By Jeff Richter
The keen strength and conditioning coach is well aware of the value of monitoring performance in the gym with velocity-based training (VBT) devices. Still, the application of VBT is underused in a very specific way—monitoring performance in upper body vertical pulling exercises.
While there are many examples of exercises that can create more specific adaptations for sport performance through the help of VBT devices, we’re just breaking the shadows of the dark ages in using this technology to help build a program that creates more powerful chin-ups and pull-ups. Consequently, we may be failing to fully take advantage of how vertical pulling can serve as a puzzle piece to improve our athletes’ power and speed in their respective sports.
This omission is likely inadvertent, as many of us believe we’re checking off the upper body pulling boxes by simply including chin-ups, pull-ups, and their related variations in our program. With the assurance that resembles a citizen performing basic civil duties, we pat ourselves on the back and go on our merry way programming vertical pulling in a program and then offer more conviction about optimizing pressing power development using VBT.
While there is efficacy in our application of eccentric and isometric principles to vertical pulling improvement, I fear we may believe the illusion that we’re programming vertical pulling for the most optimal athletic development. I hope to present this question as a worthy one: “Is my athlete more powerful in vertical pulling?” You may concede you never deemed the question important. You may also find you don’t like your answer upon deeper reflection.
We Believe in Power but Do We Believe in Vertical Pulling for Power?
Power is a Holy Grail of sorts for many strength and conditioning coaches, and we pursue the development of this quality with much devotion. The ability to increase the amount of work performed per unit of time is a critical ability that allows our athletes to compete at a higher level of performance in competition.
If I were to poll the readers of this article, we would all likely agree that an athlete improving their back squat numbers in the weight room does not guarantee enhanced vertical jumping ability (power expression). Through the Dynamic Strength Index (DSI), we can observe the relationship between maximum force and ballistic force. And, if we conceptually observe an explosive strength deficit, we can typically deliver future programming tactics that contain wisdom to drive more intentional adaptations to remove the deficit.
Ironically, I’ve observed that our vertical pulling programs usually stop at simply increasing force potential with weighted pulls or improving total rep count with unassuming concentric actions. And we don’t seem alarmed by the lack of conviction in being explosive in the way we would for other movements.We can perform strict form vertical pulling with high intent for speed to improve power production, says @RichterJeff. #VerticalPullingForPower Click To Tweet
Whether or not we approve of kipping pull-ups, many of us may be hesitant to emphasize the concentric speed in vertical pulling for fear of replicating the kip. Nonetheless, I’ve found that it’s possible to perform strict form vertical pulling with high intent for speed to improve power production.
Of course, obtaining strength and competencies in the body weight movement are key, and this is where we should start. Many athletes may struggle with completing one rep, but in what other movement is the mountaintop of our athletes’ abilities getting stronger and not more powerful? When I realized I was a hypocrite in this regard, I chose to research what I was missing. Surely there was a reason I didn’t see coaches having their athletes pull for power—right?
The Posterior Oblique Sling and Implications for Training
Understanding fiber type composition of the latissimus dorsi and the myofascial connections, or “trains” (as coined by Thomas Myers), have implications for how we can optimize the training process and the results we can expect from a vertical pulling program that’s intentional about power development. Though fiber type can vary considerably from person to person, we can still make thoughtful considerations using the research we do have.
We know from research performed by Bret Contreras1 that the latissimus dorsi is a major contributor when it comes to chin-ups and pull-ups, both weighted and unweighted. With high mean and peak maximum voluntary contraction (MVC), it’s hardly a surprise that vertical pulling is the primary means through which we can target growth and hypertrophy in the lats.
Though some research points to an equal distribution between fast- and slow-twitch fibers in the lats,2other research unequivocally claims that the lats have a predominance of fast-twitch fibers. And the greater size and strength of these fibers hint that the lats are a muscle specialized for phasic and powerful activity.3
What seems even more certain is the intimate connection between the lats and the contralateral gluteus maximus—or the posterior oblique sling as coined by some to describe this relationship. To the best of my knowledge, Andry Vleeming was the first researcher who unveiled this interesting association.4 I’m not sure, though, if it was Vleeming, Thomas Myers, or another who first coined the actual phrase posterior oblique sling. The posterior oblique sling is a facial connection consisting of the latissimus dorsi muscle, the opposite side gluteus maximus muscle, and the interconnecting thoracolumbar fascia.
Vleeming’s objective was to study the role of the posterior layer of the thoracolumbar fascia in load transfer between the spine, pelvis, legs, and arms. He found that in vivo, the “superficial lamina will be tensed by contraction of various muscles, such as the latissimus dorsi, gluteus maximus and erector muscle, and the deep lamina by contraction of the biceps femoris. Caudal to the level of L4, tension in the posterior layer was transmitted to the contralateral side.” He also concluded that “anatomic structures normally described as hip, pelvic, and leg muscles interact with so-called arm and spinal muscles via the thoracolumbar fascia” which allows for effective load transfer between the spine, pelvis, legs, and arms—an integrated system.
