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Power Pulls: Great Errectors, Glutes, and Hams!

The training of bodybuilders and powerlifters varies widely - in particular when it comes to the value of deadlifting. This is unfortunate because most bodybuilders would benefit greatly from the type of heavy pulls that Ronnie Coleman and Mike Francois have used to build their impressive physiques.

 

FrancoisMike9Sadly, most bodybuilders rely on two to three quick sets of hyperextensions as their sole spinal erector and hip movement. The hip is the largest joint in the body. When one considers the amount of muscle that crosses the posterior half of the hip joint (gluteus maximus, spinal erector, hamstrings) as well as the muscles which articulate along the length of the spine and their potential for strength, these sleepy-eyed, half-assed hypers truly seem pathetic.

 

In athletic circles, the interconnected group of muscles that run from the base of the neck to the back of the knees is known as the "posterior chain." The word "chain" is particularly appropriate when one realizes that these muscles are linked and almost always work together - whether in everyday tasks or athletic performance. These muscles cover a large area, with many of them crossing more than one joint. Their development is vital because they are recognized as being responsible for most of the body's power base. The powerful push of a lineman, the jump of a basketball or volleyball player or the drive of a sprint in any sport relies heavily on posterior chain strength. Three sets of hyperextensions (even with that measly 25-pound plate in your hands) just won't cut it. This program takes posterior chain development more seriously. It is brutally effective at developing these important muscles.

 

Good Mornings. What is needed is a direct movement with a level of resistance appropriate to the strength of the associated muscle groups. Good Mornings fit the bill perfectly. For those not familiar with this old classic, Good Mornings are begun from a standing position similar to the starting position for squats. The bar should be securely held in place, lying between the rear delts and traps. The exercise is done by bending forward at the waist, while maintaining an arch in your upper back. In order to keep balance, your hips will travel backwards slightly in order to keep your weight centered. Depending on your flexibility, you should be able to bend forward until you are about fifteen-degrees short of parallel. This directly and intensely targets the glutes, spinal erectors and hamstrings.

 

Bodybuilders often claim that Good Mornings are a useless, dangerous exercise. Anyone that has concentrated on them for a couple of months will attest to the brutal effectiveness of the exercise. As to its safety, Good Mornings should be approached with caution (particularly for those with a previous injury in this area). If done in strict form, following a thorough warm-up and with weights that are heavy yet within your limits, there should be little need for concern. In this program they are used for the first two to four weeks to build basic spinal erector strength in order to prepare for the next phase (which concentrates on rack pulls).

 

Rack Pulls. The second key exercise is Rack Pulls. These are also referred to as Top Deadlifts. They are done in a power rack, starting with the pins set at just below knee height. The shorter range of motion (near the lock-out portion of the lift), allows for the use of extremely heavy weights.

 

Rack Pulls can be done either in the traditional deadlift style or sumo-style. Traditional style implies that you hold the bar with a moderately wide grip (slightly wider than shoulder-width) and have a moderately close stance. Sumo-style, on the other hand uses a fairly close grip, a very wide stance and (when one does a full-range deadlift) the hands pull from inside of the knees. A strong arch to the spine (lifting your ribcage high as if taking a deep breath) should be maintained throughout regardless of which version you are employing. This is referred to as a lordotic arch. Since we are trying to build power, drive your hips forward forcibly on the contraction.

 

FrancoisMike107Once you've played with both versions, it is likely that one will feel more natural to you (neither one is easy). While they both target the entire posterior chain heavily, they emphasize different muscles. For this reason it is best not to limit yourself to just one version. Because different muscles are brought into play in each, alternating between sumo-style and traditional style (for 6-8 week cycles each) will improve your overall strength in both.

 

Personally, I do my Rack Pulls on a Cybex half-rack made just for deadlifts and bent rows, although almost any power rack will do. My rack has bar settings every three inches, which seems perfect. I begin my training cycle with the pins set at a height slightly below knee height. I start off with just 225 on the bar and knock out 8-12 slow reps as a warm-up. I then toss an extra 45-pound plate on each side and pull 5-6 easy reps with 315. Because I want to develop a powerful grip and strong, capable stabilizing muscles, I do not wear a belt or lifting straps for either of these warm-up sets. After this, I add an additional 45-pound plate on each side for my first three-rep working sets with 405. My next two sets are with four plates on each side (495). It is only at this point, that I use lifting straps and a belt, although it is loosely tightened. As my grip strength increases, I will eventually only use straps on the heaviest set and, eventually, not at all. I then add an additional 25-pound plate (or, by the time you read this, hopefully a 45-pounder) to each side, to bring the weight up to 545 (585). I pull two more sets of three reps here, taking full advantage of both my belt and wrist straps.

 

To finish things off, I drop the weight by 90-pounds on the bar and lower the pins to the next lowest position (three inches lower). I refer to this as "greasing the rails." I do one additional set of three reps at this lower weight/ pin setting. After the two heavy sets, 455 feels like its floating but the deeper Deadlifting range-of-motion gets me ready for what's coming in future training sessions.

