Ever notice how two supposedly inviolate principles of resistance training are basically contradictory?
On the one hand, the Principle of Specificity states that in order to realize a specific adaptation (or response), you need to perform a specific type of training to elicit that response. For example, if you want bigger biceps you’ve gotta do curls. If you want maximal strength, you’ve gotta focus on heavy loads. If you wanna raise your estrogen levels, you’ve gotta watch Oprah every day.
On the other hand, the Principle of Variability predicts that the same type of training, performed week-in and week-out, will lead to habituation, which is just a highbrow term for nervous system boredom. Eventually your body gets so accustomed to the training that you get zero results. Is this phenomenon sounding intimately familiar to any of you?
At Staley Training Systems, we actually think of these two principles as opposite extremes along a single continuum. The most successful trainees are those who manage to find the “sweet spot” in this specificity-variability continuum. The process of finding this sweet spot is the “same but different” concept.
|SPECIFICITY||“SAME BUT DIFFERENT”||VARIABILITY|
• Fastest progress
• All the benefits, none of the drawbacks!
• Less overuse injuries
• No cons!
• Slowest progress
Essentially, it’s all about finding the “best” exercises for your particular objectives, and then finding jillions of different ways to perform these exercises, so that 1) you’re always doing the best movements, but 2) you’re not habituating to your training sessions because every time you do one of your best exercises, you’re doing it in a different manner than last time. That’s what this article series is all about.
The Power of the Pull
In this first installment, we’re going to expound on one of the most beneficial training drills ever conceived: pulls. Some of you are probably thinking, “What the heck is a pull?” And now for the uncomplicated answer: Pulls are basically just a snatch or a clean without the catch, drop under, and squat phase.
Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, here’s a couple of videos:
In essence, we’re talking about the deadlift-type motion here, except that true “pulls” are done more explosively with a rise onto the toes and a concerted effort with the traps to explosively “jump-shrug” the bar upward.
Because of this, pulls provide nearly all the benefits of the traditional Olympic lifts without the stress of the “catch,” overhead squat, and support phase of the snatch or the front squat position of the clean. This means much less stress is placed on the vulnerable wrists, knees, and shoulders of many lifters. It’s mostly due to pain and injuries to these regions of the body that most complainants (trainees who complain too much) say they can’t Olympic lift.
And get this: pulls are also much less demanding on the nervous system than full or modified Olympic lifts. This allows you to safely perform more reps (up to five per set) compared to the classical lifts where any more than three is usually overkill and leads to technical breakdown.
These higher rep sets allow for increased hypertrophy potential in all the muscles that count. A casual look at any accomplished Olympic lifter illustrates great development in the posterior chain muscles (erectors, glutes, hams, and calves) as well as the traps. Pulls are also significantly easier to learn than their classical counterparts, so no more excuses of how technical and complex the Olympic lifts are.
In addition to these benefits, what we love about pulls is that they plug very nicely into the same but different paradigm: there are potentially hundreds of variations of pulls, allowing for almost endless program variations!
Secrets Of Superior Posteriors
Even though your quads can get totally cooked from certain variations of pulls, the real magic comes from the massive stimulation to the muscles on the backside of your body.
Now granted, those quads of yours come in real handy for things like walking, groin kicks, and muscle biopsies. And we’re not going to lie, the teardrop shape of the lower vastus medialis peeking out of your shorts is one of the most distinctive trademarks of a true physique athlete.
But after dispensing with those accolades, we honestly think the quads get way too much credit compared to the virtues of what coaches call the posterior chain: your spinal erectors, glutes, hamstrings, and calf musculature. (If it were up to us, we’d also include the traps, but despite our repeated protests, we don’t get to make the rules when it comes to these things.)
Is Your Chain Dysfunctional?
An interesting thought we had regarding gastroc development was whether or not isolated calf training (calf raises) would yield better results than effectively performed pulls with a concerted effort to come up on the toes. Our hunch is that the pulls would be far more effective in terms of hypertrophy, with the added benefit of working just about every other muscle on your body along the way.
So, a fair question might be, “Why should I care about my posterior chain anyway?” Lots of reasons. First and foremost, if your physique goals include becoming obscenelymassive, you simply can’t put these muscle groups on the back burner (pun intended). They’re among the biggest and strongest muscles you’ve got and when developed properly, they increase your capacity to perform scary-big squats, pulls, and similar feats of gym-studliness.
