New Respect for Assisted Pull Up Machines

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I’ve never been a fan of Assisted Pull Up Machines. From my 2012 post How I Improved My Chin-Ups:

When you get under one of these machines, if you start with a decent pull, the lifter slides upward almost effortlessly. In other words, the tension is reduced just when more muscle should be engaged. The lifter games the equipment with a fast start. They also ride down the negative, so their muscles are fresh to bounce up again.

The problem is momentum can be generated too easily with the Assisted Pull Up Machine. But as I learned this week, that doesn’t have to be the case. You can slow it down or you can REALLY SLOW it down.

Bill DeSimone of Congruent Exercise just posted a video of himself doing Ellington Darden’s 30/30/30 HIT workout. That is a 30 second negative followed by a 30 second positive and finishing with a 30 second negative. 90 seconds under load with almost no momentum. Watch the beginning of this video.

I had to try this out and I did this morning. Now I’m a believer. Before I was doing slow bodyweight chin ups combined with a static hold and a slow descent. Now I believe the Assisted Pull Up machine is better. I can target the same muscles in a more fluid manner while extending the time under load. I happen to be tall (6 foot 2.5 inch), so dropping down after hitting muscular failure from a chin-up bar was never a safety risk, but I could see how it could be for someone shorter. The machine would be safer option for reaching failure.

One of the old timers chatted me up after my set. He said he could never figure that machine out, so I talked him through a normal rep and then told him to slow it down. He followed my instructions and did a great job. After the set, he thanked me. Then he went back to his chest machine, only this time he moved the weight a lot slower. Finally someone in this Glitter Gym gets it!

Body Solid Weight-Assist Knee Raise
Body Solid Weight-Assist Knee Raise  – Looks like Amazon sells one. Bet the UPS driver would hate it if I ordered one. 😉 In the photo above – the pull up portion is on the opposite side of the woman. I plan to test the 30/30/30 with the dip on my next visit.

26 thoughts on “New Respect for Assisted Pull Up Machines

  1. John D

    I always liked this Body By Science video of Vee Ferguson’s 2-minute chin-up: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_23cl5n8NaQ

    That being said, I’ve found increased rep time to be the wrong approach. After having worked out BBS-style (20-second reps) for four years, and having trained as a “certified” slow-motion instructor for nearly a year, I’ve come to the Drew Baye side of the fence on rep-speed: namely that super-slow reps and lengthy time-under-load are not ideal for muscle-building: both in that they allow room for sandbagging (slow through the easier parts), whether intended or not, and impart less load on the musculature. I now do ~3s positives, ~5s negatives, and target a TUL of around 60-75s (compared to two-minute TUL with 20s reps), and have seen muscle gains that far outpace the past years of training. The weight is higher of course, reps slightly higher (6-8 versus 4-6).

    http://baye.com/repetition-speed-recommendations/ I think is Drew’s most recent summary.

    Doing it even at this pace you are still of course a massive outlier, speed-wise, compared to ‘traditional’ lifting.

  2. @John – I have seen Drew’s article and of course it make sense, but I look at this a little differently. I don’t see one single rep speed as ideal. The ideal rep speed is the one that captures my interest and keeps me focused. For me that number will change over the years, the days or even inside the rep itself.

    Darden’s 30-30-30 to me is just another flavor of HIT. New flavor = novelty = new focus.

    I’ve mentioned in other posts that I no longer seek the most intense HIT tempo, because my gym is so warm. Doing so causes me to get headaches easily. So a little sandbagging inside the reps might benefit me while I am still a member of this gym.

  3. OK, imagine you’re being chased by a lion and, mercifully, you find a tree to climb up…

    Sorry to be a party pooper, but I’m no longer a fan of super slow.

    Of course it depends on why you’re lifting weights. If it’s to generally “get stronger” or build “bigger muscles” – I guess that’s an OK method – and it’s certainly safer than most other methods

    But for me it’s about *functional* strength, not “general” strength or fitness.

    Call me a Neanderthal, but I want to be able to, at a moment’s notice, climb up a tree very *fast*!

  4. @Glenn – Climbing a tree is a skill. Skills need to be trained at a higher volume, which necessitate not doing them under load. There are exceptions, such as powerlifting, where the actual skill is lifting the weight. Your SuperSlow training does not make you a slower tree climber. Not tree climbing will make you a poor tree climber.