Since then, Seung-Je Shin investigated the effect of different gait speeds on the muscle activities of the latissimus dorsi and gluteus maximus muscles relating to the posterior oblique sling system.5The results showed a significant increase in latissimus dorsi muscle activity with a treadmill speed of 5.5 km/h compared with 1.5 km/h and 3.5 km/h. The gluteus maximus muscle activity significantly increased in the order of 1.5 km/h < 3.5 km/h < 5.5 km/h.
The researchers concluded that arm swing connected to increasing gait speed influences the muscle activity of the lower limbs through the posterior oblique sling system. Though future research would be useful to see the association at faster speeds, it seems we are on a telling path.
Assuming the quality movement competencies of the lats and the hips, the stored kinetic energy that’s built up in the lengthening gluteus maximus and latissimus dorsi during the running gait can be released explosively as the muscles shorten for propulsion forward. The implication is that training the lats and gluteus maximus to become more powerful should enable greater physical robustness that can influence faster running times.Training the lats & gluteus maximus for more power generates faster running times, says @RichterJeff. #VerticalPullingForPower Click To Tweet
Our obvious focus on a powerful hip extension in training certainly seems to highlight our determination to equip our athletes to run faster. But the question we must ask ourselves is this: “Does my vertical pulling prepare the posterior oblique sling to be a complementary effort of both the lats and glutes contributing to powerful movement?”
Due to the adaptations we can create for explosive athletic movements, training the vertical pull to have a greater expression of power can be a valuable addition to our physical preparation program.
Though the intent for this article is not to be a “corrective exercise” guide, in today’s day and age, some folks will be upset if I didn’t pause to remind the reader of the following:
- Vertical pulling may not be appropriate for every individual at a given moment in time. If pull-ups or chin-ups hurt, they should be avoided, and a professional therapist may have to be consulted to diagnose the problem.
- If you go into lumbar hyperextension or forward neck movement while trying to perform supine shoulder flexion, you should address this movement dysfunction.
- Short and stiff lats can lead to hyperextension-related back issues and aggressive pull downwards on the scapula that should be counteracted with appropriate exercises.
As Shirley Sahrmann points out: “Contraction of the lats creates an extension force on the spine and tilts the pelvis anteriorly. If the muscle is short, the back extends as a compensatory movement when shoulder flexion stretches the muscle to the limits of its length. In the patient with low back pain that occurs with extension, the shortness or stiffness of this muscle contributes to pain when he/she reaches overhead.”6
Quality movement in the lats is not a given and shouldn’t be assumed. We should, however, seek a resolution through the recovery of quality function immediately. So does this mean we avoid vertical pulling exercise during this time? Possibly, but that may be a mistake in some situations.
Some compelling research should make one cautiously reflect on the decision to eliminate vertical pulling from their athlete’s program. The available MVC research shows that chin-ups and vertical pulling may be a potential corrective exercise for those with poor lat movement qualities. Yes, short and stiff lats can lead to hyperextension-related back issues. But did you know that a body weight chin-up results in an MVC mean score of 249.0 and peak of 461.0 in the lower rectus abdominis?7This is simply astounding data and research with exciting implications.
As Bret Contreras writes, “Probably the most shocking result of this entire experiment was the level of rectus abdominis activity elicited by a body weight chin-up! It beat out any other abdominal exercise, weighted exercises and all, in mean and peak rectus abdominis activity. Chin-ups are the ultimate ‘anti-extension’ exercise for the low back.”7 I want to note that Bret tested 52 other exercises.
Could there be a helpful “anti-extension” low back exercise when, ironically, the prime mover is the lats through which a contraction is an extension force on the lower back? Could it be that upper body vertical pulling is a helpful fix for lower back issues stemming from short and stiff lats? With proper mechanics, it very well may be, and l look forward to investigating this more in the future.
Using VBT for a More Powerful Vertical Pull
For vertical pulling, it appears supinated, pronated, and neutral grips produce very similar muscle activation in the latissimus dorsi.8, 9 Therefore, the choice of grip may very well come down to which grip is accessible and which one the coach deems best from a risk-reward standpoint due to mobility considerations and injury history.
If you have VBT resources, I recommend obtaining your athlete’s peak power output and velocity in body weight vertical pulling and with weighted loads for those athletes with the strength to do so. Why is this a worthwhile cause? Similar to using VBT for other exercises, we’re trying to gather data for the following reasons:
- Objectively measuring progress (meaning whether power improves the exercise) is better than subjective analysis for ensuring training is strategically managed for more calculated improvement.
