Fitness: Deadlifts, clean-and-jerks, pull-ups and more for a full-body workout

Old-school weightlifting can lead to huge strength gains. Make the barbell your friend.

Old-school weightlifting can lead to huge strength gains. Make the barbell your friend.

I’m a creature of routine. I find things that work for me, then stick with it. This can be a good thing when it comes to training; while some preach constant changes (muscle confusion, brah!), I’m more of the type who believes you create a program, use it over time and give it time to work.

However, there comes a time to change things up. It’s a tough balance between distance running and weight training for me. These forms of exercise compete with each other for time and resources. Want to be fast? You won’t be very muscular. What to be big and muscly? Fine, but forget about being fast over the long-haul.

I’ve accepted that reality. I know that I’ll only get so big or so fast, and I’m cool with that. As long as I can tough out a race over 15 miles or more, I’m good. And while I may not ever be a body builder or a power athlete, I like the idea of being strong. A little bit of both goes a long way in terms of staying healthy for a long time, and performing well in the outdoors.

Anyway, I digress. I decided it was, in fact, time to shake things up. My leg-day workouts were getting too long, too taxing. And there were areas in my training that got short-changed as a result.

So I split up some of the stuff I do on leg day, then added some more goodies. The end result? A workout that blasts the posterior chain (back, shoulders, glutes and hamstrings) while also balancing out a rather imbalanced weekly workout schedule. Here’s a review of the exercises:

Barbell deadlift: I do four to five sets of these. I start light, but quickly get heavy. This is a power lift, one that requires heavier weights and lower reps. Stand at the bar, feet about shoulder width apart. Hand grips vary; I choose to have one hand palm out, one hand palm in (the axle grip), and both hands gripping the bar outside of my stance. Grip the bar tight, and tense those lats. Pull up on the bar to take up any “slack,” or the little bit of room that exists between the bar and the plates. Keeping your head and neck in a neutral spine position, drive up by firing your quads, squeezing your glutes and driving your hips forward. Your back should be straight, and your chest slightly up (to the point where someone could see the logo on your shirt as you began the lift). When you’re at standing position, your chest should be out (proud) and your shoulders slightly back. Then slowly lower the weight down, bending at the knees and getting your hips back. Tip: DO NOT hunch your back; keep it straight. And don’t tilt your head back to look up at the mirror; doing so will deactivate your hams and glutes and overly recruit your lower back, which you DON’T want to do. If you can’t avoid hunching over and pulling with your back, use less weight and get the form right.

Barbell clean-and-jerk: One of the standard Olympic lifts, this is also a power move, and a complicated one at that. The clean-and-jerk is very technique-oriented, and I recommend good coaching and research before performing this move. That said, it’s an awesome full-body, compound exercise that builds explosiveness and power, and ultimately, strength in your legs, core and back. Stand at the bar in a deadlift position, but place your hands further apart than in the deadlift, and both palms down (no axle grip). To start the lift, explode up with the bar, but instead of stopping at a deadlift finish position, raise that bar to a front-squat position. You will likely come up on your toes a bit (the whole leg gets involved). Once in this position, you will do a push-press to finish the move — squat down slightly, then explode up powerfully with your legs, press the bar up, and lock out. For balance purposes, you might feel comfortable having one leg forward, one back, then coming to a neutral standing position once this lift is complete. This lift is easier shown than explained in type, so here ya go:

I do this in sets of four reps. This ain’t an exercise where you do high-rep sets. Even so, you will get a cardio element during your sets. Tip: This exercise is VERY technique oriented, and it is a riskier move than most other lifts. It’s vital you do weight you can handle, and don’t break form.

Farmer’s walk: This one is a lot easier to master. Simply pick up two heavy weights, then walk slowly with them in your hands for a minute. Dumbbells or plates work here. Maintain good posture and keep tension on your shoulders. A real trap-buster, and it will really help your grip strength, too.

Nothing beats the old-fashioned dead-hang pull-up.

Nothing beats the old-fashioned dead-hang pull-up.

