The Purposeful Primitive Progressive Pulls

June 22, 2004 10:05 AM

I've never encountered any form or mode of exercise that equals the sheer muscle-building, strength-infusing capacity of compound, multi-joint progressive resistance movements done with a barbell or a pair of dumbbells. If done properly ultra-basic movements are ultra-effective, time efficient and produce a coordinated, athletically usable type of strength that transfers to the ball field, court, mat or ring. One key to translating power built using progressive resistance training into athletic fluency is to use movements requiring heavy poundage that are moved over a great distance. An extended range-of-motion requires muscles fire in a coordinated synchronized sequence. Compound multi-joint progressive resistance exercises do just that: require muscles ignite in a seamless sequential fashion to complete the muscular task at hand. This kind of exercise results in a muscular relay race wherein contiguous muscles are recruited and work together to complete the repetition. An entirely different set of muscles might kick in as we lower the poundage back to the starting position for the subsequent rep. Purposeful Primitives purposefully exert significant muscular tension as weight is lowered back to the rep starting point. This purposeful procedure has a multitude of muscular and practical benefits as much ado has been made regarding the benefits of eccentric contraction. Some claim eccentric is just as beneficial as concentric. I'm dubious but certainly we all can agree that lowering significant poundage in a controlled fashion, rep after rep set after set, is undoubtedly beneficial to some degree.

Safety is no laughing matter. Muscle rips, tears and pulls, disc ruptures and dislocations can occur if you are not careful. How we replace a heavy barbell or set a pair of dumbbells requires complete attention. If you are inattentive and sloppy replacing the weights they can land on you, pull or tear fiber or jerk a limb out of its socket. A sizable percentage of lifting-related injuries occur on the eccentric phase of the repetition. Never allow poundage to freefall back to the starting point (for safety sake) and receive significant muscular benefit by exerting considerable eccentric tension on the reload phase. During the concentric phase of a rep the Golgi tendon reflex keeps us relatively safe. If during the 'loaded' push or pull portion of the rep stroke the body senses physical danger, the muscle governor shuts the muscle down. Not so, on the eccentric portion where gravity causes the weight to accelerate of its own volition. Human nature causes us to involuntarily relax after we push or pull limit poundage into the proper finishing position. Carelessly unlocking the supporting joint at the conclusion of a rep can result in a barbell/dumbbell free-fall. When that occurs you have two options: try and 'catch' the weight or bail out. Neither is a particularly appetizing choice; on the one hand you have to engage in a Cirque de Soliel acrobatic feat and somehow cradle and catch a freefalling weight to stop its beeline homeward or on the other hand, leap away from heavy, falling object. Sooner or later something bad will happen. Ever drop a 100-pounds dumbbell on your foot? Well I have and let me tell you there's no way that doesn't ruin the coming month.

Squats, bench presses, incline bench presses, rows, deadlifts of all type, pulls of all types, chins, pull-ups and overhead presses of all types constitute the core compound multi-joint exercises. The polar opposite of a compound multi-joint progressive resistance exercise is an isolation exercise. An isolation exercise is constructed in such a way that the rep stroke is executed in a tight, small, precision arc with a technique so finite that a single muscle is attacked to the purposeful exclusion of its neighbors. Coordinated muscular action, omnipresent in compound multi-joint movements, is purposefully absent in isolation exercises. I like to think of compound exercises as the exercise equivalent of an entr?e and an isolation exercises as desert. Only a child eats desert before eating the entr?e. Besides, meat is far more satiating to a purposeful primitive than chocolate souffl?. The human back is a complex biomechanical unit composed of upper and lower latissimus dorsi, trapezius, rhomboids, teres major and minor, spinal erectors, intra and supraspanatus and rear deltoids. The muscles of the back are strong in relation to other muscles of the body. Erectors, for example can hoist far more poundage than say biceps. Back muscles are strong muscles and in order to successfully trigger the hypertrophic effect and receive concurrent increases in power and raw strength, heavy poundage, relatively speaking, is required.

In my opinion one of the most effective and comprehensive progressive resistance routine ever devised for building and strengthening all the muscles of the back is an old retro gem called progressive pulls. I was exposed to this routine in around 1965 in an article in Strength & Health magazine. I've added a few subtle twists over the years. This program will grow back muscle on a steel post. Nothing more is needed than a barbell, a pile of plates and lots of unadulterated effort. This is hard and heavy work and if done correctly (regardless your current degree of fitness) the procedures create a bodily aftershock of intense fatigue and muscle soreness?so be forewarned. The human back is a complex conglomeration of large, medium and small inter-related and inter-dependent muscles. Over time, nature and biomechanics have taught us how to subconsciously allow the back muscles to act in a synchronized fashion. Subconscious coordination makes easier whatever muscular task is assigned and undertaken. The muscles of the back pull poundage upward or pull poundage inward towards the torso. Progressive pulls start off combining light poundage with extreme range-of-motion (ROM) and progressively adds more poundage as the ROM is decreased. Once we max out on the poundage, weight is then systematically reduced as we work out way back down.

