In my previous post, I presented a case for why the pursuit of power development in vertical pulling is a worthy endeavor. Through my own experience and the limited research available, I also tried to project how to use VBT to assist the process of creating more intentional and tangible adaptations in this regard.
Encountering athletes with varying strength and power in vertical pulling is the obvious norm, so there are particular considerations for how we program for athletes at different stages of development. Also, individual athletes come to training on a given day in various states depending on their nutrition, hydration, sleep, DOMS, and general state of recovery. Even psycho-social factors such as relational and financial stressors can affect a training session.
I’m not the first to observe this trend, as coaches have never trained robots. Fortunately for us, a principle has long existed in the world of strength and conditioning to help us embrace these individual changes that occur daily. In Mel Siff and Yuri Verkoshansky’s book, Supertraining, they describe cybernetic periodization as when “the original preplanned periodization scheme is regularly modified by subjective and objective feedback obtained from the lifter’s current performance state.”1
A coach who intentionally creates a culture of conversation and honesty encourages athletes to give subjective feedback. This type of feedback is a two-way street, as the sharp strength and conditioning coach can observe how an athlete’s body language may be “off” from what is typical. We’ve also never had more opportunities for objective feedback and evaluating athlete readiness than we have today through technology such as VBT, HRV, force plates, hand grip dynamometers, and sleep monitoring devices.
With this article, I’m offering a programming map and three distinct periodization models that I’ve had success with. Efficient maps and models offer wisdom to the decision-making process, and positive results from their use are conditional on the discerning application of the model (to ever-changing athletes); I hope you receive them in these terms. I’ve constructed my models from what I understand to be truthful about the human body and how the average body best responds to training. Models “written in pencil” assume they evolve, which can mean days and not years.
Credit to Mladen Jovanovic’s Strength Training Manual for delivering a resource that aptly explains how understanding the difference between small and large worlds allows us to employ models more successfully:
The real world is very complex and uncertain. To help in orienting ourselves in it, we create maps and models. These are representations of reality, or representations of the real world. Everything written in this manual represents Small Worlds—self-contained models of assumptions about how things work or should work. Although they are all wrong, some of them are useful (to quote George Box), especially as a starting point in your orientation, experimentation, and deployment to the Large World.2
I hope you find some of my models useful. As coaches, we ultimately will face the fork in the road where we have to commit to a direction of programming for our athletes, and because of this, we can’t live entirely in the abstract. We need to make decisions, and good models can influence our decisions for the better.
Mapping the Spectrum of Vertical Pulling Programming
My path to coaching an athlete to gain a more powerful vertical pull begins with a flow chart map to situate the athlete in the proper model. The flow chart allows the coach to execute short-term strategies with big-picture intent in mind—to become more powerful in vertical pulling. In general, we can administer these models with relative ease into most holistic strength and conditioning programs.Recognize vertical pulling as a main movement during at least one session a week to avoid the pitfalls of downgrading it to an assistance exercise. Click To Tweet
I ask you to consider, however, the merit in recognizing vertical pulling as a main movement during at least one session a week and avoid the pitfalls of habitually downgrading it to an assistance exercise. Our distinction between the two practically means we are more likely to place it at the beginning of the session if we value it as a main lift, and our athletes can perform the movement in a less fatigued state.
Programming for the Novice
A novice is an athlete who can’t perform one entire full range of motion (ROM) bodyweight vertical pull (and has no injury or pain concerns). These athletes often are unnecessarily and exclusively relegated to the lat pulldown machine or permanently stuck on the same assisted band variations that never intentionally and precisely increase in intensity. A starting point that’s an alternative to the former approach, which I’ve had success with, is systematically progressing through a six-week triphasic model that begins at lower forces-higher velocities and ends at higher forces-lower velocities.
The novice model undulates in volume session to session (time under tension and total reps), has linear increases in intensity every two weeks (the athlete pulling up more of their own weight), and includes just a hint of a conjugate element (switching the vertical pull variation via the grip, width, and bar thickness every six weeks). I’ve experienced great freedom because the elements I periodize don’t have to be mutually exclusive. I thank Greg Nuckols for his article on this very topic. He perfectly sums up this idea:
Westide is Conjugate Periodization! Such-and-such powerlifter uses Daily Undulating Periodization! Beginner or intermediate lifters should use a Linear Periodization program! It sounds like these are disparate concepts, when really almost all training plans weave all of these elements together to reach the desired end. They can do this because, as we touched on initially, training is organized on different time scales.3
Every two weeks, the athlete advances from a band assisting the entire ROM to ¾ ROM and then to finally ¼ of the movement assisted. This method follows what we know to be true about progressive overload: the athlete who progressively has to produce more force will get stronger over time and as the athlete receives less and less assistance over time—this method accomplishes this.
