Category Archives: Strength Training

The Nordic Ham Curl: A Staple Exercise for Athletes

In strength coaching circles, there’s a highly effective hamstring exercise that is well known to coaches, athletes, and sports medicine personnel.

The exercise has many names, including the Russian leg curl, Russian lean, Russian ham curl, kneeling Russian hamstring curl, Nordic ham curl, Nordic hamstrings, Nordic hamstrings lower, Nordic leg curl, Nordic reverse curl, glute-ham curl, bodyweight leg curl, natural hamstring curl, and bodyweight hamstring curl. The most common name used in the literature is the Nordic ham curl (NHC).

NHC

The Nordic Ham Curl (NHC)

These exercise variations typically involve kneeling on a pad and lowering under control while the ankles are held in place by a partner, a lat pulldown apparatus, a sit-up apparatus, a loaded barbell, a poor man’s glute-ham apparatus, or any other immovable object you can think of using. Here’s a video of my sister from several years ago busting out 3 reps.

NHC and Hamstring Strain Injury Prevention

I would guess that the NHC is one of the top ten most studied and referenced exercises in the literature, probably behind squats, Olympic lifts, bench press, push ups, lunges, and deadlifts. In fact, at the end of this article, you’ll see over 100 studies listed. The reason why it is so popular is due to the prevalence of hamstring strain injuries in sports and the belief that the NHC can help prevent them. The eccentric nature of the NHC is believed to increase hamstrings length and shift the maximum strength of the muscle toward longer muscle lengths, which is believed to be important in sports. For more information along these lines, please read:

Can eccentric training help prevent hamstring strains?

Questioning the NHC as a Hamstring Injury Prevention Method 

If you’re a strength coach or physical therapist, then you should definitely include the NHC in your arsenal. There’s a wealth of research behind it, and there’s no doubt that it can help prevent hamstring strains. Moreover, knee flexion torque is highly correlated with sprint speed, and the hamstrings contract to both extend the hips and flex the knees during sprint running (and this is vital during the window immediately before, during, and immediately after the foot strikes the ground). So knee flexion shouldn’t be omitted in sport training.

But before I delve further, I want to be very clear about something. Possessing high levels of eccentric hamstring strength does not guarantee that hamstring strains will not occur. In Hamstring strain injuries: are we heading in the right direction?, Mendiguchia et al. explain how hamstring strains are predicted by the interrelated nature between flexibility, strength, fatigue, core stability, architecture, and previous injury.

Hamstring-strains

An athlete could possess sound levels of hamstring strength to absorb eccentric stress, sound levels of hamstring flexibility to lengthen sufficiently during high load activity, and sound levels of core stability to prevent aberrant pelvic motion, but still wind up with a hamstring strain due to excessive fatigue, a prior injury, or simply a skeletal anatomy or muscle architecture that lends itself to large strains on the hamstrings.

Furthermore, the NHC works primarily on knee flexion. In sports, the knee joints do not move independently from the hip joints; they work in concert with one another. Moreover, hip extension exercises stretch the hamstrings to a greater degree than knee flexion exercises. Therefore, it is very important to perform hip extension exercises as they will lead to a greater stretch in the hamstrings, and they are more specific to sport movement.

The NHC as a Hamstrings Builder

Can the NHC pack on serious hamstrings muscle mass? I believe it can. Take a look at a study conducted by Ebben et al. which showed that NHCs (in this study they were called Russian Curls or RCs) outperformed seated leg curls, stiff leg deadlifts, single leg stiff leg deadlifts, good mornings, and squats in hamstring EMG activity.

NHC

As you can see, the NHC is no joke. Now, there are several articles in the literature investigating hamstring EMG activity, and they show conflicting results, probably because hamstring activation is highly influenced by the precise placement of the electrodes along the length of the muscles. At any rate, the NHC undoubtedly leads to high levels of hamstring muscle activation and should be included in a comprehensive hamstring strengthening protocol, especially in conjunction with other exercises such as Romanian deadlifts (RDLs), glute ham raises (GHRs), and lying leg curls. RDLs, GHRs, and NHCs are well-suited for producing high levels of tension and damage, whereas lying leg curls are well-suited for producing high levels of metabolic stress.

The Band Assisted Nordic Ham Curl: A Better Alternative

In this article, I’d like to impress upon you what I believe is a more effective NHC variation compared to the standard exercise. The vast majority of lifters and athletes are not strong enough to adequately control the lowering portion of the exercise throughout the entire range of motion (ROM). Almost inevitably, athletes lower their bodies under control during the first half of the movement and then sink like a ship during the second half of the movement. This rapid descent is accompanied by a sharp decline in muscle activity.

To prevent this occurrence, the lifter can simply use a band to provide assistance, which kicks in more and more as the lifter descends into the latter portion of the movement. This is importance since the torque angle curve of the NHC is sharp such that the most torque out of the knee flexors is required at the end of the movement when the muscle is lengthened (but it’s important to realize that in a NHC, the hamstrings don’t even reach resting length at their maximum stretch).

Of course, not every athlete needs the band assisted version of the NHC. Take a look HERE at former NFL athlete Adam Archuleta – skip to the 2 minute and 32 second mark and watch Adam bust out NHCs with ease. But guys like Adam are the exception, not the norm.

In the video below, you can see that I’m able to control my body throughout the entire range of motion. In fact, I don’t even have to use my arms to “push up” and provide assistance.

I hope that you give this variation a try, I think you will find it to be more effective than the traditional version, at least until you build up enough strength to sufficiently control your bodyweight during the eccentric phase without the use of bands.

Research on Nordic Ham Curls

Below is a list of over 100 linked journal articles that investigate, program, discuss, or recommend the Nordic Ham Curl exercise.

A 10-week randomized trial comparing eccentric vs. concentric hamstring strength training in well-trained soccer players.

Effects of a low volume injury prevention program on the hamstring torque angle relationship.

Medial hamstring muscle activation patterns are affected 1-6 years after ACL reconstruction using hamstring autograft.

Incidence, risk, and prevention of hamstring muscle injuries in professional rugby union.

Human hamstring muscles adapt to eccentric exercise by changing optimum length.

