Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Chins vs Pulldowns

The inclusion of some form of chins, lat pulldowns, or both, is considered de rigueur for any properly designing bodybuilding back workout. The usual rationale is twofold. The primary benefit is often referred to as a back-widening effect. The exercises are also recommended because they work the upper back muscles, although thickening those muscles is the primary function of rows. 

While it would appear that doing lat pulldowns, which involves an overhead pulley machine, or chins from an overhead bar doesn't require much skill, many bodybuilders still insist on doing them incorrectly. 

A common mistake with chins, or pullups, for example, is not doing the full range of motion, which usually results from an attempt to hang weight around the waist to add resistance. This fact was bluntly pointed out back in 1968 by Vince Gironda, who was then the premier trainer of champion bodybuilders. I recall his saying that he'd observed only one bodybuilder who was capable of doing chins properly. That man was Don Howorth, who won the '67 IFBB Mr. America title. Not coincidentally, Howorth was renowned for the breadth of his shoulders and back. 

According to Gironda, the proper execution of chins required touching the lower portion of the pectorals, or chest, to the bar. In that position the upper arms were pulled down and back, which is the fully contracted position of the lats. The back was also forced into an arched position at the top of the movement, which fully contracted the upper-back muscle structure. Doing chins in that style, said Vince, constituted a complete back exercise.  


    The problem with doing such "full" chins is that if you weigh more than 125 pounds, you're lifting quite a load to go up that high and touch your lower chest to the bar. Even people who are strong in other upper-body exercises will find that chins done in this manner represent a formidable challenge.

With the advent of certain types of chinning machines (assisted), such as those manufactured by Nautilus and Cybex, however, the problem of doing complete chinning movements was solved. The machine allows you to rest your lower body on either a foot bar or a mobile platform. That redistributes the weight, making you "lighter" and thus able to do a full movement, as in touching your lower chest to the bar and arching your back. 

Note: It's easy to figure out a way to achieve the same effect without an assisted chin machine. 

While chins are without a doubt a superior back exercise, especially if you do them as prescribed by Gironda, many bodybuilders avoid them, preferring to do lat pulldowns. A frequent explanation is that the pulley exercise allows more control.

With both chins and pulldowns you can use various grips. Even so, the adage that wide grip chins build wide backs just isn't true. As Nautilus inventor Arthur Jones repeatedly pointed out throughout a 25-year period, a wider grip leads to a decreased range of exercise movement. The widest grip you should use should be no greater than shoulder width, or with upper arms in a parallel position. 

Although many exercise texts show the proper position for front pulldowns to include an erect torso, my observations of many champion bodybuilders who have great backs are that the majority lean back, arching their backs as they pull the bar down. Thus, they mimic the style suggested by Gironda for proper chins. 

The final consideration in relation to pullups and pulldowns is muscle action. While the movements appear similar, studies show that they work the muscles differently. For example, electromyographic comparison of chins and pulldowns shows distinct differences between pullups and pulldowns during both the concentric and eccentric portions. Both phases were slower during pulldowns than they were for pullups. Peak muscle contraction time was also shorter for pulldowns. These findings appear to lend some credence to the notion that pulldowns allow greater muscle control than pullups.

Does that mean pulldowns are for bodybuilding purposes superior to chins? 

That depends on how you do the exercises. If you can't do the complete style of chins advocated by Gironda and others, you'll probably get more benefit from doing pulldowns.   

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Hook Dreams - Wade Johnson

Many years ago when I started powerlifting, I never thought about my grip in the deadlift. I always had great grip strength and never lost a pull due to a failing grip. However, as the years rolled along I realized that I was built more for squat and bench press, and that my short arms would hinder me somewhat. I started investigating what I could do to achieve my deadlifting goals.  

Because my grip was a strong point, I initially resisted any change. There were training, form and other issues, but one of the thing I did that really allowed me to train better and to get my weight moving up was the hook grip. Because I dabbled in Olympic lifting, I knew of it, but my grip was far stronger using a double overhand than relying on my Olympic form.

It wasn't until I read an article written by Brad Gillingham that I realized the hook grip could solve my problems. So, I went about it like everyone else does and tried it at 135. Not too bad. Neither was 225, but then -- damnation -- 315 hurt like a sumbitch. I squashed the idea and went back to conventional grip.

