I’ve consistently lifted weights for over a decade. I’ve read books about lifting weights, eagerly downloaded and listened to podcasts with professional trainers and athletes, and regularly read blog posts about strength training, saving any sample programs to Evernote. I feel like I “know how” to lift weights — like I can put together a practical and efficient program. And yet, I’m still relatively scrawny. After so many years, I feel like I have to be doing something wrong, whether it’s in my methodology, effort, or expectations.

Joe Rogan started releasing MMA specific podcasts with fighters and trainers about a year or two ago. While listening to them, I’ve been surprised by how little consensus there seems to be on the optimal way to strength train. After listening to a podcast with George St. Pierre’s trainer, Firas Zahabi, I decided to run an experiment on myself.

During the podcast, Zahabi emphasized volume over intensity. Somewhat confusingly, at least to me, he advocated this for strength training, as well as sport and skill training. He stated that you should never be sore. As an example, he said that if he started training someone who could do 10 pull-ups, he’d just have them do 5. If he had them do 10, they’d be sore and have to wait days to recover to train again. Instead, he’d have them do 5 each day until it was easy, and then he’d have them start doing 6, and so on.

I decided to try something similar, and I’ve been surprised and encouraged at how well it’s worked. It feels like my 1-set pull-up max hovered around 8 to 10 pull-ups for 5 years. I’d given up on expecting to see increases. But on December 1, I maxed out at 13 pull-ups after just 3 months of trying to follow the principles Zahabi spoke about. I increased my pull-up max by 30% without ever feeling like I did any real, actual work.

MonthInitial TestDaily Reps for 1 Set
September105 pull-ups (or chin-ups)
October115 pull-ups (or 6 chin-ups)
November126 pull-ups (or chin-ups)

At the beginning of each month, I did a max pull-up test. For the rest of the month, I’d do 1 set of 50% of my max each day. I’d alternate between pull-ups and chin-ups. So, in September, I tested at 10 pull-ups. I then did either 5 pull-ups or 5 chin-ups each morning. And that’s it. I’d just make coffee and then spend a few seconds doing what felt like a warm up set. Before my retest at the start of the each month, I always felt skeptical that I’d see an increase, but so far I’ve always got one more more pull-up in than the month before.

I plan to continue this program, at least until the gains stop. But I feel like I have no sense of when that will be or what to do next. This tactic was radically different — more or less the opposite — of what I would have guessed would have been required to increase my pull-up max. The results have been surprising enough to me that I’m going to try it with other “big lifts,” as well as how it could apply to skill learning generally, not just exercise.