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Vertical shape up

I haven’t written anything about practice/exercise recently (in fact, I haven’t written much of anything, but lets ignore that for now). Last time I mentioned anything about this was probably last autumn when I posted a list of dreams and ambitions, some of them loftier than others. I have been working on some of those ever since, but over the last few years, I’ve focused more on exercises in the horizontal plane, mainly planche and front lever progressions. As the title of this post implies, I intend to add focus to the vertical plane (e.g.. pull-ups and handstand push-ups), hopefully without losing too much focus on the horizontal plane.

I like combining exercises that are each other’s opposites, such as the pair front lever/planche and, as in this case, pull-ups and handstand push-ups. They are more or less the same motions, but performed in opposite directions and thus using antagonistic muscles. In this quest for vertical fitness, I’m going to use a two-pronged attack, using two of the programs that seem to be all the rage these days. Let’s look at pull-ups first.

Vertical pull – The 50 pull-ups program

This all started with a friend of mine showing a program where they claim that you can reach 50 pull-ups in only seven weeks. I said something like “no way, José” and simply dismissed this as silly. Of course, these seven weeks requires you to be able to do 15 pull-ups even before starting, but since I was quite sure that I could do that, I thought it was utter nonsense to think that I could reach fifty within two months. I still think it’s impossible, but even if I fail, it will still be some good workout.

Benchmark: Earlier this evening, I performed 19 consecutive pull-ups with good form and without kipping/bouncing. This means that I start in the most advanced category of the program. I performed the first session the same day as I performed the benchmark, but found it very hard to complete the last few reps.

Vertical press – The 50 handstand push-ups program

The loyal reader will know that I have attempted this before, but that I failed utterly for various reasons (I hurt my back the first or perhaps the second week). Before, I used the 100 push-ups program, which made no sense at all because ordinary push-ups are so much easier than the handstand version that most people can develop really fast. This time I’m going to be a lot more careful. I figure that pull-ups and handstand push-ups are roughly equally tough exercises, so a progression that works for one shouldn’t be completely off for the other. Therefore, I’m going to follow the same program for sets and reps for the handstand push-ups as for the pull-up

Benchmark: Apart from the pull-up benchmark, I also performed the handstand push-up benchmark (about three hours later after ordinary gymnastics practice, for future reference). I did 14 consecutive handstand push-ups with good form, of course against a wall. After that, form collapsed and I wasn’t strong enough to go on, although I think I have more arm/shoulder strength left. 14 is not enough to place me in the most advanced category, so I’m starting from level four, which is probably just about right.

Progress

I will report occasionally, but I won’t promise when or with what intervals. I will simply write when I think something interesting happens or I feel that I have something I want to write about. Perhaps I’ll write more on Facebook for those that are really interested, but since I think no one really cares that much, I won’t spam my website with progress reports to avoid wasting both my time as well as yours, dear reader. Feel free to cheer me on, though,  or ask how things are going, because that always helps!

Update: I realised that using the 100 push-ups program is just stupid. Why not use the sets and reps from the pull-up program instead? Two roughly equally demanding exercises should be able to develop roughly at the same pace, although from different starting points.

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A couple of weeks ago I finished the second steady state cycle (read more here if you don’t know what a steady state cycle is) and thus the time has come both to evaluate the results from that cycle, as well as introduce the next cycle. First, let us have a look at the exercises from the second cycle, which can be found is this document.

Evaluation of the second cycle

I’ve made significant progress with these exercises, moving from an average performance of 1.5/5 (meaning that I could finish around half of the exercises properly) to 3.5/5 (between “barely made it” and “very good”). Some exercises have seen little progress, such as planche and l-sit (no change at all and one point respectively). The performance of other exercises has changed drastically, most notably front lever (from 1/5 to 5/5) and headstand leg raises (from 1/5 to 4/5).

I also took the opportunity to do some benchmarking. There are two problems with these figures, and it’s very likely that they should be somewhat higher than shown above. Firstly, I had been ill for about a week before these exercises were tested and I had not recovered one hundred percent. Second, the weather here in Taiwan is getting hotter all the time, thus making it more and more demanding to do physical workout. As for the planche standstill, this might be explained by the fact that the form is gradually improving, resulting in a more demanding exercise and thus shorter times. Here are the numbers for this cycle (and the two cycles prior to this, within brackets):

Chin-ups: 21 (24, 16)
HS push-ups (wall)l: 13 (11, 5)
Adv. tuck front lever: 58 (51, N/A)
Adv. tuck planche: 36 (36, 24)
Handstand: 186 (N/A, N/A)
L-sit: 36 (N/A, N/A)
One-arm hang (right): 27 (N/A, N/A)
One-arm hang (left): 15 (N/A, N/A)

Presentation of the third cycle

As before, a detailed version of the program can be found here, along with notes I make continuously noting my progress over the weeks.

The third cycle will be similar to the second in many regards, mostly because I have the same goals as before. Planche and front lever proceeds according to plan, albeit very slowly to avoid injury. Chin-ups and and handstand push-ups look very much the same as before, but with increased difficulty and increased repetitions respectively. There is a greater focus on handstands, since I have added ten minutes of free handstands per week (accumulated time, usually in sets of one minute or something similar).

