Thibarmy Questions And Answers No.1
I’ve been an avid follower of all your articles and your books. I’m currently a US Marine Recruiter, in Amarillo, Tx. I’m not asking for a military discount. But recently our physical fitness standards have changed, and our females now have to do pull ups instead of the flex armed hang. Would you have any training advice to get them stronger at pull ups? They only need one to pass, but most our females have to opt to do push ups where they will not be able to get max points. Thank you for your time.
Well it really depends on the starting level of the women. If they are not even close to getting a full pull-up it might be trickier then improving the number they can do. Getting that first quality pull-up is the hardest step.
Understand that you need three things to do be good at doing pull-ups:
- Strength in the required muscles
- Proper technique and efficiency in the pull-ups
- Capacity to keep the whole body rigid… it is much harder to pull a relaxed body than a tensed/rigid one
When someone can do pull-ups, even if it’s a low number, we can assume that they can actually work on becoming better at doing pull-ups because they can at least practice the real thing. Someone who can’t yet get one has to find a way to work around that.
You can build strength in the pulling muscles with exercises like lat pulldowns, barbell rows, curls, etc. but if you don’t practice chin-up skills you wont be able to transfer strength gains from lifting exercises.
So what can we do if the woman (or man) is not capable of doing a single pull-up? We still need to improve pull-up skill. Here are a few strategies you can use:
- Isometric holds at various points in the range of motion. To gain full range of motion strength you need at least 3 positions: 1) at the top 2) mid range 3) just before bottom position. I recommend 3 sets of each position for maximum time at least 3x a week but ideally every day.
- Active hang to work on engaging the back so that you don’t only rely on your arms to pull: (INSERT VIDEO) The coaching cue I give is try to roll your torso back while lifting the chest up. Again holding the active hang position as long as possible, same frequency as above (actually all 4 holds would be a workout).
You can do it pronated:
- Bottom partials. From the low position, pull up as high as you can and really fight to get any extra inch. I like a cluster approach for this. Doing 5 reps per set with about 20 sec of rest between reps (drop down from the bar between reps)
- Pull-ups with band assistance (hang a band at the top of the rack, loop your feet in it for assistance). Do sets of 6-8 and reduce the size of the band when it becomes too easy. Band assistance allows you to train the UPPER half of the range of motion since it helps you a lot at the bottom but won’t make that latter part stronger. This is why you need to combine it with bottom partials.
While I wont write a full program here is a recommended schedule:
If you want rapid improvements, you need a high frequency of practice. This also means that for some time (around 4 weeks) your training should be focused on achieving the specific goal of improving pull-ups. As such, the rest of your training should be lowered to allow the body to handle the increase in pulling volume.
3 sets of the 4 holds for max time (top, mid range, near bottom, active hang). In fact, in an ideal world these would be done 2 or 3 times per day.
EVERY OTHER DAY
Bottom partials 3-4 sets of 5 cluster reps
Pull-ups with band assistance 3-4 sets of 6-8
Lat pulldown 3-4 sets of 4-6 reps
Bent over barbell row 3-4 sets of 4-6 reps
Barbell curl 3-4 sets of 6-8 reps
The rest of the body would be trained on the non-specialization days, once or twice per week. I would actually drop lower body training to a minimum for those 4 weeks. Probably using sprints and jumps instead of lifting exercise. First to reduce neural strain but also to, maybe, avoid gaining lower body muscle mass to facilitate the pull-up job. Of course, after the test you go back to a more complete training program.
I have a question concerning an article of yours. I understand if you choose not to reply but I hope you would because it “blocked my beliefs” so to speak…
In this T-Nation article: https://www.t-nation.com/training/tip-dont-judge-a-workout-by-its-length
You argued that cortisol release is related to volume, not workout length.
I always believed that Testosterone levels peaked at 20-30 min and then declined from there while cortisol increases. Around the 45 min mark the ratio turns unfavorable and thus the workout should be terminated.
I believe what you said in the article, but this presents the problem that I have no idea how much volume I need to do for optimal hypertrophy. This is something very individual I assume.
At what volume threshold will one overtrain, at what threshold undertrain? These are the questions that come to mind.
Thanks in advance,
Regards from Belgium.
Benjamin, thanks for your question. I believe that it is an important one. The idea of limiting workouts to 45 minutes has been pretty popular for a long time (especially among personal trainers who can fit more clients in their schedule this way!). While there is some logic to it (excessive training does lead to lower testosterone levels), it is misunderstood.
