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Monday, July 19, 2010

Why you suck at pull-ups :)

Pull-ups are IMO one of the best body weight strength training exercises out there. I've witnessed tens of thousands of pull-ups in my day, some good and some bad...mostly bad. Why do people suck at pull-ups? Because they practice sucking at pull-ups. Do they suck on purpose? Is their primary goal to suck at pull-ups? Probably not, but they have never been taught how to do pull-ups and they haven't practiced pull-ups correctly. The apostle Dan John has a quote he uses a frequently "if it is important, do it every day." This is a great quote for many reasons but the angle I am going to take is related to motor learning and the nervous system.

Here are some quick facts about the CNS and skill development.

1. The nervous system does not have an on/off switch, it remembers everything you do, good and bad.

2. It is the fastest system in the body; Signals can travel over 300 mph.

3. Skill is developed by practicing drills and exercises perfectly. If you perform a drill wrong, you have just taught your body how to perform the drill wrong. Every time you accrue a bad rep, you are telling your body that its's ok to perform the repetition incorrectly.

Now, lets take a quick look at the 3 stages of motor learning and see how this applies to learning an exercise.

Cognitive (1-100 reps)

This is when a person is introduced to a task. The athlete is concerned with what to do and not so much how to do it. This is when we learn something new, like a pull-up. :)

Associative (1,000 to 10,000 reps)

The athlete starts to perform and refine the skills learned. They understand the task and begin to make changes to achieve the goal. Again, in this case, the pull-up.

Autonomous (100,000 to 300,000 reps)

The task becomes automatic, no thought is required. The athlete simply performs the drill and does not even think about it.

These are general numbers, some can master the task more quickly than others, but it all comes down to how much you practice and HOW you practice. As I mentioned before, if you practice the drill poorly, you will continue to perform the drill poorly.


Now, how do we practice getting better at pull-up? We do them every day. Does this mean we do weighted pull-ups every day? Do we do neutral grip pull-ups every day? Do we do reverse grip pull-ups, or how about band pull-ups?

Keep it simple stupid. If you want to get better at overhand grip pull-ups, practice them with an overhand grip.

The Experiment

Try this and see how you do. Do 1 or 2 pull-ups every 10 minutes at the gym. Or, you can do them when you get water or when you finish a different exercise. The key is to practice one or two with perfect form and with no fatigue. If you train for 1 hour you can accrue any where from 6-12 pull-ups a day with no fatigue. If you do this every day of the week you can accrue 42-84 pull-ups a week. This can equate from anywhere to 168 to 336 perfect pull-ups a month. That's a heaping pile of perfect pull-ups. Try this and I can guarantee you will get better at pull ups.

Also, consider this. When was the last time you practiced any exercise over 300 times in one month? And, if you did practice that many reps are you proficient at that specific exercise?

"If it is important, do it it every day "

If you want to get better at pull-ups, do pull ups. :)

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