How to Get Stronger at Push-ups and Pull-ups Using a Soviet Special Forces Technique

September 6, 2009

I want to explain to you a method of how to get stronger at push-ups and pull-ups. I found out about this method from former Soviet special forces trainer, Pavel Tsatsouline. Pavel is a guy I began following closely since the late 90’s. I was just fascinated by his advanced strength training methods that were unlike anything I had read in the mainstream fitness magazines. His methods were based around training elite military forces how to stay light and lean, while gaining amazing strength. I began studying this guy like a mad-man. Here is just one of the many techniques I learned from this master trainer from the former Soviet Union.

soviet union

[Here is a photo of a fighter plane from the former Soviet Union. I’m quickly becoming a history buff and I’m fascinated by the former USSR in particular. I vividly remember watching The Olympics in the 70’s and 80’s…and their dominance in many of the sports made an impact on me as a child.]

Get Stronger by “Greasing the Groove”

Greasing the Groove, or GTG for short, is based on the principle of “synaptic facilitation”…doing frequent, non-exhaustive sets of a specific exercise to strengthen the nerve pathway. So doing the same lift multiple times per week, but training short of failure. This is a method used by Bulgarian and Russian weight-lifters which has allowed them to dominate in many of the Olympic lifts over the years. Theses guys actually train a lift multiple times per day.

“Practicing a Lift” is How I Look at This Technique

I like to look at gaining strength as a skill, similar to any other physical skill. The more you practice a certain skill or movement, the better your body becomes a doing that movement. Take a golf swing for instance…many golfers practice their golf swing each and every day. The reason they do this is to develop a “groove” where the body gets more efficient at performing that movement. They are strengthening the neural pathways to perform that movement, the more they practice it.

Lifting to Failure is Where Most People Go Wrong

Lifting to failure is fine when you are trying to break down the muscle and gain mass, but it isn’t the best way to gain strength. The problem with lifting to failure is that it develops fatigue. Once a muscle is fatigued, it reduces its ability to contract hard. Repeated hard contractions are the key to greasing the groove and getting stronger in a movement. You are after strong neural impulses multiple times per week or day to strengthen the neural pathways, so fatigue is to be avoided.

Speaking of the USSR…Here’s a Rocky 4 music video

[I feel bad for the younger generation. They simply can’t make “feel good” songs like they did in the 80’s. Survivor was completely corny with bad style and funny lyrics…but this stuff makes me happy now!]

How Pavel Taught Soviets to Meet “Spetsnaz” Requirements

The “Spetsnaz” were the special forces unit of the Soviet military. One of the physical requirements was to do 18 pull-ups with a 22 pound weighted vest. He designed a special pull-up workout that allowed these guys to easily reach that requirement, with 1-2 pull-up workouts per day. His calls this technique “ladders”.

How to Use Ladders to Get Strong at Pull-ups or Push-ups

Here is Pavel describing this technique…“We would file out to the pull-up bars and perform what we called ladders. I do a pull-up, you do one. I do two, you match me, etc. until one of us cannot keep up. Then, if we still had time, we started over. One rep, 2 reps, 3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10… 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,… 1,2,3,4,5. We totaled hundreds of pull-ups almost daily without burning out, and the extreme PT tests of our service were a breeze.”

Understanding the Concept of Why Ladders Work…

If you understand why ladders work, you can implement this principle into your workout. Here is how Pavel puts it…”high-volume plus specificity minus burnout”. Put into simple terms…you are doing many sets of one exercise short of failure to improve in that one exercise. The key with the ladder is to stop 1-2 reps short of failure…preferably two reps.

Remember High-Volume + Fatigue is to Be Avoided

High volume in this case will not develop excess mass, because fatigue is avoided. If done properly there will not be muscle breakdown and excessively sore muscles. Make sure and follow the advice of stopping short of failure. I know this is a big contrast to the typical bodybuilding approach of “forced reps to get big and strong”…but the “Spetsnaz” approach is MUCH more effective.