    Besides time and effort, the best thing you can bring to your skill training is stronger muscles. The MED (minimal effective dose) for building strength is HIT. Super Slow is just one flavor of that protocol.

    Why not spend 1 day a week or every 10th day performing smart HIT training to develop strength and the rest of the time develop your skill? This is what all the top HIT guys say.

    Functional strength is a myth. Strength is strength. Using that strength to perform a “function” is a skill.

  5. Not all strength is equal. There are a lot of interviews with S&C coaches on Sports Coach Radio that will confirm this. (Dan Pfaff, Vern Gambetta, Andrea Hudy, Kelly Starrett)

    And *for me* I can tell you for certain, that slow lifting did *not* improve my rowing strength. I did slow lifting consistently for six month. I measured my rowing power meticulously.

    Rowing is a ballistic/plyometric type of movement. So is pulling yourself up from a tree branch. Try it – you might have some fun. I have done a lot of tree climbing in recent years because I have young kids.

    Back to physiological theory – You will agree, I hope, that muscles contain fast-twitch, slow-twitch and intermediate-twitch fibers?

  6. @Glenn – I am aware of the different opinions related to strength. I side with the HIT guys on this one.

    This post is where I am at.
    https://criticalmas.com/2013/12/building-muscle/

    Strength has a measurement problem. We use skill movements to determine if our strength increased, while ignoring the fact our form/timing improves which makes the movement easier and thus the appearance of greater strength, So when we improve, how much credit goes to strength and how much to skill? And if do improve, how much credit do we give to the exercise when a lower skill movement could have built the strength in a safer manner?

    This post dives into that more: https://criticalmas.com/2013/03/more-bench-press-nonsense/

    That post is about the bench press, but it could apply to any skill movement, including rowing. Rowing is a combination of skill and strength. You’ve been rowing for years. You’ve been strength training for years. Is it fair to draw the conclusion that SuperSlow is ineffective because your rowing performance didn’t improve? I don’t think so.

    This interview on Conditioning Research says it better than I can.
    http://conditioningresearch.blogspot.jp/2009/04/revisiting-this-idea-of-functional.html

  7. rippedrxno2blast

    Thanks for the article. I have a friend who can not do pushups yet (still out of shape, overweight, there is not enough power, etc..) Any idea negative pull-ups as a method of progression? Training away from home, has no tapes or lat pulldown machine. I’ve heard negative excursions but you can be a good substitute. Thank you.

  8. Rita

    Hey MAS – what do you think about the idea that machines are inferior because they don’t force you to use/develop your stabilizer muscles? Also, what do you think is the most efficient protocol for a 20 minute a day, 3 day a week lifting program? Thanks!

  9. @Rita – I don’t agree with that argument, because we are always using stabilizer muscles. The problem I see with most lifting is we subject our stabilizer muscles to the same tension that we apply to the core muscles, which is a task they are not suited for.

    Even if I am wrong, what I would suggest doing to minimize injury risk is to use the machines in a HIT protocol and then at the end of the workout or on a different day, take a light free weight and move it in a full-range compound movement. This is just my thinking right now. Maybe a HIT trainer could tell me if I am off base here? For me this strategy embraces the positive aspect of HIT and addresses the compound functional group with minimal risk of injury.

    Believe it or not, 20 min * 3/week still seems excessive to me. You could do a machine based Body By Science Big 5 workout or a bodyweight HIT workout like HillFit 2.0. Or one of each.

    https://criticalmas.com/2010/01/body-by-science/
    https://criticalmas.com/2013/07/hillfit-2-0-a-zero-budget-approach-to-high-intensity-training/

  10. Rita

    Thanks MAS! I think I will try a once a week Big 5 and a once a week light compound training, as you suggest. PS: what’s your view on plyometric training?

  11. It’s all skill. Whether hula hoops or figure skating.

    With this, you’re practicing the skill of lifting weight slowly – especially the breathing patterns needed to do so. It’s a “proper” skill; just not a useful one IMHO unless you want to go into the furniture moving business 🙂

    Part of the dispute here is the different uses of the words “strength” versus “power” – as with all words, there’s an element of subjectivity.

    From John Welbourn:
    “I never got strong lifting light weights. Never got fast running slow. Never got smarter learning from dumb people.”

