ISSUE #43                           



- “Evaluating Current Training Practices: Part II”





In ISSUE 41, some training techniques that are much less effective than generally believed were discussed. Here are a couple more that hopefully with a varied audience, will be of interest and benefit to someone.


Now to vent on two exercises which really are overrated. It is very disheartening to see people in the gym wasting their valuable time on these exercises, and even more disappointing to see personal trainers recommending these exercises OR an athlete including them in their preparatory programs. 


a) The seated calf-raise

What is the best way to bigger calves & to a better vertical jump? Well, despite its popularity, the seated calf-raise exercise is not the best mode to achieve either goal, especially for those on a limited time program. A brief look at the anatomy of the “calf” will show us two muscles, the gastrocnemius and the soleus. 


The gastrocnemius is the large, superficial muscle, referred to as the “calf”. It is a multi-joint muscle, that is the muscle crosses two joints, as it is attached from the femur to the calcaneus (posterior above-knee area to the back of the heel). Therefore, in the seated position, the gastrocnemius will tend to remain slightly relaxed (OR less optimally activated) than when the leg is in the extended position (i.e. when standing).


In contrast, the soleus is effectively trained in the seated position because it is a single joint muscle, attached below the knee and across the ankle. Unfortunately, the soleus is typically (but not completely!) composed of slow-twitch muscle fibers, and contributes very little to the biomechanics of a vertical jump regardless of its fiber composition. So, effectively the seated calf-raise is a poor choice in the athlete or bodybuilder’s resistance-training program.


b) Barbell 21’s

This exercise is a variation of the plain-old barbell curl with limits on its range of motion and 7 repetitions are performed in 3 different movements. The first 7 reps are performed with the arm beginning at full extension (barbell at thigh) and end with the arms bent 90 degrees. After these 7 repetitions, the next movement is performed from 90 degrees to full flexion (barbell to shoulders), and finally, the last 7 repetitions are completed throughout the full range of motion, adding up to 21 ineffective repetitions. 


The number one problem associated with this exercise is the resistance that will be used. When do you ever choose to perform an exercise for 21 repetitions? If this technique is effective then would you not be performing bench presses for 21 reps, 20 rep leg presses, and 20 reps of pull-ups?


The answer is simple, we know muscle growth is optimal when a sufficient muscular tension is demanded for a sufficient period of time, that generally believed to be around 20-60 seconds. To perform the barbell 21’s within that time limit, a fairly quick tempo (movement cadence) must be adhered to, but that also presents an opportunity for momentum. Barbell 21’s just do not provide the best level of muscle damage and I doubt that this exercise is superior to many others.


Furthermore, the range of motion restriction demanded by this exercise may eliminate full muscle stimulation if the lifter strays from perfect technique. When the lazy lifter stops at 90 degrees, this is often actually well below that level (parallel), and then as they move into the next phases, they further limit the range of motion because muscle fatigue is occurring.


That brings me to another point, the issue of muscle fatigue and what is often referred to as a “muscle pump”. A muscle pump is simply an engorgement of the muscle with blood. It likely has little physiological effect or benefit for muscle hypertrophy. Consider the muscle pump developed during arm training, after your workout, it dissipates within 2 hours maximum, yet muscle growth does not peak for several hours after this time. So the argument that people make for this exercise, i.e.) that it is a great for a muscle pump, does not prove it effective.


Finally, the reason this exercise develops such a great muscle pump is because of the isometric muscle contraction that occurs due to the restricted range of motion, i.e.) where the muscle is stopped where the elbow is bent at 90 degrees. The isometric contraction cuts circulation off, pooling blood and decreasing oxygen supply, causing both the feeling of a pump and also the incredible fatigue associated with this movement (due to metabolic waste build-up).


Drop this exercise, and return to the basics. Basic heavy curls with a full range of motion and a limit of 6-12 repetitions.


c) Pulldowns vs. Pull-ups

Although it is obvious that pulldowns are not a useless exercise, I just don’t believe that the seated pulldown has any superiority over the Pull-up, especially for athletes OR individuals that need to control their own body weight (i.e. mountain climbers). On the other hand, strength coaches that claim pulldowns as ineffective for muscle growth don’t have concrete evidence. Obviously large latissimus (back) muscles can be developed with heavy pulldowns because many big bodybuilders still do not include the basic Pull-up in their routine. 


Basically, for more muscular recruitment (important to athletes), chin-ups/pull-ups are likely superior. If you don’t presently include pull-ups, give them a try. Add weight (hung from a chain secured to a weight belt) if you can do more than 12 repetitions with your own body weight. 


Furthermore, these exercises are CRITICAL to your training program if you are preparing for physical testing (i.e. police OR firefighters). Now a little training guide to your Pull-up program. In your back training program, chin-ups/pull-ups should be the first exercise of the day because you do not want to become fatigued prior to such a difficult movement. 


Many people can not do a lot of repetitions (< 3) for the Pull-up because this is an advanced exercise. If that is the case for you, do as many reps as possible for 3 sets with 3 minutes between each. Then, perform 3 sets of 3-6 negatives, depending on your remaining strength.


Negatives: Using a step to boost yourself to the top position, start at the top position (as if you just pulled yourself up) and slowly (5-count) lower yourself with control through a full range of motion. That is one rep. Now boost yourself back to the start position and do rep 2, etc.


Another way to achieve a few more repetitions (or increased training effect) from pull-ups is to change the grip. This technique comes from an article about Arnold Schwarzeneggar’s training methods. Start with the most difficult grip (hands facing away, hands greater than shoulder-width apart) and perform repetitions to failure. At fatigue, switch to a “hands facing” (supinated) grip, and space the hands at about shoulder-width apart and perform repetitions to fatigue.


Finally, move to the easiest grip if available (this requires a chin-bar with handles pointing out) and take a grip with the palms facing one another and perform repetitions to failure. This may allow you to eke out 6 total reps per set or may allow you to completely fatigue yourself with 6-8 reps in each position!


Also, use different chin-bar grip diameters (thickness) to constantly provide challenge. The thicker grip will really challenge your forearms. Chins/pull-ups are basic, but possibly more effective than any other back training exercise. Hopefully this has motivated you to take on the challenge of the chin-up.


CB Athletic Consulting, Inc.
Copyright © CB Athletics 2015. All Rights Reserved