Here is Pavel Tsatsouline’s Main Website…

Back when I was following Pavel, he had only one book (Power to the People). It still is one of my favorites, but now he has a bunch of things going on —> Dragon Door – Pavel Tsatsouline

Note: This is one of those tips that can be implemented in creative ways into your routine. To me, the concept behind why ladders work is where you will get the best value from this method. You also don’t need a partner to do these…just rest the same amount of time it took you to complete the set. The principles applied properly will help you improve in any lift.

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Rusty Moore

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{ 63 comments… read them below or add one }

Jesse Regan September 9, 2009 at 12:38 am

Thanks for the information. Can anyone do it, even women or is it just for muscle men? This is new stuff, different from the celebrities’ workout routines that have been quite popular in the mainstream.

Anthony September 9, 2009 at 1:08 am

Rusty,
great post as always. I’m really going to start working on this ASAP!

Mindbodygoal September 9, 2009 at 7:54 am

Very good post Rusty.

Just to add to the “many ways to skin a cat” I have also found density sets to be very useful for increasing muscular endurance.

A typical example would be:-
Let’s pretend you can perform 6 reps of push ups before failing.

I would perform 3 reps of push ups, rest 20 – 30 seconds and perform another 3.

Repeat until 20+ reps have been completed.

Over time, gradually decrease the amount of rest taken between sets (a tabata timer can be useful for this) and before you know it, there is ZERO rest and the 20 reps have been performed in one hit.

Simple, but VERY effective.

Keep up the great site!

Vic Magary - GymJunkies September 9, 2009 at 8:17 am

Good stuff Rusty! Pavel puts you to be pound for pound strong.

Rahul September 9, 2009 at 10:21 am

Hey Phil, thanks for your comment. I get what you are saying and I guess given Rusty’s advice as well I will just stick to what genetics has given me……

Hey Burritokid, nice name….I can totally understand, the way I was struggling trying to do a muscle up- it’s just not a pretty sight. Again and again, I kind of get to the level of the bar and then hang there struggling to push myself over and somehow am just not able to do it…… basically with antics like these the guys at my gym think I am kind of crazy since I specially keep trying out a couple of the gymnastic type exercises……. best of luck with the one-arm pull-ups…

Rusty, I am taking your advice. As you noticed a couple of your readers have also filled in for you. I think you could start thinking about building up the community aspect of your site now, since you already have a bunch of regular readers and commenters, perhaps something like a forum would work great ie: where your readers can just carry out their own discussions and keep your blog buzzing irrespective of the subject or frequency of your posts….the discussions would also show up in search results and drive additional traffic to your site…… just my 2 cents.

Regards,
Rahul

Michael September 9, 2009 at 6:20 pm

Rahul & Burritokid,

I took a pretty decent while to get my first muscle-up, but now I’m doing sets of about 3-5. Here’s what helped me:

Swing back and forth a bit on the bar, and begin pulling up hard at the end of the forward part of the swing. This will make it easier to pull up at the proper angle and put the bar at chest level.

Swinging your legs up as you pull will also help you get past the sticking point between the pull-up and the dip. Once you have the bar at chest level, you can lean over with your torso and swing your legs down, pivoting over the bar and into position.

Good luck!

Michael

Jason September 10, 2009 at 2:12 am

Yeah I am pretty lean already. I have a decent 6 packs too. From the front the triceps looks good but my triceps looks irregular big from the back. Tricep is one of my strong point, it’s one of the stronger parts of my body, but I just want it to decrease in size a lil

Wolverine September 10, 2009 at 3:21 am

Hi Comrade Rusty, im a bit confused about strength training and bodyweight training combo. I normally do a bodyweight circuit of 70 incline press ups, 70 prisoner squats, 70 bombay dives, and 70 v ups, rest for 40 secs then 50 normal press ups, 50 squat thrusts, 50 crab crawals etc, i know i get the HGH rush when im done, but are my reps going to make me put on muscle, please im actually looking to loose some size, Thanks

admin September 10, 2009 at 11:04 pm

Sterling,

I would suggest maybe separating the two. Do one workout that is more circuit like and another that is more focused on strength and creating tension.

Jeffrey343,

Yep…pushups can be done anywhere. I’m such a tall long arm freak that my knees hit the ground on those chinup bars in doorways.