Testosterone does not drop for no reason. It drops when the body cannot produce it as efficiently for some reason. When you train, the more fuel you need to burn the more cortisol you release to mobilize the fuel. That’s the main function of cortisol when training: breaking down your energy stores to make the fuel available.
Cortisol and testosterone are fabricated from the same raw material (a hormone called pregnenolone).
The more cortisol you produce the more pregnenolone you use to fabricate the cortisol.
The more pregnenolone you use to build cortisol THE LESS YOU HAVE LEFT TO BUILD TESTOSTERONE
This is called “pregnenolone steal” and it is the main reason for the drop in testosterone related to training.
So it is NOT the duration of the training that is responsible but rather the volume (of course normally, the more volume you do, the longer the session is).
Let’s examine four theoretical cases:
CASE 1 – Marius is an Olympic lifter, each of his workouts last about 2 hours because he needs more mobility work, then he needs plenty of warm-up sets to work on his technique. When he gets to his work sets he does 5 sets of 2 on the snatch, 5 sets of 2 clean & jerks and 5 sets of 2 front squats. This is a total of about 30 work reps… maybe up to 60-70 reps when we count warm-ups. And none of the sets are longer than 10 seconds (this means that he never needs to rely on glycogen for fuel).
CASE 2 – Will is a powerlifter. His workout lasts about 90 minutes. He does one main lift (squat for example) for 5 sets of 3 reps, 2 main assistance exercises (let’s say front squat and goodmorning) for 5 sets of 5 each. He finishes off with some muscle building work, 3 sets of 8 leg curls and 3 sets of 8 leg extensions. He has a total volume of about 115 reps. 16 of his sets last a little over 10 seconds. So he does use a little more glycogen for fuel than Marius but doesn’t rely heavily on it.
CASE 3 – Danko is a bodybuilder. His workout lasts about 60 minutes. He is in pre-contest mode and does supersets to have a higher caloric expenditure. He does three supersets: A1 Bench press + A2 Bent over row ; B1 Incline DB press + B2. Chin-ups ; C1 Weighted dips + C2 Seated cable row. He does 4 sets of 12 reps per exercise using a fairly slow tempo. His volume is around 290 reps and his sets all last longer than 20 seconds, relying heavily on glycogen for fuel.
CASE 4 – Taz is a Crossfiter. He does a WOD with a time cap of 30 minutes. During those 30 minutes he does 4 rounds of:
20 deadlift @ 225lbs
20 power clean @ 135lbs
20 push press @ 135lbs
20 KB swings @ 32lbs
Each round has 100 reps so his workout includes a total of 400 reps. He uses mostly glycogen for fuel since the 30 minutes are non-stop
– Cortisol is released when the body needs to release glycogen to use for fuel
– That the more fuel you must use the more cortisol you will release
– That cortisol is fabricated from pregnenolone and that testosterone is fabricated from the same material
– That the more cortisol you must release the more pregnenolone you use
– That the more pregnenolone you use to build cortisol, the less you have to build testosterone
IN WHICH CASE WILL TESTOSTERONE DROP THE MOST?
The answer is CASE 4 … Maaayyyyybe CASE 3, because in these cases, even with the shorter workout duration, the athletes need to mobilize a lot more energy. So they will release more cortisol which leads to a greater pregnenolone steal, which makes it harder to fabricate testosterone.
This illustrates that it is not the time, but the volume that affects testosterone.
I understand that it would be easier if time was the key element. It is much easier to plan a specific time than volume. But that’s not how the body works.
By the way, the original testosterone/time theory came from Bulgarian coach Ivan Abadjiev and was supposed to be the justification for breaking down the daily volume in 3-5 mini-sessions per day.
This is stupid considering that Bulgarian lifters where on VERY HIGH DOSES OF TESTOSTERONE (injections) and dianabol (an oral steroid) and as a result, their body was not even producing testosterone on its own anymore.
The real original reason for the training division was that it made it easier for Abadjiev to control the whereabouts of hi athletes while in training camp (that was reported by a former top level Bulgarian lifter, Antonio Krastev). I will say though, that breaking a work out into multiple daily sessions works very well for high skill movements (like the snatch and clean & jerk), but mostly from a motor learning perspective, not necessarily an hormonal one.