabata. Or just a symbol.

From the upcoming DVD...

From our new DVD…

By the way… Tabata and Dan John have something in common. Dan has the 5 Truths of applying his Systems approach to training (as seen in our new DVD, available here.). Tabata confirmed number 2 and number 3 during his research…

Everything works!

Everything works… for about 6 weeks. 

That’s (no surprise) how long a steady diet of Tabata kept the metabolic changes happening. After that… well, I bet you can guess what happened.

Now I know there’s a “coach” or two out there thinking right now “but we won’t use it consistently for 6 weeks… we’ll randomly throw it in a program, therefore never letting adaptation reduce the results.” Awesome. Track those results and let me know how that goes. A Bodytribe Principle (if ya wanna call it that) is that Random Attempts Produce Random Results. Tell me if you discover anything differently.

But no matter how you use it, let’s consider calling it something new.

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Movement: the Gateway Drug

“Mind and body should be viewed as the two well-fitting halves of a perfect whole, designed and planned in perfect harmony, mutually to sustain and support each other, and equally worthy of our unwearied care and attention in perfecting.”
– Julia Thomas, 1892

agoge me 5

That guy next to me is Dave Hall of Agoge Fitness Systems. Ya need to know who he is, because although his voice doesn’t have the in-yer-face volume of those who are demanding to be heard, the vibrations and timbre are far reaching and important. He is currently working on letting everyone know who everyone else is, which is an interesting place to be… sort of like a physical culture Dolly Levi, but not with the romance bend and without breaking into song. (Yes, that might be the least straight-guy reference I’ve ever made).

His most recent, and very successful, endeavor was a little shindig called the Mental Meat Heads Symposium, a 2-day chautauqua of physical culture education through movement, thought and the occasional dance-meditation (really). 4 speakers, including yours truly, chatted about thoughtful movement, empowerment and play… all woven into a tapestry of DOING… either moving like we never have before or adding creativity, precision and performance to what we might already be attempting. All within the walls of his strength dojo in Birmingham, Alabama.

Jason and his pleasure principles... Movement intensity as a path to joy

Jason and his pleasure principles…
Movement intensity as a path to joy

Day one featured Jason C. Brown, who introduced us to his brand of intense play and embodiment. His newest project is something I look forward to called the Strength Garden, but currently he is known for what is aptly titled the Pathfinder Method.

Elliott Hulse followed with a movement meditation process that involved, among other things, the metaphor of combining rider and horse as powerful message of the mind/body connection. Much of the work was based on Wilhelm Reich, who, love him or call him a nut job, is still considered by some to be a strong inspiration to that modern practice called neuroscience.

Elliott prepping us to reach deep within and express it through movement.

Elliott prepping us to reach deep within and express it through movement.

Forgive me for not waxing profound about either segment… my goal here is to see a big picture. And what more could I say that others haven’t. Heck, a review is to get you to want to jump on the next plane to wherever their next workshops are. Just know that you should.

Movement iconBut Day 1 of Mental Meat Heads began a strong dialog between mind, body and tribe, and the glaring wave of realization that I surfed through the rest of the night and into the next day was that movement and emotion could be sparks for and results of each other.

Jason used movement (and when I mention movement, let’s understand that there is an intrinsic intensity involved) as a conduit for emotion, his goal being joy. “The closest point between two people is laughter” was the constant reminder of what he called the KY Concept… less friction/more pleasure!

Elliott used emotion as a conduit for movement, where, upon taping into emotions during his process, we moved. In inspired, improvised ways.

Day 2: Matt and Me

Matt helping us open what's tight, in prep for intensity through ability and technique

Matt helping us open what’s tight, in prep for intensity through ability and technique (and the crazy dance party we were promise that night).

Matt Wichlinski showed us how to move. The trend these days seems to be for trainers to try to show off movement to other trainers. There is a lot of “here’s how to maybe do this super advanced move that 1 in a thousand of your clients might be able to do, and you yourself will probably struggle with.” Matt, though – himself someone with mad movement skills – knows how to bring the basics and lay out a path for trickier stuff. And he wraps it all up in his Anatomy of a Workout program template. Movement becomes strength, and that might sound like an obvious correlation. But despite all the information that is out there, all the How and What perpetuated by this industry, that  ideal equation isn’t always the correct outcome. There is a lot of movement out there, a lot of busy-ness, but a great majority of it isn’t truly leading to strength, which, Matt and I agreed in a recent phone interview, is defined as Ability. But, as Matt demonstrated and discussed, Strength/Ability begets more movement, and a circle forms, one leading to the other, under the right program.

Movement icon 2See a trend here? Replace Emotion or Ability with something else equally important and chances are Movement can be a path to it and a desired outcome from it.

My Turn

What the heck could I add to the party? A quick summary from the cheap seats (in other words,my own perspective) was that there was an attempt to sum it all up. Play, awareness and ability, all wrapped up in technique, seem to be the big things I blab on about anyway, so my goal was to intertwine them all together through the concept of intensity, since intensity is the magic goop we should all covet through movement. Intensity is what opens the door between mind and body, more so than the often passive practices that seem to be the cornerstone of neuroscience currently practiced. I introduced some paths towards intensity beyond the common modern (and very limited) protocols of volume and workload, and simply pointed out how some of those paths were already given to us throughout the weekend (play, awareness and ability/technique).

