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Grip Strength

Progress Towards the Pull Up

I have found the pull up to be a very intriguing exercise constantly on the minds of the people who come through the door of my gym. Generally speaking, as new trainees most cannot do them and if they can maybe they only muster up 1-2 full repetitions with an attempt to get their chin past the bar. Most of the time I see trainees resembling a flaying fish or furious pedaling air in a bicycle competition while trying a pull up.

Even with the initial limited success, I would say that most of the clients I train actually want to do them and get better at them. When I construct new programs the pull up is probably the most requested exercise variation to add. I believe this to be because most standardize testing from grade school to the law enforcement training has some sort of strength standard based on the pull up.

At the local middle school the Gold Standard for the pull up test are as follows:

Boys Pull Ups:                                 Girls Flexed Arm Hang:

6th Grade; 2 reps                             6th Grade; 17 sec.

7th Grade; 3 reps                            7th Grade; 18 sec.

8th Grade; 5 reps                             8th Grade; 19 sec.

 

Ye s I am a little disappointed to see the girls only have to do a flexed arm hang so I train the girls to work their way to pull ups figuring a few reps are better than a flexed arm hang any day and the testing allows pull ups to trump the flex arm hang.

For the Military standards for male recruits in boot camp the minimum requirement for pull ups is three repetitions and doing 20 reps earns you a top score during the testing phase.

Pull Ups Whether it is the need to get better for upcoming physical tests or an understandable measure of success to go from one repetition to five, the desire for trainees to perform pull ups is there and I will encourage this type of drive and add a pull up exercise variation within people’s programs. For many pull ups do not come easily at first and there needs to be a few stepping stones to get to the real deal. In this article I will go into the remedial exercises to get you to doing those perfect pull ups.

Activate the Correct Muscles

One of the most common movement mistakes I see with people who are not successful at pull ups is not activating the proper muscle groups to make their movement more successful. I tend to initially see a lot of hunching at the shoulders and pulling with the arms. The focus on the vertical pulling movement required for the pull up requires emphasis on the posterior muscles of the upper body.

When you elevate your shoulders you are basically turning off the functionality of the back muscles requiring you to rely on your arm to take over the movement. The back muscles are much more equipped to perform the movement successfully we just have to get them activated.

One of my favorite ways to activate the back also turns out to be the simplest; the band pull apart. Simply get a small elastic band and grab with the straightest wrists possible. With your shoulders down and elbows locked out, pull the band apart, towards the chest, by thinking about pulling your shoulder blades together. Make sure to control the band back to the start and reset the body position, if needed, and perform the next rep.

Front Pull Apart

You can also simulate a pull up in the vertical plane with the band by starting overhead with the band and pulling to the chest.

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Inverted Row Variations

This is one of my favorite movements towards pull up success because you can involve the correct pull up muscles and move your body weight through the range of motion while at an angle that can be manipulated to make the movement harder or easier.

Now the big difference in that inverted rows are more of a horizontal pull rather than a vertical pull, like the pull up, however the back muscles are generally much stronger pulling horizontally so you can easily perform more repetitions to train the muscles to get stronger for your pull ups.

The bar variation is a good place to start and the nice thing is that it is fully adjustable according to your current pulling condition. If you are beginning this movement, have the bar a bit higher and as you get stronger move it down.

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As with any horizontal pulling movement it is important to have an even grip, keep the shoulders down and moderately retracted with your head neutral with the rest of the spine. Proper execution comes from moving the body as one unit, focusing on the muscles of the back (Lats, Rhomboids etc) to initiate and move the body during the pull. You want to feel the shoulder blades moving freely and gliding along your rib cage until they meet together in the middle of your back. Control the eccentric (downward motion) and always try to achieve full range of motion (ROM).

Grip is a huge factor when it comes to pull up success. Make sure to squeeze the bar tight when you are working through the ROM and you can slightly relax the grip momentarily in between repetitions.

