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Some Thoughts on Building a Big Pull
If I’m known for anything beyond my company (AtLarge Nutrition – www.atlargenutrition.com) and training advice it would have to be my above average deadlift. No, I won’t be pulling 1,015 lbs from the floor anytime soon like Benedikt Magnusson, but I have pulled 775 lbs. My style is somewhat unique in that I leverage my upper back via a unique hunchback technique I learned from Bob Peoples, one of the greatest deadlifters ever (he pulled a crazy 725-727 lbs – I’ve seen varying numbers all in that range - at 186 lbs body weight back in the late 40s). In fact, I highly recommend Bob’s book Developing Physical Strength. Later in this article I will discuss this pulling technique and why I feel it is superior.
Bob Peoples demonstrating the hunchback pulling style I advocate
A Brief Intro
First and foremost, if you want a big pull you HAVE to pull heavy with regularity. You can strengthen all of the involved musculature with special exercises, but unless you pull heavy with some frequency you simply will not optimize your deadlift.
If you are a powerlifter then peaking your pull before a meet is a no-brainer. A lot of lifters seem to focus on their bench and squat and let their pull be whatever it will be. This is especially true among equipped lifters as the equipment they use makes a much larger impact on the bench and squat than the dead. What they seem to fail to realize is that adding 50 lbs or 100 lbs to their pull would obviously have a large impact on their total.
My Personal Iron Game History for Context
I think a brief history of my iron game experience is in order as it will help to provide context to my current thinking regarding training.
My first real taste of resistance training began the summer before my senior year in high school. I wanted to add some size and strength for football and knew that weight training was the only way to do it. As I recall, those first sessions were some kind of a mix of whatever the other kids were doing (which I think was passed down by the coaches) in our high school weight room. Deadlifts were not in the repertoire. We did, however, squat.
I believe this was my senior year so it was very early in my training. It is also proof I knew something about computers many moons ago.
I quickly found that I really liked the results I was experiencing. I absolutely loved getting a pump and how big it made me feel as well as seeing my body grow and my clothes getting tighter (for the right reasons). Long story short, I decided I liked strength training a lot more than I liked football and shortly after making the team I told the coaches I was quitting (I didn’t care for most of the coaches – wasn’t great with people I didn’t consider to be all that bright telling me what to do – I know, I know…).
After quitting football I needed to find a place to train. There was a local gym I had heard of called Hoppe’s. I couldn’t have found a better gym than Hoppe’s. It was owned by a former Mr. America (among other titles) Glenn Knerr. Glenn was just amazing in a physical sense. I had never seen anything like him. He stayed extremely lean year round and was absolutely massive especially in his lower body. I can distinctly remember how he literally waddled because his quads were so big. In addition to Glenn, an IFBB professional bodybuilder by the name of Mike Ashley was a regular at Hoppe’s. Mike was another freak of nature with vascularity even in the off season that you just don’t see even today. He too stayed extremely lean all year round. He ate very strictly and I can remember him bringing his food with him to the gym in little plastic containers. You always knew when he was eating as whatever it was would literally stink up the entire gym.
Glenn Knerr, the owner of Hoppe’s
IFBB Pro Michael Ashley
As you may have guessed, I quickly became very seriously interested in bodybuilding. When I get into something I am compelled to learn everything I possibly can. I get obsessed. I am nearly 42 years old, so when I was in my late teens the internet was not part of the everyday equation as it is now. The source for information relating to the iron game was books and magazines. I read voraciously getting books from the library, buying books, and buying all of the bodybuilding magazines I could get my hands on.
I loved bodybuilding and at one point even aspired to be a professional. I was cured of that desire when I realized the drug use that would be required to achieve that dream (and no, it was not me guessing). Even in the throes of my greatest passion for bodybuilding I was NEVER a guy who just wanted to look good or big. I wanted to be as strong as I humanly could be and I respected all individuals of great strength. In fact, great physical power has always been something I admired and aspired to. Even as a child my favorite heroes were the strength freaks like The Hulk and The Thing.
Marvel Comic’s The Hulk (left) and The Thing (on the right in the right hand pic)
Very early in my training I read Arnold’s The Education of a Bodybuilder. The training routines he had outlined in the book were the templates for my first structured training routines. I quickly realized that the programs did not work for me. It was then that I came across the writings of Ellington Darden, PhD. I think the book Super High-Intensity Bodybuilding was the first of his books I read.