Movement icon 3So my end product is always defining fitness ultimately as Usefulness (the physical manifestation of holistic usefulness, if ya wanna get wordy). Movement as a path to usefulness… which is a path to movement… etc…

Don’t worry… it will all be uploadable soon. Plus there are plans in the works for making this event grow and travel. The Mental Meat Heads Symposium will be blowing some minds somewhere near you soon.

 

Oh, write your own caption for this pic.

Oh, write your own caption for this pic.

Some of the stuff I blathered on about

Some of the stuff I blathered on about

 

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How Women CAN Do Pull Ups

The Definitive Guide for the Everyday Girl who Wants to Pull Herself All the Way Up

by Allyson Goble
BodyTribe Fitness Head Trainer

If you need more than this guide to get your first pull up, you may be interested in our Holistic Programming series.

Anytime, anywhere. Allyson and her pal Lulu… whose canine anatomy keeps her dreaming of some day being like her mom.

Oh, the elusive pull up.

You want to do one, but.. but.. they’re so HARD to do!

I hear you, I do. I’m a female trainer who’s trained for them and I hear it frequently from the girls (and yes, some men), this goal of doing a pull up. Whether it’s your first one ever or you used to be able to do one or more and want to again (usually the former), it’s a common goal that’s often treated like a wish upon a falling star. I had the very same goal when I started to seriously work out in my early-30’s almost 10 years ago and became a trainer. I couldn’t do a darn one.

So we know women’s upper body strength is not as easy to develop as, say, someone with testosterone running through their system. But, so? Name one woman who hasn’t already learned the lesson that sometimes you have to work harder for things in this life, fair or not, but the pay off is that you are STRONGER.

I’m going to share how I learned to do pull ups and had success training a variety of women of all ages, sizes and abilities to do them, or start effectively training to do one.

How about a few FAQ’s right off the bat?

Let’s start with one of MY frequently asked questions for YOU, the discouraged, wannabe, soon-to-be puller upper:

Have you actually trained for one?

As the most common answer, ‘Not really,’ is generally preceded by a sheepish grin and a revelatory pause, I am tempted to advise something like, “Hey, pull ups don’t just HAPPEN y’know; you have to work at them.” But the truth is that sometimes the right factors come together and they do happen for women, for people, who haven’t really had to work on them. The majority of us simply have to train, and treat it like the max effort lift it truly is. If you feel like you have been training and are not getting anywhere, let’s see what we can tweak about your program design and/or technique.

What’s the difference between a pull up and a chin up? Is one better to do than the other?

Let’s keep it simple.

Pullup hands

Pull ups: palms face away from you with a wide grip. Chin ups: palms face you and the grip is generally just outside your shoulders. Chin ups are considered a slightly easier pull because the arms play a bigger role in the game. Pull ups are often considered harder, especially if your shoulders are internally rotated or across the board if you have not developed lat strength, the main power source for your pull.

chin-up hands

Here’s what I say: It is the main job of the lats, the layman’s term for the broadest (latissimus) muscle in your back (dorsum), to bring your elbows into your ribs regardless of the grip. If you can’t do at least one of either type, pick the grip that feels most natural right off the bat and go with it for a while. I WILL advise you to try both during your pull up journey.

Can girls really do a pull up?

If that girl trains hard with a goal, yes! And that goes for that guy over there who can’t do one either! To give some perspective, in a deadlift you get to use your entire posterior chain. It’s the most commonly met goal for both men AND women, deadlifting your bodyweight. A pull up is limited to your upper body as the power source and you’re asking it to lift your bodyweight. It’s possible; it simply requires training, time and tenacity. Simple does not equal easy! Having this mindset will help immensely.

Will losing some weight help me do a pull up?

Well, as a body weight exercise, of course it will help if you are lighter! But it will help if you are stronger at the movement and that is our goal here.

Since intense activity and building muscle (along with that stellar diet I just KNOW you’re working on) result in fat loss, training for a pull up will help with fat loss goals. It’s a win-win.

How long will it take to be able to do one?

That depends on your intent and determination firstly now, doesn’t it?

This, along with your natural ability and genetics, your past and current strengths, and the consistency and intensity of how you effectively train for one will reveal your own unique timetable as you go. I strongly suggest tracking your efforts and acknowledging the tiny victories along the way, for there will be plenty of them.

So who the heck am I and why am I saying I know what I’m talking about?

Al’s b-day pullup challenge

I couldn’t do a pull up to save my own or any one else’s life when I started to train at Bodytribe Fitness (www.bodytribe.com) 9-odd years ago. I frankly had never even thought of doing one. Until becoming a client I’d had very, very little true prior fitness experience. I’m an artist and musician first. I’d say I have a fairly natural amount of athletic ability but I’d only dabbled, and barely.

