Thursday, August 4, 2011

A pull-up that's like a rope climb

Pull-ups are like rope climbing right? Is there a pull-up that I can do that's like a rope climb?

Occasionally, and invariably, I get questions like this. Rope climbing could lay claim to being the ultimate in upper-body, BW pulling training. It's just brutally hard in all kinds of awesome ways. Frankly, these ways aren't shared with just about every pull-up variation you can do. You can't make a pull-up effectively simulate a rope climb just because you do it while gripping ropes. It doesn't matter that they're working the same muscle groups. That's like saying that dips and push-ups are the same, and equally good for chest development.

So what are those awesome ways that make rope work more of an upper body strengthener than most pull-ups ever thought of being?

1. Remember a while back where I talked about most exercises being one concentric movement followed by an eccentric movement? Well, the rope turns that one on its ear. You're doing one concentric contraction after another until you get to the top of the rope. Then, it's all eccentric on the way down. In other words, there's no way to cheat on this one by rescinding control of the eccentric part of the exercise.

2. Why is that? Well, DUH! You're on a rope, probably 10-25 feet off the ground! The power of your muscles is the only thing that stands between you and a shattered tailbone and busted knees. There is a life-or-death quality to rope climbing that forces you to get every last bit of strength out of your upper body pull muscles.

3. With most pull-ups(except one-handed, of course), there's two hands in contact with whatever it is you're grabbing. Sure, there are plyo versions but when you're done exploding, you're back to two hands. With ropes, you alternate between two hands and one hand.

Okay, while all of this is awesomeness makes for a brutal method of training, it's not available to everyone, or even for everyone. It's not for people afraid of heights or weak on pull-ups to begin with. Most of us probably don't have the ability to set up a rope either. So, in the spirit of my blog, we won't cry about what we don't have. We'll just find ways to make do.

So, how do we get reasonably close to a rope climb with a pull-up? While the First two points about rope climbing don't lend themselves to easy and obvious substitutes in the pull-up arena, the last point does. People have been switching grips during pull-up for a while. Here's a video from a fellow Vermonter, Matt, doing one such variation...

Yes, he's spending some time hanging one-handed from the bars but it's all from a dead hang. If we want to get closer to the rope, then we need to hang one handed like we would on the rope. That means hanging one handed at the top of the bar. Now, we're getting somewhere. I've tried this variation on the switching grip theme a few times and as far as I'm concerned, this is as close as a pull-up can get to replicating the rope climb experience.

I'm getting that superhuman-wannabe bug and becoming increasingly unable to do things simple or easy, even on my first time. I started out using a thick bar (aka the frame of my monkey bars) with two towels. Switching between thick grip and towel pull-ups proved to be all kinds of brutal on the grip and the biceps... and the calluses too. For anyone who follows the Facebook page, this is how I tore my calluses off my hand.

With this style of pull-ups, I don't get too concerned with form. Switching grip at the top of the movement makes things get a bit sloppy. Even four pull-ups to a set of these are pretty brutal. Besides, nobody critiques form on rope climbing, right?

This modest adjustment to this old pull-up theme should make for a nice progression between pull-ups and rope work. It also makes for a decent substitute if you don't have rope climbing capabilities. Just do your hands and elbows a favor and don't do what I did. Start modestly and work up to the harder stuff. It's always easier to fix undertraining than it is to fix overtraining.

...and check out Matt's place sometime!


It's been a while, I know. Life's moving fast and hard lately, taking up precious time and brain power where frivolities of writing things that don't make money have taken a back seat. Still, there are times in the weekend where Henry doesn't have colic that needs to be soothed and the drains in the yard don't need to be dug up and I can enjoy life.

One of those times was last weekend where I attended a wedding reception for some friends who got married in Peru. For those of us unfortunate who couldn't make the trek south to attend, they threw another party for us here. The groom is one of my periodic readers and he ambushed me at the buffet line to tell me about how he wants to work out but the damn heat in Miami (where he was living) was so brutal that he just couldn't bring himself to keep doing it.

Not at my most thought-provoking, I came up with the pretty boiler-plate, hardcore answer. Since I don't approach training with a soft touch, I let him know that I'm not the guy to come to and say that you can't deal with the heat. He must have expected that and said something like, "So, I should stop being a pussy and suck it up?" My reply? YES!

While there is a lot of truth in such an exchange, on reflecting on it there's more to it than a sophomoric and tough-guy answer. Yes, dealing with heat is largely mental. Most of us aren't football players wearing north of a dozen pounds of gear in the searing heat. So, we don't really need to worry about dying from heat stroke like the news tries to scare us into worrying about every time the thermometer hits 90 degrees. So, a large part of working out in the heat is just accepting that we're going to be hot and sweaty. It's just another factor that we have to learn to overcome, just like we learned to accept the intensity of real strength training.

There are other mental elements in play however. Most of us deal better with things when we plan for them. Physically, there is a possibility that the heat might make us sick. Our mind knows this. If we plan for the rigor of working out, then we'll be a lot more adept to accepting them. Hydration is absolutely paramount to training at the top end of the mercury. That doesn't just mean that we have water handy when we're working out. You need to keep water in your system all of the time. Its true that you can be dehydrated without even knowing it. You'll figure this out when you go to work out and you just can't move like you did if you were adequately hydrated before even starting.

Notice that I said WATER and didn't mention any other form of beverages. People drink way too many other things than water and most of them don't help you stay hydrated any better than water does. Frankly, some of them are far worse. I make one exception to this rule: coconut water. This is a soft drink that I'm glad to see catching on. I've been a fan for three years. A little sip (and by sip, I mean around 4 ounces) here and there during some extended periods of time in the heat really helps deal with the electrolyte loss.

Another piece of the mind games of training that might have skipped a turn is what many of us decide to do in that heat. I hope that most of my readers would be just as repulsed as I am about running on a treadmill while watching TV. If that's not the case, and we crap out from doing such an activity then I'm hardly surprised. I recall hearing a theory put out by (I think) Pavel that doing sets of 20 reps is inferior to doing sets of 5 because the heavier weight (or more intense move) encourages more intense concentration. While I totally disagree with this rendition of using the exercise to focus the mind, I do agree that certain forms of training demand so much focus that the mind will not have the luxury of thinking about other things, including the heat. Let's face it: there are too many methods of exercise that are distracted by design and when additional stresses are introduced, failure is inevitable. Choose your exercises wisely.

Mankind has used heat to cook for millenia. Cooking is a good way to get rid of the things in food that shouldn't be there (attention raw foodies: this is a metaphor, so bear with me). It's funny that heat does the same thing with training too. You're going to find out what you should be doing and what you need to drop by working out in the heat. You're also going to discover if you're treating your body right by getting into the human pressure cooker known as your respective gym more often. As far as I'm concerned, there is an awful lot of good that can come out of training in the heat. It's form of stress that teaches a lot of good lessons, if we all can get around to suppressing our inner pussy and do it.