Yes, that is Jim Hellwig on the cover; aka former pro wrestler The Ultimate Warrior
It was through Dr. Darden I learned of Arthur Jones, the Menzter brothers, Casey Viator, and the whole HIT universe. I tried the classic HIT one set of 12 reps to failure using twelve different exercises (to cover the whole body) practiced three times per week and found it did not work well for me. The basic concepts behind the program DID make sense to me and I ended up making my own routine that involved training to failure with low volume. I would perform 4-6 working sets (post-warm-up sets) for larger body parts and 2-4 for smaller ones hitting each body part twice per week (a 4 day split).
One of my all-time favorite pictures; Casey Viator just EXUDING raw power!
Through my aforementioned obsessive research I knew that low reps were a requisite for building great absolute strength and that the compound movements were the most efficient exercises to do so. I also knew that higher repetitions from 5-20 (depending upon the body part and exercise) were more effective for hypertrophy. I therefore structured my routine so that each major body part (chest, shoulders, back, and lower body) started with a compound movement with which I would work up to a 1-3 rep maximum set and then follow that with 1-2 more sets of 6-10 reps. I would then have a second and sometimes third exercise where I would normally employ sets of 8-15 reps in order to maximize the pump. This formula succeeded in making me both very strong and good sized.
What is interesting is I never really did deadlifts. I had tried them a few times early in my training and had not been good at them. Perhaps even more interestingly, and as an empirical backing of the conjugate system (which will be discussed in more detail later in this article), I worked my back very hard with heavy rows at virtually every session and I nearly always squatted heavily. Consequently, as my overall strength grew I unwittingly became reasonably good at deadlifting. I can distinctly remember trying sumo style pulls one day just to see what I could do and working up to 545 lbs x 3 reps wearing just a belt (I was around 20 at the time and weighed in the 220-230 lbs range).
Westside’s own Jake Anderson demonstrating the sumo style pull
I believe part of my current deadlifting prowess and overall lower and mid back strength is related to a bad injury I sustained when I was 19 or 20. I ruptured two discs in my lumbar region (can’t remember which ones) and was in considerable pain for some time. I eventually rehabbed the injury myself, but it wasn’t until many years later that I actually began deadlifting regularly. I feel that my recovery lead to my spinal erectors essentially making up for the structural weakness by overcompensating in size and strength. I liken it to studies done with animals where one or more muscles are severed and other muscles supercompensate to make up for it.
I don’t remember the exact time or reason, but sometime in my early to mid-30s I began to regularly deadlift. At the time I was training alone in my basement. I started pulling sumo style and was able to build up to a 600 lbs or so pull (using a modified sumo style). I was still training with my low volume, high intensity of effort approach while simultaneously working 50-60 hour weeks.
During this period in my life I started AtLarge Nutrition (which made those 50-60 hour weeks become 80+ hours). I’ll be honest and tell you I cannot remember exactly how, but through AtLarge I came to know Louie Simmons, the strength sports legend and owner of Westside Barbell. Getting to know Louie was a real epiphany for me. I learned everything I could about his methods and was fortunate enough to have him allow me to visit Westside and train there. As time passed I got to know him and his wife better and better and I now consider them my friends. I can honestly say Louie has been a HUGE influence on my life and certainly my way of thinking about strength training.
Back to Building a BIG Pull
So, my late life introduction to the Westside methods brings us full circle. It was with Westside that I built up to my best pull to date, the 775 lbs video you saw at the beginning of this article.
I am not going to delve completely into Westside as I leave that to Louie and his coaches Shane and Laura Sweatt. I will, however, explain some Westside basics and provide my own thoughts on the physiology of how it all works. Finally, I will tell you exactly what I do to peak my deadlift.
My Unique Pulling Style
I want to get back to something I mentioned at the beginning of this article, my rounded upper back pulling method. The reason this method is effective is that it improves your leverage during the pull. It, in effect, lengthens your arms allowing a slight decrease in the ROM for the lower back and hips.
One of the world’s greatest deadlifters, Konstantin Konstantinovs. Note he uses a style very similar to that which I advocate
As I mentioned in the first paragraph of this article, I learned of the method from all-time great puller Bob Peoples. I believe it was in an article by Terry Todd in an old Muscular Development magazine I had purchased off of eBay. The article discussed Bob, his accomplishments, his innovations (for example, he was one of the first to create a power rack), and his unique ideas on training and deadlifting in particular.
One of Bob’s most unique approaches was to round his upper back and keep his head down prior to commencing and during the pull. He would then forcefully expel air from his lungs so he could achieve this position to an even greater degree. This, of course, flew in the face of conventional deadlift wisdom which says you must fill your lungs with air before the pull and have an upright head and back position.