 

Every two weeks, I lower the starting rack position two to three inches. This brings me closer to a full-range deadlift. The warm-ups and early work sets give me a good feel for how heavily I can go on my heavy sets. I am particularly aware of this on the weeks in which I am increasing the range-of-motion. Usually my strength increases keep in pace with, and are offset by, the increased range-of-motion. The beauty of this program is that the huge poundages that you were fighting to pull at the top lockout position may be the same weights you are able to pull for a full deadlift three months later.

 

Reverse Hyperextensions. Reverse Hypers are perhaps the single best pre-habilitation exercise one can include in their workout. Pre-habilitation refers to an exercise done to avert injury, eliminate strength imbalances or to strengthen soft tissues or stabilizer muscles in order to prevent a potential injury. With track athletes this may be an exercise to ensure a proper strength ratio between quadriceps and hamstring muscle groups. In powerlifters, this might entail direct work for the muscles of the rotator cuff to offset the high volume, heavy bench pressing they do.

 

Reverse Hyperextensions not only strengthen the muscles of the posterior chain and build explosiveness, but they also provide a gentle traction, alleviating spinal compression and gently realigning minor disc displacements. In other words, it can act as a sort of safe "do-it-yourself chiropractic." Having suffered a reoccurring lower back injury (which at one point forced me to spend three or four days popping Advils while laying on a heating pad every few months) I have found that consistently doing Reverse Hypers has kept the problem from resurfacing.

 

The only drawback to Reverse Hyperextensions is the fact that one must have access to a Reverse Hyper bench to do them. So important is this exercise that it is one of the "must-haves" when I check out potential gyms. If one were not available in my area, I would consider purchasing one for home use.

 

The exercise is done while lying one's upper body across the (chest-height) pad and placing the lifting strap (attach to a movement arm in which plates are added for resistance) around the ankles. The legs, which are hanging down, are kicked up behind you, until one's entire body is parallel to the ground. This is done through glute, ham and erector contraction. The legs (and the attached weight-arm) are then lowered without resisting (no slow negative needed here). Momentum will cause the weight to continue swinging forward at the bottom, bring the feet forward until they are almost under the face. This causes the "gentle traction" that gives Reverse Hypers some of their pre-habilitative effects.

 

Because this is an exercise with no inherent negative (slow controlled lowering of the weight) it will not cause delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). In fact, it is often useful for its recuperative effects. I do three sets of eight to twelve reps twice a week, after my quad and glue/ham/low back workouts. A couple of sets also will go a long way to reduce soreness on those days in which you are doing the "cowboy walk" from a grueling squat sessions the day before.

Just as Rack Pulls can be done in traditional or sumo-style, Reverse Hypers can be done with the feel together or (by using the longer strap) with the feet kept wide throughout the exercise. This wider style brings greater involvement of the hamstrings and glutes.

 

I suggest the two styles be alternated (in different training cycles) to fully work all aspects of the posterior chain.

 

Good Morning Squat. In addition to building posterior chain strength, Good Morning Squats are exceptional for developing coordination and mobility in the hip joint. Start with a weight 25-30% lighter than your usual Good Morning poundages. Perform a regular Good Morning but, once you are in the low position, lower your hips into a deep Full Squat.

 

Zercher Squat. This is an old-school exercise that is about one-third Squat/ two-thirds Good Morning. Setting the bar in the squat rack at low-pec height, the bar is placed in the crook of the elbows with your hands crossed over to stabilize the weight. Using a fairly wide stance, lower into a deep squat. Due to the fact that the weight is placed forward of your center of gravity, you will need to lean forward more than a Squat and the motion is driven by the hip and lower back. It is acceptable to pad the bar for heavy weights, but to do so with anything less that bodyweight might bring deserved ridicule.

 

Kettlebell Swing. Most coaches use Power Cleans to explosively activate the muscles of the posterior chain, but it's a hard to learn, technically-complicated exercise. The Kettlebell Swing however, provides many of the same benefits but has a very natural, easily mastered motion. Begin with a slightly wider than shoulder-width stance with the kettlebell resting between your heels. Beginning with a powerful glute contraction, drive the hips forward and propel the K-bell up and forward, until it reaches chin-height in front of you. Your arms should remain "untensed" during this motion, merely connecting the weight to the upper body. Do not set the kettlebell down between reps, allow it to swing back between the knees (keep an arch in your lower back) before reversing the weight upward for another rep. This makes a great warm-up for lower body workouts as it activates fast twitch muscle fibers.

 

Pull-through. An alternative to the Kettlebell Swing is the Pull-through. It can be done on a low cable pulley station or with a dragging sled. If done with a low cable pulley, the triceps rope handle works well. While keeping the same basic body position as used in the Kettlebell Swing (arched lower back), reaching between your legs and behind your center of gravity (with tension at the start). You are basically doing the forward hip drive of the Swing without the arms coming forward to face height. This is a nice low-compression assistance movement.

