Downsides of bodyweight routines: back muscles

I originally planned to write a single post on some of the downsides of bodyweight routines, but as I started collecting notes and writing I realised that it was probably better to write individual posts, each focusing on areas where bodyweight routines seems to be inferior or at least needs some attention to compete with good ol’ weight training.

Having done individually exclusive bodyweight, bodybuilding and to some extend strength routines – I feel I have gained some quite useful knowledge on the strength and weaknesses of each. In this post I will focus on areas where bodyweight routines can fall short on back training. They are little tweaks but can really make a big difference.

On paper bodyweight routines can look like they give pretty good bang for the buck as far as back training goes. There is usually quite a lot of pull-up variations and for the advanced bodyweight athlete there may additionally be levers and strict muscle-ups. But in my experience there are two areas where they seem to fall short.

First is horizontal rowing to get some good volume for your upper back. I know you can do feet supported rows in rings, on bars etc. but my experience is that your arms seems to get tired before your back muscles gets a real good beating. If you’re more advanced you can even try your luck with front lever-rows. They are incredibly hard, but again they seem to activate more supportive muscles that gets tired before your back really gives up. You’ll end up breaking good form before you really hit the back muscles.

Your lats can certainly get a good workout with bodyweight exercises, but your upper back will most certainly be underdeveloped. So in order to pull(pun intended) yourself out of this compromised state add some heavy rowing to your routine. This can be bent over rows, cable rows, dumbbell rows or whatever – just go heavy on those and high volume to make up for what most bodyweight routines ends up being; rather front dominant.

The second area where bodyweight routines fall kind of short is your lower back. You can do hypers and in a lot of the static levers you need to keep your entire core tight, but if you want a bulletproof back I would seriously consider doing some deadlifts. Deadlifts should in my opinion be a stable of just about any bodyweight routine. They tick so many of the boxes where bodyweight routines seems to fall short. They hit the upper back, as I mentioned as a weak-point earlier. They hit the lower back and they hit your legs once you start pulling some serious weights. They won’t hit your legs as squats, but if you’re seriously into bodyweight training and want to do advanced stuff – then the last thing you want is really heavy legs. But this is not the same as to say that you should not work them at all. Get a knowledgeable individual to show you the right technique and then start pulling from the ground!

Deadlifts can further more act as a measuring tool for something that can be a bit hard with bodyweight – a measure of progress. You can add good old progression on the deadlift to measure whether you are going in the right direction or not. I know it won’t say anything about your ability to perform bodyweight exercises but it will tell you whether you are getting stronger, are close to a burnout or are stagnating. Just program it with something real simple as Wendlers 5/3/1 for instance.

From my own experience the upper back is certainly the place where I lost most of my muscle mass when I did exclusive bodyweight routines. It is one of the things I keep telling people when they ask me for input on their bodyweight routines. And generally people needs to up their pulling whether we talk bodyweight or old school weights. There is a clear tendency to focus more on the front – which of course you can see more easily in the mirror – than the rear. The average lifter would probably be better off with a 2:1 ratio on exercise selection, in favor of pulling instead of pushing.

There are way more impressive fronts than rears – be the guy/girl who stands out in the crowd.

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Alternative exercise instead of muscle-up

Straight bar muscle up

I somewhere, came across someone searching for an alternative to the muscle up. At first I thought it would be rather silly to look for something that replaces this fine movement, but the more I thought about it, I actually liked the idea of writing an article about it, since breaking movements down, often gives you a better understanding of how they are performed.

What I suspect this posts ends up being, is actually both a guide to alternatives, but probably also; a guide that would enable you to train your way to the actual muscle up.

There can be several reasons why you would be looking for alternatives to muscle ups. You may want to reap the benefits of the muscle up, without performing the actual exercise since you are either unable to perform it, or does not have the equipment available.

Let’s start by breaking down the muscle up, which is done rather easily. It basically consist of a high pull up and the pressing part of a dip. I am very well aware of there being a thing, as the transition in between, but training/strength-wise and looking at alternatives to the actual movement, this transition phase is insignificant.

Let us start with the pull up part of a muscle up. Anyone can see, that a muscle up is started by doing a pull up, but if the start of a muscle up is; just a pull up, then why aren’t everybody that are able to do a pull up, capable of muscle ups? Some will claim, that the reason for this, lies in the transition, that I just labeled, as being insignificant. You could also argue that the difference comes with the grip, as you, for the most part, will use “false grip” on muscle ups and regular finger/hook grip on pull ups. But then teaching any person capable of pull ups, false grip, should get them their muscle up; or at least in conjunction with teaching them the transition.