I was sold on at least giving Bob’s style a try based on his incredible success and my own relative weakness with conventional style pulling. The exhaling thing did not work well for me, but I did find that not taking in a huge breath was beneficial in terms of getting into position for the initial pull. The rounded upper back worked wonderfully. The key to learning how to do it is to keep your head down as you pull and only bring it back up as you approach and enter lockout. This creates an unfurling effect with your upper spine which allows the lifter to really maximize his leverage right until lockout. I want to emphasize that the lower back, the lumbar region, should NEVER be rounded. It should remain locked in a neutral position.
- This style is something you have to work into. You have to build the musculature of the mid and upper back to support it. Jumping right into it with maximal loads is a recipe for injury.
The rounded back style will not only aid your deadlift, it will greatly strengthen your mid and upper back such that you will be able to power your way out of compromised situations. It can be the difference between a missed squat and a PR! I also think it has excellent applicability to strongman training.
My Training Template
As already discussed I train primarily Westside. The following few sections will outline and give you a basic understanding of Westside. For those of you interested in this method of training I strongly encourage you to get the detailed information from the man himself, Louie Simmons. Go to his site www.westside-barbell.com and get the books he has written and videos he has made as well as some of the special equipment required to properly practice Westside (at the very least bands and a couple of different bars).
The Westside template includes four full training days. Two of the days focus on development of the bench press and the other two are focused on the development of the squat and deadlift. For each area of focus (bench or squat and deadlift) one training day is called Maximum Effort (ME) and the other is Dynamic Effort (DE).
Westsiders AJ Roberts, Louie Simmons (The Man), and Josh Conley
ME day is the most important component of the Westside method. It does the most for development of absolute strength. The focus of ME day is either a bench press or squat variation compound exercise which is selected as the main movement for the day (also known as upper and lower days). This exercise is then taken to a one rep maximum (1RM) attempt. 1RM lifts build absolute strength like no other form of exercise set and repetition scheme. They force the body to optimize motor unit recruitment, the excitation and inhibition of the correct musculature for a given lift, and the firing rate/synchronization of the recruited motor units all toward the end of allowing the trainee to lift ever heavier absolute loads.
- One point which is missed by so many who aspire to train with the Westside principles is that the 1RM on ME day is a training max, not a contest max. The difference has to do with degree of emotional excitement. If a lifter gets maximally stimulated for every ME day burnout will quickly occur and stagnation, regression, or injury is the likely result. Getting really fired up for a lift should be reserved for meets or occasional all-time PR attempts.
Laura Phelps-Sweatt – one incredibly strong woman! Yep, she’s Westside!
Bench press variations are exercises which are similar to a standard bench press, but vary in some fashion. Examples are floor presses, bench pressing with boards, using different bars when benching (football bar, cambered bar etc.), and benching with elastic bands and or chains added as a form of accommodating resistance. Squat variations as defined in the system are a bit different in that they include variations of the back squat, deadlift, and good morning. Most Westside practitioners choose four exercises each for upper and lower body which they then rotate weekly in four week cycles. So, for example, an ME lower body four week rotation might be the following exercises:
- Cambered bar box squat (week 1)
- Deadlift variation (week 2)
- Good morning*(week 3)
- Box squat against bands (week 4)
Good mornings, due to the precarious (from a safety perspective) nature of the exercise are an exception in that a 3 repetition maximum top set is used instead of a 1RM attempt.
Bruce Randall, a Mr. Universe winner, bulked up to over 400 lbs (back in the late 50s) in an attempt to see how strong he could get. One of his favorite exercises was the good morning. This is NOT a demonstration of proper technique (DO NOT ATTEMPT TO COPY IT), but it IS impressive.
The first week the lifter would warm-up to a 1RM attempt cambered bar box squat. The warm-up schedule may look like the following:
150 x 8
240 x 3
330 x 3
420 x 1
510 x 1
600 x 1
690 x 1
740 x 1
780 x 1RM
The second week the same basic format would be followed for the deadlift and so on.
Westside’s AJ Roberts handling business with 1,200 lbs!
Following the main ME exercise the lifter then moves on to what are known as special exercises (also often referred to as accessory work). The purpose of these exercises is to address specific weaknesses and to provide additional volume for the targeted muscles. This training incorporates the repetition method, or multiple reps taken to, or close to concentric failure (when you cannot complete the repetition).