I played with the grip for about 18 months. I did singles and got to where I was closing in on PR weights. At a meet in 2005 I did my deadlift warmup at 315 and 455 with the hook grip. It felt so much better, and I decided to go with it. I haven't looked back since. 

There were a few issues that led me to the hook grip. I would torque the crap out of my biceps and forearms. I had bouts of tendinitis and didn't want to further injure my biceps. The bigger issue for me was pulling my hips of of alignment. No matter how good my form, it wasn't by lower back but my hips that bothered me. 

Using the hook grip helped. I had no more biceps and forearm issues. No more hip issues. I shortened my stroke and improved my form.

Hook Grip Tips

Here are a few quick tips for those of you interested in giving the hook a whirl. 

Start slow. This grip hurts and you will initially feel like your thumbs will pop off. It takes some time for that sensation to stop and, even then, it will occasionally hurt and even be sore. 

Start light. This grip is not for the faint of heart. Use warmups to get the grip started and then go back to your conventional alternating grip at first. THIS WILL TAKE TIME! 

Use athletic tape. I have even used it in meets -- just be sure to check the rules and talk with the meet director to be sure it's okay come meet day. In training, make sure you don't cover the knuckle. It will affect how you close your hands if it's over the thumb knuckle and too tight. Leave yourself a courtesy tab so you can get the tape off when you are done. 

Start with singles. Reps are really hard on your hands. I suggest doing singles at first. As time goes on, your thumbs will toughen up and you'll be able to deal with it. 

Give Hook a Chance

I am not a great deadlifter, but I have pulled 672 in a full meet, gearless and beltless conventional. Then I pulled 700 sumo with a suit and loose belt. These were numbers I had only dreamed of pulling. 

Give the hook grip a try. I hope it does for you what it has done for me. 

Until next time . . . 

Lift Heavy
Train Smart and
Eat More Pizza!     


Mass Insanity - C.S. Sloan

Article Courtesy of Liam Tweed. 

C.S. Sloan's Integral Strength:
Essays on Lifting, Zen Combat, Philosophy, Asian Cinema, and the Arts 

Stuck in a rut? 

Need something different from the run-of-the-mill training program you've been doing for the past several months? 

Sometimes in order to keep the gains coming -- or to bust out of the rut you're stuck in -- you have to get a little crazy.

Enter mass insanity. 

On the following pages, I'm going to outline several training programs that I guarantee you haven't been doing lately. In fact, it could be that you've never attempted -- or even thought of attempting them.  

I'm including four different plans. Variety is a crucial component of making continuous gains, so you don't want to perform any of these gems for more than three workouts in a row. 

The Number of the Beast: 666

Here's one that I got from Shawn Phillips, who wrote about it years ago in the now defunct MM2K

Note: I know it well! The article by Phillips had three squat routines included. Here: 

The premise is simple: Perform six sets of six reps of a particular exercise. To make things really tough, you take six seconds to perform the negative (lowering) portion of the exercise, and six seconds to execute the positive (lifting) portion. 

Below is an example of an arms workout that incorporates this brand of hellish training. 

Barbell Curl: Begin with 3 progressively heavier warmup sets of 6 reps. For your work sets pick a weight that would normally get you to failure at about the 12th rep. Use that weight for all 6 sets of 6 reps -- and don't forget the Six-Up/Six-Down cadence. 

Lying Triceps Extension: Use either a barbell or a pair of dumbbells on this exercise. Once again, perform 3 progressively heavier warmup sets before you do your 6 x 6 work sets.

When you first attempt this workout you might be more than just a little sore afterward. That's okay -- you're exposing your muscles and nervous system to a stimulus they're not accustomed to.     

Vince Gironda's 8 sets of 8

This is one that Vince Gironda used successfully when training advanced lifters. He didn't recommend it for anyone who didn't have at least two years of consistent training under his belt. More hellish -- not to mention crazy -- than even the first workout above, it's sure to shock any muscles out of a hypertrophy slump.

Pick 3 to 4 exercises for each muscle group, and perform 8 sets of 8 reps on each. Yep, that's right: You'll be doing between 24 and 32 sets for each muscle group. For each exercise use a weight that you could normally get close to 20 reps with. If you pick a weight that is too heavy, there's no way you'll be able to get 8 sets of 8 done properly. As the final kicker, rest only 20-30 seconds between sets. 