Another variation of the inverted body row involves using a suspension type system like the Blast Straps or TRX. These suspension systems act much like the bar by making the movement harder or easier depending on the body position however they also train any imbalances between sides because of the independent handles. The technique is the same as the bar just pay close attention not to pull too far and have to manipulate your body to increase your ROM. This can primarily be seen in the flexing of the wrists or dropping of the shoulders forward to get further.

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Suspension trainers also offer the added benefit of performing the motion with a single arm which can train the strength and stability difference between the two sides of the body. The trick when doing the single side is to keep proper mechanics of the inverted row in mind. Shoulders down, body aligned properly and as you pull your body weight up the strap remains stable; you do not want to use any momentum to propel you upward.

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For any of these inverted row variations, as you become better, you can add weight to your body to make the movement harder. A weighted vest or chains that can be wrapped around the body work best.

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Band Assisted Pull Ups

The other exercises mentioned above will all help to get your muscles stronger for pull up success however you have to train in the vertical plane to truly get the pull up down. Even if you can’t do a body weight pull up there is a way to train this movement with assistance.

Using bands for assistance is a good way to train the vertical motion of the pull up and to progress towards your body weight goal. Bands come in various sizes each having their own assistance/resistance level; the bigger the band the more help you will get.

Set up the band in the middle of the pull up bar ideally splitting your body right down the middle. Depending on the tension of the band and how much assistance you need you can place the band on your foot (more assistance) or on your knee. If you train solo it will be easier to set up the band around your knee especially if it is a larger one.

Keep your form strict and work up to a desired number of repetitions and gradually work your way to using small bands that offer less assistance until you are performing body weight pull ups.

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Pull ups are achievable with the right progressive programming and dedication to the movement. Now go get them done.

For further explanation of the progressions above check out the video below:

Make the Bench Press a Whole Lot Easier

Arguably the most popular strength exercise, especially amongst high school boys, is the bench press.  Go to any commercial gym during the summer and the bench will be the most used piece of equipment for the next three months.

With its more frequent use so comes the increasing number of technically terrible sets and reps.  It is not uncommon to see a kid load up a bar with more weight than they can handle, receive a poor handoff from their spotter and after a bounce off their chest with shaky arms and tap dancing feet, try and press the weight back up.  I once saw a young guy get pinned with 95lbs and after his three spotters pulled the weight off him they were all so embarrassed they ran away never to perform another set that evening.

Now there are tons of articles about bench pressing out and about on the internet; I even received two this past week in my inbox from popular trainers; however most of the articles talk about how to increase your bench press giving minimal attention to technique.  You can throw as much weight as you want on the bar, try wave loading cycles, use bands and chains and even do heavy eccentric work but without the technical basics you won’t get anywhere but a trip to the hospital with a jacked shoulder or torn tendon.

In this article I am going to focus only on the set up and technique of bench pressing.  Build a solid foundation around these principles and then the numbers will follow.

These technical principals are not restricted to just the bench press; utilize them for your dumbbell pressing and chest flyes as well.

Set it up Right

Before you can press any weight off your body it is important that you are set up properly.  When you lay down on the bench, I prefer that your eyes should be directly in-line with the bar you are about to press.  Many try to line their chest up with the bar but after it is unracked in this position you may hit the rack when you press if your head is too far behind the bar.

Your feet should be rooted into the ground.  Read that last sentence again.  Not tap dancing around or, heaven forbid, on the bench to keep your back flat, They should be firmly on the ground and ready to help support the lift and add pressing power.

Hand spacing is a matter of personal preference.  Some like a narrow grip because they can generate more power and some like a wide grip because the bar has to travel a smaller distance.  Both have their pros and cons.  I say find a zone where you can be the most powerful and maintain proper technique.  You can get a rough idea about where this is by standing up and placing your arms in a position where you would push someone who weighs 100lbs. more than you.  This is most likely the spot where you feel the most powerful and should work well for bench pressing.

