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!


Anonymous said...

Rock on!

I've got a collection of those shirts as well. I always said that the pull up station was my favorite "ride" at the local state fair.

and why wouldn't I call it a ride? It's exciting, it gets your heart rate up and it's fun to watch other's on it.

BUt then again you get a prize, so maybe it's a game?

kenrenard said...

I have a question. I am 40 years old with two young kids and try to get exercise in as much as possible. Do you recommend pull-ups,push-ups, dips everyday? I currently do them 5 days a week and seem to be tweaking my shoulder from time to time if I try too much especially push up variations. I have seen many different views on other sites. I wanted to get your take on this. Thanks

Colt94 said...

Actually...there are competitions for max rep and max weight pull ups and chin ups. Ive competed in several.

Justin_PS said...

I've since heard of this somewhere. Non-Crossfit though.