You'll want to use a split routine when training with this approach. Below is a typical split, one of many possibilities: 

Monday: Chest and Back

Wide-Grip Dips
Bench Presses
Incline DB Presses
Incline Flyes
Bentover Rows
Wide-Grip Pulldowns
One-Arm DB Rows

Tuesday: Legs

Leg Presses
Leg Extensions
Leg Curls
Stiff-Legged Deadlifts
Donkey Calf Raises
Seated Calf Raises
Standing Calf Raises

Wednesday - Off

Thursday: Shoulders and Arms

Overhead Presses
Seated Behind-The-Neck-Presses
Seated Lateral Raises
Standing Front Raises
Barbell Curls
Lying Extensions
DB Curls
Rope Pushdowns
Cable Curls
Dumbbell Kickbacks

Friday: Off

Saturday: Begin the Cycle Again

Despite the enormous volume, each workout should be finished within an hour due to the short rests between all sets and exercises. As with our first program, you are probably going to be sore the day after a workout. Do not take extra days off because of the soreness. Your body will adapt -- and grow bigger as a result.

Big Gains From HIGH Sets and Low Reps 

I have long been a fan of high set/low rep training plans. They're the best when it comes to gaining a lot of strength and muscle mass. Programs that use such schemes as 8 sets of 5, or 10 sets of 3 are among the most effective you'll ever find for achieving that goal. All of the lifters I train get good results with them. 

Every so often, however, I like to have my trainees do something a little bit different -- and a bit more extreme. For a coup weeks at a time I have them perform REALLY HIGH SETS combined with a really low number of reps. 

For that kind of training want to keep your reps at three or less while performing a minimum of 15 sets. The more sets you do, the fewer reps per set. 

When performing sets of 3 reps, do 15 to 20 sets.
For doubles do 20 to 30 sets. 
And for singles do 30 to 50 sets. 

You still need to train heavy -- despite the number of sets. I recommend you use between 75 and 85% of your one-rep maximum on all sets. For example, if you're doing bench presses and have a max of 300, you need to use between 225 and 255 pounds.

Below is an example of a training split using these kinds of workouts. 


Bench Press - 25 sets of 2 reps
Barbell Curl - 15 x 3 reps 


Squats - 35 x 1

Wednesday: Off


Overhead Press - 25 x 2 reps
Weighted Dips - 15 x 3


Deadlifts - 40 singles

Saturday: Off

Sunday: Cycle Begins Again

If you continue with this program for another week, change exercises or change the number of sets and reps you do on each exercise. At the most, use this approach for 3 weeks before switching to a more conventional form of training.  

One Exercise to Failure

Before you start thinking that I'm trying to rehash HIT, I assure you I'm not. For this piece of insanity you do one exercise until you hit failure, not one set.

Pick a compound movement for a muscle group. (Any of the exercises listed for the high sets/low reps layout will work just fine). After a few warmup sets pick a heavy weight that causes you to reach failure somewhere between the 6th and 8th rep. After completing the first set, rest 3-4 minutes, and then once again take exercise to failure. Rest a few more minutes, and repeat. 

Here's the crazy part: Do that one exercise until you can't get a single repetition with the weight on your final set. Depending on how much muscular endurance you have, that could take between 6 and 15 sets. 

Below is a sample training split to use with this approach: 

Monday: Chest and Arms

DB Bench Presses
Barbell Curls
Lying DB Extensions

Tuesday: Legs

Stiff-Legged Deadlifts
Donkey Calf Raises

Wednesday: Off

Thursday: Back and Shoulders

Wide-Grip Chins
Overhead Presses

Friday: Off

Saturday: Cycle Begins Again (or change to another program)

If you decide to continue with this method for another cycle, rotate to a different set of exercises for each training day. When you're training so intensely, it's very easy to overwork a particular movement pattern to the point of building up damage, something you want to avoid at all costs. 

Closing Thoughts

When following any of these programs, make sure you're getting plenty of sleep -- and rest -- to help you recover and grow. Nutrition is, as always, very important. You can't train like this when you're on a calorie-restricted diet. You want to eat plenty of calories -- protein, good carbs, fat. 

