Pull-ups every day, method or madness?

The most common way of designing any kind of fitness program is to divide the week up into sections where each section focuses on a different goal. The aims of each part of the week may be different modes of training like strength training some days and endurance training the others, or simply training different muscle groups or areas of the body on different days. There isn’t the room in one blog post or even one whole book to discuss all the combinations and modes of training that people engage in and the various ways in which these could be combined. However for the topic of this post I’ll be talking exclusively about resistance training, that being my main area of interest and most relevant to what I’m talking about.

 

I’ve been experimenting lately with a less common but certainly not unheard of resistance training design whereby a trainer performs exercises, in my experiment, pull ups, every day or even multiple times in a single day. Olympic lifters have always trained like this; often having up to three workouts a day where they train the same lift, as the nature of Olympic lifting supports very high frequency training. However this kind of method has been shown to work for general resistance training purposes as well.

 

The way I’ve been approaching this style of training is simply by doing multiple sets of pull ups, either in the gym or at home, every single day of the week. The trick is however to stay fairly far away from muscular failure for every set. The training effect (essentially the stimulus for adaptation and subsequent adaptation) from this type of training comes from the volume that is built up cumulatively over time.

 

As an example, a more traditional program may get you to train pull-ups once or twice a week and in each workout you would train fairly close to, if not to, muscular failure so as to elicit an adaptation response from your muscles. If you did say 4 sets of 8 pull ups twice a week (assuming this kind of volume takes you fairly close to muscular failure each workout) in a traditional program, a high frequency program would demand, for example, 5 sets of 3 every day of the week.

 

These examples are just arbitrary numbers to illustrate the point, which is that doing less volume and intensity than you would normally do, but doing so every day, or at least at a higher than usual frequency, can actually result in greater volume and workload over the course of a week, which some high level trainers, and scientific research support as an effective method of training.

 

As I said I’ve been trying this idea out myself over the last month using rep ranges and sets appropriate to my strength levels and I’m already seeing some interesting results. It took a little while to get over the psychological barrier of  feeling like I hadn’t worked that hard on any given day but that being said I’ve felt a fairly significant increase in my ability to do pull ups over the last month. That increase has come in terms of speed of movement, number of reps I can complete in a single set and total sets I can do without feeling fatigued, without a change in bodyweight.

 

Now I’ll be the first to admit that this is hardly a scientifically rigorous experiment! But I just thought I’d write up my experience for any of our fitness followers just as a point of interest and to demonstrate that there are many different ways of approaching your training other than what would be considered typical. I’m not necessarily arguing that this is a better way to train, rather just that there are other options and that we should all train in a way that we enjoy, as psychology is often a forgotten factor when it comes to physical training; however ‘optimal’ your training program is, if you don’t enjoy it and therefore put the appropriate amount of effort in, it ceases to be optimal!

 

Personally I really enjoy pull-ups as an exercise so for me, doing them every day is great since I find that to be an enjoyable way of training. So do remember that you can easily find ways of fitting your training around your preferences and your lifestyle and that anyone who claims that there is only one way to train is either likely trying to sell you something or is simply mistaken!

 

One would still have to be careful to balance the overall volume and intensity with this type of training as with any other type but it is generally accepted that spacing out training like this allows the body to cope with far higher overall volumes than by training in more concentrated time periods.

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post, let me know if you have any experience of higher frequency training or just share your favourite exercises or training methods that you’ve tried yourself 🙂 thanks very much for reading, Ben.

Fitness obsession.

If you’d be kind enough to indulge me I’d like to talk about something that is actually quite embarrassing for me to admit but I think I’ve learned a valuable lesson from and I hope might be of interest or value to someone who is in a similar position to where I was not so long ago; how my enthusiasm for my fitness goals started to negatively impact my life.

 

I don’t want to bore you with too much talk about me 😉 but a little context will be useful. I have lifted weights as a hobby for about 2 – 3 years now and I generally go to the gym anywhere between 3 and 6 times a week. My main gym-based goals have generally been to build muscle mass, get stronger and stay lean(ish!). I’m also someone who has a tendency to get a little obsessed with things that I get interested in and I found just that happening with my gym-going. As a result, all my efforts started to become more of a hindrance to my life than an enhancement. Allow me to explain..

 

Really it was a mixture of things that meant going to the gym was doing more harm than good but to highlight the main ones:

 

–       I would spend a lot of time worrying that I was eating just the right amount and not wanting to deviate from my diet for any reason because I was afraid of fat gain/muscle loss.

 

–       I always wanted to be as fresh and energetic for my workouts as is humanly possible so I started to become more and more antisocial in terms of spending time with friends and loved ones (staying up late and drinking any alcohol would obviously ruin my gains!).

 

–       I also was restricting myself from enjoying various things that I wanted to enjoy because I felt like they would damage my progress in the gym. This went even as far as not wanted to go on holiday with my family because it would mess up my scheduled gym sessions (and how would I count my protein intake for goodness sake!).