Check out my previous article, which has videos of the exercises I use in the assisted band category. You’ll see the varying degrees of assistance bungee bands can offer, depending on the distance the carabiners drop down from the bar.
The triphasic approach from Cal Dietz4 has been a game-changer for me. In this case, integrating the concepts provides the novice valuable time under tension. This athlete requires significant total work, and greater time under tension in longer eccentric and isometric contractions are very appropriate to teach them to own their positioning in a controlled manner.
Cluster training was impressively discussed by Carl Valle,5 so I won’t go into it here. I simply suggest that novices will benefit greatly from it. Although clusters are often thought of as an advanced strategy, they are just as important for weaker athletes as stronger ones.
The Tufano 2017 study6 really opened my eyes in this regard, as he found:
Intra-set rest provided in clusters allowed for greater external loads than with traditional sets, increasing total work and time under tension while resulting in similar peak power (PP) and % velocity loss (%VL). Therefore, cluster-set structures may function as an alternative method to traditional strength- or hypertrophy-oriented training by increasing training load without increasing %VL or decreasing PP.
The goal is to increase total work and time under tension, and clusters give novices these very things without compromising power production. An athlete who does clusters literally can get more work in than the typical 3 x 8-10 hypertrophy approach and perform high-quality reps. To me, it’s a no brainer.Cluster training increases total work and time under tension for novices without compromising power production, says @RichterJeff. Click To Tweet
To make matters more practical, when an athlete loses velocity with this movement, they often do leg kicking and jolting motions, as they generally lack the discipline to finely execute grinder reps occurring late in a set while under fatigue. The compromise of technical execution is a problem that coaches can get in front of. It’s a proactive approach that may very well reduce the risk of poorly performed reps, especially when we have a weight room full of athletes and our eyes are in a single place at a given moment.
To execute clusters for this population, Tufano again has key wisdom to offer from his 2018 study. 7 He showed that it might not be enough to have a velocity cut-off protocol where intra-set rest begins as speeds fall below a given number (he refers to this as contemporary traditional sets). In his study:
Each set during the traditional set (TS) protocol included as many repetitions as possible until two consecutive repetitions dropped below 90% MPmax, which was followed by 120 s inter-set rest. The design was identical for cluster sets (CS) but with an additional 20 s intra-set rest after every 2 repetitions. The number of repetitions performed, mean velocity, and mean power output, were analyzed using 2(protocol)*6(set) repeated measures ANOVA. The number of repetitions during CS (51.8 ± 14.4) was greater than TS (31.9 ± 3.7) (p = 0.001), but the average velocity (CS = 0.711 ± 0.069, TS = 0.716 ± 0.081 m·s-1; p = 0.732) and power output (CS = 630.3 ± 59.8, TS = 636.0 ± 84.3 W; p = 0.629) of those repetitions were similar.
He concluded, “These data indicate that cluster sets are a viable option for increasing training volume.” My experiences mesh with this study in that a session’s total volume can be compromised when you wait for reps to fall below a specified threshold, especially with a novice in vertical pulling (even when using a high number like 90% in the study).Ironically, by attempting to limit slower reps with chin-ups and push-ups, we actually enable slower reps, says @RichterJeff. Click To Tweet
Ironically, by attempting to limit slower reps, we actually enable slower reps—reps slower than the cut-off are still performed. I have found this concept to be true during the chin-up or pull-up when the novice knocks out reps well above a planned velocity point and then hits the wall and has poor peak power on the next rep. Diligence in increasing the frequency of intra-set rest maximizes the cluster effect, and there is most certainly an art to coaching this.
As an alternative to velocity cut-offs, I recommend using the final velocity or power of a rep in a cluster to serve as competition for the athletes to have with themselves. For example, if they complete a cluster, and the final rep of the set is “x” m/s, that’s now their target to not go below for the next clusters. Since the athlete most likely does not see the VBT readings, I call out the numbers (or have another athlete do so) and watch their intensity mount as numbers progressively lower as the cluster goes on.
This does two things:
- A coach with a big team doesn’t have to deal with the tedious task of having each athlete in the midst of the pull-up know exactly when to stop the set since they can’t see the VBT feedback screen.
- As referenced in my first article, we know that visual or verbal feedback enhances an athlete’s performance.
