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Don’t train for specific movements, train for broad physical capabilities

Most people have training goals in the form of:

  • achieve my first pull-up or reach 10 reps of perfect form pull-ups
  • achieve my first muscle or reach 3 reps in a row
  • etc…

The problem with this approach is that it automatically limits your training volume because you try to get training time that will help to achieve that goal. In the case of those particular goals, then you need a standard fitness pull-up bar. And for the muscle-up, you need one with enough space above it, which rules out all bars you can have in doorways.

A better approach to training would be to have the goal of developing your physical capabilities along a range of dimensions:

  • upper body pull strength, like these moves and many others
  • upper body push strength, like push-ups, dips, etc. (muscle-up included)
  • lower body strength, like squats, pistols, jumps, etc.
  • balancing, lifting & carrying, throwing & carrying, etc. are all dimensions you can develop your capabilities in

What does this mental shift allows you to do? Many things, but getting more training volume is one of the main benefits.

Let’s take our pull-ups example again. Your new goal is to develop your upper body pull strength, which is quite simply done: find something you can hang from and pull your body upwards. Instead of just a place with a standard fitness pull-up bar, now you can train:

  • pulls-ups, but on tree branches, playground swing sets bars, any urban element with a somewhat horizontal bar
  • cat pull-ups on any walls you can find or even oddly shaped things you can hang from with your feet as a support (such as playground items), cat hangs as a regression for these
  • pole or tree climbing, and working your legs at the same time

The items you can use and the situations in which you can use them are infinite, which will allow you to train your pull strength nearly anywhere. Will it also help you develop your pull-ups? Of course it will. You could even have pull-ups as your real goal actually, but your mental one should be broad pull strength.

Why? This is going to probably be familiar to a lot of you, and it was me not long ago. Let’s say you’re still operating with a goal of reaching 10 pull-up reps and you can currently do 8, so you’re inching closer to your goal and feeling good about it. Maybe another month and you’ll be there. Your main issue is finding the time to go to the gym where you can train them. So on your next visit to the playground, while the kids play, you say to yourself: “hey, let’s do some pull-ups on this wide swing-set bar”. You go and very painfully achieve 2 difficult reps. Your natural reaction will be: “F**k it, I knew this was a bad idea, I need to find a normal pull-up bar, it’s no use without one”.

What’s happening there? Is it useless for your 10-reps-on-standard-bar goal to do pull-ups on this wide bar? Not at all, on the contrary, the wider the bar, the more grip strength you need and develop, and grip strength will absolutely make standard bar pull-ups easier to crank. But is it pleasing and motivating to struggle for 2 reps when you’re used to do 8 reps? No, it’s ego humbling and depressing. So what do you do? You don’t do pull-ups on the swing set anymore, even though you could get good sessions there a few days a week since you’re coming with the kids anyway.

Switching your goal from “pull-ups on a standard bar” to “developing upper body pull strength any way I can” allows you to see the benefits in many more training opportunities than simply standard fitness settings, hence allowing you to drastically increase your training volume.

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