Hamstring activation during lower body resistance training exercises.

Effect of timing of eccentric hamstring strengthening exercises during soccer training: implications for muscle fatigability.

Preventive effect of eccentric training on acute hamstring injuries in men’s soccer: a cluster-randomized controlled trial.

The use of MRI to evaluate posterior thigh muscle activity and damage during nordic hamstring exercise.

Kinematic and electromyographic analysis of the Nordic Hamstring Exercise.

A novel device using the Nordic hamstring exercise to assess eccentric knee flexor strength: a reliability and retrospective injury study.

The preventive effect of the Nordic hamstring exercise on hamstring injuries in amateur soccer players: study protocol for a randomised controlled trial.

Effectiveness of injury prevention programs on developing quadriceps and hamstrings strength of young male professional soccer players.

Risk factors, testing and preventative strategies for non-contact injuries in professional football: current perceptions and practices of 44 teams from various premier leagues.

Eccentric Hamstring Strength and Hamstring Injury Risk in Australian Footballers.

The Effect of Previous Hamstring Strain Injuries on the Change in Eccentric Hamstring Strength During Preseason Training in Elite Australian Footballers.

Prevention of hamstring strains in elite soccer: an intervention study.

The Validity of the Nordic Hamstring Lower as a Field-Based Assessment of Eccentric Hamstring Strength.

Evidence-based treatment of hamstring tears.

‘Nordic’ hamstrings exercise – engagement characteristics and training responses.

Effectiveness of injury prevention programs on developing quadriceps and hamstrings strength of young male professional soccer players.

Exercises to prevent lower limb injuries in youth sports: cluster randomised controlled trial.

The Assisted Nordic Hamstring Curl.

A return-to-sport algorithm for acute hamstring injuries.

Hamstring injury occurrence in elite soccer players after preseason strength training with eccentric overload.

The Nordic Eccentric Hamstring Exercise for Injury Prevention in Soccer Players.

Effectiveness of a neuromuscular and proprioceptive training program in preventing anterior cruciate ligament injuries in female athletes: 2-year follow-up.

Training Considerations after Hamstring Injury in Athletes.

The Effects of Injury Preventive Warm-Up Programs on Knee Strength Ratio in Young Male Professional Soccer Players

F-MARC – Football for Health 15 years of F-MARC Research and Education 1994 – 2009

Isokinetic strength effects of FIFA’s “The 11+” injury prevention training programme.

Performance Enhancement Effects of Fe´de´ration Internationale de Football Association’s “The 11+” Injury Prevention Training Program in Youth Futsal Players.

The Impact of the FIFA 11+ Training Program on Injury Prevention in Football Players: A Systematic Review.

Effects of the 11+ and Harmoknee Warm-up Programs on Physical Performance Measures in Professional Soccer Players.

The effectiveness of different exercises protocols to prevent the incidence of hamstring injury in athletes

The Effects of Comprehensive Warm-Up Programs on Proprioception, Static and Dynamic Balance on Male Soccer Players

How and When to Use an Injury Prevention Intervention in Soccer

The effectiveness of neuromuscular warm-up strategies, that require no additional equipment, for preventing lower limb injuries during sports participation: a systematic review

Strength and power characteristics in English elite rugby league players.

Altering the length-tension relationship with eccentric exercise : implications for performance and injury.

At return to play following hamstring injury the majority of professional football players have residual isokinetic deficits.

Kettlebell swing targets semitendinosus and supine leg curl targets biceps femoris: an EMG study with rehabilitation implications.

The role and implementation of eccentric training in athletic rehabilitation: tendinopathy, hamstring strains, and ACL reconstruction.

Preventing Hamstring Injuries in Sport.

Why hamstring eccentrics are hamstring essentials.

Recurrent hamstring muscle injury: applying the limited evidence in the professional football
setting with a seven-point programme

At return to play following hamstring injury the majority of professional football players have residual isokinetic deficits

Bridging the Gap Between Content and Context: Establishing Expert Consensus on the Content of an Exercise Training Program to Prevent Lower-Limb Injuries.

Biceps Femoris Long-Head Architecture: A Reliability and Retrospective Injury Study.

Clinical and morphological changes following 2 rehabilitation programs for acute hamstring strain injuries: a randomized clinical trial.

Comprehensive warm-up programme to prevent injuries in young female footballers: cluster randomised controlled trial

Conceptual Framework for Strengthening Exercises to Prevent Hamstring Strains.

Core stability training for injury prevention.

Development and validation of a questionnaire (FASH—Functional Assessment Scale for Acute Hamstring Injuries): to measure the severity and impact of symptoms on function and sports ability in patients with acute hamstring injuries.

Differences in activation patterns of knee flexor muscles during concentric and eccentric exercises.

Eccentric exercise: mechanisms and effects when used as training regime or training adjunct.

Eccentric exercise training: modalities, applications and perspectives.

Eccentric Muscle Actions and How the Strength and Conditioning Specialist Might Use Them for a Variety of Purposes.

Eccentric training for prevention of hamstring injuries may depend on intervention compliance: a systematic review and meta-analysis.

Effect of hip flexion angle on hamstring optimum length after a single set of concentric contractions.

Effects of a 10-week in-season eccentric overload training program on muscle injury prevention and performance in junior elite soccer players.

Evidence based prevention of hamstring injuries in sport.

Examination and treatment of hamstring related injuries.

Hamstring exercises for track and field athletes – injury and exercise biomechanics, and possible implications for exercise selection and primary prevention.

Hamstring injury rehabilitation and prevention of reinjury using lengthened state eccentric training: a new concept.

Hamstring Strains: Basic Science and Clinical Research Applications for Preventing the Recurrent Injury.

Hamstring strain injuries: are we heading in the right direction?

Hamstring strain injuries: factors that lead to injury and re-injury.

Interventions for preventing hamstring injuries.

Prevention of injuries among male soccer players: a prospective, randomized intervention study targeting players with previous injuries or reduced function.

A pilot randomised controlled trial of eccentric exercise to prevent hamstring injuries in community-level Australian Football.

Hamstring Strain Prevention in Elite Soccer Players.

