It’s probably not a surprise to you that I absolutely adore pulling exercises. Seriously, how often do I use “deadlifts and chin-ups” as my go to exercise combo for eliciting awesomeness. When in doubt, pull. I prefer both exercises in lower rep ranges; they’re great for developing some wicked strength. We typically hear about the squat and the bench press being consider the greatest measures of lower and upper body strength, respectively. Personally, I find the deadlift and chin-up to be better indicators. If I were to include those lifts in a ‘combine’ or sorts, (*upcoming blog post,) I would use a 3RM chin-up. Yes, only 3 reps.
Chin-ups are a fabulous indicator of relative strength, but we tend to get really sloppy form when the rep numbers get higher; it turns into this weird air-cycling human jackhammer motion. (Insert butterfly/kipping pull-up joke here.) Traditionally, most people just increase the volume of their vertical pulling by adding extra sets or just doing more reps. Intensity doesn’t increase unless they gain weight, and I find that loading vertical pulling exercises isn’t as common as I hoped it would be. When you’re developing strength in the lower rep ranges, adding additional load becomes a necessity. Let’s discuss several methods you can use to load up your chin-up.
The most ‘balanced’ way to load your body for vertical pulling is with a weighted vest. It’s securely strapped on, so you won’t have to worry about it slipping off while you go, or swinging around and disrupting your groove. If loaded symmetrically front to back, a weight vest will have minimal effect on any anterior/posterior shifts in center of gravity, and your loaded pulls will look just like your unloaded pulls. If your technique totally changes because you have weight swinging around, the training effects won’t be as productive. Below you’ll see relative strength extrordinaire crush 11 mixed-grip pull-ups with a 100lb weighted vest:
Weighted vests aren’t all that common, and you’re more likely to see a dip belt used for adding external load. Loading with a dip belt requires a simple set-up: Belt around your waist, chain through the plates, grab the bar and go. It’s really that simple; check out the clip below from Dan Gabelman, head strength and conditioning coach at Union College:
If you’re going to purchase a dip belt, I’d recommend investing in one that’s made of nylon or another related material; they’re a lot stronger than leather. Leather is strong, and it probably looks classier, but I had the nasty experience of snapping a leather belt at the rivets when making the 2 inch drop off of a bar. Let me tell you, having a 95lb dumbbell coming smashing into the ground next to your foot is not what you want to be worried about when you’re completing your sets. This is not good:
Post belt-tear and an impressive reactive jump back onto the bar, I spent the past two weeks without a dip belt. If I really wanted one, I could have searched for it on Amazon or driven to Dick’s. Instead, I decided to test a different method for loading my dips.
In mid-December, Neghar Fonooni wrote a post called “How I Stopped Sucking at Pullups“. In the post, she notes that she had been loading her pull-ups using kettlebells suspended from the foot. I only have one kettlebell, so that doesn’t allow much progression for me. Instead, I tried using a dumbbell standing up on it’s end. It requires the same dorsiflexed ankle position, so you’re pulling up your toes while pulling up your body. As Neghar states in her piece:
…Yet inevitably, as the bells got heavier the increased anterior load kept forcing me to lose tension in my midsection. I started realizing that when the bells were hooked onto my feet, I was much more capable of maintaining tension and subsequently pulling some real weight. Having my ankles intentionally dorsiflexed translated to more posterior chain engagement and a better hollow position.
Not that I doubted her, but I immediately felt tightness through my midsection when loading at the feet. I’ve quickly come to prefer the foot-loaded position, and can appreciate Neghar’s use of it. I like it so much that I’ll probably use it for most of my loaded pulling that’s under 100lbs, and can be completed with dumbbells. I took a video today to demonstrate the dumbbell position:
I doubt you have a weight vest, and you might not have a dip-belt. You likely have dumbbells at your gym though, so go ahead and hang one from your feet as you bust out those heavy pulls. Vertical pulling is a fabulous exercise, using a variety of grips and rep ranges. Low(er) rep chin-ups happen to be my favorite, and I’d strongly suggest you give them a try.
Let me know how it goes!