Selection of special exercises to address individual weaknesses is one of those areas of concern that I often see expressed online. People fret about how one chooses the exercises and worry that Westside will not work properly if they don’t get them right. This seeming conundrum is in truth no problem at all. Part of the beauty of Westside is that it automatically addresses weaknesses. It does so by virtue of its conjugate variety (see below). That said, the lifter can and should experiment with special exercises to see which ones most benefit him or her. Improper choices can be quickly discarded and good ones kept for continued use.
As mentioned above, ME days normally involve the rotation of four bench press and squat variations weekly. This rotation is also referred to as conjugate variety. Its primary purpose is to allow the lifter to maintain 100% intensity virtually every week. One of the prime ways it does so is by altering the stress high intensity training places on the nervous system. Training is extremely specific to the plane of motion of a particular exercise. This is due to the neural component of physical movement which is studied via a science known as motor learning. A very interesting fact which illustrates the specificity of training in a neural sense is that the fastest sprinter in a straight line is not necessarily the fastest when running in a circle (same muscles, different pattern of movement).
Varying a movement, even slightly, thus places a unique stress on the nervous system and it is theorized that this phenomenon is what helps to preclude neural overtraining even when extremely high intensity work is performed frequently. Conjugate variety’s switching of exercises also subtly changes the stress placed on the joints and connective tissues thus affording protection from overuse injuries and the like. Finally, conjugate variety, as already mentioned, helps to address outright and relative weaknesses. Bottom line, it is an important component of Westside’s superiority as a training system.
Pure Power! Dave “Neutron” Hoff, Louie Simmons, and AJ Roberts
Back to Special Exercises
Above it was briefly mentioned that the lifter can and should experiment with special exercises to see which work best for them. A total of two to three special exercises by body part should be performed each session. In order to diagnose which ones work best one special exercise by body part should be treated as a variable while the others remain constant. The variable exercise should be rotated every three to four weeks with results being observed during its use. Those that best enhance performance in the major compound movements are added to the roster of effective special exercises and the rest are temporarily discarded. They should not be permanently discarded because that which is effective at this point in your training can become ineffective later and vice versa. The testing process should thus be an ongoing one.
Once four to five special exercises by body part have been pinpointed as effective the lifter should rotate through them every three to four weeks or until they are no longer benefitting their training.
Below is a sample special exercise selection for both ME and DE bench days.
- JM presses
- Dumbbell rollbacks
- Bent over row to the sternum
- Bent over laterals
Each exercise would be performed for two to three working (post warm-up) sets of 8-12 repetitions.
A norm regarding special exercises for bench days is to focus on triceps first and then upper back/shoulders (although I know some of the Westsiders are doing upper back on their squat ME and DE days as of late).
For the lower body, special exercises should focus on the mid and lower back, hips, glutes, quadriceps, and hamstrings with special emphasis on the hips, glutes, and hamstrings.
Eric Lilliebridge has pulled over 800 lbs raw!
Both bench and squat ME and DE days should also include work for your abdominal region. In addition, if you have access to a Reverse Hyper® (a patented device created by Louie Simmons) it can be used three to four times per week with varying loads (light to heavy) as a means of prehabilitation and strengthening for the posterior chain.
As noted above, rep counts for most special exercises should be in the 8-12 range with higher reps of 15 -20 also being incorporated from time to time. A unique exception is the use of restorative exercises as a form of active recovery and or connective tissue specific (tendon and ligament) support. Tendons and ligaments are avascular (poor or no blood supply) and seem to not match the skeletal muscles in their capacity for pace of adaptation. This can lead to connective tissue problems in intermediate to advanced athletes. Specific exercises using a very light resistance and rep counts of 50-100 or more can be employed to help address these concerns. It is theorized that the increased blood flow to the joints and tissues being exercised as well as the motion itself (with the light loads that do not compromise tissue integrity) act to promote recovery and possibly even supercompensation.
Leg curls with ankle weights for reps help to strengthen the knees
One example (see above) is lying leg curls done with light ankle weights for sets (typically two) of 100 repetitions at least three days per week. It is used to promote knee health. A personal favorite is one which more or less mimics a sumo style stiff-legged deadlift with the difference being the resistance is a monster-mini band which is secured under the feet and over the neck. It provides a tremendous pump in the lower and mid back muscles (I do sets of 100+ reps) and I have successfully used this exercise to rehab mild to moderate strains in various muscles and tissues of the back.
DE day is similar to ME day in that one main exercise is used and then followed up with special exercises. The special exercise work done on DE days will sometimes match that done on ME day and other times match exercises but use lighter loads and higher repetitions. It might also vary completely from that done on ME day. When considering what is to be done the athlete must consider their individual strengths and weaknesses as well as unique recovery ability.