And remember . . . 

Sometimes insanity ain't such a bad thing.   


Tuesday, July 23, 2019

365 Days of Brutality - Jamie Lewis

You gotta get this book.
I shit you not. 

True strength is feared, reviled, marginalized, and demonized. Self-reliance is lambasted as exclusionary and sociopathy. Self improvement in the modern era has become the disgusting field of "self help," which is naught but excuse-making and pseudoscience. True self improvement is considered at best to be self-indulgent and at worst to be self-destructive solipsism, when it is in fact neither.

This book is not designed for me to "help me, help you" -- this book is designed for you to grab your balls or ovaries, head to the gym, and smash some iron in a manner inspired by the greats. In a way that allows you to look at the dickheads in your gym who are punching a clock like Soviet factory workers while utilizing some garbage program created for long dead, half starved Russian field hands and laugh, because you will succeed where they failed on your own merit. 

And you will do so by training hard, enjoying it as you do so, and doing it with the goddamn volume turned up to 11.   

To wrap up . . . 

This is not your sport. It's the sport of the people who came before you. People who didn't define themselves by a particular weightlifting discipline but instead just lifted 

and busted their asses



Sunday, July 21, 2019

Make It Harder, Not Easier - Bill Starr

At some point in your strength program you have to become more aggressive and lean on the top-end numbers. If you continue to train with comfortable poundages for too long, you'll get lazy and your progress will come to a halt. The body seeks equilibrium, complacency. In fact, it would prefer to stay out of the gym altogether. Given a choice, it would much rather lie on a couch and have cold liquids and junk foods stuffed into it than sweat and strain in a hot gym. 

To add to the problem of inherent indolence is the fact that there is, sadly, a trend in training philosophies that actually promotes making things easier. Use machines rather than free weights, since machines put less stress on the body. Other trendy but easier techniques include abbreviated workouts, split routines that barely raise as sweat, doing nothing but partial squats instead of full squats, and of course putting absolutely nothing really challenging on the bar. How about performing seated presses over standing ones or clean and presses? Are the latter movements better? No, but they're easier. The same goes for using Smith-type machines instead of free weights, or hang cleans instead of full cleans. When I ask people why they do hang cleans instead of the full-range movement, they usually reply that it's safer. Horse Fritters. People do hang cleans because they're easier to do -- and also easier to teach -- than full cleans. 

I have a beef with today's mania for the Trap Bar. Proponents say it makes the movements easier than when they use an Olympic bar. That's it's main selling point, but to me it's not a plus but a negative. Any time you make a lift easier to perform, other than when you're perfecting your technique on it, you're going to get less out of it. Many, many sets of huge, powerful traps were built before this device came along. What's more, I can still make any trainee's traps so sore he can't sit down without pain, and all I need is an Olympic bar and lots of weight. 

Another pet peeve of mine is the various apparatuses that are manufactured solely to ease workout pain. My favorite is the plastic cushion for the shoulders so the bar won't hurt your back when you squat. Another one is gloves. Since when are calluses are major problem -- unless you happen to be a surgeon? Wraps and other supportive equipment are in this category too -- anything to keep you from feeling any hurtful sensations while training. 

Nevertheless, my biggest gripe is the "all-you" insanity that permeates the training halls of this country today. 

Whenever I hear the cry "All You!" I can be 100% certain most of the lift is being done by the spotter, not the lifter. I believe I know how this nonsense made its way into strength training. It's supposed to be a form of forced reps. Now, forced reps do have a place in strength training, but only for advanced lifters, in which case you must do them with heavy weights and use two spotters, who must time their movements precisely.

That's not what's going on, however. What they're doing with the all-you goofiness is not really forced reps at all but rather trainees being assisted through the most difficult part of the lift. I compare it to helping runners go the final few yards in a race by carrying them across the finish line. After all, they were very tired. 

Perhaps even more ludicrous than the practice of making the lift easier for their partners is the interaction between lifters and spotters following and all-you attempt. The lifter will turn and ask, "How much did you take off the bar?" The invariable answer is, "Only about a pound," with the added note, "I barely touched it." Why not a gram? 