In a separate 2016 study of his,8 Tufano found that in the back squat, clusters of two were superior to clusters of four in peak velocity (PV), mean velocity (MV), peak power (PP), and mean power (MP) when averaged across all repetitions. For novices to achieve quality reps when using the full ROM assisted band, I’ve found that three often is the ideal maximal number of reps before intra-set rest should begin.
As always, make adjustments when necessary. And try to arrive at the total amount of work that is planned with the best rep speed possible while taking into account that training time is not unlimited; there’s certainly a balance between maximizing time in the weight room and producing high-quality repetitions.
My last note regarding novices is that I’ve found it unproductive to superset the vertical pull with vertical pushing because it greatly diminishes the quality of the next set. Instead, I have the athlete perform a “filler” exercise during inter-set rest. Depending on the athlete or team, this is often a low-intensity core/cuff exercise or a shoulder mobility filler. Even lower body lifts as a superset work. This way, a coach with a team doesn’t have athletes standing around between their turn on the bar. There’s also more high-quality work done in the vertical pulling aspect of the program.
At the end of the six weeks, the novice attempts to perform a full ROM unassisted bodyweight vertical pull. If they’re successful, they move on to the next phase. If not, they repeat the six-week phase with less assistance from the bands at each of the two-week intervals for the following mesocycle.
Programming for the Intermediate
Intermediate athletes can perform at least one bodyweight vertical pull but cannot pull 71% 1RM (bodyweight + load) with at least their bodyweight. Intermediates should not just target getting stronger; they also must get more powerful!
The fastest way to get an athlete to hit 71% 1RM with at least their bodyweight is by embracing conjugate periodization elements and changing the training stressor in each of the two vertical pull sessions per week. This way, they are training two different physical characteristics: high forces and high power outputs. Another conjugate element is switching out the vertical pulling exercise variation every three weeks. There are still triphasic considerations, undulation in volume session to session, and linear increases in intensity during the six weeks.The fastest way to hit 71% 1RM with at least bodyweight: conjugate periodization elements & and change the stressor in both vertical pull sessions. Click To Tweet
The first three weeks includes the assisted band variations for the highest expressions of power in the concentric portion of the lift, or what some may refer to as the dynamic effort day (it’s worth pointing out from my first article that the Munoz-Lopez study found power correlates more highly with velocity than force in the pull-up). The isometric and eccentric focus is always on the descent after an explosive pull-up.
The max effort day offers no assistance and has the athlete perform bodyweight or greater vertical pulls at their 2RM starting in week one. The goal is to add 2.5 lbs of additional load each week. I recommend that these athletes use added weight attached to a belt rather than holding a dumbbell between their feet. It’s generally easier to find a 2.5 lb plate to slip onto a chain than DBs that increase by 2.5lbs.
By the time the athlete gets to weeks 4-6, I find it a great time to incorporate medicine ball training in the form of slams to achieve faster velocities than the assisted band reps can offer. I contrast the medicine ball slams after the higher force max effort pulls. Carl Valle made some outstanding points about medicine ball training when he called for a “tighter and more-specific strategy”9 for their use. The contrast effect is exactly that in this instance—we get robust strength qualities and the peak velocity movement in the same session.
The Ignjatovic 2012 study10 showed that medicine ball training has its place in a holistic program that seeks to improve power. When incorporated with a regular training program, “applied medicine ball training improved peak power during bench and shoulder press at 30 and 50% of 1RM” compared to a control group that performed everything the same except the medicine ball work.
With weighted pulls now occurring twice a week instead of once, the athlete receives more focus on the maximal strength qualities and performs a different vertical pull exercise in the last three weeks than the first. I’m a big fan of these subtle changes to the max effort exercise variation, as they tend to recruit a more diverse pool of muscle over the long term versus staying with one vertical pull variation.
For example, the lower traps have a peak MVC score of 87.2 in the wide pronated grip pull-up. In the close parallel grip, the peak score is 69.1.11 The variation in recruitment patterns is important for the traps, rhomboids, and biceps to develop and assist the lats consistently.
Just like weeks 1-3, the goal is to increase the amount of weight lifted at each rep scheme in weeks 4-6. This is the linear component at work. For the same given volume, seeking to increase force capabilities for as long as possible until plateauing is low hanging fruit. During this time, it’s critical to have access to 0.5 kilos and 2.5 lb plates.
At the end of the six weeks, the athlete will see if 71% of their 1RM (bodyweight + load) is at least their body weight. If not, they repeat the 6-week mesocycle. If successful, they move to the final phase and model.
Programming for Advanced Athletes
Advanced athletes are those whose 71% of 1RM is at least their body weight. William Wayland did an excellent job teaching his approach to supramaximal training,12 and my use of these techniques on the advanced athlete is undoubtedly influenced by his work.