Currently, I’m 44 years old and BodyTribe Head Trainer with the nickname ‘The Technician’. I’m a powerlifter and coach with a passion for weightlifting and teaching it. My first area of great concentration was powerlifting, my seminal experience mapping out and tackling goals with measured success. For anyone curious, I’m 5’7″ and fluctuate near 130 lbs. I can now do multiple chin ups and pull ups.

While I was healing back issues from a skateboarding fall I started to really explore upper body strength including the bench press, which I was also competing in. I started concentrating on where I could push myself, literally in some cases, with presses of any and all types–bench, incline, overhead, push ups and all variations of these lifts. You name it, I’d try pressing it: different types of overhead strength from carries to old school and odd lifts–windmills, side presses, handstands, bottom’s up kettlebell presses, get ups, farmer’s walks and other stabilizing exercises. I was also working on my rowing strength, and I started to get stronger in all of these areas than ever before, if ever at all.

I’ve benched my bodyweight and then some, which is a significant benchmark for women (pun intended). You wouldn’t guess it to look at me. And when I first started training, the 45 pound bar seemed incredibly heavy! A pull up seemed SO hard, and along the way it started to kind of piss me off. So I made it a goal. And trust me, I was starting from scratch.

That said, training a variety of presses and pulls and doing max effort lifts with many of them were imperative to my pull up goal and should be a part of any pull up program. I’m not saying you have to do everything I listed that I’ve done in order to do pull ups, but if you’re not exploring one rep max lifts it’s gonna be a longer road.

Deadlifts… one of the best friends of the pullup.

In powerlifting you combine max effort lifting, the heaviest weight you can conquer ONE time(also heavy triples and other lower rep schemes leading up to this), and dynamic effort, or speed work. Again, in layman’s terms, in max work you lift as heavy as you can to failure with one rep, training the central nervous system and all appropriate muscles to fire that way. In speed work you train the muscles to fire quickly with a load that allows you to generate speed for several short sets.

The marriage of these two types of efforts plus supplemental lifts that assist or strengthen weaker parts of a lift truly results in stronger one rep max lifts. So I thought well, if you’re wanting to train what is initially a one rep max pull up, why not apply some of the principals of powerlifting?

If you’ve ever tried and failed to do a pull up, you know the exertion felt is a 9 or 10 on an intensity scale of 1-is-light-and-10-is-failure. Sometimes it’s 11.

I like to train the pull up with the principals of powerlifting combined with the Bodytribe basic template for program design, using what we call the Spectrum of Strength. Simply put, or as simply as I can, the Spectrum of Strength encompasses every rep scheme possible. At one end there is this one rep max we’ve discussed, and at the other end is low-level force development over a long duration: think marathons, triathalons and the like. In between these two opposite points lie many, many other rep schemes to play with, including the most popularly used 8-12 rep scheme yet hardly limited to that.

The basic Bodytribe template concept plays along the spectrum. It includes working on or toward a one rep max, a lift done for repetition and a combination of lifts to aid in what’s called General Physical Preparedness (a place in the workout to play with different types of force development, variables, complexes, and skill sets), all in the same workout. The pull up can fit in all of these scenarios quite well making you a better Puller Upper, so to speak.

We’ll address those who cannot do a pull up first, as well as those who want to make sure they’re doing it properly before they train for more. Now is a good time to reiterate that I do recommend a well-rounded workout ritual, meaning one that involves a variety of movements and set & rep schemes, cultivates stronger flexibility and mobility skills, and incorporates sufficient recovery and active countering of tension patterns.

In other words, promise you won’t just work on pull ups all the live long days. Unless you want to experiment with some heinous tension patterns and possible injury. Cool?

I. HOW TO GET STARTED

A. Lat Pull Downs

Most folks with a gym membership have access to a lat pull down machine. Most of these folks have pulled that bar down in one way or another. While it is virtually the same movement as a pull up, there is technique involved and it is a vastly different feeling to pull your actual bodyweight up to an actual bar. Use this sucker properly in the beginning and continue to pepper your pull up program with it if you so desire. It’s a great way for a beginner to understand good form to take TO the bar, and invaluable if you don’t have easy access to a bar but want to train.

On the flipside there is a strange phenomenon noticed by folks in ‘the biz’: big muscle-bound dudes that look like they could do multiple, actual pull ups but are hogging the pull down machines and rarely going for the real deal. Just an aside: it’s a strange trend and mildly annoying to those who would gladly blast out a few pull ups on a bar if they could. Remember folks, the bar is the real deal. Machines, shmachines. Ultimately, take it to the bar.

Speaking of pull down bars though, the long bar is the most common and there is quite a variety of bars, all of merit for different reasons. The narrow-handled bar can be more comfortable for certain shoulders, especially ones with ‘issues’. Try different ones!

shoulders packed

So what does it mean to use this machine properly?