Pull-ups: The king of back exercises, especially those broader lat muscles. But don’t be fooled, pull-ups and chin-ups are awesome for the entire back/shoulder muscles groups, as well as for your biceps and grip strength. I strongly recommend doing dead-hang pull-ups (no kipping) for optimal strength gains and muscle growth. Grab the bar, and “pack” your shoulders (don’t start from a completely relaxed position); flex your shoulders so they are supporting your weight at the bottom of the lift). Concentrate on pulling your chest toward the bar until your chin clears it, then lower yourself slowly. With this, do as many reps per set as you can.

Rear-delt band pulls: Band pulls? Really? Yes, really. I’ve read some really great stuff from elite lifters who use band pulls to strengthen those small backside shoulder muscles (rear delts, rhomboids), which in turn opens their chest and allows them to get huge gains in exercises like the bench press. Take an elastic band and grab both ends with your hands. Then slowly stretch the band out until your arms are fully extended in full-wingspan mode. Then slowly return to your starting position. Sets of 20 to 25 reps are good on this one.

Flexed-arm hangs: A good finishing exercise for the back. Go up to the pull-up bar, then pull yourself up to where your chin clears the bar. Hold that position for, say, 10 seconds. Then slowly lower yourself back down. Repeat. As you get stronger, increase the time.

So my workout looks like this:

Deadlift: sets of 8, 6, 4, 3, 2 (increasing weight)

Clean-and-jerk: 3 sets of 4 reps (increasing weight)

Farmer’s walk: 3 sets, 1 minute per set

Pull-up: 3 sets, as many reps as possible for each set

Rear-delt band pulls: 3 sets of 20

Flexed-arm hang: 3 sets, 10 seconds per set (more time if you’re stronger)

This is causing me to redo some of my other workouts during the week, but I’m good with that. A lot of the things I do are geared toward promoting a stronger posterior chain. This has a couple benefits. First, you can’t be a strong person without a strong back. And second, if you’re an endurance athlete, that entire posterior chain — back, glutes, hams and calves — need to be strong if you’re going to perform well and prevent injuries. Elite distance runners may need to tweak this (for the sake of being fast). But in general, if you’re interested in a high level of general fitness, doing the work on that ole backside should be a priority.

Bob Doucette

The Weekly Stoke: An epic free-solo climb in Mali, pull-ups, San Juan alpine goodness and when to cut the rope

Mont Blanc in the Alps. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

Mont Blanc in the Alps. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

Hopefully everyone found some adventure and outside time last weekend. But if you didn’t, I’ve got some stuff here to inspire your next trip. This will be a two-video version of the Weekly Stoke!

First, check out this video of climber Catherine Destivelle doing an amazing free solo in Mali. I’m not sure when this took place, but it’s pretty cool just the same.

Speaking of climbing moves, everyone knows that pull-ups are great for climbers. Having trouble getting them done? This writer has some good tips.

In this one, a husband a wife have an eventful hike in the San Juan mountains of Colorado.

And speaking of the San Juans, these guys put together an awesome four-peak summit fest in the Wilson Group.

We know blood doping and performance-enhancing drugs have been shown to help pro athletes gain an unfair edge. But what happens when a regular Joe cyclist starts hitting the juice? This writer experimented on himself and put his newfound powers to the test.

Scientists have an answer to why glaciers in the Alps started melting before the onset of climate change. And guess what? We are doing it to ourselves yet again.

And finally, a little humor in this video. Apologies in advance for some of the language, but this is pretty funny stuff.

Preaching the pull-up: Dead-hang vs. kipping

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I’ve been in a bit of a mood lately, kind of ranting about things that drive me a little crazy. I’ll spare you that misery in this space and keep my inner Louis Black in a cage. But there is a subject I want to examine, and I want to speak plainly.

I’m talking about pull-ups.

Awhile back, I crowned the pull-up as one of the four kings of strength training. Any bodybuilder worth his/her salt does them. Pull-ups are a staple in military training. And not surprisingly, many popular exercise programs incorporate them. Needless to say, they are heavily represented in my workouts.