Strength deficits identified with concentric action of the hip extensors and eccentric action of the hamstrings predispose to hamstring injury in elite sprinters.

Influence of Hip-Flexion Angle on Hamstrings Isokinetic Activity in Sprinters.

Intrinsic risk factors for hamstring injuries among male soccer players: a prospective cohort study.

Lower eccentric hamstring strength and single leg hop for distance predict hamstring injury in PETE students.

Methods of Developing Power to Improve Acceleration for the Non-Track Athlete.

Neuromuscular training improves knee kinematics, in particular in valgus aligned adolescent team handball players of both sexes.

Risk factors for hamstring injuries in male soccer players: a systematic review of prospective studies.

Specific exercise effects of preventive neuromuscular training intervention on anterior cruciate ligament injury risk reduction in young females: meta-analysis and subgroup analysis.

Strength and Conditioning for Soccer Players.

Female Soccer: Part 2—Training Considerations and Recommendations

The Nordic Eccentric Hamstring Exercise for Injury Prevention in Soccer Players

Anterior Cruciate Ligament Injury Prevention for Female High School Athletes

Training Considerations after Hamstring Injury in Athletes

Hamstring Strains: Basic Science and Clinical Research Applications for Preventing the Recurrent Injury

The effect of 40 m repeated sprint training on physical performance in young elite male soccer players

The effect of 40-m repeated sprint training on maximum sprinting speed, repeated sprint speed endurance, vertical jump, and aerobic capacity in young elite male soccer players

The effect of an eccentrically-biased hamstring strengthening home program on knee flexor strength and the length-tension relationship.

The effect of combined resisted agility and repeated sprint training vs. strength training on female elite soccer players.

The effectiveness of different exercises protocols to prevent the incidence of hamstring injury in athletes.

The effects of isometric and isotonic training on hamstring stiffness and anterior cruciate ligament loading mechanisms.

The effects of resistance training prioritization in NCAA Division I Football summer training.

The Order of Concurrent Training Does not Affect Soccer-Related Performance Adaptations.

The role of neuromuscular inhibition in hamstring strain injury recurrence.

Hamstring injuries: risk assessment and injury prevention.

Which screening tools can predict injury to the lower extremities in team sports?: a systematic review.

Neuromuscular training improves performance and lower-extremity biomechanics in female athletes.

The effects of plyometric vs. dynamic stabilization and balance training on power, balance, and landing force in female athletes.

Methodological approaches and rationale for training to prevent anterior cruciate ligament injuries in female athletes

Does eccentric training of hamstring muscles reduce acute injuries in soccer?

Eccentric hamstring muscle training can prevent hamstring injuries in soccer players.

Acute hamstring injuries in Swedish elite football: a prospective randomised controlled clinical trial comparing two rehabilitation protocols.

Allocating Volume to Maximize Muscle Growth

I’ve spent 23 years analyzing program design. In the beginning, I would read Arnold’s Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding and peruse the muscle mags. Then I stumbled upon HIT Training, then HST Training, and finally T-Nation. Eventually I learned how to use Pubmed and investigate the research. I’ve also talked shop with probably over a thousand lifters, coaches, personal trainers, and physical therapists.

Program design was always a complicated topic for me. I went through the typical “I have to include every single exercise imaginable into my routine” phase, as well as the “just focus on the basic big five exercises” phase, and everything in between. I’ve examined the routines of all of my favorite bodybuilders and powerlifters over the years, in addition to attempting to decipher the rationale behind various Soviet and Bulgarian periodization schemes. Program design can be highly complicated, but it can also be fairly simple.

In this article, I would like to throw something your way in efforts to make it easier for the common lifter to understand how to best design their training program. What I would like to discuss is how to best allocate volume in order to maximize muscular hypertrophy. You very well might disagree with my conclusions and examples below, but the point of this article isn’t for you to agree with me, it’s to get you thinking about your program design.

bench

Pick a Muscle and Determine the Optimal Volume

Pick your favorite muscle group. Yours might be pecs or quads. Take a guess what mine is? Glutes! It really doesn’t matter though. You would like to maximize your muscle growth, and you want to perform the optimal volume to tease out the most hypertrophy. Most individuals have a muscle group that is considerably lagging, one that causes them to feel particularly self-conscious about, and one that they would desperately like to improve. Since it is not easy to bring up a lagging bodypart for us natural, typical lifters, I argue that each of our routines should be heavily skewed toward our personal weaknesses, assuming that the goal is primarily based on aesthetics. But I digress…

I realize that I need to provide more details up front in order to ask the question I pose in the following paragraph. Let’s say that 33% of your volume is in the 1-5 rep range, 33% of your volume is in the 6-12 rep range, and 33% of your volume is in the 13-30 rep range. And let’s say that 30% of your volume is at a 5-7 RPE, 60% of your volume is at an 8-9 RPE, and 10% of your volume is at a 10 RPE.

With those details provided, how many sets would you perform per week for your favorite muscle group? 10 sets per week? 20? 30? 40? 50? 100? 1,000? Ten sets per week probably won’t be enough. Obviously 1,000 sets would be overkill and counterproductive. I would guess that for most people, the ideal number of sets per week would be somewhere between 15 and 30 depending on the muscle group in question, the exercises chosen, and the inherent recovery ability of the individual. For purposes of simplicity, let’s just set optimal volume at 24 sets per week.

Allocating Volume Throughout the Week

So we’ve got 24 sets per week to hammer a particular muscle group. Now we need to determine how to best distribute that volume. Would you perform all 24 sets on one day? Or would you do 12 sets on one day and 12 sets on another day? Or would you do 8 sets on three separate days? Maybe you would choose 4 sets on 6 days during the week. Here are your basic options:

  • 24 sets on one day
  • 12 sets on two days
  • 8 sets on three days
  • 6 sets on four days
  • 4 sets on six days

Based on my experience as a lifter and personal trainer, I would say that  these two options would deliver the best results:

  • 8 sets on three days
  • 6 sets on four days

Let’s go with the 8 sets on three days option, just because it’s simpler and easier to program.

squat

Exercise Selection

We’ve decided to perform 8 sets for a particular muscle group on three training days per week, and now we’re trying to determine the best exercises to perform.