Grip the bar pull up or chin up style and sit with the hips close to directly under the bar if not slightly behind it. Try to replicate hanging from an actual pull up bar. Be careful not to lean back too far during the pull, turning it in to a row instead. We try to do this because we tend to be stronger rowers horizontally toward the chest. Always grip the bar as tightly as you can with a true ‘palm grip’. Some folks don’t even realize they are gripping it mostly with their fingers. If you grip the bar tight, you can concentrate better on pulling with your back, rather than just your arms.

shoulders unpacked

The next instruction is mostly for learning purposes; we’ll do away with it once its goal of ‘lat awareness’ is met. With a tight palm grip, extend your arms fully above your head and release the shoulders, feeling a nice scapular stretch. Try to get your shoulders, namely your upper traps that help you shrug, as close to your ears as possible. Now look up at the bar creating an upper back arch and ‘pack’ your shoulders down and back, ‘down’ being the most operative word. One of my favorite cues is to ‘slide your shoulder blades down your spine’ and then try to contract your lats. If you’re not sure where your lats are, Google break here. Then try to create the biggest range of motion from your shoulders as high as you can take ’em to as low as you can and then hold them there throughout the pull.

Now we’ve told the upper traps to lay off so our lats can learn to work. Remember the job of the lats is to bring our elbows in to our ribs. Another cue is try to ‘put your elbows in your back pockets’ as you lower the bar. Try your best to keep your elbows from winging outward on both the concentric portion (the down pull) as well as the eccentric (the up). This also helps facilitate keeping the shoulders, your ‘shrug and stress’ muscles, from kicking in. Be aware that they will try to; they have a lot of practice firing already and will think they can do the job. Consciously and consistently tell them to stay down and correct them when they try to help too much. “Retrain” them.

The lats are a major muscle mass in our body that are underused along with the rest of our posterior chains in this culture of stress and sitting too much. If we can train them well, they will serve us well in our goal! I’ve also found that men often rely on the strength of their arms alone to pull them up. If they’d train true lat strength, not only will they have better form but ultimately quality AND more quantity.

If you use a pull up grip, avoid pushing forward with your forearms as the bar gets close to your chest; it is an unneeded, extra movement. Bring the bar under just your chin without jutting said chin forward and that goes for any grip you choose. If I could, I’d rename chin ups ‘Chest Ups’ to emphasize this. Think of bringing your chest to the bar, though it doesn’t have to touch. I strained my scalenes, small muscles in my neck, early in my pull up career. Avoid this step. Ouch. It’s definitely a set back because of recovery time, plus any injury has the possibility to become a mental as well as physical roadblock.

Keep your chest out when you pull. If your chest is out it’s harder to flex, or round, your back and crunch your belly to get the bar down when your back gets tired. If you are training with any thing other than proper form you’re wasting your precious time, assuming your time is at least somewhat precious.

One more note here: do not pull the bar behind the head unless you have the shoulder flexibility and postural awareness to maintain proper form. If not you’re probably craning your chin forward to get your head out of the way of the bar which is what we’ve discussed trying to avoid!

C. Controlling the Bar Back Up

Once you get the bar down, check your shoulder blades to make sure they are still down and back, and control the bar back up. We’re re-checking this ‘shoulder pack’, as we’re calling it, to make sure the upper traps don’t kick in on the way up either. It’s our general theme here: they will try to kick in, especially when the muscles at hand are fatiguing. Don’t let ’em! And don’t just let the weight on the bar help you bring the bar back up. ‘Controlling the bar up’ means it’s you in charge.

D. Do It Again, As In Frequently and In a Buncha Different Ways

This really is a great way to start. You can do this lighter for reps at first, heavier for fewer reps when form is under control and everything else in between. Use pull downs with these different rep schemes, different handles for variation, and also for negative pulls, discussed a little later.

Speaking of variations, here’s an idea for an occasional high rep exercise (with the agreement that this comes ONLY after you feel like you have a solid understanding and execution of proper form). The lat pull down drop set is a nice way to get in a little workload that will challenge your endurance and technique as you tire. Warm up nice and light for a handful of reps. Then choose a weight you know will feel fairly heavy right off the bat. Do as many as you can until you can no longer maintain proper form. If it’s too many more than 6 or so reps, go heavier the next time. Immediately drop the weight down to the next lightest and repeat. Finally, drop it down a third time and concentrate on volume with excellent execution. You’re done when your form breaks; do not keep going. Honestly, you probably won’t want to! Only one drop set round is needed.

II. THE REAL DEAL

Lat pull downs are lat pull downs but they ain’t pull ups. Let’s move to the bar and start working with it as early on as possible. It’s the real deal and will feel a lot different than a machine for sure. Though there are machines that will help you do a pull up we prefer bands, usually used in power lifting, for training on a bar. Why? Mostly because they’re not a huge expense and you won’t have to rely on a place that has a machine. Have bands, will travel.

Bands will help you go through the full range of motion of a pull up if you can’t do it on your own. They come in different sizes and help everybody differently according to one’s height and weight, and two or more can be used at once. A great place to get powerlifting bands is www.ironwoody.com and it’s nice to have a couple choices of sizes so you can control how much help you’re getting. Without bands a friend can help, but having bands ensures you can train whenever you want.

To use a band, loop it through itself on the bar, stand on a box or bench and step both feet into it at the bottom.

A. Gripping the Bar

Let’s get real basic. Firstly, can you grip the bar and hang? Fingers AND thumbs around the bar is ultimately a stronger grip but the fingers-only ‘suicide grip’ seems natural to some. Can you hang there for a little bit? You want a YES for each of those questions before pull ups are ever gonna happen. Pull up training is a grip strengthener itself, so that will improve as you go.

