Weighted Pull-Ups

In the grand continuum of weightlifing, the vast majority of us probably get into the game with a similar mindset. You come to the realization that you’re too skinny or too fat. You buy a handful of Men’s Health, Muscle & Fitness, and any number of other options. Every magazine promises the latest and greatest in chest blasting, shoulder exploding, and bicep ripping routines. For whatever reason, our enthusiasm and naivety prevent us from reading through the BS (or even registering any concern over terminology more akin to a war than a gym). We then pull together a routine that looks something like:

Monday – Chest: bench press, incline bench press, decline bench press, butterfly press, and abz
Tuesday – Legs: leg press, leg curls, calf raises, and abz
Wednesday – Rest
Thursday – Arms: bicep curls, wrist curls, tricep extensions, skullcrushers, preacher curls, and abz
Friday – Rest
Saturday – Shoulder/Back: lat pulldowns, cable rows, military press, front dumbbell raises, side dumbbell raises, and lots of AAABBZZZZ
Sunday – Rest

You make some noob gains in the first six months, get real excited, and then plateau. Or worse, you get injured, pain builds up in your shoulders, etc. Maybe this period lasts a year, maybe more. For me, it lasted for three years. Then I saw the light and started to go big, switched to 5×5, zeroed in on the stuff that really “mattered,” and promptly dislocated my shoulder. I was still doing it mostly wrong. I was still focused on the mirror muscles.

By the time I got through therapy and recovery, I was clocking in at 170lbs soaking wet (at 6’ tall). However, sometimes a slap in the face, or in my case a dislocated shoulder, is what we need to refocus and figure out how to do things (mostly) right.

My new focus became getting things started right before each workout. Stretching, foam rolling, mobility work, and thorough warm-ups. My lifts shifted to a lot more pulling and a lot less pushing. Through that process I grew to love pull-ups. I worked my way up to sets of 30+ pull-ups. However, my back and lats were still really lacking.

It wasn’t until I put an emphasis on deadlifts and weighted pull-ups that I started to notice a difference in my back/lats. Today, I do pull-ups (supinated, neutral, and pronated grips) in two different ways.

Number one, I use them in my warm-ups. To paraphrase Dan John, if something is worth doing, do it every day. Doing three sets of 10 throughout the course of my warm-ups adds up to an additional 120-150 pull-ups per week.

Number two, I add weight to my pull-ups. Today, I use a 40lb vest. After my warm-up sets, I perform five sets of 10 (or as close to 10 as possible) with 90 seconds rest between sets. The first few feel easy, but the last two are a killer. As I get closer to 5X10, I’ll add more weight and start over again.

Bearhug Squats


You’re stranded on a desert island and can only do one lift the rest of your life. What would it be? I guess that hypothetical situation doesn’t really work as well for exercises as it does for movie selection, but you get the idea. My choice would be deadlifts, followed by squats. What’s the biggest limitation of a small room, home gym set-up? No squat rack and no olympic weights. This post will outline how I’ve managed to incorporate squats into my regular workout in a way that I have found to be meaningful and challenging.

Sandbags have been my saving grace in a lot of ways. In a future post I’ll expand further on the specifics of my sandbags (sounds dirty). For squats, I’ve found sandbags to be a great way to move weight without a rack or barbell.

When I first started doing squats at home, I tried doing a front squat movement with PowerBlocks. Without a barbell, the struggle was in keeping the Powerblocks (or dumbbells, if you will) into position on my chest. With only 180lbs total between the two Powerblocks, I also needed to start incorporating a weighted vest (+40lbs). It still felt awkward at best.

In the last four or five months, I’ve ditched the Powerblocks and started using a sandbag. I put three 60lb bags of sand into a duffle, put the weighted vest on, and bearhug the duffle. I’ve found this to be a great alternative to my failed attempt at front squats with dumbbells. There isn’t a single workout I do that gasses me more than this one. By the time I’m done with my 5 sets, I’m ready to call it a day. Usually I’m ready to die. And I almost always have to lay down for at least five minutes.

Warm-ups are pretty straightforward. After my normal routine of mobility, stretching, and a bodyweight circuit, I’ll perform a couple sets of 10-12 bodyweight squats. I’ll then put on the weighted vest and do two sets of eight and six reps.  I’ll then grab a 60lb bag of sand, with the vest on, and do two sets of six. As with all my warm-ups, I don’t time my rest periods, but the few times I have I find I rest around 45 seconds to a minute between each set.

I then pull my bench over to where I’ll be squatting, load up a duffle with 180lbs of sand, and place it on the bench (did I mention I love deadlifts?). This makes it significantly easier to load up for each set. Five sets of 10 is the goal, and I’m just a hair under that mark today. Once I reach it, I’ll put another 40lbs of sand in the duffle and rinse and repeat.

Neutral Grip Floor Presses

Even though I own an adjustable bench, it rarely gets used. There was a day when I used it all the time. For a variety of reasons, it acts as a weight stand more than anything else now.