One more note about the hands, I would prefer you use a true grip where your thumbs are wrapped around the handle.  I find this to be a safer position, minimizing the chance the bar comes down on your neck; also you will be able to grip the bar more and activate more muscle for strength.  Save the false (thumbless) grip for the professional powerlifters who choose to use it.

Pinch Those Shoulder Blades   

One of the most common complaints I hear about bench pressing is when people say the movement hurts their shoulder.  After watching their technique it is easy to see why; their shoulders are not stable and flopping around while performing the movement.

The fix is pretty simple: pinch the shoulder blades together.  Pinch them to the point where they are not only touching each other but where they are also contacting the bench itself.  The set up itself is not difficult to achieve, however it is maintaining this position that gets challenging.

Practice only with weight and within repetitions where you can maintain this position.   You may have to initially use a lighter weight than you are used to but mastering this technique will not only make you a stronger presser down the road, it will also save your shoulders in the process.

The pinch also allows the elbows to stay closer to the body which, when practiced, makes your press stronger and safer than having the elbows pointed perpendicular to the body.  If the weight is too heavy for you there will be a tendency to lose the proper shoulder position and the elbows will flare outward to press the weight back up.

Do not worry about the increased arch in the lower back; this is a positive result, especially when protected properly.  The next section will tell you exactly how to do so.

Put the Squeeze On

Not a day goes by that I don’t tell my athletes in the gym to “keep their butts tight.”  I am firm believer that the butt protects the low back. By keeping the glutes clenched not only will you keep your hips stable, therefore protecting your low back, but it also creates more tension to move heavier weight.

As far as grip on the bar is concerned, one of the best ways to activate more muscles and move more weight is to create tension.  Grip the bar strong, as if you are going to crush it, when you bench press.  The wrapped thumb around the bar is a good way to apply maximal tension on the bar for bigger, safer presses.

Compress the Spring

It is not uncommon for many novice pressers to focus solely on the concentric (upward) portion of the lift.  They usually do one of two things: literally drop the weight too fast towards the chest and try and press it up or shorten the range of motion so much that they don’t get the weight anywhere near the chest so they can get it back to the top position.

I tell all of my athletes to think about lifting in two directions.  In the bench press you want to set up properly and use your back muscles to pull the bar towards the chest.  This creates tension in the pressing muscles which is like a loaded spring that can be used to drive the weight back to the top.

Press in a Straight Line

Once you are all set up it is time to press.  Pressing in a straight line is important for a good lift.  It is common for someone to press back towards the head as if to rack the weight however when you press the bar back you lose your proper set up and it can be disastrous for your shoulders.

Get your set up, have a spotter help you with the bar placement, pick a line or focus point above you and press within that straight line. When the lift is complete, have the spotter help you rack the weight.

There you have some tips to help your set up for successful bench pressing.  Check the video below for visual demonstrations of techniques described above.

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Why Has Nothing Changed? Improper Wrist and Forearm Strength Training

Guest Post and Free Sample Workouts by Jedd Johnson of the Diesel Crew


If you’re a baseball player, you know that hand strength and forearm strength are very important to your game.

This is something that my coaches told me all the years that I pitched.

So, when I was 12, my parents got me this weird looking wrist-strengthening thing that you put your hand inside of and then performed wrist flexion.  It kind of looked like this thing (see picture below), only it had a resistance dial that you could turn to make it tighter:

After like 3 weeks of that, even if I had the dial turned up to the toughest levels, I could do endless repetitions while watching TV and riding a unicycle.

Well, maybe I wasn’t that strong at 12, but the machine was essentially a pointless device.

When I got to high school I was shown other forms of wrist training.  Dudes at the gym introduced me to wrist curls. They felt cool and made the veins in my forearms pop out like crazy, so I did them religiously.

When I got to college, I was shown the wrist roller.  It was a PVC handle with a rope tied to it and at the end of the rope was a 2.5-lb weight.  It was so light it was a joke. I remembered feeling a pinching in my shoulder every time I did it, but I never said anything and just kept on doing it because everybody else was doing it too.

