August 01, 2011

Build Strength FAST: Two Incredibly Effective Tricks

(Photo: wolleydog)

So as I may have mentioned in the recent post on how to do pull-ups and push-ups, at one time I was able to eke out 3 unassisted pull-ups.

I was so damn proud I ran around telling everyone! But then surgery and a broken arm benched me for 7 months, and I had to start all over. I couldn't hoist myself an inch without 90 lbs of assistance on one of those gravitron contraptions.

And sure, over the past couple months, I made some progress, but despite prodigious amounts of cursing, pouting, and whining, my goal still felt miles away.

But then, about 10 days ago, I tried a new approach, and guess what? I can now complete ONE, count 'em ONE, unassisted pull-up!

For me, this was a huge jump in performance in a very short time.

So, wanna find out what the two secrets to FAST strength building were?

Strength Building Tip Number One: More Frequency, LESS Intensity

Does that make any sense at all? Of course not! And wait until you read the details, because it totally contradicts everything we've been told about how strength training is supposed to happen. I always thought the only way to make progress was to grapple with as huge and nasty a load as you could manage 'til exhaustion, then eat 27 cupcakes to restore your strength take a day or two off to let the muscles build back up even stronger.

But with this method, the idea is to do the exercise as often as possible, while staying as fresh as possible. I got this tip from Jen Sinkler in a post about pull ups over at Experience Life, and almost didn't try it because it sounded completely silly and doomed to failure counter-intuitive.  But it worked!

Apparently this technique came from a book by a dude with a difficult to pronounce name ("Tsatsouline"), and the Experience Life blog post above has more on that if you want to track down the source.  As is probably obvious, I haven't read the book myself and so my advice probably bears no resemblance whatever to how it's actually supposed to be done.

For those of you who like me, are nutty enough to want to try this, here are some step by step instructions:

1. Quit your day job.  (Note: if you are a personal trainer at a well-equipped gym, or you work at home within range of workout equipment, you may be able to skip this step). However, if quitting your day job isn't practical, you may want to use step #7 instead of step #5.

2. Translate your strength goal: What this works best for is dramatically increasing the number of reps of an exercise fairly quickly.  If you want to go from, say, a maximum of 4 push-ups to 10, then you don't need to do any translating.  In my case, however, the goal was doing unassisted chin ups and pull-ups, and I couldn't do any.  But what I could do was about 6 negatives (where you lower yourself slowly from the bar, rather than hoist yourself up).  So I figured if I could use this trick to double my negatives to 12, I'd have a pretty good shot of doing one "real" chin up or pull up.

My advice, then, is to try to find an exercise variation and an intensity that lets you do at least a few reps, but not too many--or this plan will drive you totally apesh#t crazy. (See below).

3.  Find your maximum number of reps.  Just do the target exercise as many times as you can with wrenching something apart or puking.

4.  Divide that number in half.  If it's odd, round DOWN. This is the number of repetitions you'll do in each set.

5.  Here comes the "quit your job" part:  Shoot for one of these half-max sets per hour, most of your waking day until you fatigue, 5 days a week.

6.  Pick your jaw back up off the floor.  Because (a) you can fall well short of this goal and it still works and (b) if you do happen to be at home, it's not nearly as awful as it sounds.  I did about 8 sets a day two days in a row, then took a day off, then repeated the cycle a couple more times.  The thing that's actually surprising?  Because you're not doing that many reps at a time, and you're "fresh" each time, the exercising itself is not even unpleasant.  Plus your muscles have that nice pumped feeling most of the day.

7.  Here's Jen's more practical variation, which you can do just 3 or 4 days a week: Start your workout with the half max set; rest until your heart rate returns to normal, then do another exercise that doesn’t use the same muscles. Rest again, then do another half-max set of your target exercise. Keep repeating. The goal? "Try to bag five to 10 sets with at least five minutes of rest between them."

And the second important Tip for Building Strength Fast?

This one is psychological, rather than physical, so I apologize in advance for requiring you to click an additional link. But just think you how strong your index finger will get as you power your way over to read the rest of the post over at the Cranky Fitness Department of  Life and Wellness Coaching!


  1. Congratulations on the pull-up.
    I like the rounding down idea and going by half measures. Oh, and resting. I can do that, too.
    Some good advice here, Crabby. Thanks.

  2. I'm sure you will get to your goal!

    I read that holding the chin/pull up in the contracted position for two seconds will give complete muscle fiber contraction and help with adding strength. I'm currently working on doing a one handed chin up :-)

  3. Thanks Leah! I think "Rounding down" is my new life philosophy.

    And yowza Dr. J, you're working on a ONE HANDED chin up!?! Thanks for advice re: 2 second contraction, will add this when I do negatives. Some day I'd like to say I can do Pull Ups, plural!