If you can’t hang with ‘packed shoulders’ so that it doesn’t feel like your arms are going to rip out of their sockets or you simply drop quickly with lack of control, you will want to just do some hang practice. In tougher cases, heavier lat pull downs will be the place to start, as well as using a band while simply hanging from the bar.

If you’re okay at hanging with packed shoulders without using a band but want to work on a better grip, time how many seconds you can hang before your grip or your shoulders give out and keep trying to beat that time. When your grip gets stronger, doing knee or leg raises hanging from the bar until your grip tires is an excellent supplemental pull up/grip training option. Especially on days where your lats are sore from prior training!

The question of whether or not to wear lifting gloves comes up a lot. Depends on the person. I personally covet my calluses and know that I can do pull ups (or garden, or play guitar) better with hands that are used to going bare to the tool. Besides what if you don’t have your gloves with you and a pull up bar is staring you in the face?

I recommend guerilla pull up training: reliance on as little assistance as possible and try pulling yourself up to anything you can. A pole? A tree branch? With consistent training, ya never know when or where that first pull up will happen. But remember when it does: stop, drop and do the Pull Up Dance, which you make up right there on the spot.

It’s a good time to mention that if you cannot jump from the ground up to a standard-height pull up bar and get a solid grip, this should also be a goal to commit time to. This of course depends on your own relative height. For folks on the underside of a certain point on the measuring tape, maybe a box or a boost will be a mainstay to which I say once again: So what? Just make sure the height of that box still requires you to jump a bit to the bar. Cool.

B. Hang-Pack

If and when you can hang from the bar with relative ease and control, this exercise will simulate our work on the lat pull down machine. Hanging from the bar with packed shoulders, let the ‘pack’ go and feel a stretch through the shoulders before packing your shoulders down and back again. Try this for reps to get stronger at this starting movement alone. Note this can also be done with a light band if needed.

C. Hang-Pack-Pull

Same as above but we’re taking it a tad further. After the hang and then the pack, well…Pull!

Okay, let’s discuss. If you can’t do a pull up, you’re probably not gonna get very far. YET. And THAT is what this exercise is for. Don’t worry about making it all the way to the bar; even just a third or half way up is absolutely fine. Then lower yourself with control and hang-pack-pull again.

This movement can be done for reps to train the beginning portion of the pull up using bands for a small range of motion or without bands just to see how far you might get and start training that type of exertion. The emphasis is not to reach the bar, but you want to exert like you are trying to reach the bar. The intensity is the key. If you don’t start to train for the very tough exertion of a full range of motion pull up, it probably won’t happen.

Pulling yourself up a tiny bit or no distance at all for one or some of these reps has absolute merit. Even a Static Pull, pulling and exerting for a few seconds even if you go nowhere, is still extremely helpful in terms of training your body for the intensity this pull up will require. This is all about training the bottom of how every single pull will start by deconstructing the lift and working on a portion of it, like in powerlifting and other sports.

A reminder at this point about the form you learned on the lat pull down machine is in order here. Remember not to shrug yourself up. Put your brain in your lats and pull from there.

D. Pull Ups, Full Range of Motion with Assistance

Okay, with the appropriate amount of band or otherwise assistance to make it so, let’s go for some reps of the entire movement. All the way up you go this time.

Bands = helpful

At first start with the hang, then the pack, then the complete pull and control yourself down checking your upper traps constantly along the way. Try to generate speed going up without forfeiting form. ‘Use your breath’ by inhaling and engaging your belly before you pull. Exhale about halfway up; this will keep you tighter for the exertion rather than exhaling the entire time you pull. Repeat for whatever rep scheme you have determined!

You have choices here. If you’re getting assistance from bands: use the stretch reflex, or bounce, of the bands on the way up every time or control yourself down to a complete stop, a ‘dead hang’, before each pull. You can also choose to unpack your shoulders at the bottom, repack and pull like we discussed for the lat pull down machine when you’re first learning as well. I recommend trying that for a while and then work on just trying to keep your shoulders packed throughout the lift soon. It’s a nice lesson in the beginning.

E.Tips About Technique Plus Requisite Reminders

Try not to let your feet swing forward too much when in bands; you’ll lean back and row yourself up which is not quite a pull up, is it?! Using the box you most likely used to step up to the bar to block your feet and keep you from swinging can be helpful. Mostly you want to really concentrate on thinking about pulling from your back, from your lats. Here’s the requisite reminder that on the way down you want to make sure the upper traps aren’t kicking in.

A common thing to feel when first starting out is excess fatigue in the forearms and arms in general. More lats, less arms. That’s hard in the beginning. Also, if your grip is too narrow during chin ups it will be hard to engage the lats and the arms will try to take over. Try hands in line with or just outside the shoulders. Beware of an unfortunate and common consequence of overtraining and/or poor form: elbow tendonitis. If this happens, contrast bucket bathing and deep tissue massage are your new friends, plus a renewed commitment to good form and proper recovery.