An athlete who is significantly strong and powerful in vertical pulling, as demonstrated by the ability to hit 71% 1RM with at least their body weight, can still get stronger and more powerful. But their improvements in vertical pulling—like any other exercise—often plateau in both strength and power gains. With that in mind, it’s important to find a way to stress the body more significantly than just weighted pulls emphasizing concentric components and eccentric lowering at submaximal weights.
That’s where supramaximal eccentric and isometrics come in. As William wrote:
Compressed intensive training is a period in which we apply the greatest stimulus to accumulate the desired response in the shortest time possible—this is where we apply supramaximal training. Supramaximal training is one of the approaches that excites muscular physiologists, as it leads to rapid adaptations and a reduced need for the repeat exposures we get from the same contraction focus at submaximal loads. Time, as a commodity, is always in short supply. It’s not for the faint of heart, nor the inexperienced.
During the second session each week after the supramaximal reps for both the eccentric and isometric movements, I like to contrast with singles with a concentric focus. Adding the band-resisted reps for the contrast work is a great way to develop explosive pulling abilities through the entire ROM. The benefits of accommodating resistance are known widely,13 and I tend to find their implementation in a vertical pulling program more appropriate for athletes without an explosive pulling deficit.
After two weeks spent on both eccentric and isometric supramaximal work, deload weeks are appropriate. These set up the athlete nicely to arrive at weeks 7-8 ready to target some potentiation effects from the concept of wave loading to see peak power capabilities improve. With a very similar structure to the Chiu 2012 study,14 each wave consists of multiple sets of pulling where we increase the resistance for each set until the completion of a wave. The athlete then lowers the intensity and performs two vertical pulls at 71% 1RM to take advantage of PAP.
In his study, Chiu saw a 5.77% vertical jump increase at the midway testing point and a 5.90% increase at the end of the second wave due to the potentiation effects on vertical jumping from full snatches. After testing peak power at 71% 1RM pre-, mid- (after first wave), and post- (after second and final wave), I’ve seen an average improvement of 2.5% peak power (watts) after the first wave and 1.8% after the second wave in the 80%+ wave protocol and 2.2% and 2.1% for the 50-80% wave protocol.
Although I need to obtain a larger sample size, my initial findings for wave loading in the pull-up suggest wave loading does work to increase peak power in athletes who are advanced in vertical pulling ability and more so after the first wave than the second.
I hope this provides you with a practical resource to situate your athlete in an appropriate model so your athletes can ultimately achieve greater levels of power in vertical pulling.
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1. Siff, Mel, & Verkoshansky, Yuri. Supertraining. com; 6th expanded version edition. December 7, 2009.
2. Jovanovic, Mladen. Strength Training Manual: Introduction. March 23, 2019 (Accessed October 7, 2019).
3. Nuckols, Greg. There is Only One Type of Periodization – Part 1. October 24, 2019.
4. Dietz, Cal, & Peterson, Ben. Triphasic Training: A systematic approach to elite speed and explosive strength performance (Volume 1). Bye Dietz Sports Enterprise. 2012.
5. Valle, Carl. Cluster Training: How to Navigate Through the New Science. SimpliFaster.
6. Tufano, JJ. Theoretical and Practical Aspects of Different Cluster Set Structures: A Systematic Review. J Strength Cond Res.2017 Mar; 31(3):848-867.
7. Tufano, JJ. Cluster sets vs. traditional sets: Levelling out the playing field using a power-based threshold. PLoS One. 2018; 13(11): e0208035. Published online 2018 Nov 26.
8. Tufano, JJ. Maintenance of Velocity and Power With Cluster Sets During High-Volume Back Squats. Int J Sports Physiol Perform.2016 Oct; 11(7):885-892. Epub 2016 Aug 24.
9. Valle, Carl. 7 Reasons the Weight Room Isn’t Transferring to Your Sport. SimpliFaster.
10. Ignjatovic, AM. Effects of 12-week medicine ball training on muscle strength and power in young female handball players. J Strength Cond Res.2012 Aug; 26(8):2166-73.
11. Contreras, Bret. Inside the Muscles: Best Back and Bicep Exercises. T NATION. March 15, 2010.
12. Wayland, William. Applying the Compressed Triphasic Model with MMA Fighters. SimpliFaster.
13. Davenport, Shane. The Top Accommodating Resistance Methods for Strength Coaches. SimpliFaster.
14. Chiu, Loren. Potentiation of Vertical Jump Performance During a Snatch Pull Exercise Session. Journal of Applied Biomechanics. 2012; 28(6):627-635.