Maxwell Strength & Conditioning Blog

Enjoy a peek at the world through Steve's eyes as he delivers sermons on everything from training to peace of mind.


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Defining Your Own Sense of Freedom

William Wallace Monument, Scotland
One of my all-time favorite movies is Braveheart. In case you're unfamiliar with the story, it's about the Scottish hero, William Wallace, who fought for freedom from the English. While I won't vouch for the historical accuracy of the movie, it is a dramatic, entertaining tale of great physical prowess and the warrior way. In one of the final scenes, as our hero is tortured (including disembowelment and emasculation) in defiance he shouts out freedom!!

The theme in the movie that's always resonated with me is the hero's continued quest for freedom from tyranny and oppression. In my own life, I've always rubbed wrong with authority and the status quo. Consequently, I've shunned the typical life path by becoming a full-time RV-er, which allows me a great deal of liberty in that I can pick up and go where--and when--ever I wish. Like a nomadic Mongol, except I don't travel with a horde! A downside to this (or upside, depending on your point of view) is that I'm unable to carry a lot of stuff but the few items I do keep with me are top-quality and highly functional. My personal quest for freedom includes first-class workouts independent of gyms and health clubs. As most of you probably know by now, I love training outdoors in beautiful, natural settings; I find this utterly soul-soothing.

One of my favorite exercises is the pull-up. I consider the pull-up a foundational movement for several reasons:

The ability to pull your own weight is a direct measure of your strength-to-weight ratio.
A high strength-to-weight ratio provides major advantage in many sports, particularly in grappling.

Hanging by the hands is one of the finest grip strengtheners I know, with direct applications to grasping and holding in BJJ and wrestling.
In other news, studies have shown a high correlation between grip strength and longevity. No matter what you do in life, strong hands and fingers are an asset--and hanging from a horizontal bar is one of the best ways to get them!

Hanging from the pull-up position is great for spinal alignment.
The weight of the lower body pulling down upon the spine creates traction. Even when I've suffered from debilitating low-back injuries, I was still able to hang from a bar and do pull-ups. The simple act of hanging, on its own, is very therapeutic.

The ability to pull your body up is highly applicable to all types of climbing and scaling activities, such as surmounting walls or pulling yourself over barriers.
If you're physically weak, it's very difficult to overcome a wall, scale a cliff, or climb through a high bedroom window--all skills I've had to employ through the years!

The pull-up is a de facto body composition machine in that you are greatly rewarded (with high reps) for fat loss efforts and equally penalized (with decreased reps) for body fat gains.
The pull-up does not lie! For certain, if your numbers decrease, you can bet you've gained some fat, lost some muscle--or both. I'll say it again: You never see fat boys doing pull-ups and people doing lots of pull-ups are never fat!

So our objective is clear: freedom to do our pull-up workouts outdoors--and preferably in nature. But where to find a decent pull up bar? Most gyms don't even have decent pull-up bars! Playgrounds are a good--though unreliable--source of pulling devices. Some playgrounds have actual pull up bars or monkey bars that afford a pulling workout. In California, I found plenty of pull up bars on playgrounds and in schoolyards but in many other states, a good outdoor pull-up bar is harder to sight than the elusive Sasquatch. I've used my trusty Lifeline Jungle Gym and even--in a pinch--tree limbs for a variety of pulling movements. But what I've needed is a dependable straight-bar for pull-ups and chin-ups...enter the center-pull, pull-up system

The center-pull system isn't new. Torque Athletic introduced one a few years ago, but the design was flawed. Not only was it heavy and awkward, it was difficult to hang. Their version also featured a rotating thick-bar on the handle which made gripping a real challenge. This was touted as an advantage in that if you could master pulling yourself up on this rolling bar, it would improve your regular pull-ups. I didn't find that to be true. In fact, the weak point in pull-ups, for most people, is the grip and by making the grip more difficult, you've further limited your limiting factor, thus lowering your pull-up efficiency. But all that aside--what do I mean by a center-pull, pull-up bar anyway?

A center-pull, pull-up bar is hung by a rope or cable, from the middle of the bar, so that it teeter-totters back and forth. This action forces you to pull evenly with your both right and left sides. With a typical straight pull-up bar, likewise a barbell, you can compensate for a one-sided weakness, often without even knowing it. Enter my new center-pull system by way of that mad, mad genius of the Carolinas, C.Ray! C.Ray, a phenomenal martial artist and exercise nut, has been coming up with some amazing inventions out in the garage.

