Grease the Groove for Pull-up Success
(or the SAID Principle applied)
It all started at the 2005 Kettlebell Convention. I didn’t know much about kettlebells at the time, but my husband persuaded me to go. Basically it was, "Hey I'm going to the kettlebell convention and it's right down the street, you should come check it out." I begrudgingly went. The rest...is history ;)
There was a contest sign up table at the entrance of the venue. With nothing to lose I signed up for everything, including the weighted pull-up contest.
I hadn’t done a pull-up in a while, nonetheless weighted. I was in for a rude awakening. They strapped the bell around my waist, I grabbed the bar, and then…nothing. The weight and I were not budging. The weight was dropped to 12 kilos and I gave it another go. Still nothing. There's nothing more inspiring than a good public humiliation session. Well, I gues it can be seen one fo two ways: You're either inspired to kick ass at the event so you're never humiliated again, or you crawl into a hole never to be seen or heard from again. I chose to kick ass.
Immediately after being publicy humiliated as though I walked on the school bus naked (you know you've had that dream), a slightly younger, slightly slimmer girl stepped up to the bar. I had already seen her place second in the snatch test and second in the kettlebell throw. I knew she was going to blow me out of the water with her pull-ups too. I think she amazed everyone when she pumped out three virtually effortless weighted pull- ups. That was it for me.
With the image of a tinier version of me flying up to the bar burned into my brain, I started my pull-up program. I read an article by Pavel Tsatouline entitled “Grease the Groove for Strength” (1999). I applied the “specificity + frequency = success” theory presented in the article to my new pull-up routine. I was convinced that “The synaptic facilitation approach [was] very powerful because it greases the specific groove of your pet lift.”
According to “Grease the Groove” (GTG), I had to teach myself to do a perfect pull-up in order to yield significant results. “Strength is a skill!” in that familiar Russian accent of Pavel’s, would ring in my ears. Every day I hung from the bar with a tactical grip, pulled myself up as far as I could, gave myself a bump through the sticking point with my foot on a bench from underneath, and finished the pull with my neck touching the bar. I paused to focus on total body tension at the top position before slowly lowering under control. I did one semi pull-up at a time, at least five times a day every day. My set/rep scheme was one semi-pull-upx5x5. In addition to my “pet lift,” I focused on slow and controlled military pressing. During my presses I paid particular attention to actively pulling the bell down from the overhead lockout position with my lats: pulling the bell back into the rack with my armpit muscles.
Within two weeks of starting GTG I realized I didn’t need a bump through my sticking point. After I was able to do an unassisted pull-up I happened to read an article in Vitalics by Josh Henkin, CSCS, RKC. It was “The ABCs of Reaching Your Fitness Goals” (2005). In the article he addresses a concept known as S.M.A.R.T. “This easy to remember acronym stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time Based” (Henkin, 2005).
This is how I applied S.M.A.R.T to my pull-up goals:
· S-Specific: My specific goal was to increase my single pull-up to eight pull-ups.
· M-Measurable: Every week I tested myself to see how many pull-ups I could do without compromising my form.
· A-Achievable: An increase from one to eight pull-ups in three months was my goal and seemed reasonable.
· R-Relevant: After I attended the Kettlebell Convention I was hooked and wanted to get my RKC. I wasn’t sure if I would have to do pull-ups for the RKC, but I knew I didn’t want to humiliate myself again either.
· T-Time Based: The next RKC was in June, three months out from the start of my program. That was my deadline.
I kept my S.M.A.R.T goals in mind when working on my GTG pull-up program. With one quality rep under my belt, I started to GTG with one pull-up five times a day, fives days a week. My set/rep scheme changed to 1x5x5. I paused and held my sticking point position on the lowering phase to better prepare my body for additional reps down the road, or to grease the “synaptic pathways.” The sticking point for me was when my upper arm and lower arm were just over 90º, (or greater than a 90º angle), and my body was further away from the bar. I could really feel my lats working when holding that sticking point position.