On the other hand, if you’re all about sports performance, developing the posterior chain is flat-out priority one. Strong, explosive glutes and hams in particular, are the engines that drive elite-level performance in jumping, sprinting, throwing, kicking, and striking skills.
The last skill, striking, might surprise a lot of you as many are unaware that true punching strength and power is actually generated in the hips. Aggressive hip snap (hip-extension) leads to trunk rotation which then culminates in arm extension (and subsequently, physical contact with the target).
Finally, if you’re a weightlifter, powerlifter, or strongman competitor, your posterior chain should be thought of as your muscular resume – your physical credentials for strength mastery.
A Primer on Pulling Technique
The key to safe and effective training with any pulling or Olympic lifting variation starts with technique. Although there are individual differences that’ll necessitate change in some of the parameters, the following technique cues are absolutely essential to master before trying to lift any serious loads in pulling movements.
Remember, from a good start anything is possible; from a bad start… good luck!
Start/Set-up Position: Feet should be approximately in the position you’d start a vertical jump from, which is usually around shoulder-width apart. The feet should point straight ahead or slightly outward (10-30 degrees) depending on personal mobility characteristics.
The bar should be close to your shins so that that it lies in the same plane with the balls of your feet.
With your back arched, chest up, and head neutral, bend your knees until you can just grasp the barbell with arms outstretched and a pronated (palms toward you) grip. Usually, a hook grip is the preferred grip here (see photos), but a conventional grip will suffice if you prefer.
Ideally, when viewed from the side, the shoulders should either be in line with the bar or slightly ahead of it. This puts the primary pulling muscles in a position of strength and sets you up for a successful lift. Whatever you do however, avoid a starting position where your shoulders are behind the bar.
The Lift-Off or “First Pull:” With your body in the ideal position as outlined above, you’re now ready to pull. Begin the lift by extending your knees while thinking of “pushing through the ground.” You’re almost performing a kind of standing leg press to initiate the movement of the bar.
The bar should stay very close to your shins as you lift it upward and the angle of your back should stay the same until the bar gets above the knees. The advice commonly given by coaches who correctly teach these lifts is to not let your hips rise faster than your shoulders.
The Explosion Phase or “Second Pull:” It’s during this phase where all the fun begins. This is where “all hell breaks loose” if you do the movement correctly.
If you’ve correctly completed the first stage, the bar should arrive just above the knees with the shoulders still slightly in front of the bar. This actually requires that the bar move toward your body as you slide it up your shins during the first pull.
Now is when you can truly explode since your posterior chain muscles are stretched like a rubber band, ready to unleash their stored (elastic) energy. From this position (also called the “power position”) you basically mimic a strong vertical jumping action with a powerful shrugging movement performed simultaneously.
A key technique factor in this portion of the lift is to continue to keep the bar close to your body. It’s also at this point where you can choose to keep the arms straight (standard pull) or allow them to bend as you try and get the bar toward chest level (high-pull).
Note: The Targeted Pull
One of the problems with pulls of any type is determining the optimal height of each pull. Simply, is there some predetermined height that the bar should reach each rep to ensure a quality lift?
The solution to this is using what’s known as a height gauge. Height gauges are routinely used by Olympic-style weightlifters during their pulls to objectively ensure adequate and consistent height has been attained (for either pulls or high-pulls). In lieu of such a device, we use an admittedly crude yet reliable method of measuring the height of your pulls. Video HERE.
Note II: Technical Precision Issues
You may be wondering if you can learn how to do pulls, or even complete Olympic lifts, through written, pictorial, and/or video instruction. Many Olympic lifting coaches would say that you can’t.
However, understand the perspective they’re coming from: if you ultimately seek a high level of prowess in these lifts for the purpose of becoming a national-level competitor, they’re right: you’ve gotta have a competent coach if this is your goal.
On the other hand, if your goal is to improve strength and/or body composition, or to simply inject some fun into your training program, you can learn how to do these lifts safely through the mediums we just mentioned.
The key technical points on all pull variants are to 1) maintain a normal, arched low back at all times and 2) keep the bar as close to your body as possible: through the entire range of motion and in both directions (concentric and eccentric). If you abide by these two rules, and you’re healthy to start with, you might not be the most technically-efficient lifter there is, but you’ll safely enjoy the multiple benefits of these lifts.