Muscle Groups of the Back

The trapezius muscles sit atop the collar bones and run from ear to ear and downward to mid-back. Traps taper down and tie off along the spine and allow us to shrug and rotate our shoulders.

The rear deltoid, the posterior deltoid, sits behind the shoulder joint. Its function is to pull the shoulders back from all angles. Rear deltoids are part of a delicate muscular network that surrounds the shoulder joints.

The latissimus dorsi begins at the bottom of the armpits and end right above the buttock muscles. There are actually two sets of lats, upper and lower. The lower lats pull up and back. The upper latissimus allow arms to pull towards the body and downward from above the head.

The spinal erectors run from tailbone to traps and are shaped like twin Anaconda. These muscles are the spinal derricks and assist spinal flexion in all directions.

The rhomboids, teres and spanadus surround the shoulder blade and act to rotate the shoulders. These muscles power any activity that causes shoulders to be pinched backward or forward.

The progressive pull technical procedures are simple to learn and difficult to master: the concentric portion of each exercise in the progressive pull routine should be explosive while the eccentric portion needs be slowed and lowered with care. Stay safe while weight training. The movements will also hit the glutes and hamstrings intensely. I recommend doing legs and back at opposite ends of the training week to allow the 'spillover' borderline muscles an opportunity to recover. This is a timeless routine, older than the hills, first popularized by international-level Olympic lifters back in the mid-sixties and brought to us via the pages of the Tommy Suggs-era Strength & Health. Everyone from rank beginner to elite athlete uses the same training template regardless current level or ability. A concentrated dose of progressive pulls will do you wonders for building the back muscles and creating pure power. This is a "Big Man" routine and as my old friend Kirk Karwoski might say, "Time for the little children to put away all the pretty pink plastic Barbie dumbbells and leave the room; time for the adults to get out the weapons, porn and booze and get the party started! Let's get freaking serious!" My phrasing might be different but I would agree with KK's sentiment: Progressive Pulls are serious and deadly effective ? assuming you work with them with the requisite gusto.

This meat-and-potatoes routine requires the athlete takes in sufficient calories and obtain ample rest. It would be nearly impossible for the targeted back muscles not to grow if exercised as suggested, fed adequately and rested sufficiently. I use this program at least once a year and have done so for four decades. Done properly this is a damned difficult training program and not for the faint of heart or those with a low pain tolerance. This style of training encapsulates and defines a Purposeful Primitive. If done as described this routine should only be performed once a week. You'll need five to seven days to fully recover. Legs are hit 2-3 days after the progressive pull muscle massacre and spillover muscles need to be rested and ready to squat. Performing heavy squats and heavy leg assistance work in the same training week as heavy progressive pulls causes certain muscles to be worked to their limit: upper quads, erectors, glutes, hip flexors and abs. If someone were to tell me they performed this routine more than once a week while working legs heavy, I would become immediately suspicious they were not working hard or heavy enough. Establish poundage/rep benchmarks in all the core lifts. Once the base benchmarks are established, systematically seek to increase poundage or reps. I would suggest a six to twelve week periodization timeframe. Technique is paramount. No technical disintegration should be allowed to occur during a lift. If technical execution gets sloppy or breaks down, curtail the set immediately.

To trigger physical progress you have to bump up against the current boundaries. You have to test the limits and break barriers. You have to deal with the pain and discomfort a serious exercise effort induces. You cannot trigger muscle hypertrophy (the irreducible root-core goal of all progressive resistance training) by training sub-maximally. Unless you brush up against the lip of the limit, unless you consistently seek to extend current capacity in some manner or fashion, you can forget all about significantly altering your physique. The human body does not alter itself in response to sameness. Ease and comfort produce nothing: only by subjecting ourselves to discomfort and difficulty will we trigger the miracle of muscle hypertrophy. Each day is different and limit capacities might differ day to day, week to week, session to session, depending on circumstance. Regardless, travel to the limit of capacity on that particular day. Muscles need stress and tension to grow and become stronger. Unless stress equals or exceeds capacity nothing of significance occurs. How do we define limit? A benchmark can take many forms. Progressive resistance benchmarks could include: number of reps with a particular poundage, number of work sets, length of rest between sets, speed of the rep, session duration, session frequency, exercise selection, sequencing?all these and a lot more could be used as benchmarks.