Am I the only person who thinks this practice is totally stupid and counterproductive? To add to the absurdity, people who have been all-youed always count the assisted reps, having been convinced by their partners that they could have done them even if the partners hadn't touched the bar. 

I finally came to the conclusion that the logic behind the all-you practice is, You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours. In other words, if I help you through the most difficult portion of a lift, then I can count on you to help me. While it's nice to have a reliable spotter in case you do fail, he or she isn't helping you get stronger by nudging the bar through the sticking point. In fact, he's hurting your progress. How am I going to learn to grind through the tough part of the lift is someone always helps me? It's called the sticking point for good reason: It's the weakest part of the lift. Instead of helping me lift the bar, better to push down on it -- which is what I generally do when I spot people who are accustomed to being all-youed. Of course, they only ask me to spot them one time, and that's fine with me.

All-youing is most common on the bench press and incline, but it also occurs during curling, overhead pressing and squats. The behind-the-lifter, hands-under-the-armpits form of spotting for squats also drives me up a wall. I see people do that sort of thing even if the lifter is inside a power rack or in a staircase rack.

Don't get me wrong, I understand the importance of spotting, especially for lifts such as the bench press and incline, where the bar is over your face, but I believe having a spotter hug you and help you through the difficult part of the squat limits your progress. If I have people squatting inside a power rack or staircase rack, where they're protected, I discourage them from using any spotters. A great many of my athletes prefer to squat without spotters. If they miss, they're covered, and they believe it forces them to put out more when they know they're not going to be helped. 

The only time I ever use the behind-the-lifter spot is when there's no one else in the gym and no power or staircase rack. I've also noticed that people who use that type of spot never go very low. It's a good thing, because if they did get stuck in the deep position they'd be out of luck, for one person can't do much to save them. They'd have to dump the bar. So either squat inside a rack or use two spotters. You can have someone hug you later. 

Weight training isn't a team sport, and those who try to make it into one only limit themselves. In the final analysis you are alone with the bar. The only gains you make come from your efforts, not from those you train with. I believe that many people employ the all-you assistance on almost every single exercise so they'll never fail. In reality they don't succeed, since the spotter does most of the work. In their minds, however, at least they don't miss. 

I encourage pushing to failure. I believe in the concept of getting your misses up. How else can you really know exactly what your limits are on any lift? Failing is part of the overall process. Lifting without failing is like skating without falling. There's nothing wrong in failing. In fact, it's necessary. In most cases the failure serves to motivate you. You become irritated at missing a certain poundage and work harder so you won't miss it again. When my athletes miss a max attempt, they dwell on it for weeks until I let them take a crack at it again. In the meantime they're strengthening the weak area that revealed itself with the failure. Seldom do they ever miss the second time around, and in the process they move to a higher strength level. It also builds a more aggressive attitude, which I want to promote in my athletes. 

Fear of failure is also one of the reasons so many programs don't include singles. Some experts suggest that singles are risky, but I don't find that to be the case if lifters have been taught proper form. Certainly, the Olympic lifts are riskier than any weight-training exercise, and Olympic lifters thrive on singles. Instead of singles, coaches encourage high reps. They use them to test the relative strength of their athletes as well. That practice actually came out of professional football and has filtered down to colleges and high school. Take a given weight and do as many reps as possible. Proponents of high-rep testing say it's safer than trying a max single, but I find that the exact opposite is true. Typically, the lift of choice is the bench press. Once lifters tire, they revert to sloppy form in order to run the reps higher. They rebound the bar off their chest, bridge and/or twist -- anything to gain one more rep. That's much more stressful to the shoulder girdle than trying a max single. 

Another common practice that protects lifters from facing the horrors of failure is the conversion chart, which enables them to convert reps done on a certain lift to a max single. I've always hated that idea, for everyone who has ever lifted anything heavy understands there's a world of difference physically and, more importantly, mentally. It takes a certain amount of courage to deal with 400, and it fosters weakness to convert a light poundage to a calculated heavy one. 

When I first arrived at Johns Hopkins, the football coach, who left soon afterward, showed me the results of his off-season strength program from the year before. I was impressed because there were a half dozen players squatting more than 500. My job was going to be easier than I expected, I thought. When i did get the football team in the weight room, however, I discovered that only one player could even manage 315, and he wasn't going low enough. Then I found out the former coach had used a conversion chart. 