Create an upper back (thoracic) arch and think not of craning your neck toward the bar but of bringing your chest up it. The smaller muscles in your neck cannot support your body weight so again, focus on pulling from your back. An indicator that you’re pulling from your arms too much is uneven pulling up to the bar. Your dominant arm is probably trying to take over. Chest out, rethink from your lats.

Always, always, always go for a full extension of your arms for reps. Don’t start pulling again until you’ve straightened out those arms. I call only lowering yourself three quarters of the way down ‘ego pulls’ because that’s what folks do to get more reps, going for the numbers. Numbers, shnumbers. Full range of motion is where it’s at folks. Oh it’s a bit harder, but it makes you stronger. Yup.

Another great tip is to tighten both your belly and your tush. Contracting your abdominal muscles and glutes during the pull will help give you more stability and power, and nothing centers the body like contracting this power combo will. Once you know the lift enough to actually focus on other nuances this tip will be the one that helps take you up to the top! Remember this and revisit this tip!

1. Tips for Spotting with Bands

If you do have someone to spot you using bands, have them keep your feet from swinging forward. Also, they can help push you up ever so slightly only at the top where the bands don’t help you, if appropriate for the goal. For example if you are shooting for some higher reps, say 10, and number 7 finds you close to the bar but you’re having trouble at the top, a spotter could help just a hair so you get the benefit of more full range of motion reps with intensity. On a different day or without a spotter, you might just be doing as many as you can until you can’t reach the bar. It depends on the goal of the sets. The best spotters help just enough, not too much.

E. Jump Pulls

Let’s train the top of the pull now. Not an exercise for use with bands. From the ground or most likely from a box, jump up and absorb the bar with your hands as you pull your chest to it.

Sounds doable, right? Maybe, maybe not. For some this will be tougher than for others. There are so many factors including your current strength, your height, height of the box you’re jumping from, your jumping skills, your mental attitude towards this slightly weird and possibly scary movement, your coordination and spatial relation skills to determine where that bar is in space in relation to you, etc., etc., etc.

It’s all about the doing and the practice. Come back around often to an exercise like this to see if you’re stronger is highly recommended. From one day to the next it can change if you’re really training.

If you can do a jump pull and bring your chest to the bar, you’ll want to work on controlling yourself all the way down to fully extended arms and a controlled shoulder pack. You can make it a slow, negative pull (see below) or simply work on lowering yourself down with control. Mostly I’m hoping you can jump up to the bar, pull your chest to it, work on eventually being strong enough to slightly pause at the top and check your shoulders before controlling yourself to the box again. You’ll often see jump pulls done on a high box used as a jump-up-and-drop-quickly-back-to-the-box-with-out-much-of-a-pull-at-all-a-zillion-times exercise. Yeah that’ll get your heart rate up, but let’s be more concerned with building a skill that will truly facilitate our goal.

Do not be frustrated if the jump pull takes a while. Sometimes it does. So what?

(I’m trying to toughen you up here. Watch your expectations of a timeline that might turn out different than you created in your head!)

F. Negative Pulls

This will train the eccentric portion of the lift, or the controlling of your body weight down to starting position so you can pull yourself up again!

This can be done with bands but of course ultimately you’ll want to be able to do this without them. Treated on its own, it starts at the top of the bar so a higher box or bench can be used and then slowly (slower than usual) control the body down to fully extended arms with shoulders packed. I like to say ‘heartbreakingly slow’, of which my clients have re-named ‘arm-breakingly slow’.

Eventually you can add a jump pull to get up to the bar and then do your negative. Of course proficiency with jump pulls helps here but if you can’t jump to the top of the bar and pause for a moment, starting up there close to the bar or simply using a lat pull down machine will have to happen first, and that’s okay! Most will start this way. Using a lat pull down machine correctly for these can be really beneficial. It’s especially effective to work with a weight that’s so heavy you have to have someone help get it to your chest where you control it up with a markedly slow pace, correcting the shoulders down and back if needed before you raise the bar. Low reps are fine for this movement, think 4-6 reps but there’s room to play either way up or down the spectrum.

The concern or even danger in a negative pull from the bar is, maybe obviously, lack of strength and control resulting in dropping too quickly and that feeling of almost pulling your arms out of the sockets. If control is even close to questionable, a band or pull down machine are great ways to get stronger here.

1.) Alternative for Negative Pulls

Say you’re sore from your last pull up session a couple days ago but you’d still like to train for them. Negative curls are a nice alternative. Hold dumbells or a barbell at your chest with your palms facing you and hands just outside your shoulders. Straighten out your back and tighten your glutes and belly to stabilize. Control the weight down very slowly to fully extended arms; think of a three-alligator count (one-alligator, two-alligator..). Lats on the whole time and you’re always checking your shoulder pack. Be careful not to hug your rib cage with your elbows for too much support, and also try not to let your elbows travel too far backward as the weights decend.

Clean the weight(s) back up by shrugging and jumping at the same time to bring the tool(s) to the starting position without curling them or using your arms and start again; save your efforts for the negative curl itself.

III. HOW TO GO ABOUT THIS WHOLE SHEBANG (Program Design and Supplemental Lift Suggestions)

If you are serious about your pull up goal, and you are if you’ve read this far, I’m recommending following a few basic strategies pretty much across the board.