John,

Planks are great since there is very little breakdown. You can do them often…I don’t see why the method you described wouldn’t work.

Yavor,

Great post on pull-ups. Pavel has made a big difference on the entire fitness scene…a true trail blazer.

Baz,

It isn’t just about getting lean, it is about holding a somewhat low level of body fat over a period of time.

tylersg3,

As long as you don’t try to get bigger by increasing the calories too much, you will be fine. Add some volume to your workout and aim for a little fatigue by compressing rest periods.

JasonG,

Progressive overload works as well…this is just one method.

BurritoKid,

I have to be honest, I haven’t even attempted a muscle-up yet. I imagine I would struggle. I am trying to wait until I get better at pull-ups first.

Rahim,

That is exactly right…works on regular lifts to as well.

tim,

You can, but you will get better results if you eat a smaller meal on fasting day without drinks. This will create a nice calorie deficit. It is certainly fine to fast before your meal and go out drinking afterwards…just make sure that at least 1/2 of the time your fasting dinner is a lighter one.

Studio Element Personal Training,

Yeah…his stuff is all great.

Beat,

Thanks…getting in great shape requires building your mind to a certain extent. Having the discipline and belief that you can do it is a big part of succeeding.

Sekasi_Oz,

Try using an olympic bar for biceps…the same bar you bench press with. Get really strong at these 100+ pounds for 5 reps…and your biceps will respond. Avoid the ez curl bar, the cables, etc…Do alternate dumbbell curls using heavy weight after the olympic bar curls. Then finish with light dumbbell curls on an incline bench. Tilt the seat back to where it is a little more upright than 45%…grab light dumbbells and don’t worry about weight at all, go for the squeeze and feel of the lift. I swear this routine works very well.

Jesse,

It works just as well for women and the great thing is that it is a way to get stronger with little if any increase in size. It will make your muscle a bit firmer and compact…a great look for women.

Mindbodygoal,

I like that method…very creative way to increase strength in a movement!

Rahul,

I don’t want to start a forum until I hire a full-time moderator (or 2-3 moderators). I don’t like how most of the fitness forums get out of control with racists slurs, swearing, personal attacks, etc. I won’t do it until I am able to have a team in place to keep it friendly. I do think it would do very well!

Jason,

If you really want it to reduce in size you may want to back off on pressing movements. If you do decide to work them…avoid high volume workouts and avoid the pump.

Wolverine,

No…I consider resistance intervals and strength training as two separate things. This post is more about pure strength training. You won’t get bigger from doing body weight training in the way you described…you will lose weight. The higher rep interval training builds up lactic acid and creates oxygen debt before the muscle gets broken down. In fact, my next post is on that topic to a certain extent.

Rusty

Wolverine September 11, 2009 at 7:56 am

Yiiiiiipeeeeeee thanks Rusty, you are the best, now im off for happy hour!!! (its friday)

bodyweightonly September 13, 2009 at 1:46 pm

I recently read this book about bodyweight conditioning by a notorious criminial, the most dangerous one in britain in fact Charles Bronson its called ‘Solitary Fitness’ about how he worked out while imprisoned, a good read man I think you should chek it out.

Tom Parker - Free Fitness Tips September 13, 2009 at 2:46 pm

Hey Rusty – Good post. I used to lift around the 10-12 rep mark. When I started Uni I went to the gym with one of my flatmates who lifted quite heavy. As a result I increased the weight I was lifting, dropped to the 6-8 rep range and have never changed it since. Whilst I did notice some size gains from dropping the reps and increasing the weight I know what you mean about the fatigue. When doing higher reps I never feel as fatigued. However, when I do these lower rep ranges I feel that sometimes my performance suffers during the last few sets of the workout.

Vic Magary from GymJunkies.com October 5, 2009 at 3:28 pm

As always you’re spot on with your posts.

Keep it up Rusty!

– Vic

Joel Drapper October 12, 2009 at 11:06 am

OMG! I was doing two sets of 30 situps every day. Now I’ve just done just under 330 using this method. It’s also really helped with pressups, and pullups.

Thank you so much!

Anton October 19, 2009 at 4:06 am

Good summary, thank you very much!