Do you have to go to failure or use forced reps? No, absolutely not. Establish performance benchmarks in every exercise and use pristine technique. Consciously seek to systematically exceed current limits in some manner or fashion in every workout. The goal is to establish a foundational performance baseline and then move baseline performance imperceptibly upward each successive week. Nudge poundage or reps upward. Start the periodization 'cycle' off artificially low and build up over the 6-12 week time frame to a point where you end using poundage 10-15% in excess of current limits. Here is how you might structure a six-week periodization cycle.

Week Reps Power Clean High pull Deadlift Stiff leg deadlift Rows
1 9 135 185 300 185 145
2 9 145 195 310 195 155
3 6 165 215 340 215 175
4 6 175 225 350 225 185
5 3 195 245 370 245 205
6 3 205 255 380 255 215

* All weights are in pounds

During the six week periodization cycle our hypothetical weight trainer performs five exercises. For the first two weeks, the athlete works up to one top set of 9-reps in each of the five exercises. If you struggle or fail to complete the final rep of the top set rep in week one, you've been way too ambitious and need to dramatically scale back your rep and poundage starting point. The idea is to start the program off with poundage that is relatively easy to complete for the required 9-reps. This allows us to ingrain a proper technique base while establishing 'feel' and rhythm during the individual reps and sets. Mid-way through the cycle the poundage begins to tax the athlete; but momentum and technique have been firmly established. Now the athlete is perfectly positioned for a surge that will allow them to exceed previous all-time best efforts. Take in supplemental calories after the workout and allow body weight to rise a bit each week. This keeps the athlete in positive nitrogen balance and recovery is accelerated. I drink a protein/carb shake 2/3rds of the way through my PP workout after deadlifts; this 'smart bomb' concoction supplies my body with the nutrients needed to repair traumatized muscles tissue. By ingesting the shake during the workout I avoid the energy nosedive that typically accompanies limit deadlifts.

Power Clean: An outstanding trapezius developer, the power clean has a powerful secondary effect on spinal erecters and rhomboids. The power clean is fast becoming an anachronism and is in danger of disappearing ? which is a damned shame because you'll not find a better trap developer. To get good at power cleans requires we fuse tremendous power with quick precision. Use a narrower-than-shoulder stance and shoulder-width grip. Squat down, keeping torso tight and back convex and flexed; in one fluid motion pull (not jerk) the bar from the platform upward. Use a weight that you can pull to sternum height. At the apogee, dip down while simultaneously scooting forward as you snap your wrists back and over, catching the barbell on the shoulders. Stand erect while cradling the bar. Lower the weight by flipping the wrists over and let the bar impact your thighs on the way down. This constitutes one rep. Begin the second rep as soon as the bar touches the floor; without losing muscle tension, touch the plates lightly to the floor and begin the second rep.

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. The optimal pull position, be it power clean, high pull or deadlift, commences with shins near vertical at the takeoff. The back is kept tight and flexed. The barbell is never jerked or ripped at the start of the rep: apply power slowly at the takeoff and accelerate as the bar moves upward. This is a learned skill. Go up on the toes to add height. Elite lifters jump down and under the barbell when it reaches its maximum height, a splendid form of iron ballet worthy of emulation. Lower the bar to the platform using great restraint and control. The bar is lowered to the thighs to make the descent a two-part process. Commence subsequent reps using a purposefully slow and smooth initial pull. Accelerate the bar as the pull progresses. A poor lifter bounces and crashes his reps off the floor wildly while the elite lifter's plates touch with quite precision. Make haste slowly. Technique is paramount on all pulls. It takes months to master a proper power clean.

High Pulls: After hitting the predetermined reps and poundage on the power clean, keep the train rolling by adding poundage to the bar and continuing with high pulls. A high pull is a power clean not pulled high enough to wrist-snap and rack. Otherwise it's identical to a power clean. Try and pull the barbell to belly button height on each rep. Use the same slow takeoff and accelerate the bar as it rises. Add poundage on successive hi-pull sets. High pulls hit the erectors, rhomboids, teres and both upper and lower lats. Try and go up on your toes and shrug your shoulders at the top. The poundage should be too heavy to 'arm pull' so don't try: the arms should be thought of as hooks that hold the poundage. If you try and pull with the arms you run the risk of ripping a bicep.

Deadlift: Once you can no longer pull the bar high enough to be called a high pull, add poundage and segue into deadlifts. The finest single back exercise I know of is a properly executed deadlift. The deadlift stimulates every muscle on the back. The muscular inroad is far greater than anything that can be possibly generated by any combination of isolation exercises. Because the back works together as a cohesive mechanical unit on the deadlift, individual muscles, now bundled, are able to generate incredible force and handle significant poundage; far more than any single back muscle could possibly hope to handle alone. By overloading the collective back muscles to such an intense degree, a deep muscular inroad is dug. A correctly executed deadlift uses the same takeoff positioning procedures as the power clean and high pull. The bar is pulled off the floor with a smooth, steady, ever increasing amount of torque and power. Hold the lockout for a beat before lowering for the next rep. Inhale at the lockout and never loose muscle tension during a set.