 

Putting It All Together. So how should one fit this into their overall training program? First off, the posterior chain muscle groups should be trained directly (with the exception of Reverse Hyperextensions) no more than once a week. Because this is an intense program, I recommend that you split your bodyparts so that you have a "Posterior Chain" day. Quad work should be done on a separate day, with two to three days between the two workouts. Although there is significant lat and trap stimulus from heavy Rack Pulls (most lifters report a noticeable increase in muscle thickness in these areas), this should not affect your back or trap workouts. An example of how one might arrange their training week on a four-times a week program might be:

 

Monday: quads, delts, calves

Tuesday: pecs, triceps, abs

Wednesday: rest

Thursday: posterior chain muscles, calves

Friday: Lats, traps, biceps, abs


Abdominal and hip flexor work is important in order to balance the strength increases you will be seeing from the opposing muscle groups. A hundred reps of crunches once a week (a mixture of regular and twisting crunches) and three sets of fifteen Leg Raises at the second workout, is a good basic program.

 

After a minimum of six months on this program, you will have not only a stronger, healthier, more balanced physique but all of the muscles of the posterior chain will be dramatically improved. This power will increase your squat and general body stability. Best of all, you will learn to take great pleasure in your ability to perform Rack Pulls with bar-bending poundages that the typical lifter in your gym could barely budge.

 

 

Lower back and hip power program

(Weights listed are just for illustration purposes. Adjust these up or down to match your strength levels. As the height of different hole-settings vary from one power rack to another, these settings are listed just to show the range-of-motion progression.)

 

Weeks one through four:

Good Morning

2 sets of 6 (light warm-up)

3 sets of 6-10

Reverse Hyperextension

3 sets of 8-12 (feet together, shorter strap)

Glute-Ham Raise

3 sets of 8-12

 

Weeks five and six:

Rack Pull (Sumo-stance) (pins set at just below knee, i.e. 5th hole from bottom of rack)

135 x 5 (light warm-up)

225 x 5 (light warm-up)

315 x 3 (first workset)

315 x 3

365 x 3

365 x 3

405 x 3

405 x 3

Rack Pull (Sumo-stance) (I move the pins down one setting to 4th hole from bottom of the power rack)

315-365 x 3

Reverse Hyperextension

3 sets of 8-12 (feet together, shorter strap)

Glute-Ham Raise

3 sets of 8-12

 

Weeks seven and eight:

Sumo-stance Rack Pull (pins set at 4th hole from bottom of rack)

135 x 5 (light warm-up)

185 x 5 (light warm-up)

225 x 5 (light warm-up)

315 x 3 (first workset)

315 x 3

365 x 3

365 x 3

405 x 3

405 x 3

Sumo-stance Rack Pull (move pins down one setting to 3rd hole from bottom of rack

315-365 x 3

Reverse Hyperextension

3 sets of 8-12 (feet together, shorter strap)

Glute-Ham Raise

3 sets of 8-12

 

Weeks nine and ten:

Sumo-stance Rack Pull (pins set at 3rd hole from bottom of rack)

135 x 5 (light warm-up)

185 x 5 (light warm-up)

225 x 5 (light warm-up)

315 x 3 (first workset)

315 x 3

365 x 3

365 x 3

405 x 3

405 x 3

Sumo-stance Rack Pull (move pins down one setting to 2nd hole from bottom of rack

315-365 x 3

Reverse Hyperextension

3 sets of 8-12 (feet together, shorter strap)

Glute-Ham Raise

3 sets of 8-12

 

Weeks eleven and twelve:

Sumo-stance Rack Pull (pins set at 2nd hole from bottom of rack)

135 x 5 (light warm-up)

185 x 5 (light warm-up)

225 x 5 (light warm-up)

315 x 3 (first workset)

315 x 3

365 x 3

365 x 3

405 x 3

405 x 3

Sumo-stance Rack Pull (move pins down one setting to 1st hole from bottom of rack

315-365 x 3

Reverse Hyperextension (feet together, shorter strap)

4 sets of 8-12

Glute-Ham Raise

3 sets of 8-12

 

Weeks thirteen through sixteen:

Wider-stance Good Morning

2 sets of 6 (light warm-up)

3 sets of 6-10

Reverse Hyperextension (legs angled outward, longer strap)

3 sets of 8-12

Glute-Ham Raise

3 sets of 8-12

 

Basics of the program:

1.      Warm-up thoroughly.

2.      Start with a weight well within (or a bit below) your abilities. You want to start with some momentum for future gains.

3.      Keep form tight. When doing Rack Pulls and Good Mornings, keep your shoulders back, head pointing straight forward, and drive the hips forward forcibly.

4.      On Rack Pulls, every two weeks lower the pins one hole so that your range of motion gradually increases.

5.      Perform one "down set." For this set, drop the weight considerably (90 pounds) and lower the pin in the power rack 2-3 inches for a fuller range of motion.

6.      Avoid use of wrist straps on your lighter sets. If lifting for powerlifting, it's best not to use them at all. Personally, I try to only wear them on my two heaviest sets.

7.      After going through the program, repeat first twelve weeks, except use a traditional (close stance, wider grip) Deadlift and a wide stance Good Morning. Different muscles are used with these two differing styles and you will find that by training both of these, you will actually improve overall strength in both by removing any weak muscle links.

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