This could happen; for the very few that actually have spend some time doing their pull ups all the way up, not just stopping at the chin, but pulling all the way till the chest touches the bar, or your shoulders are all the way above it. That is what really separates a regular pull up and the pull up that is part of a muscle up. Therefore drilling it down, in our search for alternatives to muscle ups, we need to have a pull up, that focuses on pulling ourselves as high as possible. But merely getting us there is not enough. We need to be able to stay in the top part of the pull up long enough to make the transition.

Therefore wrapping up the pull-part, we need to perform a pull up bringing us as high as possible, preferably chest to bar and then making a 1 sec pause, at the top, before descending.

The press part of the muscle up is, as explained earlier, pretty much just the pressing part of a dip. But there are some rather significant differences as we are trying to emulate the muscle up. When you do a regular dip, you for one thing often will not go much lower than your upper arm being parallel to the floor. But in a muscle up you will never, unless doing kipping muscle up, land in a position where your upper arm is parallel to the floor; you will be much lower. Therefore to emulate you need to go as low as you can in each repetition of your dips.

Just going really low, will be adequate to resemble the pushing part of a muscle up in rings, but if you want even more of an challenge, you should look for a straight bar or a table. Straight bar strict muscle ups are way harder, than in rings. You cannot put your body in between your hands, to gain a slight mechanical advantage. Therefore looking for a challenge when ordinary dips becomes easy, emulate the straight bar muscle up by finding a bar or a table where you can perform your dips. I would recommend that you keep your hands close together with your pointing fingers just touching and creating a 90 degree angle between them.

These dips can be very demanding and challenging to do, as both strength and balance is tested, but your strength returns once you are able to go all the way down and up on these are incredible.

To wrap this up, I will claim that if you have been training to do these alternatives and are able to pull you all the way to the bar and pause there, plus being able to push your way out of a low dip, you can with a few technical pointers actually perform the full muscle up movement.

Strict muscle up prerequisites

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So, first of, why do I have a picture of a chest-to-bar pullup – probably THE most used pullup/chest-to-bar picture on the entire planet, at the start of a blog posts, that from the title, seems to be about muscle ups? Apart from the fact that I just love that picture, it actually shows one of my points, I will get to in a few seconds.

This is by no means going to be an in depth post about muscle ups, there are quite a few of those around.  But more, a few points, on what you should have under your belt, before expecting to be able to train, the muscle up. Remember that this is for strict MU. All your swinging, dancing, wavering around kipping-stuff, can most certainly, enable you to do a MU without these prerequisites – but a strict MU, is just cooler – and that’s a fact!

 Getting back to why I have a picture of a chest to bar pullup. The reason for this should be quite obvious; if you plan on getting you body over the bar, then you better be able to get it all the way TO the bar. The best way to ensure this, is to be strict with your pullups. Always go as high as you can, pause for a second, then lower yourself back down. You will experience that your strength will decrease rather quickly, and you may only be able to get your chest all the way to the bar the first repetition or two, but keep having it as a goal. Keep your body tight, and do not allow your knees to come in front of you, at least not before the last 1 or 2 reps. As you get stronger, pull even further down and allow your shoulders to come over the bar or rings – still pause a second at the top, to eliminate any momentum from your initial pull. Time spent working on this top pullup position, will pay itself back once you get to working on the actual muscle up. And the adverse effects of having done so, is an impressive strict chest to bar pull up!

 Next, make sure that you have a good “false grip”. This can be incorporated in your pullup training, but do not try to do all your pullups with false grip, since your grip will fail, before your back muscles get their proper workout. But work on it and get comfortable with it.

 A little tip for rings is; when you normally grip the rings you would grip at the bottom of the rings, with the “south” part of the ring(north being where the strap attaches), in the middle of your hand, between your ring and middle finger, you now, when going for false grip, instead grip a little “forward” in the ring as shown in the last picture.

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Now on rings, you can manipulate the space between you hands as you go. Keep the rings rather close, as you pull down, and once you passed your nipples, get your hands just outside of your chest and underneath your shoulder, which of course then is a bottom dip position – from there; you just push yourself up. Doing strict muscle up on a straight bar, is a lot harder than rings, since you cannot put you body in between your hands, as you are able to on rings. But the tip here is; that the narrower the grip you can get, while maintaining false grip – the better. Wide grip muscle up is way harder than narrow grip.

 Finally an old clip of me showing 3 parts of muscle up. First high pullup, then muscle up with focus on transition phase and finally a wide muscle up.