Why? It's easier, for one thing, but the primary reason so many use it, I believe, is because it boosts the numbers, even if they are artificial. I fully understand, for I'm in the same boat, but if you're serious about getting stronger, for whatever reason, then you need to include singles in your routine. You may not want to do them often, but the singles will help you break through the numbers barrier, and numbers are what strength training is all about. 

If, for example, the most you ever handle on the bench press is 275 x 5, and you decide to try 290 or 300, the odds are you'll fail. The reason for that is partly psychological, but there's also a physiological aspect.

Lifting a maximum single opens up totally new synapses in the nervous system and forces the tendons and ligaments to work harder. The true sources of strength are the tendons and ligaments, so you must stress them positively in order to make them stronger. 

Note: I've never been able to understand anyone who doesn't like the feeling of doing singles. They're so matter of fact, straight to the point, clean, pure, compressed and lacking in excess baggage. The shining diamonds of the rep kingdom. Consider also that Chuck Sipes may have been J.C. Hise reincarnate. I mean, a guy like Hise, with that much inquisitive lust for life, hey, throw his soul a rope down under and I guarantee he'll grab on and pull himself back up. And the same rope may have pulled him back under once the buggers down there realized he was missing. Anyone who's ever had the wind moving through the trees late at night call out to "grab that knife and do it" can easily see that. I figure. Without a doubt. No room for doubt with singles. It's truly all you.

Another advantage of doing singles is that they help hone technique. Doing 10's and even 5's or 3's allows a certain margin of error in form, but that's not the case for a max single. The line has to be very precise. Miss the groove even slightly, and you'll miss the lift. 

Note: How beautiful is that! Your whole being is either in that moment or that same moment sends you packing back in time, a beaten man. Being beaten can't be a possibility or an option with singles. There's no 8 to maybe 10 here. It's ONE. In more ways than one.   

By the same token, max and near-max singles (the fine family of Singles . . . Max, Near-Max, Cousin On-the-Minute, Uncle Rest-Pause . . . the lot of 'em) can help you locate your weak point. With a lighter poundage you can slide through your weak point, but not with a max single. Quite a few of my athletes power their squats out of a deep bottom position. Their starts are so powerful that they seldom have to worry about grinding through the middle range. Their hips and glutes elevate the bar so forcefully that they only have to be concerned with the start and finish -- that is, until the bar is loaded to a heavy single and the weakness shows itself. That's a Good Thing. You want your weaknesses to show themselves. 

Singles influence the numbers barrier in another way also. Some numbers, such as 300 and 400 are formidable. Many shy away from singles because they are fearful of dealing with big numbers. These men should not become investment bankers. If you include singles in your routine on a regular basis, though, you can slip right up to and over those numbers. Move your max to 285, then go back and work that lift until you can do the saame 285 for 3 reps. Then single out again. This time you will manage 295. Do the same thing again, work, work, work and get a triple with 295. The next time you go for a max, you'll vault right over the 300 barrier. 

Whenever I bring up the subject of singles, I'm invariably asked, "But are they safe?" Yes, if you satisfy two conditions. You have to learn good form on the lift, and establish a solid foundation. Those conditions apply to any lower reps, even triples. Nothing is really more important to people interested in gaining strength than perfecting technique on all the exercises. And I mean all of them, even small muscle movements like pullovers and dips. If you've been working out consistently for six weeks or more, your base will be sound enough for you to do some singles. 

Singles serve the strength athlete in much the same manner as sprints serve the runner. They trigger different responses in the body and make it stronger. You may only want to single once a month, and that's fine. Many people like to spend adequate time firming up their base and increasing the workload on a lift before trying to max out for a personal record. That's a good idea. Singles are fun, no, wait, SINGLES ARE FUN, since they allow you to set PRs, so people will sometimes do them to frequently, but here I am talking about a max single. Four weeks between max singles is often enough to get the desired effect.

Besides adding singles to your program, continue to incorporate newer, more demanding exercises as well. Once you've mastered the power clean, try doing full cleans. Do clean and presses instead of seated presses or presses from the rack. Try front squats. They're tough, but they work the legs and hips quite differently from the way back squats work it. Keep challenging your body, and it will grow stronger. 

Baby it and you'll forever remain weak.            

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