  4. Pluralize! Pluralize! Go, Crabby, go!

    I have been applying this method in a vague, half-assed way to pushups, of which I can do three before my shoulder complains. I have never done wall pushups, or counter-top pushups, because I can do a real on-the-floor pushup, but it occurred to me that maybe doing lots and lots of them would strengthen my arm muscles and take strain off my shoulder. I can't do "women's" pushups with my knees on the floor, because something about the arc my head travels through makes me dizzy. So I tried doing counter pushups while I'm waiting for the water to boil, or for the hot water to get to the sink, or the microwave to finish, and I can do ten or fifteen of them without my shoulder complaining at all. Now I'm motivated to pay more attention to how many I'm going and how often. We'll see what happens.
    And my pullup jealousy is extreme. Maybe I can hang a bar from some eyebolts in a beam in the basement (which has 8' ceilings) and find a stool and do negatives. [Hmmm. Plotplotplot.]

    WV: "rednoxer": not sure what a rednoxer is, but I want one!

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  5. Interesting, makes sense but kinda time consuming. You'll have to let us all know when you can pump out 10 pull ups because you did this. That would be awesome.

  6. Big congrats on the pull-up!! I'm going to give this a try to see if I can increase my number too! Thanks!

  7. I've been doing wall push ups off and on for years and a bit of yoga too. I took your advise on lowering the push ups and got 10 out from the kitchen counter, so now I will work on doing many sets of that. I really need to get some strength in my arms as I will be relying on them soon (I hope)with crutches after my hip surgery. I have been told I will be spending 3 months after the surgery working all day to get my hip back working. So, maybe the same idea there.

  8. Mark over at The daily Apple is talking about this exact thing. I posted a comment telling people to come here and read about it too. Maybe the exercise gods are telling us what to do today. I for one am going to try it out.

  9. I totally need to try this! I used to be able to do 12 pull-ups before Jelly Bean was born and while I've got about 2-3 back depending on the day I haven't made any progress in about a year - so frustrating! Congrats!!!!

  10. Never would have suspected this would work. It will make an interesting experiment, and i'll try it with sit-ups, which i can't do because of 5 C-sections. What i can do is a controlled lower of myself to the floor. So next i'll figure how many of those i can do, and get on it.

  11. Yahoo for you! I did this a about 1.5 years ago & got some - I mentioned that to you with my back getting too big & actually even with this focus, it did not detract from other parts of my workout BUT that is my workout focus in general - I love the weights! ;-)

  12. Sounds like some of you are as nutty as I am-- Go Mary Anne & Reb with the pushups & Mimi with the negative sit ups! (And sorry about your surgery Reb, that sounds like a pain).

    Thanks Mary for help over at MDA--funny that Mark wrote about the exact same method on the same day.

    Jody, I envy you that you have worry about back muscles getting too big, not a problem for me at all!

  13. Love the article...and lovethe pic! Its me!!!

  14. Seriously Anonymous, that's your picture? Awesome! Be happy to add a model credit below the photo if you'd like. I got this pic from Creative Commons, are you "Beth?" Anyway, you look great & healthy and strong, and are the envy of Cranky Fitness readers everywhere. Or at least this Cranky Fitness reader.

  15. Good job on the pull up.Keep it up.Above and beyond.Great witty ending to your post!Anonymous, kudos to you if that is your photo.Talk about being lean and toned.The pic is so Amazonian!

  16. Okay...Must give this a try. Some day I will be able to do a pullup! I mean it!

    ...And after I typed "I mean it!" I sort of wanted to type "Anybody want a peanut?" but if you don't get the reference, I'll just sound crazy won't I? Oh well...

  17. I’ve never been able to maintain any fitness program. I would be inspired and interested for a few days then all the inspiration would go off. Tracking your own progress will surely act as an encouragement to keep going. It’s like a scale to see where you were and where you are going and where you are intend to be at the end of it all.

  18. This is very similar to what I did to get good at pushups. I found that I could do a set of 10 pushups without that much difficulty, so I made it a goal to do 10 sets of 10 throughout the day. Sometimes "throughout the day" means "in the hour before bedtime," but doing ten sets of anything becomes a really not-at-all daunting task when you break it down like that. I use a widget on my phone to keep track, and I count the number of pushups vs the number of sets, because it's more satisfying to see 60 rather than 6 :) But one set only takes like 20 seconds, so it's really easy to squeeze in and push through it when I'm tired.

  19. My name is Griff Neilson and I am a fellow blogger. I came across your blog and I found it very interesting, funny and well done. I can appreciate the time and effort that you put into this and I thank you for it. I took the liberty to read your bio and we have a lot in common as it pertains to your overall philosophy of health and fitness.

    I subscribed to your blog and I plan to be back often. I am getting into Corporate Fitness more and I write about a mind, nutrition and body approach as well. If you are interested you can check out my blog and let me know what you think. You are much more of an experienced blogger so I would very much value your feedback.

    I thank you for your great content and I look forwad to reading your blog often.


    Griff Neilson

  20. I am stunned you actually did the 8 sets in a day. So you do it every hour for 10+ hours. I have never heard of anything remotely akin to this sort if thing.

    I thought I had seen it all but working out slowly through the entire day was not on the list. How long did you keep this up for?

  21. Congrats on the pull-up. It's definitely an interesting approach and you're right, less intensity does sound counter-intuitive. (I do CrossFit...we're all about high-intensity.) Still, clearly it worked. Great work!


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