Chin-ups and pull-ups are your number one go-to exercise for an amazing back. Chin-ups (palms facing you) train the biceps brachii a bit more than pull-ups (palms facing away) because this muscle is maximally recruited when the elbow is bent and the hand is supinated. Greater biceps brachii recruitment is one reason trainees often report that chin-ups “feel” easier than pull-ups.
A recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research shows that chin-ups and pull-ups are the best bang for your buck upper body exercise. Both recruit seven muscles of the back and trunk at levels that are appropriate for strength training.
The prime mover for both exercises is the latissimus dorsi with electromyographic (EMG) signals ranging from 117 to 130 percent of the maximal involuntary contraction. Chin-ups recruited the chest more than pull-ups, and the EMG for the pectoralis was about 65 percent of that previously recorded in a traditional push-up. The pull-ups activated the lower trapezius and infraspinatus more than the chin-up, and both exercises were near equal in recruiting the external obliques and erector spinae.
Chin-ups and pull-ups can both be included in your training, and they are excellent to balance out the tendency to only perform pressing exercises such as the bench and overhead press. Presses are great exercises, but they must be balanced with appropriate upper back training.
The reliance on pull-down machines for upper back training, especially in weaker or more novice trainees can be overcome by performing negative chin-ups in which you climb on to a step or bench and begin the exercise with your chin over the bar. Begin to lower your body as slowly as possible. If you are new to chins, you will likely take about eight seconds. Perform five reps. Each training session add a repetition until you get to ten. At the same time, try to extend the amount of time it takes you to lower yourself. The goal is to reach 30 seconds.
Once you can perform a nice volume of 30-second eccentric chin-ups, you should be ready for a regular chin-up. To do this, you need to train a fairly high volume of negative reps.
Many novice trainees who have adequate eccentric chin-up strength don’t have the subscapular strength or coordination to initiate the concentric movement when hanging. One solution is to contract the scapula and hold it for 6 to 10 seconds while hanging. Additionally, a spotter can help you learn to initiate the upward movement.