The “Ice Cube Cue” For Proper Low-Back Position
Here’s the greatest cue in the world for learning low back “set.” Stand normally and vividly imagine how your posture would change if someone came up behind you and touched a wet ice cube to your low back. Your low back arches big time!
At the same time, your chest comes forward and up, while your shoulder blades come down and back. This is the position you’re looking for!
The “Same But Different” Pulls-Intensive Training Program
Here’s a 6-week program template that incorporates the “same but different” approach with an emphasis on pulls.
This program features four sessions (two lower body and two upper body) to be performed in the format listed below:
Monday: A Session (Lower Body #1)
Tuesday: B Session (Upper Body #1)
Wednesday: Off or Energy System Work (cardio)
Thursday: C Session (Lower Body #2)
Friday: D Session (Upper Body #2)
Saturday: OFF or Energy System Work
Sunday: OFF. Always take at least one full day off per week!
A. Snatch Pulls
B. Deadlifts (Sumo or Conventional) See weekly reps chart below
C. Trunk-Barbell Rollouts, 3 sets of 6-8 reps
D. Back Extensions (or Reverse Hypers), 3-4 sets of 3-8 reps, or 10-15 reps for reverse hypers
A-1 Military Press: See weekly rep chart below
A-2 Pull-ups or Pulldowns: Same as above
B-1 Barbell Curls: 3 sets of 6-8 reps
B-2 Close-Grip Bench Press: 3 sets of 6-8 reps
C. Low-Pulley Scarecrows (or PNF D-2): 2-3 sets of 10-12 reps
A. Clean Pulls
B. Front Squats: See weekly rep chart below
C. Reverse Trunk Twist: 3 sets of 6-8 reps each side
D. Back Extensions or Reverse Hypers. Same as Session A Parameters
A-1 Barbell Bench Press: See weekly rep chart below
A-2 Seated Rows: Same as above
B-1 Dumbbell Incline Hammer Curls: 3 sets of 6-8 reps
B-2 Lying Dumbbell Triceps Extensions: 3 sets of 6-8 reps
C. Dumbbell Cuban Press: 2-3 sets of 10-12 reps
Acute Exercise Variables: Same But Different
The fun thing about this program is that it changes every week. Not only do the sets and reps get manipulated, but the starting position of the pulls is altered each week to maximize learning and minimize risk of injury. Here’s the 6-week layout of the pulls only:
Week 1: Above the knee
Week 2: Below the knee
Week 3: Floor
Week 4: Floor + bands
Week 5: Hybrid
Week 6: High pull from floor
The reasoning behind the pulling sequence listed above is to maximize learning of the proper “set-up” position. Besides, it’s considerably easier to maintain proper back position from above the knees than it is from the floor. Also, by starting from this safer position, it gives you time to work on any remedial hamstring stretching you might need to do prior to safely and effectively pulling from the floor.
As far as the other lifts are concerned, only the squats and deadlifts will shift reps/sets from week to week while the upper arm, upper back, and trunk exercises will keep a similar rep/set bracket the entire 6 weeks. Here’s a breakdown of the sets and reps (for the pulls only) for the duration of the program:
Here’s a breakdown for the other primary lifts (the “B” exercise in the Lower Body Sessions and the “A” series in the Upper Body Sessions):
|4||Use Week 1 parameters but slightly heavier|
|5||Use Week 2 parameters but slightly heavier|
|6||Use Week 3 parameters but slightly heavier|
|7||Off: Active Recovery Week|
* Rest intervals for all other exercise will remain in the 60-90 seconds range for the duration of the program.
** A note about training intensity: We’ve purposely chosen not to assign specific training percentages (e.g., 80% 1RM) next to the sets and reps because everyone’s maximal strength on a given lift varies daily.
Instead, choose a load that allows you to obtain the desired number of reps while still leaving a few extra reps in the tank. This “buffering” approach dramatically reduces injury and overtraining risk by preserving lifting technique and minimizing unnecessary fatigue.
Remember to focus on sound technique first and then worry about adding more load. If you can get someone trained in Olympic lifting to look at your technique, that would be helpful. Otherwise, the videos should help give you an idea of proper technique.
Now get out there and start pulling!