- It’s well documented that visual or verbal feedback enhances an athlete’s performance.10, 11
- The luxury of ensuring an athlete is training in the proper window of velocity to create the intended adaptations is helpful, to say the least.
- Using velocity as a cutoff point to ensure “quality reps,” when applicable, allows for deliberate quality control of a working set.
The cuing for the vertical pull test is fairly simple. Once the athlete understands proper pulling mechanics, the cue to “pull yourself up as fast as possible” from a dead hang start produces a fairly straightforward test. If we can teach our athletes to lift hundreds of pounds off the ground for “speed” reps, we may be overreacting to the degree of difficulty required to get them to perform a pull-up explosively with proper form.
Though there may be a nuance in how certain VBT products can validly record data in this movement, the reliability of data largely comes down to consistent testing protocols. Rather than viewing this through the lens of a once-in-a-blue-moon test, there is merit in continually gathering peak power output regularly and observing trends with how peak power improves over time for a given load.
Also, through the groundbreaking work from Mario Munoz-Lopez12 looking to analyze the load, force, and power-velocity relationships in the pull-up exercise, we know there are almost perfect individual load-velocity (R2 =.975 ± 0.02), force-velocity (R2 =.954 ± 0.04), and power-velocity (R2 =.966 ± 0.04) relationships in the pull-up. This allows us to predict the velocity at each %1-RM as well as the maximal theoretical force, velocity, and power. This can be a valuable tool for coaches.
Most significantly for this article, Munoz observed that the load that maximized power was 71.0% ± 6.6%1-RM. Based on my use of VBT with vertical pulling the past few years, I find this number very agreeable. As you can see from the chart, an 82-kilo athlete with a 122kg 1RM on the pull-up (body weight + additional load) would have maximum power potential right around their actual body weight.
So what are the implications for an athlete with lesser strength in the pull-up or one who can’t perform the pull-up with any additional weight? Body weight vertical pulling will most certainly be too much load to elicit the highest possible power output in the exercise. For example, an athlete who can perform a vertical pull only one time with their body weight would need to deload their body weight by about 29% to realize power training benefits.
Unfortunately, this is an all too common situation. An athlete who has to deload their body for maximum power in vertical pulling has theoretically untapped potential for power expression in sport since ultimately we are trying to get an athlete to move more efficiently and powerfully with their body weight on the field of play. It’s also imperative that my motorsport clients (both pit crews and drivers) excel in explosive vertical pulling.
For my athletes who have explosive vertical pulling deficits (inability to hit maximum power with at least their body weight), I’ll take them through focused blocks at high force-low velocities, medium force-medium velocities, and low force-high velocities to narrow the deficit gap. Perhaps the most underused application is vertical pulling at low force-high velocities. Improving in this spectrum of speed is vital for athletes to reap the benefits of power development.Improving #VerticalPulling at low force-high velocities is vital for athletes to reap the benefits of #PowerDevelopment, says @RichterJeff. Click To Tweet
Low force-high velocity training for an athlete with an explosive vertical pulling deficit is a unique case, as the authors from the Munoz study stated: “If absolute maximal power capabilities are to be developed, subjects should use an assistance that would reduce body weight and, therefore, could produce higher movement velocities. Also, power was shown to be highly correlated with maximal velocity but not to maximal force. Therefore, athletes who wish to focus on power development might benefit from training with no load, or very light loads moved at high speeds to produce high power outputs.”
When an explosive pulling deficit exists, the coach has to uniquely and safely manipulate the training environment to offer external assistance from clever variations that provide the right amount of assistance. Assisted band variations are not unheard of. However, getting an athlete with an ego to use an assisted band variation when they can perform a rep unassisted requires pragmatic explanations of the power adaptations that you’re trying to achieve. A relationship built on trust goes a long way in accomplishing this.
Although power correlates highly with maximum velocity, I still program vertical pulling at high force-low velocities to enhance maximum strength—though this approach is not fully comprehensive as it leaves out additional power adaptations.
As a result, power adaptations from pulling may not be fully realized in an athlete, both strong and weak. And this is largely due to tactical errors in programming and failure to program quality exercise variations at high force-low velocity, medium force-medium velocities, and especially low force-high velocities.
I recommend compiling a chart of an athlete’s velocity and power metrics at a variety of loads as a starting point to understand how to train smarter for the specific adaptation you’re seeking and to monitor progress on the journey.
When using bands for either assistance or resistance, it’s critical to know how band tension affects the movement’s load. Through either a load cell or bands from brands with that information already available, a coach can know how to specifically dose the necessary tension to create optimal stress for the desired outcome.
I’ll conclude this post with the actual exercises I use for all three spectrums, so you have options to “plug and play.” Part 2 for my next article will discuss my programming strategies to arrive at the best short-term and long-term adaptations for vertical pulling power.
