This Old School Back Exercise Is a Secret for Improving Strength and Power

The progressive pull could be your next favorite back exercise.

Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m an “old-school” kind of lifter. I guess it comes with being, well… old! That said, I do believe there’s wisdom we can take from guys who pioneered strength and aesthetic sports. While modern science and equipment adds a huge value to training theory and practice, there’s a lot to be said for simple, basic methods.

When I first started getting serious about my training, I picked up a book by Randall Strossen called The Keys to Progress – a compilation of articles by John McCallum that first appeared in Bob Hoffman’s magazine Strength & Health.

Now, the history of Strength & Health and the era of lifting that accompanied it could be a whole book unto itself – and, in fact, that’s exactly what my friend and training partner, Dominic Morais, authored for his dissertation while studying the history of physical culture with me at the University of Texas. You can read Dom’s dissertation here if you’re interested; otherwise, stay on this page for one of my favorite takeaways from The Keys to Progress.

Deadlifts and The Powerbuilding Problem

By now you probably know that I consider myself a multi-sport athlete, competing in both bodybuilding and powerlifting. Whether either of those actually qualify as sports is a topic for another article. And if you follow me on social media, you definitely know I’m a fan of deadlifts!

But when it comes to bodybuilding, deadlifts are arguably a bit overrated: for many advanced lifters, the risk of injury and overexertion from heavy pulls outweighs the hypertrophy benefits for the lats and hamstrings. Here’s how top bodybuilding coach Jordan Peters puts it:

“If you’re bodybuilding, and that is your sole goal, I would really advise to stop wasting your recovery capabilities on anything but the [Romanian deadlift]. What do I mean by that? The [conventional] deadlift and, even worse, the rack pull, will take a lot from you recovery wise — and what they give back hypertrophy-wise is so inferior to the RDL.

Does that mean all bodybuilders need to ditch the deadlift? Not at all – they simply need to implement it effectively.  Progressive pulls are one way to do exactly that.”

Enter the Progressive Pull

Here’s where McCallum comes in.  In an article titled, “The Power Look,” Mccallum lays out a very simple program to achieve brutal size and strength. It’s comprised of just four movements:

  1. The squat.
  2. The bench press.
  3. The barbell row.
  4. Progressive pulls.

You probably followed me up until that last one; obviously, squats, benches, and rows have stood the test of time for both bodybuilders and powerlifters. Progressive pulls, while simple, heavy, and effective, have not.

In part, that’s probably because McCallum suggests that progressive pulls be performed as follows:

  • You start with power cleans. Start light and work up.
  • Do three reps each set and when you can’t make three then keep increasing the weight and do high pulls.
  • Keep adding weight and when you can’t make three high pulls start doing deadlifts.
  • Do three reps in the deadlift until you can’t make three. Add more weight and do a couple of singles.

In my opinion, power cleans and high pulls require too much technique and put too much strain on the joints to be effective for the modern bodybuilder. That doesn’t mean you need to toss progressive pulls completely, though! Instead, perform them like this:

Modified Progressive Pulls

1. Start with strict barbell rows, Pendlay-style.  I suggest reps anywhere in the 5-8 range; whichever you choose, make sure to stick with it for the whole session.  Work up to a top set in that rep range.

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BARBELL ROW DEATHWISH: for a long time, I thought #barbellrows were a useless accessory for me — they never carried over to my deadlift or bench. That's when I was doing them in the style shown in the first clip here: lots of #hipdrive and an upright torso, putting more emphasis on my already-strong lower back rather than my relatively weak upper back. Personally, I find the second style — not quite #pendlayrows but close — to be more productive. By keeping my torso close to parallel with the ground, I'm able to work the lats and rhomboids harder without fatiguing my erectors. In my opinion, neither style is right or better — they're just different. But it's important to use the technique that will address your weaknesses rather than what feels the easiest or strongest. For the Myoplasmic Deathwish workout for March, we're doing "caterpillar" rows: each person has to do one more rep with 225 than the person before them for an entry to count. I'm kicking things off with one 😂 Anybody who wants to enter should check out Myoplasmic or ask for more detail below! #upperback #latworkout

A post shared by Ben Pollack, Ph.D. (@phdeadlift) on

2. When you can’t keep rowing with strict form, use a little bit of body English and keep piling on the weight.

3. Once rows are out of the question, transition to deadlifts.  Remember, you’re still doing sets of 5-8.

4. If you’re really a masochist, once you hit failure on deadlifts, hold the weight at the top and perform a set of shrugs to failure as well.

By incorporating deadlifts in this way, you’ll essentially pre-fatigue the back and hamstrings using a movement that’s perfect for hypertrophy – meaning that you can then safely deadlift without worrying about an excessive risk of injury or overreaching.

Programming Progressive Pulls

Progressive pulls are a form of mechanical dropsets, one of my favorite – albeit more advanced – powerbuilding techniques. You can create a pretty cool “minimalist” training routine using mechanical dropsets while still squeezing in plenty of volume – perfect for quarantine training! Check out this example of a heavy back and biceps day:

  1. Troponin Rows: sets of 12
  2. Progressive Pulls: sets of 7
  3. Hammer Curls: sets of 15.  

For hammer curls, start out using strict form with both arms. When the weight gets heavy, alternate one arm at a time so you can use a little momentum to start the movement.  Don’t cheat too much!

You’ll want to pair this (perhaps on a separate training day) with some lighter vertical pulling to make sure you’re well-balanced, but I definitely believe these three movements can be the cornerstone of a powerful back and deadlift!

Feature image from Ben Pollack.

Ben Pollack

Ben Pollack

Ben Pollack is a professional powerlifter and holds the all-time world record raw total of 2039 in the 198-pound class. He has won best overall lifter at the largest raw meets in the world, including the US Open, Boss of Bosses, and Reebok Record Breakers.

Ben earned his Ph.D. in the history and management of strength and fitness from the University of Texas at Austin in 2018, and has published articles in a number of scholarly publications, including The Journal of Sport History, The Journal of Sport Management, and Iron Game History: The Journal of Physical Culture. He also coaches strength athletes of all skill levels, including several internationally-elite powerlifters and world record holders. You can contact Ben through his website (phdeadlift.com) or via email at [email protected]

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