Rather than making the grip more difficult or treacherous, this bar diameter is absolutely perfect for good palm purchase and the bumpy, powder coat finish is sticky enough to provide adequate friction for the palms--even in the rain!

This center-pull is much, more than just another pretty pull-up bar!

For one, it has straps--similar to the Jungle Gym--which clip onto metal carabiners, allowing you to do center-suspension dips. If you think it's hard to find an outdoor pull-up bar, try finding a decent set of dip bars! The dip exercise is the perfect foil to the pull-up and many old-time great physical culturists considered it one of the finest exercises for all-around upper body development. Certainly, gymasts are visible proof of the effectiveness of the pull-up/dip combination, as these movements form the mainstay of a gymnast's exercise program.

This new center-pull system is a complete upper body gym. With it, you can perform:

Suspended Push-Ups
Body Weight Rows
Ab Roll-Outs
Pec Flyes
and even Leg Curls--with the uniquely designed foot loops

Pretty much any exercise you can do on rings, you can do with this, plus much, much more!

One of the best features is the ease in hanging. Really, all you need is a tree limb or swing set and your workout is a go. C.Ray designed a self-locking mechanism on the bar--a little peg--which is puro ingenioso! No complicated knots required. I find it much easier to hang up than even my Jungle Gym--and even easier to take down again.

In touting this new system, you must understand something: I could have any system. All the time, people send me things to test and try. Further, there's little out there I haven't already tried. In fact, when I first received this thing, because of my negative experience with the Torque unit, I was somewhat skeptical. Uncharacteristically, I left it laying there, in the box, for months. I'd had it shipped to maxwellsc but never bothered to test it out since at the time I had ready access to good pull-up bars. Reluctantly, when I left Philly, I took it with me and noticed how easily it packed up with my other gear. This was exactly what I'd been looking for but it wasn't until I arrived in San Diego that I began to put it to good use. Though there were plenty pull-up bars around Mission Bay, where I was staying, getting to them involved running or biking a few miles. The RV park had plenty of trees and most of the time I preferred to stay near my little home-on-wheels, putting myself through a good, old-fashioned butt kick without commuting. It was at this time I came to truly appreciate to qualities of my center-pull system...and even fell in love with it.

Now don't get me wrong! While this system isn't as difficult to master as the Torque bar, it's still much harder than standard pull-ups and dips. Don't expect to get the same numbers you would get on a normal, straight bar. What my system does best is allow you to perform some of the most productive upper body exercises anytime, any place, anywhere--as long as there's still a tree growing. You might wonder how this center-pull system compares to the TRX and the answer is this system is superior. The TRX doesn't permit the most productive upper-body exercises (at least effectively) namely, pull-ups, chin-ups and dips. Because the TRX strap attaches to an anchor strap, it's very difficult to hang it high enough to effectively perform these three moves. Additionally, the TRX straps aren't spaced wide enough to effectively utilize the wider grip necessary for vertical pulling and dips.

The split Jungle Gym does allow for various pulls and dips, since it can be spaced wide enough. Hanging it high enough isn't a problem, as it hangs easily...BUT getting it back down from that high spot is another thing, because you've got to climb UP to get it back down. With this center-pull system, all of these problems are eliminated.

(At this point in my diatribe, I asked my assistant, "should I give them a workout?" and she said, "yes" so here it is. What follows is an effective strength-endurance workout to build your pull-up numbers and give you the conditioning required to excel in all variety of sports--and this will work whether or not you use a center-pull bar.)

Current Pull-Up Numbers Workout Reps
1 - 5 50
6 - 10 75
11 - 15 100
16 - 20 150

1. Do a max set of pull-ups. Rest 60-seconds.
2. Continue at the number you left off and do another max set.
3. Don't stop until you hit your workout target number.
4. Do this every other day for one month.
5. Take 4 days off and start again.

So, if you're ever up in the area of the Olympic peninsula and you see a guy suspended from a strange bar hang from a tree limb, no, you're not witnessing William Wallace's latter-day disembowelment, it's the Coach out there doing what he does best!

Of interest:

Upcoming events:

28 Feb BW + JM in Seattle WA

6 Mar KB cert in Wichita KS

13 Mar BW cert in Portland OR

19-21 Mar BW cert + JM/KB in Motola Sweden

17-18 April KB cert in Philadelphia PA

25 April BJJ seminar in Cleveland OH

1 May BW cert in Long Island NY

I hope to see you there!

In Strength & Health,