I tested myself at the end of the first week of my 1x5x5 pull-up program. After just one week of GTG with one rep five times daily, I was able to perform three pull-ups without compromising my form. So I changed my set/rep scheme to two pull-ups five times a day, five days a week (2x5x5). This method fell in line with the idea that “fragmentation of training volume into smaller units is very effective for promoting strength adaptation, especially in the nervous system” (Pavel 1999). Furthermore, I practiced with sub-maximal pull-up numbers because as Pavel also states in GTG, “Pushing to exhaustion will burn out your neuromuscular system and force you to cut back,” and “It is critical for the program's success that you avoid muscle failure.”
After one week of 2x5x5 I tested myself again. Amazingly, I was able to pump out 5 quality pull-ups. That was when my progress began to slow. I needed three more pull-ups to complete my goal. Reps one through five seemed to come relatively easy, but reps six through eight required more work and I began to get discouraged. I had hit a wall. So I re-evaluated my approach. I assumed the first five reps were due to synaptic facilitation, my body knew how to do a pull-up. For the last three reps I needed to gain more strength.
In order to gain strength, I incorporated heavier pressing into my regular lifting routine and consequently started push pressing as well. My military pressing routine consisted of three sets of three reps twice a week with a 16kg kettlebell (3x3x2). I also started push pressing the 20kg kettlebell twice a week with the same rep scheme as my regular military pressing (3x3x2). I took long breaks in between push press sets, at least five minutes, sometimes longer.
I continued to GTG, but with four pull-ups three times a day four days a week (4x3x4). During my GTG sets, I concentrated on really squeezing the lat muscles as hard as I could on both the pull and decent portions of the lift. I did this program of presses and pull-ups for a month before testing my pull-ups again. After one month of hard pressing and pull-ups, I was in fact able to complete the last three reps of my set goal of eight pull-ups.
Setting S.M.A.R.T goals provided an outline and clear-cut direction to go with my pull-up program. With two hard months of working on pull-ups, I was able to achieve my set goal of eight quality pull-ups. The next step was to add weight. By adding minute amounts of weight over a long period of time your body is more able to adapt to it, than if you were to try to hang a 12 kilo. off of your foot from the start.
I used a weight vest and incorporated weighted pull-ups into my jogs. I started with a two-and-a-half pound plate in the vest. I alternated running one quarter mile lap with one tactical pull-up for five laps two times a week, (1x5x2). Every two weeks I would add another two-and-a-half pound plate if I had been successful in the past week with the previous given weight. I worked up to ten extra pounds in the vest with this program. After I reached a ten pound weighted pull-up I started to burn out. I took two months off of weighted pull-ups and went back to GTG with five pull-ups, five times a day, three days a week (5x5x3). Then I took two weeks off of pull-ups all together.
After two months off of weighted pull-ups and an additional two weeks off of body weight pull-ups, I started over where I left off, (5x5x3 body weight pull-ups). After two weeks of GTG with 5x5x3, I gradually added weight again with my weighted pull-up and jogging program. Progress was slow and steady, but after consistent persistence I worked up to 15 pounds in my weight vest in between quarter mile laps. After I was able to do a pull-up with 15 extra pounds, I started GTG in more concentrated periods of trianing again. I GTG with one 15 pound pull-up three times a day, three days a week (1x3x3). Every two weeks I would add another two-and-a-half pound plate if I had been successful in the past week with the previous given weight. I was able to work up to 20 pounds in the vest before I attended the Level II RKC.
I had never successfully attempted a weighted pull-up with the kettlebell until I attended the Level II RKC in 2006. Because of my dedication and consistent training I was able to successfully perform a 12kg weighted pull-up.
To this day my two pet lifts are still weighted pull-ups and Hardstyle heavy presses. Rarely do I ever press lighter than 16kilos or practice less than five reps and sets. I still like to mix-in even heavier push presses (for a little fun). ;)