Thursday, September 15, 2011

Tendon Strength II: the pull ups

Every faction of strength training has a blacklist of exercises that you shouldn't do. They're labeled everything from pointless and useless to dangerous. Often times, the reasoning trends towards dangerous. They're bad for the joints. They cause tendonitis, or something along these lines. I just knew that when I posted this entry about tendon strength I'd get someone bringing up the pull up.

I'm a little surprised that the pull up doesn't get blacklisted more often. If there is any chance that what is said on the internet happens in real life, I'd be lead to believe that pull ups are responsible for a lot of elbow tendinitis out there.

I read a very good description of the state of pull ups on T-Nation: they're like vegetables. Just like we know we should be eating more vegetables but we don't, we all know we should be doing more pull ups... and we're not. Well, maybe some people got the memo. Maybe they're just like that 'roided out gorilla that I upstaged on Miami Beach years ago by more than doubling the number of pull ups that he could do on the bars set up around Ocean Drive. In other words, they sucked at pull ups, realized how much more awesome they could be if they started eschewing the lat machine in favor of the pull up bar, and got to work pull themselves up.

And screwed up their elbow(s) in the process.

Well, what's going on here?

Before I go further, I need to liberate myself from the responsibilities of being considered an expert again. I'm not going to claim to be anything resembling one so confuse me with one of those. I'm just a few steps above a keyboard kumanndo with a blog here. At the end of the day, you've always been the one who determines whether I'm writing anything worth reading. If something in your mind is telling you that I'm full of shit, then feel free to leave....
Pull-ups are a closed kinetic chain exercise. That is, the hands don't move. We all know that closed chain also applies to the feet, right? Well, the feet differ from the hands in many ways, namely that they're set up to handle our BW for most, if not all of the day. Our hands, on the other hand, struggle to maintain it for much more than 30-60 seconds at a time. In the outright beast category, Konstantinovs managed to do do pull-ups for nearly a minute and a half. Still, It's easy to see that the feet, and the knees, are designed more for hard use and shock than the hands and elbows ever were.

What difference does that make?

Form and Execution. I'm not here to be a form-nazi. I never will be either. When it comes to the form you do the movement with and how you move your body, I've always felt that both serve two purposes. First, to get the most out of the exercise. The second is to keep the body safe during execution. The first allows some flexibility in how you do things. The second doesn't. Frankly, I've ID'ed just about everyone who has asked me about elbow pain with pull-ups by asking if the control the rate that they descend down from the bar. Most of the time, they don't. I've said it several times before: Speed-Control=injury!

Another recent phenomenon, and most of us know where this comes from, is adding momentum to pull-ups from the beginning of the set, trying to drive the body upwards toward the bar. This is something else that generally find strange and avoid. I'm from the old school and as far as I'm concerned, kipping pull-ups are something that you do when you can't do normal pull-ups anymore. More specifically, you do that when you're failing and you can't do anymore without a boost.

I think that both bouncing up to the bar and falling down from it both come from the drive to increase pull-up rep count for no other reason than for the sake of having a high rep count. Let me remind my readers of one basic fact: THERE ARE NO PULL-UP COMPETITIONS TO SEE HOW MANY YOU CAN DO! Since no formal contests exist, then the strength that you gain from doing pull-ups should be the focus. There's no game to validate pumping up your rep count with cut corners.
This is the closest thing to a pull-up contest I know of. Marine Recruiters give you a T-shirt if you can do more than 20 pull-ups or chin-ups
Besides, since we've established that the upper extremities aren't made to take a beating quite like the lower ones, why subject them to all kinds of bouncing and shock? Lots of momentum with pull-ups really are more of an advanced movement. That's probably why you didn't use to see kipping pull-ups frequently taught to beginners.

I'm glad I got this one. My son puked on the shirt I was wearing at the time!
Still, when it really comes down to strength AND health, I'm much more of a fan of doing pull-ups the old school way. All of the biceps, grip, and lat strength don't amount to shit if the elbows are riddled with pain. I regard them best used for max strength and strength endurance work and used for explosive strength more sparingly. Above all, CONTROL THE MOVEMENT, DON'T LET THE MOVEMENT CONTROL YOU!
My collection, proof my tendons are awesome!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Most Gyms Suck...And My Son is AWESOME!

Multi-tasking perfected. The genesis of what I'm about to write about occurred when I was eating breakfast, rocking my son to sleep, and reading a web site about a gym that just opened up nearby. I was kind of struck with the juxtaposition. My intuition tells me that Henry's a future athlete. He's top 98% percentile in height...wait... length and weight, he's extremely strong, and he doesn't stop moving when awake ( he's furiously fighting sleep by bicycling legs right now, giving a fine demonstration of explosive leg strength). He's so amazingly alive and brimming with this amazing vitality. It's just great.

This new gym, on the other hand, is neither. It seems dead. Then again, the be dead, it would have had to be alive at some point. It doesn't even look like that ever happened it's so sterile. Unfortunately, this is par for the course in the world of recreational fitness.

I always thought that fitness is about life. It's about how much life do you have and for how long you have it. We strive to get fit so we can have higher quantities of quality life. So, the (rhetorical) question that pops into my mind is why on earth do people go to such an inert place looking for ways to make them feel more alive?

It brings up interesting questions about how much does the environment that you choose to move for fitness in contributes to how well you succeed at getting fit. I've typically been critical of having a hyper-specific focus about the right workout location, or what most simply say: "I need a gym to work out at." I'll still stick by that. I think that being married to a gym stifles creativity to a degree and creates a groove for the practitioner to get stuck in. "I didn't work out because I couldn't get to the gym"... or something like that. When we look at the world as our gym, then we never have an excuse for not working out.