It is very important to note that not all exercises are created equal in terms of how they tax the body.

  • Some exercises tax the hell out of the CNS and cannot be performed as frequently (think of exercises that use ultra heavy loads and heavily load the spine such as deadlifts)
  • Some exercises create significant soreness and cannot be performed as frequently (think of exercises that stretch the muscles to long muscle lengths such as the RDL or walking dumbbell lunge)
  • Some exercises distribute joint stress very well and can be performed more frequently (think neutral grip inverted rows)
  • Some exercises don’t create significant soreness and can be performed more frequently (think of exercises that don’t utilize heavy loads such as face pulls or exercises that work the muscles mostly at short muscle lengths such as band hip thrusts)
  • Some exercises target unique portions of muscles (think front raises versus lateral raises and rear delt raises)

With this knowledge, it is apparent that one exercise alone isn’t going to maximize the hypertrophic response to training.

If glutes are the muscle group you chose, maybe you would want to go with this program for a few months: Monday – 4 sets of deadlifts, 2 sets of front squats, and 2 sets of single leg hip thrusts; Wednesday – 4 sets of hip thrusts, 2 sets of Bulgarian split squats, and 2 sets of cable kickbacks; Friday – 4 sets of back squats, 2 sets of back extensions, and 2 sets of single leg RDLs. Yes, you could throw in some lateral band work at the end of each session too – those are pretty much freebies.

If quads are the muscle group you chose, maybe you would want to go with this program for a few months: Monday – 4 sets of back squats, 2 sets of deficit Bulgarian split squats, and 2 sets of leg extensions; Wednesday – 4 sets of leg press, 2 sets of front squats, and 2 sets of leg extensions; Friday – 4 sets of high bar back squats with chains, 2 sets of high step ups, and 2 sets of leg extensions.

If pecs are the muscle group you chose, maybe you would want to go with this program for a few months: Monday – 4 sets of bench press, 2 sets of decline press, and 2 sets of low pulley cable crossovers; Wednesday – 4 sets of incline press, 2 sets of push ups, and 2 sets of pec deck; Friday – 4 sets of dumbbell bench, 2 sets of weighted dips, and 2 sets of dumbbell flies.

In each of these examples, you have a variety of compound and isolation exercises, you have exercises that work the muscles at long lengths and short lengths, and you have exercises that combine to thoroughly work the entire spectrum of muscle fibers.

Is this the absolute best way to build muscle? I think about this question all the time, and I admit to not knowing the answer. For example, I wonder if I had my clients buy a hip thruster and perform band hip thrusts 7 days per week, would they see better results than if I had them do squats, deadlifts, hip thrusts, lunges, back extensions, and lateral band walks 2 days per week? Band hip thrusts do activate the upper and lower gluteus maximus incredibly well. They produce a ton of tension and create some serious metabolic stress, but they don’t produce much muscle damage (which is good when training with high frequency, but might not be optimal when trying to maximize hypertrophy). Until I know more and can conduct training studies on this topic, I’m going to have to go with the variety approach and include a wide range of exercises in my hypertrophy programs.

band hip thrust

Wrapping it All Together

Now we’ve determined the best approach for one muscle, but can we just duplicate this approach for every muscle group? Considering that we have 11 primary muscle groups, including:

  • traps
  • delts
  • pecs
  • lats
  • bi’s
  • tri’s
  • abs
  • glutes
  • quads
  • hams
  • calves

There is simply no way that you could pull this off. You’d need to perform 24 x 11 = 264 sets of exercise per week, which is overkill. This is why it’s important to specialize with your programming, rather than just give each muscle group equal attention. Unless, however, you are happy with your proportions and perceive yourself to be highly symmetrical. In this case, you might want to allocate 12 sets per week for delts, pecs, lats, glutes, quads, and hams, and 4 sets per week for traps, bi’s, tri’s, abs, and calves (there will be some overlapping of sets of course).

How would you round out the routines listed above in the previous section? With the glute example, you’ll already be hitting the quads and hams pretty hard, so you could possibly just add in some leg extensions and leg curls on those days if additional quad or ham mass was desired. And on Tuesday and Thursday (and possibly Saturday, but 6 days per week is too much for many lifters), you could train upper body. Same goes for the quad example – you could add in some additional glute and ham work on lower body days, and perform upper body on Tuesday, Thursday, and possibly Saturday. In the pec example, you could add in some upper body pulling and delt work to the upper body days, and do lower body on Tuesday, Thursday, and possibly Saturday.

Your training should therefore be skewed toward your individual weaknesses. Prioritize 1 or 2 muscle groups that you most want to improve, but still make sure you’re training the entire body. Many women care about their glute development around a thousand times more than they do their trap, biceps, or calf development. Their training should reflect this preference.

Same Volume, More Variety

Notice that in my examples above, there were exercises that were performed for 4 total sets and exercises that were performed for 2 total sets. The decreased volume per exercise allows for more exercise variety. If I was trying to maximize my back musculature, and I could perform 10 total sets, I would much rather go with 2 sets of 5 exercises, such as deadlifts, chin ups, bent over rows, wide grip pulldowns, and seated rows, rather than 10 sets of 1 exercise, such as deadlifts or chin ups. This is especially true for muscles that perform multiple joint actions and have distinct subdivisions.

Conclusion

A nearly infinite number of configurations can work for strengthening and growing muscles. However, many lifters’ routines do not optimally target their weaknesses. Many lifters simply copy the routines of their idols, or perform a well-rounded routine that they see in the magazines. This won’t maximize their progress, since every lifters’ training should be individualized and skewed toward bringing up their weaknesses. Many of my female clients prioritize glute development, but they can only train with me twice per week. I prescribe around 12 sets of glute exercises on both training days, and they’ve seen excellent results. I personally feel that they’d see better results if they instead came three days per week and performed 8 sets per training day for glutes, but this is conjecture and might depend on the individual. Nevertheless, I would like for the reader to consider variety and training. It is okay to perform just 2 sets of an exercise; you don’t have to perform 4-5 sets for every single movement in your training. This allows for more variety, increased motor unit recruitment, and greater total hypertrophy.

deadlift

I Want to Do a Chin Up! 15 Tips to Improve Your Chinning Progress

Many strength coaches believe chin ups to be the ultimate test of upper body strength. The problem is, many lifters, especially women, struggle with performing even a single bodyweight chin up. It is therefore of great interest for these lifters to figure out the quickest and most efficient route to being able to perform an unassisted bodyweight chin up. Here are some of the things that I’ve discovered over the past 17 years as a personal trainer.