Regarding the legs/core section, things will change a bit more, even though the pistol remains the same (but with increased repetitions) as does the standing ab wheel, which I haven’t fully mastered yet. The two new exercises are the middle split hold, a progression towards the manna (which feels about one lifetime away) and wall climbs. These are here because I wanted to increase back flexibility and because I was bored with l-sit. I’m not sure if I like any of these exercises yet, but I should know in a couple of weeks.

In addition to this, I have added dynamic stretching to the leg/core sessions. Nothing fancy, but I want to start developing flexibility again and I feel that the time is now. I will also do static or isometric stretching in connection to the same sessions. I have also increased the dynamic stretching in the warm-up, which should at least maintain current flexibility in the upper body.

As I publish this, I have finished the first two weeks of the program and I can tell you it’s a lot harder than I thought. I’m considering backing down on the chins and some of the other exercises, perhaps going from five sets to three. It takes me ages to finish a complete session, not because I’m lazy, but simply because I need the rest.

A problem with efficiency

Although I’m in general very satisfied with my training right now, there is a specific problem that have grown inexorably all the time, namely that of efficiency. If I do my workout at home, there is a tendency to increase resting times, especially as the exercises grow harder and harder. Having a computer nearby makes it easy to procrastinate, which sometimes means that a session may take as long as two hours. It’s not the case that I rest too much between sets, but rather that I take too long breaks between completely different exercises.

I see three ways to get around this problem:

  1. I can simply disconnect from the Internet while studying, since this will enable me to do more useful things when resting (such as revising Chinese characters, an excellent choice because it works just fine even with intervals of just a few minutes.
  2. I can try to contract the entire session, leading to a much more demanding workout, perhaps too demanding.
  3. I can try to practice more outdoors, which means that there are less distractions and it’s easier too focus, but which is impractical if it rains heavily or it’s too hot.

Of these three solutions, I think the first one has by far the most potential. I don’t mind spending a long time on my sessions, but I hate wasting an entire evening without getting anything else done. Making sure I do something useful would remove the frustration, although the problem with protracted sessions would still remain.

Conclusion

Things are moving in the right direction, but somewhat slowly. I feel that I should focus more on exercises I enjoy, such as handstands. The good thing with having a wide variety of exercises is that there is always some area that develops rapidly, even if others might slow down temporarily. I feel that planche and front lever are moving very slowly, but that might also be an advantage and a way to avoid injury.

I have said it before, but I want to reiterate that this form of training program suits me very well. I think this is the first time in my life I’ve been able to stick to a fairly regular schedule for more than six months. I feel that I can keep on going like this for a very long time, because the separation into cycles makes it easier to verify progress and break the monotony that otherwise might creep in after a couple of months. If you haven’t already tried it out, do so!

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It was a while ago now I started relying on what Coach Sommer calls a “Steady State Cycle”, which basically means that one designs a workout problem which is quite demanding and then sticks with exactly the same exercises, repetitions and sets even after they begin to feel too easy, giving the body enough time to build the necessary strength before moving on to more the next, more demanding cycle.. For some reason, this kind of planning seems to work exceptionally well for me and I’ve been able to stick with a reasonably strict schedule for almost four months, much longer than any previous attempt to gain control of individual strength training (I wrote more about this when I finished the first cycle in February). I have soon completed five weeks out of at least eight on the second cycle, so that is what this post will be about.

Before I talk about the second cycle itself, I’d like to share with you some benchmarking I did between cycle one and two (I spent one week trying out maximum reps/duration for the exercises to have something to compare with later). These figures are worthless on their own and the goal here is not to show what I can do, but rather to show the difference between now and one cycle ago, and perhaps more importantly, to function as a reference for future similar checks. The only truly remarkable result is for the chin-ups, where I managed to make a 50% increase from 16 to 24 in two months without ever doing a set with more than three repetitions!

Exercise: After first cycle (before first cycle)
Chin-up: 24 (16)
HSPU wall: 11 (5)
Adv. tuck planche: 36 (24)
Adv. tuck front lever: 51 (N/A)

Having dealt with the benchmarking, let’s take a look at cycle two. Since most information is stored publicly (click here to see the document), I won’t restate anything already there. As can be seen, the second cycle is very similar to the first. There are some differences, mostly for the core/leg exercises because I’ve finally found a routine which covers what I want to cover without requiring anything else than a chin-up bar and an ab wheel. There is also a heavier focus on handstand this time, partly because I like the exercise, but also because I really want to accomplish that one hundred metres of handwalking I set up a long time ago.

In short, this is by far the most successful way of designing a program I’ve ever encountered. My guess is that it’s because it’s divided into manageable sections (eight to ten weeks) that the mind can handle easily. Setting a goal to do a certain routine for roughly two months is not a superhuman task, but setting the goal to do the same exercises with gradually increasing difficulty indefinitely is a lot more daunting. Focusing really hard on few selected exercises and then evaluating the result, designing a new program and moving on is a lot more realistinc, if not physically, then at least psychologically. If you’re interested in any of this, you can glean some information from my previous posts about steaty state training (or click here for a list of posts related to exercise), but more importantly, you should consult the coach himself, either by reading his book Building the Gymnastic Body or by checking out the forum.

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