I had the privilege of having Fred DiMenna, a former WNBF pro bodybuilder and exercise physiology PhD, as a professor in grad school. Fred is hands down one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met, and he’s got a serious arsenal of peer-review research articles to back it up. Perhaps the greatest lasting impression he made on me was the concept of “Right Link vs. Wrong Link”, which is a simple test when selecting an exercise. This test had two simple questions:
- What’s the target muscle of the exercise?
- Which muscle fatigues first?
If the answer to each question isn’t the same, it’s a lousy exercise. Fred always said that exercises needed to be hard not just for the sake of being hard but for the right reasons.
So in honor of Fred’s wisdom, I’ll be writing regular articles addressing Right Link vs. Wrong Link when looking at common exercises that may not be as effective as we hope. I’ll tell you why from both a scientific and practical standpoint, then give suggestions for better options.
Our first exercise on the chopping block: Assisted Pull-Ups.
WRONG LINK: MACHINE ASSISTED PULL-UPS
Everyone wants to do more pull-ups. Pull-ups are one of the best upper body strength exercises and a contender for best movement to give you lats as wide as a doorway. But doing a pull-up is easier said than done, especially if you’re new to strength training. Not everyone can do a pull-up from day one, so how do you get started?
Most people in commercial gyms gravitate toward the assisted pull-up machine, which uses a weight stack to counterbalance your bodyweight. This effectively “subtracts” weight from your body and guides you through the movement. Sounds like a great way to do more pull-ups, right?
Hold on. Commercial gym? Pull-up MACHINE? Something’s fishy…
STRIKE 1 – DIFFERENT MOTOR PATTERN
Machine assisted pull-ups may train the same muscles that help you do a pull-up, but they don’t train them the same way. The motor pattern is different. Simply, the nervous system “learns” movements with lots of practice, and machine assisted pull-ups are too different from regular pull-ups to have any carryover. Pull-ups require tons of coordination and stability, which the machine basically does for you.
Because you don’t have to stabilize the shoulder using your lats and rotator cuff, you end up pulling a lot more with your arms and fatiguing the biceps first. Refer back to the two-question test for Right Link/Wrong Link, and you’ll see the machine assisted pull-up fails with flying colors.
STRIKE 2 -DIFFERENT STRENGTH CURVE
The way these machines are designed creates a consistent strength curve, which means that the exercise is the same difficulty throughout the entire range of motion. Anyone who’s ever tried a pull-up knows this isn’t how it works. The bottom of a pull-up feels different than the middle which feels different from the top. That’s how muscles work.
So when you use machine assisted pull-ups, you tend to “cruise” to the top because you don’t have to work any harder to get your chin to the bar than you did to move the first few inches. Your body “learns” this and you’ll inevitably do the same when you get to a regular pull-up bar. It’d be like using a Smith machine bench press to build a barbell bench press. Sure, they hit the same muscles, but they’re entirely different exercises with different coordination requirements.
STRIKE 3 – SUPER EXPENSIVE EQUIPMENT
Why would you use a machine that costs thousands of dollars to do one of the few remaining things on the planet that’s free? There are countless pipes, playgrounds, trees and other objects just begging to be pulled-up upon, but you need a fancy machine to do your pull-ups? Have some self respect and keep reading.
RIGHT LINK: BAND ASSISTED PULL-UPS
Instead of an expensive assisted pull-up machine, spend a fraction of the cost on a stretch band and do band assisted pull-ups.
Loop a band around a pull-up bar and hook your feet and/or knees in the band. This stretches the band and gives you some assistance which gradually decreases as you pull toward the bar. This prevents you from coasting to lockout and is much more similar to the actual motor pattern of pull-ups than a machine assisted pull-up.
All you need is one band to give yourself month’s worth of pull-up progressions. Just vary the way you put your feet or knees in the band. It’s as simple as this:
- EASIEST: Both feet
- EASY: One foot
- MEDIUM: Both knees
- HARD: One knee
- HARDEST: Unassisted pull-up
Start with a variation that allows you to do 8-10 reps per set without failing. Once you can do 12 reps, move on to the next hardest variation.
BONUS WORKOUT: BAND ASSISTED PULL-UPS MECHANICAL DROPSET
Band assisted pull-ups aren’t just for people who can’t do regular pull-ups. Use a band to help you keep doing reps even after you’d normally get tired and have to stop. Use this as a killer upper body finisher or just a way to mix up your normal pull-up workout.
A normal drop set simply reduces the weight so you can keep going, but a mechanical drop set has you move to an easier exercise without a change in weight lifted.
Try this: take the max number of pull-ups you can do in one set and cut it in half. Do three increasingly easier variations for five reps each for a 15-rep dropset. For example, for someone who could do 10 pull-ups:
Unassisted pull-ups: 5 reps
Both knees in band: 5 reps
Both feet in band: 5 reps
Rest 60 seconds, repeat dropset as many time as possible until you can’t do 5 reps per variation
Give this a try and tell me how your lats feel after.
WORK HARD AND SMART
That’s it for the first installment of Right Link/Wrong Link. The idea is to help you understand WHY an exercise is a good or bad choice for your goals so you can make more educated decisions in your training.