  12. Rita

    @Glenn, that’s an awesome quote! By the way, I tried the Big 5 on my lunch break today and it completely kicked my arse in less than 20 minutes. I did it a little wrong, but I’m easing into the new notion. I did one set per big 5, dropping my weight a little so that I could do slower movement with more concentration on the negative. There were a couple exercises that it was difficult to tell if I Absolutely Failed, so I finished via drop-set (and it usually only took a couple more reps). I can’t wait to be sore tomorrow! YAY!

  13. @Rita – Unless your sport requires jumping, I think plyometrics are an inefficient and potentially dangerous way to build leg strength. I know they are the rage now, but look at them like you would any other exercise. What is the risk and what is the reward? The risk for plyometrics is falling and hurting yourself. The gains are leg strength,. Can you get stronger legs without risking falling down? Absolutely.

  14. @Glenn – Not all skills are equal. Performing a safe clean and jerk requires far more skill than a SuperSlow chest press. One takes years to perfect. The other minutes.

    The point I keep trying to make is that the higher the degree of skill required to perform a movement safely necessitates a reduction in intensity. This is the beauty of HIT. The skill takes

    John Welbourn’s sport is CrossFit. His skill is moving a lot of weight quickly. I said this in an earlier comment:

    There are exceptions, such as powerlifting, where the actual skill is lifting the weight.

    Crossfit is another exception. As a side note, moving the weight quickly makes it easier. Momentum. A demonstration of strength is not the same thing as strength.

    As for Strength vs Power, I’ll quote Drew Baye:

    Slow repetition speed during exercise does not make a person slow during other activities, and fast reps are not necessary to improve power production. Power does not equal strength x speed, it equals work (force x displacement) divided by time.

    If you improve a persons strength (force producing capacity) you will improve their ability to displace some mass (move their body to regain balance) in less time. You can get stronger using fast or slow speeds, but you’re less likely to injure someone during exercise using slower reps.

    If power production is your interest, please check out the full article.
    http://baye.com/personal-trainers-are-confused/

    My last comment on this topic. There is only one reason to reject HIT principles of lifting slow. That is it bores you and you enjoy lifting more at a normal pace. HIT doesn’t make you slower and normal lifting doesn’t make you faster.

  15. Norlee

    @John D – thanks for the link. I have been lifting semi-slow as I find super-slow to be both mentally and physically excruciating – I just can’t do it!

    @ Glen – if you have a lot of lions in your neck of the woods I would suggest that a gun is the ultimate strength, power, speed and skill equalizer! lol – kidding!

  16. The sport John Welbourn is talking about is football – specifically shoving 300lb men out of your way, in a hurry. That’s a pretty functional movement IMHO.

    Yes, everything is a skill. A triple axle in figure skating requires more skills and than balancing a hula hoop on your hips. The long jump requires more skill than the 100m sprint. There are even finer nuances; the 200m sprint requires more skills than the 100m because of the need to run partly on a bend.

    Re plyometrics: Yes, they are mostly good for sports that require jumping, but that’s a lot of sports! Including: swimming (off the starting blocks), skiing, rowing, volleyball, and many running experts see running as a kind of jumping on alternating legs.

    Partly from you (MAS) as the original source of inspiration – plyometric goblet squats are the ultimate free weight exercise. If someone only did those twice a week they would be if half-way decent shape.

  17. @Glenn – From Dr. McGuff:

    http://conditioningresearch.blogspot.jp/2009/03/interview-with-doug-mcguff.html

    see #13 on his opinion of explosive training and box jumps.

    No, they’re not a waste of time. But you do need to consider the risk-to-benefit ratio, especially when there are alternatives that are safer. In my opinion, explosiveness is a matter of capability, intent, and practice. Capability is largely predicated on your muscular strength. Intent is a function of your neurological efficiency. Practice is marrying your capability and intent to a specific skill in which you wish to be explosive. I do not think there is a lot of evidence to suggest that performing a snatch or cleans is going to help a lineman explode any more than just being appropriately strength-trained and then practicing the specific skill in question.

    In the end I side with McGuff. I was never impressed with Welborn when he was on Robb Wolf’s podcast. Another jock that fails to understand survivorship bias. “Because John did it” isn’t good enough for me.

