The verdict is in: Chin-ups and pull-ups are the best exercise to train the upper body.
If you believe that the squat is the king of leg exercises, then you wouldn’t waste your time doing endless sets of abductor machines or leg extensions, right?
The chin-up – along with its variations – should be considered the “upper body squat." You must train chin-ups because of their superior mass-building qualities and ability to develop high levels of functional strength.
Why Chin-ups Are Your Ultimate Mass Builder
When you train chin-ups, you have to move your body around a fixed object (the bar), ensuring an overload on the muscles of the upper back and the 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 adds size to your biceps.
Chin-Ups Vs. Pull-Ups
When you train chin-ups, a supinated grip in which your palms face your body is traditional. Pull-ups call for a pronated grip (palms facing away). 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.
Chin-Up Training Progressions
If you can't do a single rep of chin-ups, train the following progressions.
Start With Eccentric-Only Reps
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. Each negative portion in which you are lowering yourself 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).
Use A Spotter
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. Have 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.
Use Advanced Chin-Up Training Techniques For Continued Gains
Once you've mastered the body weight chin-up, you need to keep improving your chin-ups. Here are three ways to increase overload:
- 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.
- As you ascend, have your partner pull down on your ankles.
- Use a chin/dip belt with weight attached to it.
Try 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:
- Wide-grip pull-ups: perform as many reps as possible. Rest for 10 seconds.
- Medium-grip pull-ups: perform as many reps as possible. Rest for 10 seconds.
- Medium-grip chin-ups: perform as many reps as possible. Rest for 10 seconds.
- Narrow-grip chin-ups: perform as many reps as possible. Rest for 3 minutes.
Repeat steps 1-4 twice.
Try Sternum Chin-Ups
The sternum chin-up 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. Use either a supinated or a pronated grip. 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.
Do The 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.
Master The One-Armed Chin-Up
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.
Do 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.