The High Pull
by Doug Hepburn
as told to Charles A. Smith (1954)
There is on rule in Olympic lifting that applies to all classes of strength athletes . . . “An increase in total and individual lifts can only come with an increase in power.” To some of you, this may appear a somewhat valueless statement. You will think it so obvious that only a fool would fail to know this. But I wonder how many of you haven’t realized the actual truth, until now? True, you DO have to get more powerful to lift heavier poundages and compile a higher total, but are you confusing an improvement in lifting technique with an increase in strength?
Any man with a moderate amount of natural athletic ability can quickly learn the fundamentals of Olympic lifting, and as quickly and easily improve his style, to a point where he can be regarded as a fairly seasoned performer. Paul Anderson is a case in point, Raul Pacheco, another instance. Both these men developed a smooth lifting technique in a matter of months, and were quickly competing. Once a man has gained all the speed possible, and can polish up his technique no more, then the only way for him to effect further improvement is by building up his power. Naturally, as my coach Charlie Smith has so often pointed out, there are certain movements which are the foundations of all weight training, whether physique or strength work, and these the beginner uses to give him a good start. If he decides to go in competition lifting, and acquires style, he soon comes face to face with the question, “Where do I go from here?”
It is almost certain that he’ll make the same mistake 99% of Olympic men make in their early days. This is to over-rate the importance of “style” and “position.” I have watched seasoned lifters spend valuable training time, practicing what they call “technique” with a poundage far below what they should be using. True, a certain amount of form improvement may be gained, in most cases the result of ironing out little technical errors that are of some consequence. But there’s the usual “fly in the ointment.” When the “stylist” decides to try a “limit” attempt, he invariably finds his hard-worked-for form has vanished.
True lifting form only displays itself when limit or near-limit weights are attempted. Anyone can display style toying with light weights, but it takes a strong man to do so with limit poundages. Remember, the heavier the weight, the more difficult it becomes for the muscles involved to coordinate. To build lifting strength, one must not only practice “style” and “speed” movements, must not only handle the heaviest possible poundages, but must also use Assistance, or Basic Power exercises, as Charlie Smith has aptly named them.
I am not only convinced, but I have also proved that weights far in excess of the trainee’s actual limit in any lift must be used in a similar motion to develop greater power. Take my press routines for example. I gained up to a certain press poundage by lifting a weight off squat racks and using a loose press style to get it to arms’ length. But then I found that too much was taken out of the lower back muscles. So I hit upon bench pressing. The heavier poundage combined with a similar pressing motion quickly put my press up to the present world record of 372, and a press from the shoulders without cleaning, of 420.
This power principle is by no means new, and can be applied to any lift you are trying to improve, such as the snatch or the clean. Years ago, the famous Joseph Curtis Hise came out with his “Hopper Dead Lifts.” You simply loaded up a bar, dead lifted it, then performed a number of stiff legged dead lifts, bouncing the weight off of two thick wooden beams. Hise progressed to a point where he was able to “flip 400 chest high,” but the neighbors thought World War III had broken out ahead of schedule, and he was forced to desist.
Handling poundages in excess of your snatch or clean in an exercise that is similar to them will not only develop greater pulling power, but will actually make a quick lift feel lighter. And this in turn will facilitate muscular coordination. Such an exercise is the HIGH PULL UP, and in my opinion no other Basic Power Exercise is superior to it when it comes to developing an extremely powerful pull.
You can use this movement, as illustrated by Ken McDonald, Australian champion and one of the world’s greatest lightweights with either an Olympic bar or an ordinary exercise bar. If you use the latter, then I strongly urge you to use a plate which is the same size as the largest discs on an Olympic bar. Thus you will train under the same conditions, and with a bar at the same distance from the floor as in actual competition – an important point.
You might find it advisable to perform the exercise on a wrestling mat or some kind of padding. You can even place two foam rubber slabs on the platform under the plates, since these precautions will deaden some of the noise which accompanies the exercise. The important part of the exercise is the pull up. You can let the bar slam back to the platform, or a mat or rubber pads will take care of any racket.
It’s quite possible you’ll have a little trouble with your grip, especially when you become more advanced and start to use real heavy poundages. Never use more than two repetitions, preferably a single rep, and it is most essential that your grip holds out. This is not possible if you use high repetitions. Your hands will tire long before the powerful shoulder girdle and back muscles have had a good workout. And handling a poundage heavy enough to permit one rep certainly will place a strain on the grip.
If you wrap a piece of tape around the thumb and forefinger joints, you’ll obtain a more secure grip. Lifters with shorts fingers and thick hands will find taping the digits especially helpful. Now let me describe the High Pull Up in detail.
Your position at the bar should be just as if you were about to make a clean or a snatch, with legs bent, weight on heels, and back flat. From the “get set” stance, the bar is pulled from the floor to the highest point possible, prior to the usual squatting or splitting, whatever the lifter’s style happens to be. Then, it is lowered, with no attempt to control, back to the floor. This is the reason for the mats or pads. Don’t forget the pulling up is the most important part of the exercise, and you DON’T split or squat under the bar. Just take a look at Ken McDonald’s photos and you’ll get an idea of the way the movement is performed, in this case in stiff-legged style, another variation.
I’ve seen quite a few lifters use this exercise improperly when attempting to develop cleaning and snatch power. Instead of staying as closely to the first part of the snatch or the clean as they can, they perform a variation of a bent arm rowing motion, while keeping the feet flat on the floor. This will tend to force the trainee into a poor position. It will get him into bad cleaning habits.
At the highest part of the pull, the head should be thrown back, the trunk in erect position, hips thrown slightly forward, lifter on toes, just as if he actually was snatching or cleaning. And don’t make mistake of adding too much weight to the bar before you have the High Pull Up motion off pat. All you will be doing is a fast deadlift, with the bar reaching only the region of the waist, and this will not strengthen the highly important “second pull” nor your powerful shoulder girdle muscles. So, to repeat myself, never increase the training poundage until you are heaving that bar up to the pectoral muscles.
Now, about the grip. This can be varied . . . as wide of as narrow as you desire. Ken McDonald is using a fairly narrow grip in the photos. I personally advise the use of at least two gripping widths for the High Pull Up. One can be your usual snatch hand spacing and other the grip you use for the clean. To provide change, you can use a close grip. But you don’t necessarily have to stick to set grips during each workout. You can use two or three different hand spacings, taking care to handle a poundage which will enable you to perform the exercise correctly with each grip selected. Naturally you’ll not be able to handle as heavy a poundage with a snatch grip as with a clean grip.
However, if you are training to increase a particular lift, and not generally, you should use the type of handspacing used for the lift you are trying to step up. A snatch hand grip gives you a different effect because of the longer pull from the floor. The pull for the clean is exhausted in a lower position and develops the muscles along a slightly different groove.
Here’s how I am using the High Pull Up three times weekly. On Monday I perform the exercise using the regular clean grip, 10 sets of a single repetition each, making 10 high pull ups in all. On Wednesdays I use the High Pull Up with a wide snatch hand spacing, 10 singles as before. On Fridays I go back to the clean hand spacing again for those 10 singles . . . just as if I were performing 10 sets of 1 rep per set.
You can also include the High Pull Up in your regular program when not directly specializing on the exercise. I suggest you go through your regular training session first, then use the assistance exercise, after a rest of 20 minutes. But don’t use this movement indiscriminately. Make sure in your mind first that you need the exercise, what lift you are weak on, and then go to town. Give it all you’ve got.