Gasp. 400 chinups in one workout. What ultimately constrains physical strength?

Motivated by a recent thread on Mount Everest, I scanned an old magazine article on the late, great climber Alex Lowe. Google him if you want the superlatives, but suffice it to say even world-class climbers considered him in a whole nother class in ice, rock, mixed, and perhaps high altitude climbing. He died in an avalanche about 5 years ago.

The story included eyewitness accounts of Lowe doing 400 chinups in a workout, or 40 in 10 sets. The author says Lowe stood six feet tall and weighed 160 lbs.

Back when I was a gym rat, I could max out at about 25 regulation chinups. After resting, I could do another 15, then 10, then 5. I am a bit taller than Lowe and weighed then about 8 lbs. more. Very low body fat. All that said, there was no well in hell I could ever have approached Lowe’s feats.

Lowe wasn’t physically imposing, but was physiologically so. He had an incredible VO2 max and lactic threshhold. Are these factors what primarily accounts for these phenomenal feats of strength and muscular endurance? What physiological determinants ultimately constrain strength in this case? I’ve read Guinness Book of World Record accounts of men doing hundreds of pushups and chipups, with no rest. I’ve also seen big bodybuilder types who couldn’t do 20 regulation chinups if their lives depended on it. I’ve seen college linemen who couldn’t do 10.

What’s going on?

Don’t forget that those pro-bodybuilder types probably weighed a bit more than 160. That’s significant here.

My guess is that Mr. Lowe could have done a chinup with a lot of extra weight hanging from his waist. As a result, bodyweight chinups weren’t taxing his muscles significantly, and so he could fuel them by anaerobic glycolysis or aerobic metabolism. Have a look at the beginning of this article for a bit on the various energy systems and how they play together.

Yeah, he had to have an incredible VO2[sub]max[/sub], and a good lactic acid tolerance–probably had great genes for both–but ultimately I think his maximal strength was the biggest factor.

As a by the way, I read an article recently in the NY Times (registration may be required) that the old understanding about lactic acid is wrong. From the article: “Lactic acid is actually a fuel, not a caustic waste product. Muscles make it deliberately, producing it from glucose, and they burn it to obtain energy. The reason trained athletes can perform so hard and so long is because their intense training causes their muscles to adapt so they more readily and efficiently absorb lactic acid.” So to speak about “lactic threshold” is maybe an out-of-date construct.

But isn’t it true that muscle fiber doesn’t work as effectively in an acidic environment?
Perhaps lactic acid can be used as a fuel, but I don’t think it’s the optimal mode of muscle function. Hopefully a physiologist will be along to help explain.

Strength and endurance may be related in the public mind, but they are really two separate things and one does not imply the other in any way. Marathoners are great endurance athletes, but not one of them could make the first cut in a squat contest and I seriously doubt that any competitive squatters are marathoners. I wouldn’t call doing hundreds of anything a feat of strength. This guy may have both strength and endurance, but one is not a function of the other.

That’s sort of what I was thinking, daffyduck.

That’s very likely why anaerobic glycolysis doesn’t last forever. From the article I linked to earlier:


If you can squat 400 lbs. for one rep, it’s going to be a lot easier to squat 200 lbs. for a lot of reps than if you can only squat 300 lbs. for one rep. There is an inverse relationship between the intensity of a lift (as measured as a percentage of the lifter’s one-rep max) and the number of reps possible.

Judging b the performance of most men, doing even 10 chinups is a feat of strength.

In a NAtional Geographic mag from last year they talked about differences between muscle types and the sports that are preffered. Slow-twitch muscles are good for endurance, fast-twitch muscles are for power. From Wikipedia :

It was interesting to see a picture of a short power-lifter jump straight up in the air higher than his height. But they get out of breath walking up a flight of stairs.