Neghar

Neghar Fonooni Busting Out Some Pull-Ups

1. Multiple Methods Can Work

There are many different methods that can build chin-up strength. No methods have been researched and compared in the literature to my knowledge. Therefore, we must rely on anecdotes, expert opinion, logic, and tradition in this case. Some lifters do chin ups very often, others 1-2 times per week, and others rarely do them and still retain their chin up strength. Seasoned lifters may perform advanced variations such as loaded chin-ups and side-to-side chin-ups twice per week. However, as a beginner, you will require different strategies to get you chinning, which I will expound upon at the end of this article.

2. There Are Three Primary Grips and Their Muscle Activation Requirements

There are three primary grip positions: supinated (chin-ups), parallel (neutral grip pull-ups), and pronated (pull-ups). The majority of lifters are strongest with supinated and parallel grips and weakest with pronated grips. Grip width can be adjusted as well, from wide to narrow. In time, you want to incorporate variety in your training and utilize all of the different styles of chin-ups. However, for now, I would prefer that you focus on the most basic style, which I will explain in the next tip.

grip-positions

From Left to Right: Pronated, Supinated, Neutral

What are the differences in muscle activation between the variations? In reality, there aren’t many differences. For example, Youdas et al. 2010 found that pull-ups, chin-ups, and pull-ups using the Perfect Pullup device didn’t involve dramatic differences in muscle activity, as shown below.

Pull up EMG activity

3. Master the Shoulder-Width Supinated Chin-Up First

Since the chin-up is the easiest grip to perform, it makes sense to master it first and then move on to neutral and pronated pull-ups. This is probably due to the fact that the biceps are in a better position to contribute to the lift and that the arms follow a sagittal plane path (shoulder extension), rather than a frontal plane path as in the case of the wide grip pull-up (shoulder adduction). Use an approximately shoulder-width grip as this tends to be most comfortable for people.

4. Methods for Those Who Are Currently Unable to Perform a Bodyweight Chin-Up

Here are some of the more popular methods for those who can’t yet perform a chin-up:

  • Eccentric chin-ups
  • Band-assisted chin-ups
  • Gravitron (machine-assisted) chin-ups
  • Lat pulldowns

Each of these have pros and cons, which I’ll discuss below.

5. The Most Difficult Portion of the Chin-Up is the Bottom Position

A minority of lifters struggle with locking out the chin-up. They can propel themselves toward the top of the movement but have trouble getting their chin over the bar. For these people, performing isoholds at the top position, consistently using a full ROM, and performing lat pulldowns with a pause at the bottom ROM will be a wise bet.

However, most lifters don’t have this problem – especially beginners. The majority of lifters find the bottom position of the chin-up to be the most challenging. If they have a trainer who gives them a nudge at the bottom of the motion, they can finish off the rest of the motion by themselves.

So how does a lifter best build bottom range chin-up strength? First, he or she can employ eccentric chin-ups where they accentuate the focus on the bottom range of motion. In this case, the lifter will lower him/herself under control but really slow down the last 25% of the motion, all the way until the arms are locked out. Second, the lifter can perform chin-up shrugs, where he or she hangs from the chin bar and “shrugs” by moving the scapula up and down (there will be upward and downward rotation too). The goal is to exert effort into the chin-up initiation motion so that eventually the lifter will get there on his/her own. And finally, heavy lat pulldowns can help, where the lifter starts from a full hang and only goes down half-way, thereby accentuating the top ROM and building bottom range chin-up strength.

chin shrug

6. Pros & Cons of Eccentric Chin-Ups

Eccentric chin-ups are great. They are performed by either having a trainer hoist the lifter up to the top position, or by having the lifter utilize a step or rack to help boost them into the top position, or by having the lifter jump explosively upward into the top position, upon which the lifter then lowers him/herself slowly toward the bottom of the movement. Having a trainer or lifting partner is additionally beneficial since he or she can provide just enough assistance to allow the lifter to perform the concentric motion as well (manual assisted concentric chin-ups, followed by the eccentric motion). In my opinion, eccentric chin-ups are the most effective strategy for helping beginners perform regular chin-ups.

chin

However, there are a couple of caveats. First, the lifter must be able to lower him/herself under control. If the lifter can’t perform them with a 2-second eccentric tempo or greater, then he or she is better off using another strategy for the time being, such as band assisted chin-ups, lat pulldowns, or the gravitron. And second, the lifter must fight equally hard throughout the entire ROM. Many times lifters will lower themselves slowly during the first half of the motion and then “let go” during the second half of the motion. This is problematic because the bottom half of the motion is the more challenging part of the ROM for most beginners.

Eccentric chin-ups are highly specific in that the lifter will be doing half of the actual chin-up repetition on his or her own. But some lifters aren’t quite ready for them (typically obese beginners, very weak beginners, or those with big legs and small upper bodies) and some lifters perform them sub-optimally due to inferior tempos.

7. Pros & Cons of Band-Assisted Chin-Ups

Band-assisted chin-ups are fantastic for allowing for a productive workout and for building lat and upper back hypertrophy. They allow for more time under tension and boost lifters’ confidence in regards to being able to eventually perform a chin-up. However, the draw-back is that they provide assistance mostly at the bottom of the lift, which is the exact ROM that lifters need to build on their own. Can a lifter rely solely on band-assisted chin-ups and eventually become proficient at regular chin-ups? Of course, but this strategy would not be optimal. The lifter would become proficient at chin-ups more quickly if he or she also performed eccentric chin-ups with a focus on exerting the most effort in the bottom ROM.

pull-up-with-bands

8. Pros & Cons of Gravitron (Machine-Assisted) Chin-Ups

The gravitron (and similar machine-assisted chin/dip stations) is also an effective tool for allowing lifters to achieve greater time under tension. The upside of these types of machines is that they provide consistent assistance throughout the entire range of motion. In contrast, bands provide greater assistance at the bottom of the ROM and less assistance at the top. The gravitron will provide for an effective upper body workout. The theory is that as the lifter gains strength, he or she will require less and less assistance from the machine, and will eventually be able to wean him/herself off of the unit. However, the downside is that the gravitron is not highly specific to a chin-up, and therefore relying solely upon it rarely pans out as intended for producing good chinners.