  18. Of course your mileage and goals may differ 😉 Bottom line is that *I* want to be explosively fast. For that, IMHO only plyometrics will do. How safe plyometrics are is largely a function of how much weight you’re using, how much skill you’ve developed, how many repetitions, how much rest between sets, and how much rest between sessions. Just a few simple factors to consider…

  19. Geoff

    What’s the world coming to here? In 19 comments this post went from MAS helping an older guy with the assisted pull up machine to the NFL. From an everyday elderly guy looking to build a little muscle and strength during his limited spare time to young guys making their living in one of the most brutally physical and highly competitive endeavors in the entire world. That old guy and John Welbourn have different risk/reward tolerances and that information should inform their different training choices.

    In the context of the dangers posed Welbourn’s job (when he was playing in the NFL), the marginal additional risk to him of, say, doing snatches or plyometrics was pretty small, plus he’s under contract and will get paid even if he hurts himself in the training room. If the team’s S&C coach wants Welbourn explosively benching but all Welbourn wants to do is super slow chest presses he could find himself cut. He’s an elite athlete and to keep his lucrative and risky job he, in fact, must do riskier training.

    Compare that situation to MAS’s elderly gym buddy. That guy could get hurt and ring up big medical bills that he may not be able to afford just by doing a barbell squat. OTOH if he does a superslow leg press he may still be able to stand up off of the toilet in a few years instead of wearing a diaper. In the context of a goal like “being able to stand up off the toilet” why should he accept any more risk than the bare minimum to achieve his goals?

    To my thinking, smart training choices should reflect intelligent compromises on the risk/reward continuum informed by the trainee’s individual goals. If it weren’t for so much of the “noise” in the fitness world, it should really be a lot simpler for ordinary people to make intelligent training choices from the available options.

    The tougher part for most people appears to be finding a goal and understanding their motivation to achieve the goal. Why do ordinary people want to train like NFL’ers or Special Operators when they will never have a job doing those things? If you have a goal that makes that kind of training necessary as well as a strong reason why you need to achieve you goal, then go ahead and go for it. IMO, though, too many people are willing to risk things like playing with their grandchildren in the future because they feel they have to make riskier exercise choices just to be fit. I think it’s great that MAS was able to help out that old guy find a safer and better way for him to achieve his goals.

  20. Rita

    @Geoff – you are completely correct, especially the part about people not understanding their own goals and motivations. I, for one, am one of those! I just don’t *get* it yet. There’s sort of a gender bias in this country whereby dudes seem to have all been taught some basics about strength and conditioning, but us gals have to seek the info. out. Much trial and error has ensued. My goal is probably not much different than the old fella you refer to, only I want to get off of that toilet a little more like a badass. : )

    @MAS – thank you for replying to my comments/questions – I really value your time and input as I go through this process! By the way, the only thing sore from my Big 5 workout yesterday is my right pec. I thought I’d be crawling.

  21. Stuart Gilbert

    Geoff……
    Just want to say that your post has to be one of, if not the BEST posts I’ve read in a comments section on a fitness related topic, from a non blogger. It was simply common sense, and in my mind I cannot pay it a higher compliment. It mirrors my own thoughts and philosophies on the whole subject. I only wish that when I was younger, and more stupid than I am now, and far more impressed by the examples and arguments of the “badassaes” in the world of fitness, that I could have read and been swayed by more comments like this and those of MAS. Too much on the internet and in the magazines (which I used to read) is written by 20 somethings yet to have an injury that makes them reevaluate their approach, or by long term survivors who have joints that I could only wish for. My joints would have thanked me (especially my knees) if I could have read and appreciated this post 25 years ago. Youth truly is wasted on the young. When younger I always dreamed of being an elite athlete, thinking that if I could find the right training approach and then train hard and long enough, then it would be my ticket to make it. How wrong I was. But I was too ignorant and stupid then to realize how important genetics were.
    My only issue with your post is whether or not certain training approaches are required at all. Many strength coaches are either influenced by tradition, and what has gone on before, or have their own biases based on their own backgrounds and preferences. If power cleans and snatches truly were the ticket to athletic success in the NFL, then why aren’t the NFL scouting teams scouring the weightlifting halls of Eastern Europe and Asia? If a coach wants an athlete to bench explosively and that athlete blows a shoulder, then it won’t matter how explosive he is, if he is sidelined for a season. As strength and HIT legend Dr Ken Leistner often wrote, strength training’s number one priority should be to LESSEN the injury risk by strengthening the body, and not to weaken joint structures. He often speculated, (and I have to agree) how many injuries that occurred on the field or court were actually made in the weight’s room via dodgy practices. As Arthur Jones once mentioned if you saw two NFL teams playing, and one was trained on machines, and the other utilized power cleans, squats and other Olympic lifting practices, it would be very hard, if not impossible to determine which team used what. There have been both notable successes and failures from teams and individuals that have used both…….