Still, I'll admit that there's some requirements of a space for a decent chance of succeeding at making working out regularly and getting into some sort of version of good shape.

I mentioned creativity. Clearly, a room full of machines dedicated to making you move in one, very specific manner after another doesn't inspire an open minded approach to working out. Maybe my strange mind is getting the better of me but I think that some of these bizarre objects passing off as training equipment are starting to look like medieval torture devices. Maybe that's partly because they're mimicking them by putting the user in one position, allowing only a predesigned movement, and breaking a body to pieces in the process.

Another thing that I've always appreciated about a decent area to work out is that it is a little imperfect, even a tad dirty. Life, at it's best, is often messy and dirty. Are our best memories of growing up the ones where we were freshly-showered and in our dress clothes? Isn't part of having some fun the ability to cut loose a little? What difference does everything being clean amount to when I'm working out? I'm just getting sweaty anyway. Perhaps that compulsive obsessively cleaned look of too many Mchealth clubs reeks of lack of focus on what's important: the moves! It's not necessary for the place to look like the place was bleached white with an atomic bomb to be a good workout location!

As far as I'm concerned, it's downright counter-productive. It would be hard to deduce that from many of the chosen places of sweat and strength, including the above-mentioned health club.

Then again, whenever I step into our society's idea of a health club, I feel like an alien getting off of a space ship. I've barely ever worked out in them in comparision to how long I've been doing this stuff regularly. So, perhaps my strange looks as I examine the places like this new gym are nothing more than a feeling of awkwardness. I'm simply out of place.

Something tells me that I'm not though. People herd, and get herded, into these places all of the time, thinking that they're going to get in shape. It happens all too rarely. Something needs to change, and the way that we arrange the surroundings just might be a sort of catalyst. So, I'm just going to leave you with some adorable pics of my new bundle of joy and I along these thoughts to ponder.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Really hard stuff to do with embarassingly little weight

So, now that I've got a barbell set, and presumably the keys to the ultimate in strength training so I can finally look like a strong guy, I can pile on some massive weight and get to work, right?

By now, you've got to know that I don't work like that. Even as I collect more stuff, I still keep my minimalistic mindset about things (even if it's not needed anymore) and ask myself how I can do more with less stuff? I do this for two reasons. First, It's always easier to work with more than less. That mentality has served me well over the years as I've moved to places that put restrictions on training. Second, I find some very interesting stuff stuff to do.
Disclaimer time: once again, I didn't come up with any of this stuff. I'm just passing along information. again.

Besides, in a subculture so constantly obsessed with how much iron they can make defy gravity, it's kind of fun to take a bitchy amount of weight and struggle like it was 500 lbs. I find that it's a good reminder not to rely on one method of my face winces in pain.

Saxon Bend
This one doesn't use the bar, only a plate. It's pretty simple to explain: put the weight overhead and bend at the spine. The trick is to keep thyself from shortening the movement... REALLY BEND TO THE SIDE. I do this with a 22.5 plate from my Ironmaster KB or a 25 lbs olympic plate. Either way, that long lever really makes that measly, little piece of iron really hurt muscle and ego alike. A nice combination with the Saxon bend is to squat with that plate arms-straight length away from the body, followed by a Saxon bend in each direction. You'll never be so happy to drop a single plate!

One Arm Barbell Curl(OABBC)
I would have never conceived that I would ever enjoy doing what is probably the most vain exercise in existence. I just wasn't trying the right variation. Lots of people do barbell curls with two hands. I got the idea from T-nation to try it with only one. All single-arm barbell stuff is kind of funky and this one is no exception. What's humbling about OABBC that the bar alone is plenty hard!

What makes this so nasty is the same thing that makes a lot of unilateral work suck so hard: everything's got to be tight. There's a lot of muscles that work with your arm in order to curl a weight, namely your Traps, upper-rear shoulder muscles, abs and glutes. Cheating is simply a way of moving the body so you don't have to use these supports as they fatigue.

You can kiss that goodbye on this one. You can't cheat it nearly as much as the two handed version. If you do, chances are good one end of the bar will hit the floor. At the very least, it will torque the shit out of the grip. Either option should be avoided. Stay tight and curl. Oh, and do I need to mention that this variant is hell on your forearms? Also, chalk is very, VERY helpful with this one!

Squatting Press
I saw this one a while ago, back when I started bent pressing. Anthony DiLuglio from Art of Strength put out the best tutorial (<---That's a hint, BTW) on how to do that lift that I've seen on Youtube. In that video, he showed how to do the squatting press too. It's a weird-ass thing to try. Start out with the bar at your chest and squat underneath it until your arms are straight. From that point, you've got two options: stand up with the weight overhead or keep the weight stationary while standing back up.

Have you been using the mirror to admire all of the muscles that attach to bottom of your scapula, obsessing over how to make them sexier so you can get girls? Well, if you haven't, and you try this one out, you're definitely going to regret that decision. While I can do more weight with this one than I can the other two, bitch-making movements, this one makes me feel like a complete loser. It's just really, fucking hard! I don't even dare to embarrass myself by putting out a picture of myself doing it with shitty form and such a small amount of weight I squat press with! This is along the lines of exercising in the nude: best kept to yourself until you look really good! Even then, it's not a great idea anyway.

So, if you've been walking around, flexing in front of mirrors excessively, thinking about how awesome you are because you can do 20 crossfit pull-ups and can bench press...whatever... lbs of iron then I've got news for you: YOU'RE NOT AWESOME! In fact, you probably downright suck!

What you need to do is cleanse the douchbag out of yourself and give one, or all, of these lifts a try!