However, here are your Four Golden Rules before we talk more:

#1 Always have a fair amount of control of form during the exercise before you add challenge, be that speed, reps, variations or whatever the challenge is.

#2 Ask yourself after every true ‘working set’ whether or not you achieved true intensity. A working set is the set you’ve deemed challenging but doable after a proper warm up. True intensity means out of your comfort zone. This is a work out, not a walk out in the park (or whatever else you want to put at the end of that sentence that is also not a work out).

#3 Take the time to warm up. It is also an equal sized piece of your puzzle, for any workout. We tend to rush through this important step, if we give it time at all. Give your body a head’s up for what you’re about to ask it to do. It does a lot for you; do this much for your body.

Press if you pull and pull if you press

#4 Try to counter the tension patterns you may be creating when you increase specified training. This involves balanced strength and releasing tension. Example: If you’re trying to get stronger at pull ups, get stronger at its opposite movement as well, the overhead press. Have a well-rounded work out that involves several types of movements. Too much specificity can lead to said tension patterns. Releasing tension through self- or professional massage is pretty much imperative. Don’t wait until you’re a bundle of knots and HAVE to get a massage. Use a tennis ball or foam roller to manipulate your precious, hard-working muscles on a daily basis.

A. Program Design

Ideally, I recommend doing something pull up training related at least three times a week. This is simply a good, average number of days a week of training that will certainly gain you the skills you’re wanting to develop. It’s an ideal amount; one or two days is not as good, and four might be great but may also be too much to recover fully from for some folks. You know your life and your schedule. I just know your goal requires a certain amount of time, commitment and consistency.

I’ll refer to both pull ups and chin ups simply as ‘pull ups’ from here out. Do full range of motion pull ups (assisted) or pull downs for higher reps (say 6 reps and above) on one day, for lower reps (say 5 reps and below) on another day, and then something from the list of supplemental lifts (see below) on yet another day. Note that there is no order here for what to do on what day; that is to be determined by you.

Also note that the supplemental lifts can be done on any or all of your days, but at the very least as one of the three. They also come in handy if and when your lats are too sore to do more pull up work! Remember folks: recovery is no joke! It is an equal sized piece of your pull up puzzle. Don’t over train. It’s a ‘kick yourself’ setback.

I recommend trying to schedule out your workouts in 3 week cycles. This will allow you to get better and stronger at something by revisiting it and pushing it three weeks in a row. Going about something in a random fashion will wield random results. Also, there are so many set and rep schemes to treat the pull up and the reps on the pull down machine, choices of grips and bars, plus all the supplemental lifts, you’ll need and want to mix it up and will have these 3 week cycles to fit it all in.

I’ll give a examples in a bit, but first…

B. Supplemental Lifts

These are lifts that strengthen and assist your pull up skills but are not full range of motion pull ups.

1. For the beginner who is working on their very first pull up:

Timed hanging from the bar with shoulders packed.

Hanging knee or leg raises from the bar, for grip strength and callus building!

Jumping up to the bar

The Hang-Pack and the Hang-Pack-Pull

Negative pulls (on bar with bands or unassisted, and on pull down machine)

Jump Pulls (or attempts!), with or without a negative pull

Static Pulls: sustain pulling and form for a few seconds once you’ve stopped travel on the pull. Doesn’t matter if the distance you pulled is millimeters or inches; keep exerting and pulling for 5-10 seconds longer.

Presses, all kinds with tools of choice: bench press, dumbbell chest press, incline press, overhead press, push ups, etc. and every variation on any of these lifts as possible

Rows, all kinds with tools of choice: bent over rows, cable machine row variations like standing rows and squat rows, renegade rows, cleans, etc.

Negative curls

For grip and overall strength: deadlifts, farmer’s carries, lifts using a fat grip bar

Box jumps and other jumping drills can assist you in jumping up to the bar if this is not a strength

Overhead strength and stabilizing exercises and all their variations: overhead farmer’s carries, jerk and push press, heavy jerk recovery work, handstands, get ups, windmills, side press, bent press (we’re getting in to the advanced lift section; make sure you are informed about proper technique)

2. For the Intermediate (can do 1-5 pulls), continue with choices from the above list but add:

Jump pulls from ground or low box

Introduce weighted pulls after about 3 pulls in a row is doable, hanging weight from a belt during the pull

3. For the Advanced (can do 5 pulls or more), continue with choices from above lists but add:

Weighted pulls for reps or max work

Pull up variations

C. Suggestions and Examples

Let’s take a base beginner. Along with whatever other lifts and training you’re doing, the first two 3-week cycles could look something like this, using our guideline of a ‘high rep, low rep and assistance exercise’ weekly template:

Cycle One: Workout Day One (high rep), work on 3 sets of 6-10 reps on a lat pull down machine working on form and technique discussed earlier. Workout Day Two (supplemental), practice and time hanging from the bar with packed shoulders. Workout Day Three (low rep), 3 sets of 3-5 reps on a lat pull down machine. I’d also recommend working toward a max effort lift of some type to start training to fire your system in this way. Begin training now to eventually max on the bench, overhead presses or deadlifts. Any exercise you choose will teach your nervous system this valuable lesson; these three lifts are great to start with and will facilitate your pullup goals best. As the weeks go by work on controlling and strengthening your technique on a lift, go incrementally heavier for less and less reps through your different 3-week cycles and then finally do a cycle of one rep maxes.