The chin-up requires considerable joint stability in the glenohumeral, scapular, and lumbopelvic regions. Since the gravitron provides for a relatively stable base of support at the knees, the stability demands on the body are greatly reduced. Therefore, the gravitron is not highly effective as a standalone method for beginners seeking improved chin-up performance. It can definitely be used in conjunction with other methods such as eccentric chin-ups, so make sure you include some exercises that are more specific to actual chin-ups if you want to eventually be able to perform an unassisted chin-up.

gravitron

9. Pros & Cons of Lat Pulldowns

Lat pulldowns can be thought of as an open-chain chin-up. The chin-up is a closed-chain exercise that requires the lifter to move his or her body up and around a fixed bar, whereas the pulldown has the lifter pulling the bar downward toward his or her fixed body. Lat pulldowns are under-appreciated in the strength training community since they tend to be easier on the joints when compared to chin-ups and they can be loaded to aptly apply resistance to any rep range desired. They are versatile in that any rep range, grip style, or grip width can be utilized, and they can be used by the weakest beginners and the strongest lifters alike.

lat-pull-down

However, when used as a standalone method, lat pulldowns will not build good chin-up prowess for the beginner because they lack the specificity and whole body stability demands that are inherent to chin-ups. Doma et al. 2013 found that the erectors and biceps worked harder in a pull-up whereas the abs worked harder in a lat pulldown, as shown below, but this depends on the technique employed. Moreover, every lift requires skill and coordination and is best improved with specificity.

chin pulldown

If using lat pulldowns in conjunction with more specific chin-up exercises such as eccentric chin-ups, use the same grip and width if seeking maximal transfer. For example, perform underhand grip (supinated) pulldowns with a shoulder-width grip to maximize the transfer to the chin-up, and wider pronated grip pulldowns to maximize transfer to the pull-up.

10. Rows and Deadlifts Maintain and Possibly Build Chin-Up Strength

Many lifters find that as long as they’re regularly performing deadlifts and rows, their chin-up strength doesn’t diminish, even if they’re not chinning. Rows and deadlifts work the lats and place large demands on the scapular muscles including the rhomboids and varying trapezius fibers. Therefore, they work many of the same muscles that chin-ups do, and they will indeed transfer over to chin-up performance. Inverted rows are particularly useful for beginners since they involve bodyweight rowing. However, the degree of transfer is undoubtedly much higher for advanced lifters compared to beginners. Beginners must spend ample time “under the bar” chinning if they want to be able to perform an unassisted chin-up.

inverted row

11. Curls Aren’t Highly Effective in Building Chin-Up Strength

You might be wondering about curls and chin-up strength. Since the chin-up involves elbow flexion and works the biceps sufficiently hard, it is plausible that curls could help improve chin-up performance. While this makes sense in theory, it doesn’t pan out so well in the real world. Chin-ups are a full body exercise that require considerable amounts of coordination. While various types of curls can be marginally effective in building chin-up strength, the long-head of the biceps doesn’t change much length during a chin-up since it shortens at the shoulder and lengthens at the elbow during the eccentric phase of the chin-up (and vice versa during the concentric phase), and therefore the biomechanics are different and the degree of transfer isn’t that great. Feel free to perform curls, but don’t expect curls to make a huge difference in terms of helping you achieve your first unassisted chin-up.

12. RKC Planks and Hollow Body Holds for Better Chin-Up Form

I mentioned earlier that chin-up technique can effect core muscle activation. Take a look at the video below.

In the first example, the erectors will be working hard as the spine is being actively arched (extended). In the second example, the hip flexors will be working hard as they are being actively contracted to provide momentum. In the third example, the abdominals will be working hard as they are stabilizing the spine and pelvis and preventing lumbar hyperextension and anterior pelvic tilt. Chin-ups are markedly harder for the core when you perform them in the third manner. To help you achieve this, special core exercises can be utilized. Two such exercises are the long lever posterior tilt plank and the hollow body hold, which both require strong core contractions to maintain pelvic positioning.

13. Frequency is Key

If you aspire to perform your first unassisted chin-up, then you’ll get there much faster if you’re training the chin-up pattern multiple times per week as opposed to once per week. I recommend that beginners invest in a door-mounted chin-up device so that they can perform chin-ups in their own homes. The Iron Gym is one such popular device. This allows lifters to perform daily chin-up work (or at least chin-up work 3-5 times per week), which greatly enhances the rate of adaptations and expedites progress. Below is Mrs. Kellie Davis using an Iron Gym.

Kellie Davis Working on Her Pull-Ups

Kellie Davis Working on Her Pull-Ups

14. Anthropometry Impacts Chin-Up Performance

One of the several reasons why women are not quite as proficient at chin-ups as men is due to their anthropometry. Women tend to have smaller upper bodies and store more of their mass in their lower body when compared to men. This makes the chin-up even more challenging. The best chinners in the world tend to be smaller sized males with wide lats and smaller legs. Therefore, having muscular hips and thighs will be detrimental to chin-up performance, but not lat pulldown performance, where bodyweight and distribution doesn’t matter so much. Don’t fret though, you can have a big booty and muscular legs and still be able to perform chin-ups.

15. Body Composition Also Impacts Chin-Up Performance

In addition, body composition will affect chin-up performance, but not lat pulldown performance. A 200 pound male at 25% bodyfat is carrying around 50 pounds of fat. In contrast, a 120 pound female at 15% bodyfat is only carrying around 18 pounds of fat. Fat does not produce muscle force or create joint torque; it just weighs the lifter down during bodyweight exercises and makes the movement more challenging. So the less fat, the better. Losing weight in general tends to improve relative strength in the chin-up, as does losing fat. If you want to maximize your chin-up performance, pay attention to your diet and increase your leanness.

