Friday, September 13, 2013

Down and Dirty With Pull-ups and Periodization

When it comes to pull-ups, which is better: 5 unassisted or 12 assisted?


The answer to this question depends on your goals, of course. But before we go any further, a solid understanding of just what your goals might be is essential. In a previous post on undulating periodization, I briefly described the three basic training adaptations: muscular endurance, hypertrophy, and strength. A keen understanding of these principles is so important that they bear elaboration.

Here goes. The amount of weight you select (as a percentage of your one repetition maximum) dictates the number of reps your muscles are physiologically capable of producing. These two factors (weight and reps) determine the amount of rest necessary between sets, as well as the overall number of sets to perform for the most bang for the buck.

Training Adaptation
Muscular endurance
2 to 3
<30 seconds
3 to 6
6 to 12
30 to 90 seconds
2 to 6
2 to 5 minutes

As you can see from the chart above, muscular endurance is characterized by light weights, high reps (up to 20 or 30, even), and short rest. If you perform 12 pull-ups, you are training for muscular endurance. Note that whether you need assistance or not doesn't factor in here.

Then there's hypertrophy, which is a fancy word for an increase in lean body mass, which is another fancy word for bigger muscles. Training for hypertrophy means medium weights, reps, and rest. Say you do 8 pull-ups. That's hypertrophy. 

(Ladies, fear not: due to your low levels of testosterone, you're unlikely to bulk up like a bodybuilder, even when working in the hypertrophy rep range.)

Lastly, strength training consists of heavy weights, low reps, and long rest periods. In terms of pull-ups, if you're doing 5 reps, that's strength. This is the protocol that most powerlifters follow in order to increase their one-rep max squat, deadlift, and bench press.

Since each training adaptation confers different physiological and neural benefits, for general physical fitness it makes sense to spend a little bit of time training for each. (This, of course, is the essence of periodization.) Even powerlifters flirt with some hypertrophy training to supplement their strength.

So what the heck is better, 5 unassisted pull-ups or 12 assisted pull-ups? The answer, predictably, is both!

Sometimes, be it during the month of September (linear periodization) or on Mondays (undulating periodization), you should perform 3 sets of 4-6 reps for strength. You know you're doing it right if the seventh one is physically impossible. Other times, you should do 3 sets of 8-10 reps for hypertrophy. On still other occasions, bang out 12-15 reps for muscular endurance.

If you're super strong, for strength and hypertrophy you might need to add external weight via a weight vest or a dip belt. If you're still working on bodyweight pull-ups, you'll likely need some assistance in order to train in the hypertrophy and muscular endurance rep ranges.

There are a few things to take into consideration when selecting assistance. The pin-selected machine that provides a counterweight is great for developing back and bicep strength. However, because it supports your lower body, it takes away the core stability component of the pull-up.

A better option is to loop a superband around the pull-up bar and put one knee in. Not only does this force you to engage your core, but it also provides more assistance at the bottom of the pull-up, where you'll likely need it, and less at the top, where you're in a better biomechanical position to pull. Just be careful not to get hit in the face with the band when you remove your knee.

A third alternative -- and the one with the most carryover to doing more pull-ups without assistance -- is actually to perform just the eccentric, or lowering, portion (no assistance). To get yourself up to the start position with your chin over the bar, either jump up or stand on a chair. Count to 10 as you lower yourself all the way down to a dead hang, then repeat.

Enjoy the tremendous pull-up gains you'll make by following these methods, and always remember to take 10 minutes prior to your pull-ups to warm-up properly with the Pollenator Warm-Up.


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