  22. Norlee

    excellent comment Geoff. as someone in her 50’s my main goal is mobility. I have been lifting weights on and off for 35yrs and have discovered in the last couple that yoga gives me much better results. (I still maintain a minimal weight workout for osteoporosis prevention, a real concern as both of my parents have it and I walk outside for mental health as I have had issues with depression in the past).

    It seem like “fitness” has become a competitive sport in and of itself – people training simply to be more “fit” than the next guy…

  23. Geoff

    @Rita, @Stuart Gilbert, and @Norlee – Thanks. I can take credit for typing and posting my comment, but a lot of the ideas in it are really the observations of Dan John. He’s been tremendously influential on my views about training, goal setting, and other matters. His book “Intervention” explains the points I outlined in my comment with more clarity, detail, and elegance than I could ever muster.

    @Stuart Gilbert – Not to quibble about the NFL, but if players are routinely getting hurt in the weight room, the S&C coach should be fired. Your point about injuries on the field starting in the training room is a very good one, though. That being said, and no offense to Arthur Jones and the HIT community, given the exceptionally competitive environment of the NFL good ideas tend to be as quickly and rather universally adopted as bad ones are discarded. If HIT was really the best for all NFL players every team would be doing it by now, and they aren’t. Note, though, that just because I say HIT isn’t universally best for all NFL players, it doesn’t mean that I’m also saying that HIT is never good for any NFL players ever. I could see HIT playing a big part early in a player’s off-season when the focus is on recovery and learning the new playbook.

    IMO one reason NFL teams don’t look to European and Asian weightlifting halls is because weightlifters tend to be short. Strength isn’t the only characteristic of football players, after all. Dmitry Klokov, a 105kg heavyweight, is about 6 feet tall. Klokov’s big by weightlifting standards, but he’s only about the size of a safety, running back, or a shorter linebacker like Jerod Mayo or Navarro Bowman. Even aside from the need for football specific skill acquisition, I think the height differential is a reality that would make it tough for elite weightlifters to transition to the NFL and for NFL’ers to transition to elite, world championship level weightlifters.

    @Norlee – I think “fitness” has become the competitive sport known as “CrossFit”. Unfortunately many CrossFit gyms do a poor job differentiating between the sport of CrossFit and the S&C training modality also called “CrossFit”. Untrained people go to a CrossFit gym because they hear that its a “hardcore” and “badass” way to get fit and often get exposed to workouts intended for the sport and for which they lack the strength, conditioning, mobility, and skill to perform safely, much less effectively. Incidentally, my training priority is also mobility, but more specifically, I want to promote grace, beauty, and efficiency in my movement supported by an adequate, but not necessarily large, foundation of strength.

  24. Stuart Gilbert

    Geoff,
    I’m not going to quibble either….especially with someone who posts with so much common sense. However just my take on a few points.
    1) My comment on the weightlifting halls of Eastern Europe and Asia was a flippant one, and not meant to be serious. I’m well aware of the specific demands of each sport, including the increasing specificity of ideal body dimensions for each also. However this does seem to have escaped the S&C fraternity in the game however, as in a similar vein to your reply, it always puzzled me why the bench press test was such a mainstay in the combine. Considering bench press specialists are barrel chested short armed individuals, who would not be ideal in any position on the field, I’m still unsure why so much value is placed on that test.
    2) S&C coaches are probably hired and not fired based on three things. A) Who they know, and agree with in terms of training philosophy, who is already on the staff, B) Ignorance of strength training principles and techniques by other members of the coaching staff…including the head coach…and C) Pure luck
    3) HIT training would probably be better utilzed during the in season, when playing and practice demands, plus the need for recovery would demand infrequent and brief visits to the weights room.
    4) Many sports, despite their nod to progressive training ideas, are still heavily mired in traditions. Too many are holding on to an idea that raining has to be more complex and technical than it should be, in an effort to stay employed. Imagine if the simplicity of HIT were adopted. How many coaches and specialists might become unemployed overnight?
    5) If you say HIT for the off season, and I say for the in season…and we both have good ideas to support our views…then why not HIT all the time, but different variations of it throughout the season?
    Anyway I still rate your opinion highly. And if this is all we agree on, then I’m happy with that.

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