Sample Routine

Here is a simple routine that you can follow to help you perform your first unassisted chin-up. I wrote a 3-day per week program, but a 5-day per week plan would work even better.

Day One

Eccentric chin-ups 3 sets of 3 reps (3-5 second tempo)
Inverted rows 3 sets of 5 reps
Hollow body hold 3 sets of 20 seconds

Day Two

Band assisted chin-up 3 sets of 6 reps
Pause underhand grip lat pulldown 3 sets of 4 reps (3-sec pause at the bottom of each rep)
RKC plank 3 sets of 20 seconds

Day Three

Eccentric chin-ups 6 sets of 1 rep (5-10 second tempo)
Inverted rows 3 sets of 5 reps
Hollow body hold 3 sets of 20 seconds

Conclusion

So there you have it – 15 tips to help you achieve your first unassisted chin-up. As a personal trainer, I can tell you that there are few things that bring as much joy to a client as when they perform their first chin-up. Huge smiles and incidents of jumping for joy are sure to follow. I hope that this article has provided some value in steering you in the right direction. Keep your chin up!

pull-up

3 Tips for Faster Strength Gains

It’s funny how a big PR can immediately turn an average or lousy day into an amazing day. Showing up to the gym is easy. Going through the motions is easy. But consistently getting stronger month in and month out is very challenging. It requires intelligent training, sound nutrition, and ideal levels of sleep and stress. However, even when we seemingly do everything right, we sometimes spin our wheels. This is why it’s important to pay close attention when training. Here are 5 tips that can expedite your progress.

1. Manage Fatigue and Regulate Effort

You don’t always have to train balls-to-the-wall in order to see results. When I was a teenager reading bodybuilding magazines, I recall countless articles urging lifters to take every set to failure. In fact, I distinctly remember reading an article by professional bodybuilder Tom Prince, who claimed to take every set he ever performed to momentary muscular failure. I remember wondering how in the hell these bodybuilders could pull this off, knowing that they performed high volume training and probably busted out at least 20 sets per training session. I felt insecure about my own training and assumed that I wasn’t nearly as manly as these guys since I wasn’t able to do so. Well, let me clarify. I could indeed take every set to failure, but I didn’t feel that it was the optimal way to train.

Tom Prince

For example, at the time of the article, I was probably 21 years old and could bench press around 225 lbs. A bench session back then might have consisted of a set of 12 reps with 135 lbs, a set of 10 reps with 155 lbs, a set of 6 reps with 185 lbs, a set of 3 reps with 205 lbs, and a back-off set of 15 reps with 135 lbs. Only the last two sets were taken to failure.

Let’s say I did take every set to failure. The bench session probably would have looked something like this: 135 lbs x 21 reps, 155 lbs x 6 reps, 175 lbs x 1 rep. I would have been fried after the first set and my strength would have been zapped. Would this style of training have led to better results? No, it wouldn’t have. I instinctually understood back then how to train wisely, but it was difficult to trust my instincts at the time because bodybuilders who were much larger than I was were recommending otherwise.

Years later, having gotten a chance to watch many professional bodybuilders train in person, I realized that they don’t take every set to failure. They could almost always bust out a couple more reps if their lives depended on it. It’s just something they liked to claim at the time in order to sound “hardcore.” Or, maybe the magazines were telling them to make these claims. Either way, none of them actually followed their own advice.

Several years later, I recall reading various high intensity training (HIT) articles where the authors claimed that the last rep of the set was the only rep that mattered. Stopping short would just maintain size and strength, but busting out that last, grueling rep would cause the body to make adaptations. Former bodybuilder Mike Mentzer was a proponent of this type of training theory.

But as former Physicist Richard Feynman used to say, “If it doesn’t match experiments, it’s wrong.” In the next decade, several peer-reviewed, published RCT’s would emerge showing that training to failure was not mandatory for results, nor was it better than stopping shy of failure.

Last April, I wrote a blogpost titled, Reduced Load & Effort for Increased Results. This article was written in an effort to promote my 2 x 4 Maximum Strength program, which utilizes submaximal loading and effort in order to allow for increased training frequency and promote greater gains in strength. This was the first time I’d purposely gone lighter in my training in order to work on technique and train more often without overdoing it and hampering my recovery. The results were impressive, and I finally reached my goal to deadlift 600 lbs.

bret-c-DL

Before this 600+ lb deadlift was achieved, dozens of sessions using 405-495 lbs were conducted.

To powerlifters, this is nothing new. Popular programs such as Sheiko take advantage of lighter loads and reduced effort in order to allow for high training volumes and frequencies. Now, Sheiko is still very challenging, since it has you performing a large number of sets of challenging exercises. But it’s a different kind of challenge, unlike the challenge of maxing out with one top set or taking one set to complete and utter failure. Some powerlifters might be thinking of Westside Methodology right now, where lifters max out week in and week out on a particular variation of squats, deadlifts, good mornings, and/or bench press. While this is true, they also take advantage of submaximal training in the form of assistance lifts and special workouts. In other words, not every single set is taken to failure. No serious lifter really trains like that in real life – many of their sets are stopped far short of failure.

A couple of times per week, I train at Revolution Training in Tempe, Arizona. Not only do I enjoy the atmosphere and the equipment, I also like observing and conversing with powerlifters and strongmen. Many of them have recently been experimenting with the RPE method (rating of perceived exertion). Here is the system that top powerlifter Mike Tuschscherer uses with regards to RPE:

10: Maximal, no reps left in the tank

9: Last rep is tough but still one rep left in the tank

8: Weight is too heavy to maintain fast bar speed but isn’t a struggle; 2–4 reps left

7: Weight moves quickly when maximal force is applied to the weight; “speed weight”

6: Light speed work; moves quickly with moderate force

5: Most warm-up weights

4: Recovery; usually 20 plus rep sets; not hard but intended to flush the muscle

An RPE below four isn’t important.