DE day is geared to building explosive power. It is meant to teach the lifter’s body to generate force quickly and to maintain speed throughout the range of motion (ROM). This is accomplished with the use of speed work. Speed work involves moving the barbell through the ROM as quickly and explosively as possible. The goal is to move at roughly .7 to 1 meter per second. This speed therefore dictates lighter loads be used, typically ranging from 40-60% of the lifter’s 1RM. Lighter loads, in turn, require greater volume to optimize their effectiveness.
DE bench day is most often a barbell bench press with some form of accommodating resistance (bands and or chains) in classic Westside. The norm being mini or monster mini bands which are doubled-up (for those with a 1RM bench press of 300 lbs or less the minis should be used). The weight on the barbell, and this is a recent revision, is about 40% of the lifter’s 1RM standard bench press. The bands or chains are then added in addition to the 40% “straight weight” load. After warm-up, eight sets of 3 reps are performed with the emphasis being on controlled speed. I say controlled speed because it is my experience that those new to the program often use very sloppy form when trying to move the barbell quickly. There should be no bouncing on the chest and complete reps should be done (each rep taken to lockout). When teaching speed bench I first have the trainee lower the barbell under strict control and then try explode the weight back up as quickly as possible. After they become comfortable with the technique only then do I ask them to begin lowering the bar with greater speed. I strongly urge you to do the same.
Jake Anderson squatting BIG! Your author in the back with the blue shoes
DE lower body work follows what is called a pendulum wave. This wave lasts for three weeks and uses the box squat as the sole main exercise. Variance between waves can come in the form of the type of bar used (although straight bar is the most common), accommodating resistance used, the height of the box, or some combination thereof. During a wave the only variable (normally) is the bar weight resistance. Strictly speaking, the wave should start with a bar weight (remember, bar weight does NOT count accommodating resistance) of 50% of the lifter’s 1RM for the box variation being used with no accommodating resistance. For example, if the trainee is using the regular squat bar and a 14” box then the tested 1RM should be with the same circumstances and pure bar weight – no bands or chains added. In practice, not every wave is started with a 1RM test; rather a small graduation in load from the previous wave with the same setup (bar, accommodating resistance etc.) is often used.
For the first week the aforementioned 50% bar load along with roughly 25% accommodating resistance is used and after a few warm-up sets twelve sets of two reps are performed. The second week bumps the bar load to 55% and again twelve post warm-up sets of two reps are performed. The last week uses a bar load of 60% and the volume is reduced to ten sets of two reps.
Louie Simmons’ Reverse Hyper® - another key to a BIG Pull (yes, that’s my big ass in the photo)
My Training Template
Mon – ME lower
Wed – ME upper
Fri – DE lower
Sun – DE upper
You do not need to train the same days of the week, but be sure to have at least 72 hours between DE and ME days for bench and squat.
Peaking the Pull
As noted above I ME pull once every 4 weeks. In the normal course of my training I will rotate the style of deadlift virtually each time I pull (rack deads, deficit deads, deads against bands and so on). I will also do speed deadlifts on occasion as well as using stiff-legged deadlifts as a special exercise when I feel it appropriate. The key for me is to not overload my lower back with excessive pulling (as a rule, peaking being the exception) as I am what is referred to as a “back” squatter (I use my back a lot when I squat) and that leaves me vulnerable to overworking the area if care is not taken.
When I am looking to peak my deadlift I will stop rotating the style of deadlift and stick with heavy pulls from the floor on my ME deadlift day. I will also add some heavy sets of 5-8 reps of the stiff-legged deadlift as a special exercise on my DE days. In addition, I will ME deadlift two weeks in a row the last two weeks prior to the week I attempt an all-time best pull. My peaking “cycle” will typically last for a five week period (starting with a deadlift ME day) allowing me three ME pulls from the floor and four to five days of relatively heavy stiff-legged pulls on DE days. To be clear, this is NOT Westside. This is my own twist on the program which I have found to be an effective way to peak my pull without compromising my squat or bench. At Westside the team members will perform what is called a Circa-Max cycle (please check out Louie’s Book of Methods for more on everything Westside) to peak for a meet.
In summary, my keys to a big pull are the following:
- Train following a Westside template
- Perfect the rounded upper back style of pulling
- Make the described tweaks to the typical Westside template the last 5 weeks of training before the all-time pull attempt
If you do the above I can literally guarantee that you will set some huge PRs!
AtLarge Nutrition sponsored athlete Eric Lilliebridge pulling BIG!