My old friend and training partner Mark Challiet pulled 880 while weighing 260 back in 1987. Mark would exert "about 100-pounds worth of upward torque on the bar at the start of each rep." He'd slowly break the bar from the floor and then begin applying full throttle. The barbell should travel up the vertical shins and stay in contact with the knees and thighs as it moves towards lock-out. At the conclusion of a proper deadlift everything 'arrives at once' as muscles torque the skeleton into final lock-out configuration. Stand erect on locked legs for a beat before lowering. At lock-out the buttocks are tensed and shoulders are held back and erect. Lower the bar slowly back down the shins and thighs. Again, never lose muscular tension during the set. The barbell plates barely kiss the floor before reversing direction and beginning the upward pull on the next rep. The spine stays arched throughout the lift. The muscles of the back are flexed throughout. Throw the chin up and the head back as you ascend and do not allow the butt to rise up: it will if you let it. The butt must be kept under the shoulders. Don't bounce deadlift reps.

Stiff-legged Deadlift: Also known as the Romanian deadlift this is a lower back and hamstring developer without peer. After completing the heaviest set of regular deadlifts we've 'topped out' in terms of sheer poundage and now it's time to head downward. Strip weight off the deadlift barbell, say 30-40%. Stand erect with the reduced poundage using standard deadlift technique. At the lock-out, unlock the knees and lower the bar, pushing the butt rearward and keeping knees semi-straight but rigid. The hips are the fulcrum: legs stay flexed, back stays flexed. Allow the bar to break away from the body as you lower the bar ever so slowly. Straight arms hold the barbell with an arched spine and taunt torso. The barbell plates touch the floor evenly with a barely audible sound. At the bottom of the stiff-leg deadlift, the 'turn-around' where descent becomes ascent, use the hamstrings to power the body erect. As the weights touch the platform begin rising up by leading with the chin and maintaining that tight, arched back. After the first set, rest, then strip off 10% and perform one final set of stiff-legged deadlifts. Purposefully slow the speed of the descent as this accentuates the difficulty and throws the stress on the hamstrings. After 2-3 sets of cleans, 2 sets of high pulls, 2-3 sets of deadlifts and 2 sets of stiff-legged deadlifts, you will be crispy fried ? but we keep going.

Row with Barbell: We strip weight off the stiff-leg barbell and keep going, performing two sets of strict barbell rows. Cut the final stiff-leg deadlift poundage by 20-30%. The row is a great latissimus builder but heave and momentum are to be avoided. Legs are kept semi-flexed and the back is arched as the torso is held parallel to the floor. To commence rows, stand approximately one foot behind the barbell and bend forward, the torso held parallel to the floor. Grab the bar with a wide grip. The grip used for power cleans, high pulls, deadlifts and stiff-legged deadlifts is the same, slightly wider than shoulder width. On rowing move the grip out six inches on each side. Pull the bar off the floor and allow it to dead hang before pulling the bar upward to contact the sternum. Do not heave upward from the hip joint ? that makes the lift easier and this is to be avoided. The entire position is frozen and immobile. Pull the bar to the chest using the back instead of the arms. This is a subtle technical point; pull back and up leading with the elbows instead of using the biceps. Heaving upward from the waist to start each rep turns a great lat exercise into a lousy erector exercise. Strip weight off between the 1st and 2nd set and pride yourself on strict execution.

Chins, Pullups and Final Thoughts: I like to finish my progressive pull workout with two sets of chins and two sets of pull-ups. I use straps and attach myself to the chin bar. This takes the grip out of the equation and allows me to dead hang stretch between reps. After all the spinal compression of progressive pulls, the dead-hang stretch between chin and pull-up reps feels great and is highly beneficial for back and spine. Hanging stretches the spine and is the perfect compliment to the spinal compression that is incumbent with intense pulling. Chins and pulls are a nice way to end a brutal session of pull, pull, pull ? it's almost a cool down. The entire progressive pull routine should take a solid 60-75 minutes to complete. I would strongly advise consuming a post-workout smart bomb shake consisting of 20-40 grams of protein and 60-100 grams of carbohydrate. By replenishing the body with nutrients after a grueling session, fuel is rushed to traumatized muscles at the perfect time.

If you want to add slabs of muscle onto your posterior, get to pulling.

Marty Gallagher is a fitness columnist for the WashingtonPost.com. He won his first national championship in 1967 as a teenage Olympic lifter and is the current AAU world powerlifting champion in his age and weight class. As a coach he helped guide the United States to the IPF world team title in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five consecutive national team titles.