 

The obsession with gaining strength and muscle and being what I saw as successful in the gym actually ended up blinding me to the fact that, whilst I was getting bigger and stronger, I didn’t actually feel very good about it. I was so focussed on those goals I didn’t recognise that I was restricting my enjoyment of life, including my relationships with other people, and actually had my priorities a bit skewed. At the time I thought I was just being dedicated and doing what I had to do but taking a psychological step back made me realise what was happening.

 

Now all this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t aim high in our hobbies and our lives in general, or that someone else wouldn’t be able to manage things where I failed to. However I have realised through messing up the balancing act that it’s important to make sure you can aim high and be dedicated while maintaining balance in other parts of your life. So if you’re anything like me and have a tendency to get a little over enthusiastic about fitness goals, or any other focus in your life for that matter, then a really valuable habit to get into is to take that psychological step back and look at your life as a whole and decide what this is worth to you and where you truly want your priorities to lie.

 

When I managed to take that step back I realised that frankly I didn’t actually want to be hugely big and muscular (no judgement whatsoever for those who do just not myself), I didn’t want to limit my time with friends and loved ones, I didn’t want to miss out on a larger range of experiences and I didn’t want to shove food down my throat that I didn’t want because I was ‘bulking’! I still lift weights now and I still enjoy it and get a sense of fulfilment out of it but I’m going forward with (I hope!) just a little better perspective on what it is I really want out of my gym time and how to approach things with a good deal more balance.

 

The reason this is embarrassing for me is not just that the lessons I’ve learned from this should have been obvious and they weren’t but also just that some of the thoughts that I’ve shared with you about things I would worry about just sound so silly when written down!

 

Our fitness and health goals are supposed to be goals that enhance our lives and improve us as people and while they do that they are all well and good but I’ve found it’s always worth double checking that you’re not losing sight of what’s most important to you in life.

 

I hope you found this either interesting or helpful in some way and please do share any of your own experiences of this kind of thing and anything you found helpful with keeping things in perspective 🙂 Ben.

 

Keeping all those gym gains whilst on the road…

Keeping fit, healthy and strong has become a big part of both our lives over the last couple of years. I (Ben) began lifting weights for health and fitness about 2 years ago and Jess subsequently became interested and started working out with me. What with our intention to travel all over the world over the coming years we’ve started to piece together ideas for how to keep our conditioning and health at a respectable level whilst being on the road as well as just continue to exercise for the enjoyment that we get from it. So what we thought we’d do is share with you a few of our ideas about what we’re going to do for general health and fitness whilst we travel and brief descriptions on how to implement these yourself.

 

Firstly just a little background of our training and general philosophy when it comes to fitness. Our training is mostly based around barbells and dumbbells and train predominantly in what could be considered a powerlifting style where our workouts are based around the squat, deadlift and bench press (neither of us have competed and we aren’t approaching a competitive level mind you, we just enjoy this style of training). The reason we train at all is generally to develop a basic level of muscular strength, maintain joint health and structural integrity (my fancy way of saying essentially good posture and ensuring that all the muscles of the body are doing the jobs they’re meant to do!) as well as for the numerous other benefits of strength/resistance training.

(Since I don’t have any actual photos of us lifting in the gym, please enjoy this photo of myself messing around in the gym in a christmas jumper!)

 

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As far as diet goes we aren’t personally big fans of ‘diet’s’ or using particular methods for food intake, really we just stick with the staples: eat plenty of fruit and veg, quality protein (meats, eggs, dairy) and try and stay away from junk and highly processed food as much as possible (I say ‘as much as possible’ as this doesn’t always work when you’re craving that sweet, sugary goodness of cake, chocolate, crisps, doughnuts…the list could go on!). We have found this works best for us though and allows a more balanced and healthy approach to eating. With that little background out of the way just to provide some context, we want to share our basic fitness plans for while we’re on the road!

 

Now I hasten to say that we haven’t actually done any of this yet so as for how successful it will be we have no idea! This is what we plan to do though and we’ll give it our best go and see what happens. Since while travelling it’s rare to stay in the same place for a large amount of time what we share here will be working on the assumption that we don’t have access to a gym and any of the equipment that typically comes with them. So onto the details.

 

I’ve bought (for a surprisingly small cost from eBay if anyone’s interested) several rubber resistance bands, which are going to form the basis of much of our exercise plans. For those of you who don’t know these are essentially giant rubber bands of varying thickness that provide different amounts of resistance based on how thick the band is and how far you stretch it. Depending how thick you go these bands can offer resistance of anywhere between 5 and over 200lbs. We plan to divide our workouts up into either upper and lower body on different days of the week or do one or two full body workouts a week.

 

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Resistance bands

 

So please forgive the extremely amateur photography and demonstrations involved below, but this is how we plan on exercising and using the bands:

 

Push-ups

 

No surprises here but to work the upper body pressing muscles (pecs, deltoids and triceps) we’ll use the good old standard push up, which has the advantage of being possible anywhere with a floor (even whilst travelling the odds are you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding a floor 😉 ). The bands come into play when push-ups are too easy to be of particular value for strength training. If you can only do say anywhere between 0 and 15 push ups in one go then the push up alone will be a perfectly adequate exercise for maintaining or building strength. However much beyond this and you’ll receive diminishing returns in terms of building strength.