The reasons are pretty clear: Pulling your bodyweight to where your chin gets over a bar is hard work. Do it right and it works your back, shoulders and biceps. Good, efficient hard work.

But there are two very different ways the pull-up is executed.

The first is the dead-hang, or tactical, pull-up. Here’s a video demonstrating what that looks like:

Then you have the kipping pull-up, which is pretty popular in Crossfit circles. Here’s video showing that:

These are very different techniques. A dead-hang pull-up is hard to execute. Many people cannot do it without assistance from bands or a spotter. It takes time to build up the strength to perform enough reps where you can do sets of dead-hang pull-ups.

The kipping pull-up is also very technique-oriented, often used by gymnasts to help them perform certain exercise routines on the bars and the rings. If you can’t do dead-hang pull-ups but learn kipping technique, you can perform kipping pull-ups in multiple sets with lots of reps.

I’ve never been shy about espousing the superiority of dead-hang pull-ups over kipping for training purposes. But it deserves some explanation. So what I’m going to do is break down why you should move away from the kip and go old-school on the pull-up.

For building strength, the dead-hang pull-up is superior. Dead-hang pull-ups isolate multiple muscle groups and in so doing, force them to do the work. A kipping pull-up will do some muscle isolation, but the momentum of the body swing actually does a huge part of the work. You can do a ton of kipping reps and not do the work of far fewer dead-hang pull-ups.

The “functional strength” aspect of the kip is highly overrated. A lot of trainers who incorporate the kip say they’re teaching a more useful physical “skill” than a dead-hang. I’ll concede that there aren’t many real-world moves that look like a dead-hang pull-up (unless you’re a climber/boulderer), and compound movements (where lots of muscle groups are working together to execute an athletic move) are meritorious. But outside of gymnastics and Crossfit competitions, where in the real world do you see a kipping movement used? Getting over an 8-foot wall? Nope. Rock climbing? Not really. Anything? Well, there is one thing…

The kip is used to get lots of reps, usually for the sake of getting lots of reps. Train enough, and you can do a boatload of kipping pull-ups. There are videos of people doing scores of reps in a single set. And that’s fine, except I don’t think it serves much purpose unless you’re measuring progress solely on numbers. For powerlifters, race athletes (run, swim, bike, etc.) and other similar sports, numbers matter. But in training? If being able to kip 100 times really signified progress, then why don’t we all do 1,000 crunches, 400 bodyweight squats and 500 jumping jacks every day? Because while all those feats are impressive, they don’t amount to much in terms of really improving your fitness. If you want to do an exercise that builds strength, you’re better off using progressive loads of weight rather than doing reps of an exercise that start piling up into multiple dozens per set.

There are injury concerns that tend to accompany lots of kipping. Kipping pull-ups, done right, are safe. But poor form causes shoulder problems, and doing lots of reps creates lots of fatigue, which of course leads to a breakdown in form, which gets particularly hairy on the downward part of the move. See where this is going? And one of the most important aspects of form on any pull-up is good “shoulder pack,” or keeping enough shoulder tension to safely guard the joints. Once fatigue sets in, shoulder pack tends to degrade. You can mask that with exercises that use momentum, or at least hide it from yourself. However, you cannot protect yourself from injury. Hello shoulder problems. That’s not to say you can’t lose shoulder pack on dead-hang pull-ups or face injury, but muscle fatigue will stop you from “over-repping” before you get too far.

As an aside, what does shoulder pack look like? To illustrate that, here are a couple of photos. This first shows a dead-hang position without proper shoulder pack.

No shoulder pack from the dead-hang position. Bad!

No shoulder pack from the dead-hang position. Bad!

Here is what a dead-hang looks like with proper shoulder pack.

Proper shoulder pack from the dead-hang position. Yay!

Proper shoulder pack from the dead-hang position. Yay!

Moving right along…

Lots of reps might mean lots of work, but lots of work isn’t always effective. See the prior comments on tons of reps on bodyweight exercises. At some point, you don’t need more reps. You need harder reps, whether that is a modified version of the exercise or just a different exercise that works the same body parts. I’d say 25 reps of 135 pounds on the squat rack is not harder than 4 reps at twice the weight. And that 4-rep set will also be more effective. The same is true with pull-ups.

