In article five of our supplemental and accessory exercise series we discuss the pull. While the other articles thus far in this series have focused on particular exercises to improve a specific movement pattern, this article will talk more about strategies to implore in order to perfect the pull-up. With my experience it is fairly easy to master rowing movements (both unilateral and bilateral i.e. dumbbell and barbell rowing), but not many people are aware of how to take someone who can do zero pull-ups, and build them into being able to do a pull-up with perfect form. So, the remainder of this article will discuss several ways to manipulate the movement in order to become stronger throughout the range of motion, and then I will give you my favorite exercise to use as a precursor to “graduating” to pull-ups.
The Magic That Is Eccentrics and Isometrics
To start, I will clear up what both eccentrics and isometrics are to any first time readers. In extremely basic terms, the eccentric portion of the range of motion is the “negative,” or lowering of the movement, and isometric refers to any hold or pause throughout the range of motion. Essentially, we are strongest eccentrically, which is why performing movements eccentrically that we are not strong enough for to perform a full range of motion with is a great way to build muscle and control with a movement. Isometrics are also a great way to improve dynamic motor control (stability throughout a full range of motion) and increase time under tension (time the muscle is contracted), which can lead to muscle growth.
Inverted Bodyweight Rows
Now that we have covered eccentrics and isometrics I want to discuss my favorite exercise to use before you progress to working on the pull-up bar. The inverted bodyweight row is a pull-up done from the barbell, which is suspended on the squat rack pins in the bench press position. You hang from the bar and perform a pull-up up to the bar. Not only can you implement eccentric and isometric work with this movement but also you can raise and lower the bar to place you at a higher angle (easier) or a lower angle (more challenging). I love starting beginners at a high angle with these and progressing through the movement and slowly lowering the angle while introducing longer eccentric and isometric holds. Once you show proficiency in this movement you can proceed to working from the pull-up bar.
In part four of our supplemental and accessory exercise series I discuss the squat, what you should be looking for with your supplemental squat work, and my two absolute favorite supplemental exercises to perfect your squat form and build your posterior chain.
Goals With The Squat
I just want to address a couple things right away before we move on. I have seen some posts recently about posterior loading with squats and the notion that refraining from your “knees passing your toes” is a myth. The idea is that if you squat deep enough your knees will need to pass (or at least align with) your toes or else you will not be able to maintained a properly aligned and neutral spine. While I do feel that you can maintain a properly aligned spine if you have enough mobility, stability and motor control throughout the range of motion, I won’t even get into that. However, what I am going to say is that for athletes and average gym goers it is not necessary to go drastically below parallel in your squat. I have all of my athletes squat to a box at parallel or just below and we see great results.
With that being said if we properly load our posterior chain when we squat (think about your hips leading the movement instead of your knees), we will reap great benefits for our glutes, hamstrings and hips. Furthermore, I have noticed that my athletes and clients are much more likely to create proper torque and external rotation when focusing on engaging their posterior chain. From this information we can gather that our goals with the squat are to properly load the posterior chain. So, what does that tell us? Well, let us take a step back here. As I mentioned in article one of this series the goal of a supplemental exercise is to build strength and proficiency with a fundamental movement pattern (exercise should be in the same plane of motion and also incorporate many characteristics of the fundamental movement). Keep this in mind as I delve into my two favorite supplemental squat exercises that will help build mobility, stability and dynamic motor control throughout the full range of motion, and will also help develop unilateral lower body strength and build muscle.
The Goblet Squat
The goblet squat is my absolute favorite exercise to perfect squat form. I have taken athletes who have never even squatted (front or back squats) prior to training with me, and perfected their form in only five to six weeks with just the goblet squat. For one, holding a dumbbell in goblet style (perched just under your chin), forces posterior loading. Holding the load anteriorly (in front of you) forces you to “sit back” as the weight would fully pull you forward if you do not load properly. Secondly, a lightened load allows you to focus on form entirely. For beginners I will have them squat with a mini band around their knees (while also barefoot) to help them feel the floor beneath them (the true creation of torque) and “drive their knees out” to ensure proper external rotation. Lastly, I like to utilize eccentrics and isometrics with the goblet squat in order to develop dynamic motor control within the entire squat range of motion. Slow eccentrics (think of a five second lowering to the box) can not only build proficiency throughout the entire range of motion (slow eccentrics are one of the best ways to build muscle and strength with a movement), but they can also build muscle mass via increased time under tension (time a muscle spends in contraction), which are great goals to have in mind for beginners or even some advanced athletes and lifters. Isometrics (think pauses throughout any point of the range of motion) are another great tool to develop motor control and stability with the movement and also can assist in increasing time under tension.
As I mentioned earlier, building unilateral leg strength is equally important as a supplement to the squat. Split squats allow us to target each leg individually, but still maintain the same movement pattern. Unilateral work has a multitude of benefits for athletes (in terms of success in building speed, agility and other areas), but for now we will just focus on using them to rid of muscle imbalances with each side and how that can help build proficiency with the squat. While split squats can be performed with dumbbells, I do like to use them with a rack position barbell load (front squat position) or back squat load (depends on what type of squat my athlete is performing on a consistent basis. This allows them to build comfort with the bar while also building unilateral leg strength throughout the range of motion. Applying the same eccentric and isometric principles that I mentioned with the goblet squat can go a long way with these as well.
For a more advanced goblet squat variation, perform the exercise with two dumbbells each loaded in the rack position. This is a great variation for those who primarily use front squats instead of back squats. Aside from the usual benefits of the goblet squat, these will help develop more proficiency in the rack position and also help strengthen the wrists for barbell front squats.
Gerry DeFilippo: ISSA CPT- CPPS, AAPS. Founder/Owner: Challenger Strength.