Several years ago, I was performing single-arm military presses while sitting on the bench. At one point, my left arm must have moved too far back and the momentum of an 85 pound weight pulled my left arm out of my shoulder. Long story short, I had to go through nine months of physical therapy and orthopedic surgeon visits. Today I would say that my left shoulder is 90%. I am extremely cognizant of keeping my shoulder protected now. There are a few things I have done to protect, and strengthen, my shoulders:

  1. Increased my pulling:pushing ratio. My routines typically are now around a 3:1 ratio of pulling to pushing. When I first started lifting, 6 years ago, I did very little pulling work.
  2. More push-ups. I used to think push-ups were too easy to be effective. I’ve since learned that they can not only be an integral part of my training, but also do a lot to strengthen shoulders and promote healthy mobility.
  3. Floor presses. In the last three years, I have done a set of traditional bench presses exactly one time. I have grown to love neutral grip floor presses.

I currently perform single-arm, neutral grip floor presses. I have found this to be much easier (for lack of a better term) than two-arm presses. When I was doing two-arm presses, I found it difficult to get both PowerBlocks in position. I had to build a “platform” out of sandbag that I could rest one of the Powerblocks on. I then got on the floor, put the first Powerblock on my thigh, and then would grab the second, elevated Powerblock and shimmy it onto my other thigh. By doing single-arm presses, I’m able to use both arms to get the weight into and out-of position.

The single-arm press also forces me to use more core muscles for balance. I have a pretty strong core, but from what I’ve read it seems that people with weaker cores will often experience soreness in the obliques after performing single-arm presses, due to the need to use your core to keep stabilized.

After I complete my warm-up and stretching work, I start with a 50lb weight at 10 reps. I then move to 60lbs for 8, 70lbs for 6, and 80lbs for 4. I typically don’t time myself between these warm-up sets. When I have timed it, I find I usually rest for around 45 seconds to a minute. I then move into my workout with a 90lb weight. I perform 5 sets, with 90 seconds rest in between each set. I aim for 10 reps in each set and have been falling short in the last few sets by anywhere from 2-4 reps. Once I’m able to do 5×10, I’ll need to increase the weight. As of now, I don’t have the Big Block kit for my Powerblocks, which will take the weight in each block up to 130lbs. Fortunately for my training, but not my bank account, I’ll likely be needing the extension in the next month or so.

As a side-note, I’ve tried playing around with sandbag floor presses, but found the bags and weight to be too awkward. With 300lbs of sand at my disposal, I had hoped that sandbags would be an easy way to progress without having to invest in additional equipment. However, the bags I use allow for too much movement and shifting of sand.

Unconventional Training

Living in Boston has a lot of positives. But it also means a lot less living space. While I love being able to walk or bike to nearly everything I need, the one part of my life I don’t outsource is my gym. It seems crazy, even to me. There are probably half a dozen options within three miles of my place. I’ve even been a member of four different gyms at different points since graduating from college. However, I always come back to the home gym.

I love being able to train when I want to train, listen to what I want to listen to, and most importantly, to avoid the distractions of a commercial gym. I can sweat, grunt, and sometimes collapse on the floor. After a particularly draining day of squats I laid down on the floor thinking I was going to die. Thirty minutes later I woke up in a pool of my own sweat. Try doing that at Planet Fitness.

There’s also something about the inherent challenge of limited space and equipment that motivates me even more. It has forced me to make very deliberate and well-thought out purchases. I literally don’t have the room for mistake purchases. My current workout room, which I also share with my wife’s dresser and clothes, is about the size of a large bathroom. It also has a sloped roof. Did I mention that it doubles as my wife’s walk-in closet?

All of this means that I haven’t been able to equip myself with things such as a squat rack or olympic weights. Instead, I have 300+ pounds of sand, two 90 pound power blocks, a pull-up/dip station, a TRX system, a 40lb vest, and an adjustable bench. Other than foam rollers and some bands, that’s all I have. Over the years I have tried a lot of different movements, most of which didn’t stick, but many have become a staple.

For the last few months I’ve been keeping things very simple. No complicated rep schemes, no super-setting, no metcon. I was inspired by Dan John to break it down to the most fundamental movements. Four to five days a week I perform 30 minutes of warm-ups and soft-tissue work, followed by a single lift. I start out light and work through 4-6 sets before I “start” the lift. I then attempt to do five sets of 10. Once I reach that point, I up the weight and start all over again. The movements I perform are:

  1. Floor Press
  2. Squats
  3. Pull-ups
  4. Deadlifts
  5. Overhead Press
  6. Rows

Over the next few weeks I’ll walk through each of these movements. My focus will not be on the value of each (hopefully that goes without saying) or the technique. I’ll focus on the equipment I have found most useful, limitations, and how you can build a very efficient home gym that will blow away any Bowflex, Nordicflex, P90X, or any other infomericalX system.