I was honored to get a phone call from Pavel Tsatsouline the other day and after an hour of conversing about each others training methods, we agreed to write an article on each other's websites. If you are not familiar with Pavel, check out his website StrongFirst.com as well as several published books and countless videos on Youtube discussing movements and the science behind his training methods. He uses a diverse number of activities to train others as well as maintain an advanced level of strength, cardio fitness, flexibility, and mobility. From calisthenics, kettlebells, Olympic / power lifts, and more, Pavel builds a strong and durable body with work capacity - traits all tactical athletes need.
Here is the article he wrote for us and the advice is something we all should understand as we learn to listen to our body using internal awareness when we train. His explanation of the science of muscle stamina is extremely helpful too.
Up Your Pullups (other Calisthenics too)
by Minding the “Stop Signs"
The military ethos despises anything less than a 100% effort. In contrast, elite athletes know that a Tuesday at the gym is not equal to the Olympics and ration their efforts accordingly. Do yourself a favor and learn how to drive in multiple gears. This will deliver far greater physical performance—and enable you to stay in the fight much longer.
Today’s topic is how to precisely calibrate your efforts in pullup training using what we call “stop signs.”
Stop a set at—ideally, before—the first sign of any of the following:
StrongFirst’s “Stop Signs” for Strength Endurance Exercises
The above “stop signs” apply to any strength endurance exercise—the NFL combine bench press, etc.—not just the pullups and other calisthenics. There are at least three reasons for these stop signs to be posted. Two of which you are familiar with: preventing the exhaustion of the nervous and the endocrine systems, and reducing the odds of injuries. The third reason is not well known: producing the optimal metabolic conditions for developing muscular endurance.
The most primitive and ineffective way to train strength endurance is by putting the muscles through a lactic acid bath. This approach, although it brings fast initial gains, rapidly leads to plateaus and overtraining.
The best way to develop strength endurance is by training your fast and intermediate fibers aerobically.
If you are an experienced runner, you know that the bread and butter of effective training is putting in many miles at speeds just below the anaerobic threshold. That means an intensity at which lactic acid is produced but the body is able to keep it level and not spike out of control. It is in this state of mild acidosis that the aerobic metabolism is operating at the highest intensity. Exceed it by pushing the “burn” and the “suck” and it powers down as glycolysis takes over.
When the slow fibers in your legs spend a lot of time in this state of mild acidosis in runs below the threshold, the aerobic “power plants” within them, the mitochondria, adapt to become more numerous, bigger, and more powerful.
The same happens in the mitochondria of the upper body muscles exposed to professionally designed high volume pullup loads that fatigue the “pulling” muscles without killing them, such as Stew Smith’s pyramids and StrongFirst’s ladders.
The “stop signs” that StrongFirst has developed—heavily influenced by our former master instructor Geoff Neupert and by Russian coach Andrey Kozhurkin—will help you hit the sweet spot of fatigue. I will review them one by one.
- The rep speed slows down.
This does not imply that your reps must be maximally explosive—choose a comfortable speed optimal for hitting max reps—but that the last rep may not be any slower than the first one.
A slowdown, compared to the first rep, indicates that the target fibers responsible are about to exceed the optimal concentration of lactic acid.
- The tempo slows down (pauses between reps increase).
Any rhythmical exercise, be it pullups, pushups, or running, has an optimal cadence that the body finds naturally. If you are no longer able to sustain this cadence, the unwanted “burn” is coming.
- The breathing rhythm changes.
Like movement, breathing has a cadence optimal for the task at hand. When it changes, the wheel are about to come off.
- The technique changes in any way.
Kipping is out of the question.
- The rate of perceived exertion exceeds 8 on the 1-10 scale.
8 is for normal people. Special operators and others capable to dig deeper within need to aim for 6 or 7.
Exceeding this RPE threshold not only pushes the acid levels too high, it heavily drains the nervous and the endocrine systems.
Russian coach Andrey Kozhurkin insists that, “…it is undesirable to improve the numbers through excessive will power” and that one must “limit the motivation level” during pullup training (as opposed to testing or competition).
Before you scoff at these “sissy” recommendations, consider Kozhurkin’s own pullup numbers. He competes in a uniquely Russian sport called the “winter polyathlon” Pullups are added to the traditional biathlon of cross-country skiing and rifle marksmanship. The pullups must be strict (no kipping) and done within a 4min time limit—without letting go of the bar, so you may not shake out your pumped forearm while hanging on one arm like a rock climber. Kozhurkin has done 60.
- To achieve high pullup numbers you need to train your intermediate and fast fibers aerobically.
- That can be done only through a high volume of work done in the state of a mild acidosis—fatigue but not “burn.”
- The StrongFirst “stop signs” will help you achieve these optimal metabolic conditions.
By restraining yourself in this manner in your daily training you will be able to accumulate a much higher volume of pullups without overtraining. It will pay off on the PT test day when you blow through all the stop signs—and your old PR.
Thanks Pavel, I am honored to have you on my site and learned a few things when we talked:
One of Pavel's recommendations to people building their calisthenics testing numbers using a pyramid (or ladder) is to consider starting over once you have reached that near failure level of sets. For instance, If your goal is to do a 19 set 1-10-1 pyramid, consider doing it from 1-10 (if you can get there without failing), then start over again at 1 and work your way back up to 9. That is still a 100 pullup workout. If you feel like you have more in you, try it a third time 1-10. This adds in more volume, less or no failure and adheres to his 5 stop signs above.
This is a good way to get around that peak of the pyramid (sets 7,8,9,10,9,8,7) sticking point many people have and where many tend to fail. There is nothing wrong with doing the Classic Pyramid this way if you can handle it. This is just something to consider depending on your fitness level and those you train. I tend to do the 1-10 up and the 1-9 up with people new to training muscle stamina and stop *(and start over) when they are 1-2 reps away from not getting that last rep in the set.
About Pavel Tsatsouline is a former Spetsnaz PT instructor and S.M.E. to the USMC Force Recon, the US Navy SEALs, and the US Secret Service Counter Assault Team. Pavel is the chairman of StrongFirst.com, a global school of strength offering instructor certifications and user courses in kettlebell, barbell, and bodyweight strength training.
Pavel's Book Titles:
Power to the People!: Russian Strength Training Secrets for Every American (2000). ISBN 0-938045-19-9.
Bullet-Proof Abs (2000). ISBN 0-938045-25-3.
The Russian Kettlebell Challenge (2001). ISBN 0-938045-32-6.
Relax into Stretch: Instant Flexibility Through Mastering Muscle Tension (2001). ISBN 0-938045-28-8.
From Russia with Tough Love: Pavel's Kettlebell Workout for a Femme Fatale (2002). ISBN 0-938045-43-1.
The Naked Warrior (2003). ISBN 0-938045-55-5.
Beyond Bodybuilding (2005). ISBN 0-938045-66-0.
Enter the Kettlebell (2006). ISBN 0-938045-69-5.
Hardstyle Abs (2012). ISBN 0-938045-50-4.
Kettlebell Simple and Sinister (2013). ISBN 0-989892-40-9.
The Quick and the Dead (2019). ISBN 978-0-9898924-2-1.