I hope you will consider the value in training your athletes to achieve more power in their vertical pulling. There is much to be gained.
High Force-Low Velocity Vertical Pulling
Video 1. Dumbbell Weighted Pulls 80% 1RM and Above. Weighted pulls at and above 80% 1RM are fantastic for developing maximal strength qualities in the vertical pulling movement.
Video 2. Weighted Eccentric Supramaximal Load. One of the best ways to help an athlete break through plateaus in maximal vertical pulling is adding supramaximal loads at the top of the movement and having the athlete focus on controlling the eccentric portion of the lift for an intentional time frame. Depending on the session’s goal, I may add in an explosive body weight rep after dropping the weight. This method isn’t revolutionary; many coaches have seen success with this approach for squatting and bench pressing with weight releasers.
Medium Force-Medium Velocity Vertical Pulling
Dumbbell Weighted Pulls at 40-75% 1RM.
Video 3. Final Half Band Resisted Neutral Grip Chin-up. One of the first progressions to a band resisted rep I use resists only the final half of the movement. I place a heavy dumbbell on a taller box to get the band up higher and act as an attachment base. The cue to an athlete should be to aggressively attack the first half of the movement to meet the band resistance with as much power as possible. Know your band tensions and how much weight is added at the top of the movement.
Video 4. Final Three-Quarter Band Resisted Neutral Grip Chin-up. My next progression is the final three-quarter resisted band movement where I place the heavy dumbbell attachment base on a lower box. The same cue applies where the athlete should attempt to greet the band tension with aggression.
Video 5. Full ROM Band Resisted Neutral Grip Chin-up. The final band progression sets the band tension to load the entire movement. In most cases, I set the dumbbell attachment base on the floor.
Low Force-High Velocity Vertical Pulling
Video 6. One-Quarter Rep Band Assisted Neutral Grip Chin-up. I use carabiners attached to the cinch anchor at the top of the rack to create the necessary length so that only the first one-quarter of the movement is assisted. I apply this method based on circumstances. It may be the last progression for an athlete in the assistance category and could be a great option for those athletes who need a bit of additional assistance to achieve maximal vertical pulling power (71% 1RM). Know your band tensions and how much load is being removed.
Video 7. Three-Quarter Rep Band Assisted Neutral Grip Chin-up. The three-quarter assistance method generally removes any additional carabiners hanging from the cinch anchor. As more band assistance stays throughout more range of motion, don’t lose sight of pulling aggressively through the entire ROM! This is the most important cue for assisted reps—you still have to attack the rep.
Video 8. Full ROM Band Assisted Chin-up. This is a great first progression for a weaker athlete to get assistance throughout the entire ROM. At the top of the movement, the band should not lose tension.
1. Contreras, Bret. “Inside the Muscles: Best Back and Biceps Exercises.” TNATION. March 15, 2010.
2. Johnson, M., et al. “Data on the Distribution of Fibre Types in Thirty-six Human Muscles: An Autopsy Study.” Journal of the Neurological Sciences 1973; 18(1): 111-29.
3. Paoli, A., et al. “Myosin Isoforms and Contractile Properties of Single Fibers of Human Latissimus Dorsi Muscle.” Biomed Research International 2013; 2013(1): 249398.
4. Vleeming, A., et al. “The Posterior Layer of the Thoracolumbar Fascia: It’s Function in Load Transfer from Spine to Legs.” Spine 1995; 20(7): 753-8.
5. Shin, S., Kim T., & Yoo, W. “Effects of Various Gait Speeds on the Latissimus Dorsi and Gluteus Maximus Muscles Associated with the Posterior Oblique Sling System.” Journal of Physical Therapy Science 2013; 25(11):1391-2.
6. Sahrmann, Shirley. Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndrome. Mosby. 2001.
7. Contreras, Bret. “Inside the Muscles: Best Ab Exercises.” TNATION. 5/17/10.
8. Dickie, J.A., et al. “Electromyographic Analysis of Muscle Activation During Pull-up Variations.” Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology 2017; 32:30-36.
9. Anderson, V., et al. “Effects of Grip Width on Muscle Strength and Activation in the Lat Pulldown.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 2014; 28(4):1135-42.
10. Weakley, J., et al. “Visual Feedback Attenuates Mean Concentric Barbell Velocity Loss and Improves Motivation, Competitiveness, and Perceived Workload in Male Adolescent Athletes.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Researchahead of press 2017.
11. Wilson, K., et al. “Real-time Quantitative Performance Feedback During Strength Exercise Improves Motivation, Competitiveness, Mood, and Performance.” Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting 2017.
12. Munoz-Lopez, M., et al. “Load-, Force-, and Power-Velocity Relationships in the Prone Pullup Exercise.” International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance 2017; 12(9): 1249-1255.