I know some people will say that the higher-rep nature of a kipping circuit also has an endurance component, but there are better ways to encourage cardio performance growth than throwing down on a bunch of kips.

By contrast, the dead-hang pull-up builds strength, and fast. And the strength that is built is real and functional. For those who cannot do these, there are good “entry level” back exercises (like the inverted row) to help build up to doing the real deal. A video of the inverted row:

I hope I don’t bum anyone out. But exercise programs that use kipping pull-ups need to rethink this strategy for the sake of their clients’ fitness and health. One prominent Crossfit advocate agrees with me, writing a detailed piece on this very subject.

It may be awesome to say “I can do 30 pull-ups!” But if those are kipping pull-ups, you really haven’t accomplished much. Show me a guy who can do 12 dead-hang pull-ups, and that is way more impressive to me.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

Strength training royalty: A foundational list

I’ve been rather enjoying my running offseason. The runs are for fun and there’s less punishment going on. It’s also been interesting to see my muscles “fill up” again after months of training and races. All this, and still maintaining my weight in the mid-170s.

It got me to thinking about weight training, what’s important and those must-do things for people to have success. I’ve long said there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all method to fitness. Training should  be goal- and sport-specific. But when it comes to the weight room, I believe that there are foundational exercises that need to be part of what you do. I call them the four kings of strength training. Here’s how I see it:

chest

Chest press: Whether this is a barbell bench press, an incline dumbbell press or another variant of these two (notice: I didn’t mention decline bench), this needs to be a part of what you do. It hits big and multiple muscle groups: the pecs, shoulders and triceps. You can build off all other “press” moves with this as your capstone.

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Pull-up: Any bodybuilder worth their salt will tell you this is a must. So might your best climbers. You develop a broad, strong back doing bodyweight (and for the advanced, weighted) pull-ups. Like the chest press, this hammers big muscle groups: The lats, delts, biceps and even the traps. Variants include palms out, neutral grip and chin-ups (palms in), and they’re all great. Can’t do an unassisted pull-up? Try using bands for assisted reps, or do flexed-arm hangs, ending with a slow negative down. And you might also try reverse rows to help build you up to where you can do pull-ups on your own. And whatever you do, NO KIPPING.

squats

Squat: On this list of strength training royalty, the squat is the king among kings. It is, quite simply, the best strength training exercise there is. Your entire body gets a benefit, but the prime targets include the quads, glutes and hamstrings. These muscles are the engines of athleticism: Ignore them at your peril. Bodyweight squats, dumbbell squats and barbell squats (there are many variations, all good) are something that need to be in your training toolbox when it comes to lower body workouts.

deadlift

Deadlift: Probably the most basic of lifts, you’re just picking up a weight off the floor. And yet it is so crucial and beneficial. The standard barbell deadlift (grips on this vary widely) will work your quads, hams and glutes, but also are a major driver in back development. Variations of the deadlift, like the Romanian deadlift, tend to target the hams and glutes more. And they do it so well.

Cycling off of distance training has allowed me to appreciate lifting more, and I’ll take full advantage of it during the weeks to come. I believe that weight training is a key component to becoming a better athlete — even a better endurance athlete. And more to the point, I believe strongly that these four kings of the gym are the bedrock on which successful strength training is built.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

Fitness: Improving on — and crushing — the pull-up

One of the single-greatest exercises known to man is the pull-up. It’s right up there with the squat as one of the best-ever compound exercises you can do. Whether you are a bodybuilder, powerlifter, rock climber or all-around athlete, this exercise should be in your training arsenal.

There’s one problem. They’re hard. Really hard. So much so that some folks can only do a few at a time (that would be me) and others who might otherwise be fit can’t do any at all.

I saw this video, and the tips offered here are excellent. Follow them and watch your pull-up count go from a couple per set to sets of 8 or more.

Here’s a link to some more great pull-up tips.

What do you do to improve your pull-ups? Comment here and let’s discuss!

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088