The verdict is in: Chin-ups and pull-ups are the best upper body mass builders.
If you believe that the squat is the king of leg exercises, then you probably wouldn’t waste your time doing endless sets of abductor machines, leg extensions, or any leg movements on the near-useless Smith machine, right? Likewise, the chin-up – along with its variations – should be considered the “upper body squat,” because of its superior mass-building qualities and its ability to develop high levels of functional strength.
Many bodybuilders would be jealous of the upper back development of top-level gymnasts and kayakers. Their conditioning programs center on – you guessed it – chin-ups. Many elite police organizations, such as Special Forces units and SWAT teams, require candidates to perform a minimum number of chins before allowing them into their programs.
For example, a standard test for such programs is to perform 4 chin-ups using a pronated grip with full tactical load (40 kilos of various tools of the trade, such as weapons) because it replicates the amount of strength needed to climb into a helicopter.
As for pulldowns, although they do serve a purpose, they finish a distant second to chin-ups and pull-ups. With pulldowns, you move a free-moving object (the bar) around you, and it’s easier to use your lower back and momentum to pull the weight. Unfortunately, “easier” is never the best way to build strength and muscle mass.
With chin-ups, you have to move your body around a fixed object (the bar), ensuring an overload on the upper back and the flexor muscles of the upper arms. The movement is closer to what you encounter in real life and transfers much better to sports performance. As a bonus, the close-grip chin-up will also add size to your biceps.
Although the movement you perform on Gravitron-type machines seems to emulate chin-ups, the stabilizer muscles are almost completely taken out of the movement, setting you up for poor performance and possibly injury. Machines such as this, and pulldowns as well, are okay for variety, but chin-ups should be at the core of your upper back training.
For chin-ups, a supinated grip is traditional, while pull-ups call for a pronated grip (although, as you’ll see, several other grip options are also available). When you perform either one, always lower your body to a full extension. As for breathing, you should inhale when you start the exercise, and exhale as you begin the descent. Never use straps, though, because they could easily become a crutch and will take away from your forearm and grip strength. You don’t want grip strength to be a limiting factor in real life or sports performance.
With most styles of the chin-up, try the following progression. For the meantime, we’ll assume you can’t complete a single rep by yourself because of weakness or heavy bodyweight, or a combination of both.
Instead of resorting to a pull-up machine, simply perform several eccentric-only reps. In other words, stand on a bench or jump up so that your chin is over the bar. Now, lower yourself in a slow and controlled manner. That’s a good start.
For an eccentric-only routine, perform 4 sets of one eccentric rep so that each negative portion lasts for 30 seconds. Once you get the hang of that, try stopping the movement on the way down. Begin with your chin above the bar; lower yourself slowly until you’re one third of the way down, and then stop – hold this position for 8 seconds. Drop again until you’re about halfway down and hold the position again for another 8 seconds. Finally, lower yourself again until you’re almost at full extension and hold again for 8 seconds (you probably won’t be able to hold the full 8 seconds on that last lowering portion just yet, but set that as your goal).
The second step in this progression requires the use of a good spotter. In the first spotter-assisted progression, your partner will support you by holding on to your ankles. If needed, you may then push off their base of support for extra assistance. Once you can perform 12 reps in this style with minimal assistance, you’re ready for the next phase, in which your partner will hold on to only one ankle. The extra weight of the free leg will increase the overload on the lats. Once you can complete 12 reps without much assistance, you’re ready for the third phase.
In the third progression, your spotter will hold you at the waist. As you get stronger, you’ll find that you require assistance only in certain parts of the exercise. At these sticking points, your partner should provide only enough assistance to help you clear the bar. Soon, you’ll be knocking out strict reps with no help.
But don’t rest on your laurels! Here are three ways to increase overload:
1. Hold a dumbbell between your ankles. This method allows you to perform a drop set by dropping the dumbbell as you reach failure. Then, you can perform a few more reps and extend the set.
2. As you ascend, have your partner pull down on your ankles.
3. Use a chin/dip belt with weight attached to it.
Once you get past basic wide-grip pull-ups and medium-grip chin-ups, it’s time to shake things up a bit. Here are a few options:
The gymnast’s extended-set back routine. Many athletes and bodybuilders who claim that they can never really “feel” their lats will be “feeling” them for several days after this program. Keep in mind this is an advanced routine. You need to be able to perform at least 12 shoulder-width supinated chins in strict form before you tackle this bad boy. Here you go:
1. Wide-grip pull-ups: perform as many reps as possible. Rest for 10 seconds.
2. Medium-grip pull-ups: perform as many reps as possible. Rest for 10 seconds.
3. Medium-grip chin-ups: perform as many reps as possible. Rest for 10 seconds.
4. Narrow-grip chin-ups: perform as many reps as possible. Rest for 3 minutes.
Repeat steps 1-4 twice.
Sternum chin-up. The sternum chin is the undisputed king of compound exercises for the upper back. Popularized by Vince Gironda, this chin-up variation requires you to hold your torso in a layback posture throughout the entire movement. As you pull yourself to the bar, extend your head back as far away from the bar as possible and arch your spine; towards the end of the movement, hold your hips and legs at about a 45-degree angle to the floor. Keep pulling until your collarbone passes the bar, your lower sternum makes contact with the bar, and your head is parallel to the floor. You can use either a supinated or a pronated grip, and you can change the width of your grip for variety.
Not only does this exercise create a great overload on the scapulae retractors, it works more than just the lats. The beginning of the movement is more like a classical chin, the midrange resembles the pullover motion, and the end position duplicates the finishing motion of a rowing movement. If you’re advanced enough to even attempt this routine, then you should make sternum chin-ups the staple of your back program.
Side-to-side chin-up. Here’s a chin-up variation you don’t see much. Get into a wide-grip pull-up position. Place your hands a little wider apart than your shoulders. Instead of pulling yourself straight up, pull toward one hand at a time. Try to “kiss” your wrists. This is a favorite among judokas and wrestlers.
One-armed chin. This isn’t just a show-off exercise but one of the most advanced forms of the chin-up. Before attempting the one-armed chin, though, first become competent in the standard mixed-grip chin. This is another exercise you don’t see very often.
In the mixed-grip variation, you’ll place the hands about shoulder-width apart, but with one hand pronated and the other supinated. The side using the supinated grip will get the greatest portion of the load. Make sure to perform an equal amount of work for both arms by reversing the grips on each alternating set. The stronger you are, the wider the grip you should use.
Once you master the mixed-grip chin, you’re ready to work towards performing a legitimate one-armed chin. Place one hand on a chin bar and the free hand on a rope that’s hanging from the chin bar (for support). As you continue to get stronger, you’ll be able to place your hand lower and lower on the rope.
Thick-grip training. Once you’re chinning with Tarzan-like upper body strength, there’s one more way to increase the overload. Simply take all the above exercises and perform them using a thick bar (2 to 2 1/2 inches). The end poles of monkey bars at the local playground work well, but wrapping a towel or piece of foam around your usual bar will do the trick for most people.
Just as in training with thick-grip barbells and dumbbells, chinning with a fat bar recruits more muscle fibers, leading to faster strength gains. After a few weeks of thick-grip training, you’ll notice a 10-12 percent increase in strength when you return to using a bar of regular diameter. Also, expect to add significant size to your forearms.
This article provides just a taste of the endless variations of the chin-up. By changing the grip, tempo and resistance in these exercises, you’ll have no need to rely on machines for upper back training ever again. Besides, once you see your size and strength gains hit the roof, you’ll never want to go back.