I have a question, though. If we’re “greasing the groove”, i.e. training our nerve and muscle to be efficient in one movement, doesn’t it come at the cost at being less efficient in other movements?

So, when Paul was training the guys in spetznaz, wasn’t he assisting them in one specific routine, knowing what it would be (18 weighed pull-ups), instead of helping them get into a better general shape – which would take longer and require harder work?

Just want to know your opinion on this, as I am sure our body does not really work as a straightforward mechanism, and “greasing the groove” is just an analogy, which only goes so far.

Thanks!
Anton

Chris Maxcer November 2, 2009 at 1:41 am

Great post — plan to start using it for pull-ups right away. Typically I hit failure pretty quickly on pull-ups, which also feels like I end up struggling too much and risk injury. This approach, though, I’m guessing will help me build strength in all the little supporting muscles, too. Actually, kind of excited — leaving the keyboard to start right now!

Adam @ Order Carisoprodol Online November 9, 2009 at 1:33 am

Yes, but it will take at least a month to show results and it depends on how many pull ups and push ups you do every other day. As far as the push ups, that would be the same, but that works a different muscle group. Just don’t over do or you get muscle fatigue. If you don’t get the new tissue heal before the next work out then it will damage it and therefore get muscle fatigue. It is best to do a range of different exercises to keep your muscles challenged & work- out various different muscle groups in your body. I agree that you should also systematically increase the resistance & repetitions.

Susan December 7, 2009 at 12:12 am

I know this might be a little off topic but I know a guy who has flown that plane. I got to see one up close, kinda cool.

BTW I hate pull ups AND push ups, but I will give this another try :)

Susan

John January 5, 2011 at 12:45 pm

This ladder idea makes a lot of sense to me. Really, it’s just a combination of two of the oldest and best workout suggestions: 1) to repeatedly do *just* under your max and 2) to have a partner, both for safety and encouragement. With that combination, I can see how it works!

Ron May 10, 2011 at 3:52 pm

I’m going through your articles and I really like your approach. One thing that you said about strength…that it’s a skill. I work with kids and this approach is very appropriate for learning complex skills. A few minutes spread out over a day makes a huge impact. I think it’s mostly neurological but it doesn’t matter…it works.

Lagiusmeatius October 2, 2011 at 9:08 pm

Sekasi_Oz,

There are a few things you can do to get your biceps sore. Try doing supersets of any bicep exercises, such as one arm pullups (or static holds) followed by two arm pullups, followed by rows (or bicep curls if you must, but I always prefer compound movements). This will fry your biceps and if you stay in the 10-15 rep range you will achieve soreness. If not, then you’re not lifting heavy enough weight in that rep range. I personally stay away from soreness and focus on strength rather than muscle growth — but back in the day, when muscle growth was a goal of mine, I performed supersets and they work very well!

BYO Playground November 4, 2011 at 6:35 am

This same type of training method can be applied to just getting into shape, for example sprinting is an important part of a running program. In fact the Germans use to sprint for one minute, rest one minute and continue. The would increase the length of running to expand endurance and promote speed and health.

tom watson December 10, 2011 at 4:51 am

Hi Rusty,
Following “BYO Playground’s” note, I’m presuming this principle can be applied to the glute-ham raise or renegade rows – movements which are quite hard. what do you think?
Thanks
Tom

adnan February 5, 2012 at 3:04 am

hi rusty

i usually do 5×5 about 4- 5 times a day ( thats about 100-125 push ups)

i do ( 5×5) chin up every day . ( sometime twice a day)

think i am going about it the right way?? \

cheers

adnan February 5, 2012 at 3:12 am

yes and between each 5×5 i take about 2-3 hrs break.

say ( 5×5) in the afternoon

(5×5 ) in the morning

etc

bio February 25, 2013 at 6:54 pm

I like doing five pushups and then five sit ups for every minute while “watching” a dvd, this gets me breathing in an half and hour, and allows me to do hundreds of reps daily, with minimal soreness or fatigue.

fight obesity December 9, 2013 at 1:24 am

Wow that was odd. I just wrote an incredibly long comment but after I clicked submit
my comment didn’t appear. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again.
Regardless, just wanted to say excellent blog!

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