Contrary to what you might be thinking, the purpose of this article isn’t to tell you my life story about wrist training.  Actually, I want to change your life story going forward about the way you train your grip and forearms, so you can take your game up to a higher level.

You see, I haven’t played baseball for 10 years, but in the meantime I have become a strength and conditioning coach and it amazes me that to this day, kids that are 12 years old are still training with the similar wrist flexion devices I was.

Kids in high school are telling me that their grip work still involves mostly wrist curls and maybe some tennis ball squeezes, and I talked to a guy I know that goes to college and he says they don’t do ANYTHING for their grip there, let alone the pinch-your-rotator-cuff front wrist roller.

So, I ask, “Why Has NOTHING Changed in the Last TEN Years?

It’s time to change the way we think about Grip and Forearm Training.  A steady diet of wrist curls, wrist roller and squeezing a tennis ball is BUSCH LEAGUE at BEST – it sucks.

Think about it this way…

Those three movements work mostly wrist and finger flexion.  That is only one movement pattern of the wrist and forearm.

You see, the wrist and forearm work together to move in 6 main ways:

  • Flexion:  Moving the palm toward the front of the forearm
  • Extension:  Moving the back of the hand toward the back of the forearm
  • Radial Deviation:  Moving the thumb-side of the hand toward the radius bone of the forearm
  • Ulnar Deviation:  Moving the pinky-side of the hand toward the ulna bone of the forearm
  • Pronation:  Turning the palm down toward the floor
  • Supination:  Turning the palm up to the sky

In order to be fully strong, you must work the wrist and forearm in all of these plains.  Also to avoid injury, all these plains must be exercised, because if there is an imbalance, it can cause pain and injury as well as limit strength gains in the future.

The fingers and thumb are the exact same way.  Working only flexion all the time is a recipe for disaster in the form of discomfort, strength limitations, soft tissue injury, etc.

If you capitalize on these six movement patterns of the wrist and forearm, you will be stronger than all of the other players who are just doing wrist curls.  You will notice that not just the flexors of the forearm start to grow, but you will also see that the extensors in the back of the forearm as well as the other synergistic muscles will be popping out of your forearm too.

This increase in strength will allow you to hit the ball farther because your bat speed is going to go up and you’ll be able to drive through the ball with more power.

If you are a pitcher, you are going to feel more “snap” at the end of your delivery as well as more endurance during the course of the game, as well as less pain and better recovery post-game.

And for all the players on the team, you will feel more stamina in the lower arms both during games and over the course of the season, as well as being more resilient against lower arm injuries from intense play in the field and on the base paths.

So now the question is, How do I begin?

Fortunately, I have the perfect resource for you – Ultimate Forearm Training for Baseball. This manual is over 500 pages in total, and includes 300 pages of exercises.  It also shows you how to keep your lower arms in top shape using stretching and preventive protocols that most therapists don’t even know about.  It has 20+ fully designed workout templates, and 20 pieces of equipment you can use for grip training you can make yourself or buy at a hardware store.

This is the only resource of its kind.  It is your SECRET WEAPON for lower arm strength.  Make sure to pick it up now, before your opponents find out about it.

Find the product here Ultimate Forearm Training for Baseball

Editor’s note: Jedd was kind enough to include a COMPLIMENTARY sample forearm training program for my readers.  You can download it here: Ultimate Forearm Training for Baseball Sample Workout

This is a great start in how to incorporate forearm training to enhance your athletic skills, increase your performance and minimize injuries.  If you like it I encourage you to purchase his Ultimate Forearm Training for Baseball Manual.

I had the privilege of reading the manual before he put it on sale and I must say it is quite good.  Jedd leaves no stone unturned in the 500 page manual, complete with the “hows and whys” along with exercises, do it yourself equipment instructions and tons of programs.

I make absolutely NO money off of you purchasing his product but I fully endorse it.

-Doug

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