Progressive Pulls - Reviving and revamping a Golden Oldie

A decade ago, I wrote an article, Progressive Pulls, for my big book The Purposeful Primitive. I described a back-training routine I had used with great success for decades. The routine started off with a barbell on the floor loaded with 135-pounds. The poundage was incrementally increased as the lifter worked through three different back exercises that required pulling the barbell to three different heights. In the power clean, the Olympic bar is pulled to the shoulders. High pulls are pulled to the belly button while deadlifts are pulled to mid-thigh.

As the willpower Godfather once quipped, “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” Progressive Pulls done right comes close. This is a brutal sequence. The hardcore love this routine because it is logical and exquisitely effective. I have learned quite a bit in the decade since the article was written. We have added some overt and subtle changes to the original version of Progressive Pulls. The power clean technique and the reps used in that exercise are now greatly altered.

The Progressive Pulls genesis was a 1965 article in Strength & Health Magazine aptly called Progressive Pulls. The article was penned by one of my athlete/writer heroes, Tommy Suggs, a rugged Texan, a man that always placed high at the national Olympic weightlifting championships. Suggs officially pressed 330 weighing 198-pounds and was a writer with style, humor and flair. He passed along solid information that helped the reader improve their lifting.

Tommy specialized in training articles and lifter profiles. The original Progressive Pulls article had accompanying photos featuring national 148-pound Olympic weightlifting champion Homer Branum, another Texas boy. At the time Homer had his hair done in an Elvis-style pompadour, using lots of Brylcreem to hold it in place. His lifting suit was ill-fitting and for some inexplicable reason he wore street shoes, penny loafers, for the photo shoot. This has always puzzled me.

The original article laid out the classic Progressive Pulls regimen: power cleans were pulled to sternum height at which point the lifter jumped down, under and forward to rack the bar on the shoulders. Start off with 135 for 5-rep sets and start adding weight in small jumps using precise technique. When the lifter can only power clean a triple, add weight and move onto 5-rep sets in the high pull.

Keep adding weight, when the lifter can only pull a triple to the belly button, add more weight and move onto 5-rep sets in the deadlift. Keep doing deadlift sets until you get knocked down to a triple. The workout is over. I made this tough routine even more so: once the Progressive Pulls workout is done, the lifter is left with a heavily loaded barbell sitting on the floor.

My reasoning was, “Hey, since we have to unload the barbell anyway, why not make some bus stops on the way down, why not do some additional, different stuff, as we unload the deadlift weight?” This strategy is easier to understand when seen on paper. Here is how a classic Progressive Pull routine would look for an intermediate level trainee…

Power clean    135 x 5, 165 x 5, 195 x 4, 225 x 3

High Pull         255 x 5, 285 x 4, 315 x 3

Deadlift           365 x 5, 395 x 5, 425 x 4, 455 x 3

*Note the evenness of the 30-pound jumps - other than between the last hi-pull set and the first deadlift set, a 50-pound jump, before resuming 30-pound bumps. The poundage jumps would be smaller for someone weaker.

So here we are at the end of a Progressive Pulls workout and we are left with a 455-pound barbell sitting on the floor. Why not proceed as follows…?

  • Start with a 455-pound barbell
  • Strip two 25-pound plates: 405-pounds, one set of 3-5 reps pulling off a weight plate or weightlifting platform
  • Strip two 45-pound plates: 315-pounds, one set of 3-5 reps in the Romanian Deadlift
  • Strip two 45-pound plates: 225-pounds, one set of 5-8 reps in the barbell row
  • Strip two 45-pound plates: 135-pounds, one set to failure in the snatch-grip hi-pull

*On each of these four sets, the lifter reps until they cannot do another rep.

High rep power cleans are no longer advisable. In the old days we would muscle-up our power cleans. Most guys would do an upright row with some sort of a flip-over reverse curl at the top. Clumsy and awkward will get you hurt in the power clean. The new strategy is…

  • Power Clean first: optimal performance requires a fresh central nervous system
  • 1-2 rep sets: super low reps stressing explosiveness
  • Precision technique: consult YouTube for expert visual Power Clean coaching
  • Small jumps: maintaining explosiveness and crispness
  • When you can’t pull 1-2 reps explosively, once technique breaks down, you are done

After burning out the CNS on power cleans, move onto high pulls. The high pull lies halfway between explosive and grind: Hugh Cassidy used to call high pulls “heaves,” aptly descriptive of the technique he taught wherein you would generate some momentum – but not nearly enough to clean a poundage. The CNS is shot from power cleans; heaves become ‘dynamic deadlifts.’ 5-rep sets work fine on heaves. When you can only pull three hi-pull reps to the belly button, switch to deadlifts.

Start with 5-rep sets of deadlifts and keep adding poundage until you get knocked down to a triple. Finish the workout with an all-out triple. Feel free to wear weightlifting straps. Do you want to extend the torture and keep lifting as you strip the bar? I’d save that for a month or two down the road. Anyone new to this type and degree of work trying to do it all on day one will likely be calling in sick to work the next day.

This is a hell of-a-lot of work. You shock-blast every muscle on the back from traps to tailbone: erectors, rhomboids, upper and lower lats, rear delts, glutes…this workout can only be done once a week. Place any leg training you do at the opposite end of the training week. This workout is going to take the best part of an hour and should be followed by a high protein/high carb replenishment shake or a protein-heavy food meal, or both.

The final element in the hypertrophy equation is rest, deep restorative sleep is the final piece to the muscle and strength puzzle. You will not survive training this hard and starving yourself: the body will not cope and recover. Blast the muscle, but feed and rest the muscle. The lifter needs to be totally recovered and ready to blast legs in 3-4 days. Those that over-train and under-eat break under the stress. Don’t let it kill you.

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About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of numerous books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.