This scale can be utilized to manage fatigue and provide for more efficient training. I love RPE, but the drawback of using RPE is that some lifters aren’t very good at perceiving. They lie to themselves and pretend that a lift was easier than it really was. So it requires a degree of honesty with one’s self in order for it to be effective. I mentioned that several of my incredibly strong lifting pals recently began incorporating RPE into their training programs. Each of them has experienced increased results since doing so. You don’t see nearly as many grinding repetitions or incidents of form breakdown, nor do you see as many post-set nosebleeds or fainting. What you do see, however, is more quality, more volume, and more strength gained.

Last week, my clients crushed it in the gym. The girls set numerous PRs, so this week I prescribed pause sets, unique variations to address their individual weaknesses, and higher rep sets. In this manner, they still receive an excellent training effect but they avoid grinding out their reps or allowing form degradation in order to further advance their PRs. Sometimes strength gains need to be purposely slowed down in order to allow for gradual and sustained strength gains over the long haul. Deloading has become more popular in the past several years, and there are many different ways to do so. One way is to ramp up in effort in 4-week waves: light, medium, hard, and very hard. Another way is to just train instinctually and back off when your body tells you to do so. But similar to RPE, the problem with instinctual training is that many lifters don’t pay attention to biofeedback and listen to their bodies.

sammie

Sammie using submaximal loading to hone technique

Can sets be taken to failure? Absolutely. But there’s a huge difference between a maximal set of 10RM rest-pause deadlifts versus a set of rear delt raises, hammer curls, or face pulls taken to failure. It takes most lifters many years to truly understand how to regulate their effort and manage their fatigue. Once lifters reach this level of mastery, training tends to “click,” and steady gains are usually seen thereafter.

Bottom line – you don’t have to take you train balls-to-the-wall every session, you don’t need to go all out every single week, and you’ll likely experience better results by performing a considerable amount of training in the 70-85% of 1RM range while keeping some reps in the tank.

2. Use Variations Wisely

This should go without saying, but if something hurts, you don’t want to train through it. But common sense ain’t so common these days. Many lifters stubbornly push through pain, thinking that somehow the ailment will just go away. Sometimes it does, but many times it doesn’t, and often an acute situation turns into a chronic situation.

If your upper arms are aching from low bar squatting, do safety squat bar squats, front squats, or high bar squats.

If your knees are hurting from squatting, try low bar high box squats with vertical shins, and if that doesn’t work, omit squatting for a while and just hammer the posterior chain.

If your hips are hurting from wide stance squats or sumo deadlifts, move your stance in and perform semi-sumo or narrow/conventional variations.

If your low back is aching, take the day off of deadlifting and opt for some single leg work and posterior chain work (ex: Bulgarian split squats, Nordic ham curls, single leg RDLs, and/or single leg hip thrusts).

If your shoulders hurt when you bench, find a pressing variation you can do that doesn’t hurt. Maybe you can do floor press, or board press, or decline press, or push-ups, or neutral grip dumbbell military press. If that doesn’t work, skip pressing and bust out a bunch of rows and arm isolation exercises.

If chin-ups are causing you pain, just do rows for a while. If dips are causing you pain, just do horizontal pressing for a while. The list goes on and on.

This is precisely why possessing a large toolbox (vast knowledge of exercise variety) is useful; it allows you to train around injuries and/or nagging pain so the issue heals up and is no longer a hindrance. Whatever you do, please don’t just stubbornly grind through an exercise if it doesn’t feel right. This rarely leads to good outcomes. I know of some powerlifters who are so hell-bent on specificity that they spin their wheels due to benching, squatting, and/or deadlifting while in pain. This is unfortunate, since these lifters could perform joint-friendlier variations that would enable them to build their strength all while allowing the nagging pain to subside, which would prolong their lifting careers.

ssbs

Chad Smith Busting Out Safety Squat Bar Squats

3. Don’t Obsess About Hitting All the Angles

If you’re like me, you love the angles. You like attacking your pecs from horizontal, incline, and decline vectors, you like blasting the delts from every possible direction, and you don’t feel right if you fail to hit the glutes from a variety of joint actions. Trust me, I get it – you want to be thorough in your training.

But the only way to realistically be thorough is to adhere to body part split routines where you train 1-2 body parts per day. On chest day, you can do your inclines, flats, declines, and flies. On back day, you can do your chins and pulldowns along with all of your favorite rows. On leg day, you can compound, target, isolate, and annihilate. The problem with body part splits is that training frequency must be greatly diminished and you only end up training your favorite body part or lift once per week. If you want to maximize your strength, then you’re going to have to compromise.

Arnold-Curls

Arnold loved his curls

You cannot perform every exercise under the sun week in and week out. Consider the biceps. You have barbell curls, dumbell curls, preacher curls, easy bar curls, Scott curls, drag curls, incline curls, spider curls, pulley curls, hammer curls, concentration curls, reverse curls, cable curls, Zottman curls, and chain curls, amongst others.

Clearly you can see that you won’t be able to fit in every single curling variation throughout the week (or even throughout the month). Every muscle has myriad ways to train it. It is good to hit the muscles from multiple angles, as long as it doesn’t interfere with strength gains. Some lifters seem more interested in hitting all the angles than setting PRs and gaining strength. If you’re the same strength one year from now as you are today, you probably won’t look much different. You must strive to get stronger over time if you want your body to transform and add shape and muscle.

My recommendation is to perform a heavy strength movement first in the training session, such as a squat, deadlift, hip thrust, bench press, chin, military press, row, or dip. Go heavy and try to set some sort of PR. After that, feel free to perform some additional compound movements or some isolation movements and go for a burn or a pump. Tension first, metabolic stress second. Hit the angles, but don’t hit them so hard that you’re not recovered for your next training session. You want to stimulate, not annihilate.

Conclusion

Strength training isn’t rocket science, but it’s not straight-forward either. Due to the multi-faceted nature of human physiology, even when we control the variables, we can’t completely predict the response. Therefore, you need to rise up and educate yourself. You must pay attention to biofeedback and experiment to figure out what works best for your body. You must adhere to a proper routine to give yourself the best chance of succeeding. And you must make wise decisions during the additional 23 hours when you’re not in the gym.