 

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Band push up start position

 

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Band push up bottom position

The pictures above show how we’ll arrange the bands and from here push-ups can be done as normal but with the added resistance offered by the band as you push yourself off the floor.

 

Pull-ups and rows

 

For the upper body pulling muscles (pretty much every muscle in the upper back and biceps) we have two options to play with, both require slightly more organisation than the push ups but we hope they will still be doable. The first one is simply to do pull ups though these come with two conditions: firstly a place to do them and secondly strength to do them in the first place as for many people these are extremely tough. The second option is to use the bands to perform a rowing movement to target the upper back muscles (and biceps to an extent).

 

To tackle the pull-ups first, a place to do them may involve having to be a little creative and possibly looking a little strange to onlookers! This is something we’ll have to wait and see about when we are in a particular place but low hanging (and sturdy) tree branches may be an option as well as looking out for appropriately heighted and sturdy places in more urban areas (this is where we may have to tolerate some strange looks!). For people who can’t yet do full pull-ups (Jess is currently working on them herself) there is the option of doing negative pull ups which are pictured below. The other option involves the bands for assistance. With this option we’ll need to find some way of hooking the band, firstly over whatever we’re pulling up to and secondly around our bodies so that the band is partially holding you up almost like a sling. This reduces the amount of work that it takes to pull up and can help make the exercise doable.

Starting position with feet resting on a chair

Starting position with feet resting on a chair

 

Lower yourself as slowly as possible

Lower yourself as slowly as possible

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The other option if pull-ups aren’t possible would be to use our bands to do a rowing movement as pictured below. The band can be hooked around pretty much anything that is tough enough to stay where it is! This exercise is not a brilliant substitute for doing pull ups or using weights for rowing movements but we’re hoping it’ll do in a pinch!

 

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Band hooked round fence, shoulders back and down and band taut.

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Pull elbows backwards keeping the rest of the body stable.

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Squeeze shoulder blades together once elbows are past your sides, don’t shrug shoulders.

 

Squats and pistol squats

 

When it comes to the lower body things get a little trickier as for most people standard bodyweight squats aren’t going to be nearly enough resistance to get a decent strength workout for the legs so we’re opting for the pistol squat. We’re both currently learning how to do these, as they are particularly tough! The basic idea of a pistol squat is shown below. My current barrier to these is a lack of ankle flexibility meaning my knees don’t travel far enough forward so I fall backwards, so adequate ankle flexibility is a must to do these properly (in the mean time, raising your heel by placing something underneath it or wearing slightly heeled shoes will help but practice the non-heel raised assisted version shown next as well). For Jess the issue is more a strength one so how we’ve been learning these is to do them whilst holding on to something and using our arms to assist us on the way up until we develop the strength/flexibility to do them without help.

 

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Pistol squat start position, leg and arms out in front for balance.

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Squat down on one leg keeping heel on the floor.

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Go as far down as you can then imagine you’re pushing the floor away from you to stand up.

 

Hold onto the door with one leg out in front of you

Assisted version: hold onto the door with one leg out in front of you.

Lower yourself, using the door and your arms for assistance

Assisted version: squat dow, push against the floor and pull up with your arms to standing position.

 

Even the assisted version of these can be very hard and plenty adequate for an improvised on the road workout. The other way of doing these if full ones are not possible for whatever reason is to perform them as if you are going to do a full pistol squat but instead do a partial range version where you sit back onto something at a height that makes the squat difficult but not impossible like below. The height of the object can be slowly lowered as you gain strength.

 

Box pistol start

Start position, heel on the floor.

 

Box pistol bottom

Lightly touch the object, don’t rest weight on it, push the floor away back to standing.

 

 Cardio

 

Finally a brief note on cardio: thankfully cardio is the easiest of exercise to improvise as of course you can just go for a run and if you’re running in some foreign land you can take in the sights as you go and get to know a place a little better at the same time. Though I would caution against running randomly with no idea where you’re going as you might end up in a neighbourhood you’d rather avoid or lost in the wilderness! But with a little use of intuition it should be easy enough to find an enjoyable running route wherever you are.

 

Two last things I should stress are firstly that this isn’t obviously a perfect arrangement but our aim was to give some ideas that might see you through and keep you active and having fun with fitness whilst travelling (or even if you just don’t want to go to or can’t afford to go to a gym). Secondly in our experience we tend not to eat half as much whilst travelling as we do at home and tend to drop weight pretty quickly so particularly for resistance training be aware that if you’re anything like us you may need to take it slightly easier than usual and don’t expect to make any particular progress while travelling, just enjoy being able to do something to keep active while away and look forward to getting back to it when you return home!

 

We’ll keep you updated with how this goes and don’t skip leg day guys! 😉

 

Any experiences of your own, thoughts, suggestions or questions, let us know in the comments 🙂