The "88lb. Pull-Up Challenge"

88lbHas life become much busier than you would prefer it to be? Are you currently going through a hectic season in life and tempted to skip workouts because there is not enough time? Let me encourage you that rapid strength gains are possible even in times of high stress/low sleep, abbreviated training sessions, and irregular eating habits. The principles of low-rep/high-tension strength training work. The following story demonstrates that truth can be stranger than fiction.

The Set-Up
During the last week of August 2003, I had the privilege of being an exhibitor at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s High Liability Trainers Conference. My purpose was to educate officers in more efficient ways to become leaner, stronger, and more enduring than the criminals they contend with on a daily basis. I wanted to offer a physical challenge, similar to the “88lb. Kettlebell Military Press Challenge” Pavel offered at the 2003 Arnold Classic, but one more applicable to law enforcement officers. The 40kg Pull-Up Challenge was born. The rules were simple: perform one repetition from a dead hang, palms facing away, a thumbless grip, and the chin clearing the bar. The 88lb. kettlebell is attached to the waist by a leather weight-belt and chain.

I designed a portable pull-up bar especially for this event. I had five months to get the bar manufactured, buy a 40kg kettlebell, and train up for this event. I prefer to lead by example, but there was a minor problem. Up until this point, I’ve never attempted a pull-up with 88 pounds. I regularly practiced weighted pull-ups with 24kg and occasionally performed singles with a 32kg KB. I really wasn’t concerned because I had plenty of time (5 months) to prepare. So I thought….

The Set Back
The next thing I knew, I had an unexpected job offer that necessitated relocating from Central Arkansas to East Tennessee. This would be our 5th move in 3 ½ years. Even worse, we simultaneously had two homes on the market (West and Central AR). I commuted, driving 1600 miles every other weekend to see my family until both homes sold. For months I crammed a 40-hour work week into 3 ½ days, so I could drive 10-12 hours home.

By God’s grace and mercy both our homes ended up selling in the same week and our family moved into an apartment for two months. All our free time was spent house hunting. We finally found a home that met our needs but needed remodeling. In a word – brutal! Training time was miniscule.

The afternoon the remodeling was finished we drove 16 hours straight through the night to Boston to film a new video with Steve Baccari, RKC, Power Behind the Punch: Kettlebell Training for Boxers. Once the raw video footage was shot, the family and I drove right back to Tennessee in the same non-stop, all-through-the-night manner. We had to get ready for the moving trucks that would be arriving. It was now three weeks before the law enforcement conference. I was still waiting for the completion of the pull-up bar, never ordered an 88lb. kettlebell, and still hadn’t attempted one pull-up with more than 72 pounds. If there was ever a time to panic, this would have been it.

I knew I was hitting the bottom of the barrel physically, when I started drinking coffee before and during each morning training session. My motivation was also in a serious hurt locker. I remember at the academy I used to get up at 4:00AM, do a Power to the People workout, sometimes ride my bike to work, then lead PT at 6:00am for 1-1 ½ hours, followed by another 8-10 hours of working on the range or in the field and never even thought of drinking coffee.

Well that was then and this is now. I tried to take all my fleeting thoughts captive and focus on what needed to be done. I was under stress and did what came natural… revert back to my training. “Train as heavy as possible, while staying as fresh as possible, as frequently as possible” was the only thought I could focus on.

The Train Up

This is what my next three training weeks looked like:

Week 1:
Mon/Wed/Fri – I would pick three exercises and work them in a circuit: deadlifts, pull-ups, and military press. I would warm up with a set of 3-5 reps for each exercise. My working sets for the DL and MP is 3×3. For pull-ups, my warm up set was with a 24kg kettlebell then 3-5 singles with the 32kg bell, concentrating on maximum tension and holding the top position for 3-5 seconds. I knew the top position was going to be a problem area when I moved up to the “big bell”.

Tue/Thurs – Consisted of “ladder” bodyweight pull-ups (using rings) and practicing Hand-2-Hand Drills (keeping it light and happy).

Heavy ab work was a priority and essential for strong pull-ups. So, I would finish with difficult variations of the hanging leg raise or weighted Janda sit-ups. If time allowed I would pick a high repetition exercise (snatches or jerks) and “grease the groove” with a medium to light weight.

Week 2-3:
Same as week 1 except I added in singles of 40kg pull-ups with two kettlebells hanging on my waist, a 16 and a 24. I concentrated on staying tight from my fingertips to my toes with a 1-2 second pause on the top.

If time was really tight I would skip the deadlifts and knock out pistols off a box in combination with military presses. This is how it worked: I would clean a KB with my right hand, then perform a left legged pistol onto a low box. When I reach the top position, I would immediately perform a military press with my right arm. Repeat sequence 3-5 times than switch and do the other side. Training sessions averaged between 30-45 minutes.

By the end of the third week, I could perform 88lb. pull-up singles on demand, with minimal effort. The groove had been greased and I was ready to go…well, almost.

The Saga Continues
The day before leaving for Florida, I had one last errand to run. I departed for what was supposed to be a 5-hour road trip to pick up my pull-up bar. Due to circumstances beyond my control, it turned into a 13-hour endurance event bringing me home at 2 A.M. the next morning. To add insult to injury, the compressor went “toes up”. When I woke a few hours later, I informed my family we were now going to take a “retro” road trip (without an A/C). So, we drove non-stop to Daytona, FL – sweating in 100-degree weather the entire way.

The conference went with out a hitch. I demonstrated the 88lb. pull-up multiple times each day for three days, in addition to KB training in the evenings. Two officers out of about twenty-five successfully completed the “Pull-Up Challenge”.

As soon as the conference was over at noon on Thursday, we drove home, arriving after midnight. The next morning I dragged myself out of bed and drove 2 ½ hours to the Nashville Airport to catch a flight to Kansas City in order to edit the Power Behind the Punch: Kettlebell Conditioning for Boxers video. After 2 ½ days of editing, I continued the marathon journey back home.

Strong, Anywhere, Anytime
Truth is stranger than fiction. I showed up at work at 6:00am the next morning, with my coffee cup in hand and my head still spinning. I was more sleep deprived than ever. Oddly enough, I was still able to lift heavy and in good form. I decided to try a pull-up with 108 pounds, using a pair of 24kg KB’s hanging from my waist. To my amazement, I performed to standard a single with about the same amount of effort exerted using the 88-pound KB. It felt almost effortless. I continued on with three more singles with the same weight. In a matter of four weeks, I increased my weighted tactical pull-ups from 72 pounds to 108 pounds, with strict form, under less than desirable conditions. Just for fun, I attempted a pull-up with a 32 kg and a 24 kg (125 pounds). The tip of my chin did touch the top of the bar but it won’t count until the bar actually touches the front of my neck. A few more weeks…

The Bottom Line
Keep it simple. You don’t need complex set/rep schemes or green house conditions to develop strength. In times of stress…grease the groove. Train as heavy as possible, while staying as fresh as possible, as frequently as possible and you will develop real strength that will not forsake you when the going gets tough.

Fight the good fight,
Jeff Martone