Cycle Two: Workout Day One (high rep), 3 sets of 6-10 pull up reps on a bar with bands. Workout Day Two (supplemental), sets of knee raises hanging from a bar until grip tires. Work out Day Three (low rep), 2 or 3 sets of 4-6 heavier pulls with slow negative eccentric pulls. Continue working on pressing and rowing skills and whatever max effort lifts you’re developing.

Keep in mind that high reps are fatiguing! And it happens fast. That’s why there’s a window of reps (6-10 or 8-12, etc.), because your third set WILL be a shorter set of less reps than that first set, trust me. Don’t be alarmed. Normal. Do not underestimate the longer rest period for this type of form-based work.

Maybe a little down the line a 3-week cycle for the once-beginner could look like this:

Workout Day One (low rep), 3 sets of 2-3 pull ups using bands on a bar. This will feel intense; the goal is to not be able to do more than three so the amount of bands or assistance otherwise must be appropriate. Workout Day Two (supplemental), several sets of jump pull practice. Workout Day Three (high rep), a lat pull down drop set. At other points during the week maybe you’re maxing your bench press and going for some heavy deadlift triples or something (hint hint).

You’re the artist. Here’s your pallette, the brush is in your hand. In this way Unique You can move intuitively through a program, continually reassess your needs and work to strengthen areas that are specific to you.

IV. HOW IT MOST LIKELY WILL GO

Funny things start to happen when you train for a specific goal with consistency and intensity. When you work toward measured success with patience and tenacity, goals start to look and feel more attainable.

Revisit frequently the above paragraph’s list of sure-fire ways to make progress and see where you’re slacking. Then refocus. Take small breaks if you need to. Remember the multiple variables that can effect any single day of training (fuel, lack of sleep or recovery time, stress levels, etc.) and don’t get caught up in dwelling on the valleys of a very normal peaks-and-valleys training experience. Be forgiving when need be and celebrate every little gain in progress. In pull up training, little is BIG!

Beyond this, the best advice I can give is to jump up to that bar often and at least TRY. Some days you’ll go a little higher and some days you’ll hardly go an inch. But you’ll get used to jumping up to the bar and pulling. Then one day, and often happening when you least expect it and therefore your expectations are lowered, you’ll jump up to the bar and you’ll clear it. And this is official, bona fide, stop-drop-and-PULL UP DANCE time!!! Here’s that expression of exuberant joy and celebration we mentioned earlier. Drop it like it’s hot. A Pull Up Party follows later that evening.

What’s next? Keep on working in the same ways, but now you’re also determined to make that solo pull a little easier and easier. Beef up your negative pulls, make your high rep days even more intense, your pressing exercises heavier for less reps, etc.

Here’s the scoop, the skinny, the low down: the second one in a row seems to be just about as hard to do as the first one, pretty much across the board. It makes sense though. I mean, you just nailed your one rep max which dictates by definition that you can’t do another full rep as you’ve expended all your energy on one. It will take a little extra time to work on that second full range of motion pull. But there’s good news too: once you’ve reach 3 pulls in a row, the 4th and 5th seem to come a little easier. And by then you’ve set your sights on 10 in a row and doing some weighted pulls, right? That’s how it goes when you’ve reached badass status..

V. THE BIGGER PICTURE

I don’t need to spiel on about the benefits of pull up training but I’ll spew a few.

In this modern gym culture of ‘arm day’ and ‘leg day’, wouldn’t it be a better idea if any and every day was ‘spine day’ or ‘back day’? A stronger back sounds like a good idea to me, and the person training for pull ups correctly will achieve this reward, plus better spinal awareness when the goal is impeccable form.

The modern workout and bootcamp trends also love lots of reps. We NEED to reevaluate this ‘kick your ass’ and ‘feel the burn’ mentality in program design and talk about the merit of doing something only 1 or 5 or 3 intense reps, again with focus on the best form possible. There is a high probability that doing all those reps all the time will wear on your joints down the line. Let’s face it, we can get a touch sloppy as we’re pummeling through to that prescribed high rep number. Form first, people.

I think the most rewarding benefit is the feeling of empowerment and accomplishment when you’ve conquered a goal, especially one that took time and some real work. And I suppose we should touch upon the aesthetic benefits, as we are all human and wouldn’t be upset if this goal we’ve been working toward makes us look a little more fly in our bathing suits. When you work HARD, eat WELL, and rest WELL, guess what? You don’t just look better, you feel better. Ah, the by-products of strength and ability

Well, I won’t wish you good luck; luck is not what you need. Instead I will wish you good training, always! Don’t give up. Remember, as awesome as doing a pull up is (and your awesome Pull Up Dance), the greater reward is in the journey. Trust me. Be open, journal your growth along the way, and you’ll see.

Hanging play time

 

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