Improving Chin-Up Performance

By: Charles Poliquin

Chin-ups involve the sternal portion of the pectoralis major, latissimus dorsi, teres major, posterior deltoid, the rhomboids, the middle and lower portions of the trapezius, and the elbow flexors. A wide variety of sports require strength in these muscles, particularly sports that require powerful upper body pulling action such as judo and wrestling.

A chin-up specialization program will not only build impressive width and thickness to your back but will also pack solid inches on your arms by promoting growth on your biceps, brachialis, brachio-radialis and pronator teres. You only have to look at the arm development of Olympic gold medalists in gymnastics Andreas Wecker (GER) and Yurij (ITA) to be convinced. These individuals are not known for their volume of training on the Scott bench, but more for their countless volume of pull-ups and chin-ups on the various gymnastics apparatus.

I already can hear the people say, “I will just substitute pulldowns instead of chins”. Sure go ahead but you will not get the same results, and you will still have the lat spread of a cigarette. The neuro-physiological reasons why chin-ups are superior to pulldowns are beyond the scope of this article. But to put it briefly: a classic example of the difference between chin-ups and pulldowns is the fact that a chin-up is a close-chin exercise (body moves towards resistance) and a lat pulldown is an open chain exercise (resistance moves towards the body).

These two types of exercise (open vs close chain) require completely different recruitment patterns although the exercises may look similar visually. But the fact that is clear, a great back is built much faster through chins than through pulldowns. Very much the same way that squats and deadlifts cannot be matched for lower body development.

Chin-Ups vs Pull-Ups: What Is The Difference?

In kinesiologese, and throughout this article, pull-ups are chin-ups done with a pronated grip (palms down grip) and chin-up are done with either a semi-supinated (palms facing each other) or with a supinated grip (palms facing you grip). What is the best grip for chins?

There is no such thing as a best grip for performing chins. Empirically speaking, the people I know with the best upper back development use a myriad of grips to recruit as many back muscles as possible. You just have to look at the upper back development of the gymnasts who medalled recently in the still rings event at the Atlanta Olympic Summer Games.

How To Perform Chin-Ups Properly…

Your most basic chin-up is the supinated chin-up. This type of chin-up have the greatest range of movements from all chin-ups for both the lats and upper arms. The starting position begins with a bar grasp in a supinated or palms up position. The hands should be held at shoulder width or slightly narrower. The arms should be straightened in a fully extended position with the torso in line with the upper arms. To begin the ascent, the relatively strong upper back and elbow flexor muscles will be used, as the elbows are drawn down and back.

The ascent should continue until the chin clears the bar. It’s important to remember that before initiating the ascent, the athlete should inhale. During the ascent, the pulling action and leaning back action must be done simultaneously. Upon descent, exhaling begins and the trunk should come back to an upright position. As the descent is completed, the arms should be fully extended and the shoulder blade should be elevated. (THIS IS EXTREMELY IMPORTANT) To complete the range of motion, the upper arms and scapulae adductors must be stretched on every repetition. The legs should stay in line with the torso as much as possible. There should be no flexion of the hips, as this will lower the quality of the exercise.

Wrist straps can be used by trainees who have weak forearm strength and risk losing their grip, or for trainees who find that their forearm muscles are fatiguing before the upper back. However, I prefer if the trainee does not use straps, as in the real sporting (i.e. judo match) you will need to use your lats without the help of the crutches that straps are.

Progressions Of Chin-Ups

Undoubtedly, the chin-up requires a certain amount of strength. For novice trainees, starting a strength program, using a series of progressions will help build up the strength level.

The first progression starts with the athlete hanging from the chin-up bar. The knees should be bent. Then a spotter should support the athlete at the ankles during the ascent. If extra assistance is required during this phase, the athlete can extend the legs against the spotter’s base of support. Once able to perform 12 repetitions in this style with minimal assistance, the athlete is ready to move on to the next progression.

In this progression, the same position is used, but this time only one ankle should be in the spotter’s hands. The extra weight of the free leg will increase the overload on the muscles, providing you are overcompensating with the other leg. That is the reason a good spotter who gives you just enough help at the waist is a much better alternative.

When 12 repetitions can be performed with minimal assistance, the athlete can move on.

Here the position is the same, but this time the spotter will hold the waist. As the athlete strengthens, he or she will require assistance only in certain parts of the range of motion.

During this portion of the movement, the spotter should offer only enough assistance to help in clearing the bar.

Once to this point, the athlete will be able to perform the full range of movement without any assistance.

The athlete is now ready to use additional loads. An increase in overload is accomplished by one of the following:

* Placing a dumbbell between the ankles
* Wearing a power hook attached to a weightlifting belt.
* Wearing a chin/dip belts with weights attached to it.

Variations Of The Chin-Ups & Pull-Ups

As gymnasts, wrestler, and judokas have shown throughout the years, there are many effective variations of this exercise that can be used to boost your level of back mass and strength.

Narrow Parallel Grip Chin-ups

For instance, to provide a greater overload for the shoulder extensors, use a narrow parallel grip. Many gyms are equipped with V-handles chin-up stations, which are set 6 to 8 inches apart. Focus on bringing your lower chest to the handles as you pull yourself up. This variation is for the more advanced bodybuilder.

Narrow Supinated Grip Chin-ups

In this variation the grip is supinated but you will leave only 4 to 6 inches between the little fingers, this will increase the overload for the elbow flexors. In fact, it becomes an exercise where the load is shared almost by the torso and the upper arms. Which makes it a great arm exercise for those of you who have a Milwaukee tumor hanging off your torso.

Medium Parallel Grip Chin-ups

Arthur Jones, of Nautilus fame, was a strong proponent of this variation of the chin-up exercise. In this variation the handles are 22 to 24 inches apart, In fact, you can have access to this exact grip on all Nautilus multi-station machines. In this variation, the hands are semi-supinated (palms facing each other, also known as neutral grip).

At this grip you have the best leverage, as both the elbow flexors and the shoulder extensors are in their most effective line of pull. You will find that this grip has the least amount of stress on your wrists, elbows and shoulders. It is the form of chins where you are most likely to be able to use additional loads.

Sternum Chin-ups

This variation popularized by Vince Gironda, involves keeping the torso leaning back throughout the entire movement. In this variation, the lower portion of the chest should touch the high bar. You can use either a supinated or a pronated grip. The grip varies from narrow to shoulder width. The latter being more indicated for the stronger trainee.

As you pull yourself to the bar, have your head lean back as far away from the bar as possible, and arch your spine throughout the movement.

Towards the end point of the movement, your hips and legs will be at about a 45 degree angle to the floor. You should keep pulling until your collarbones pass the bar and you make contact with the bar with your lower sternum. By the time you have completed the concentric portion of the movement, your head will be parallel to the floor.

I would consider the king of compound movements for the upper back, because it works more than the lats, it creates a great overload on the scapulae retractors. The beginning of the movement is more like a classical chin, the mid-range resembles the effect of the pullover motion, and the end position duplicates the finishing motion of a rowing movement. If you are an advanced trainee, and you are pressed for time, I would make the sternum chin-up a staple of your back routine.

Narrow Pronated Pull-ups

Use narrow pronated grip where the spacing between both hands is roughly 4 to 6 inches. This grip increases the amount of overload on the brachialis and brachio-radialis muscles because in this anatomical position, the biceps brachii have a rather ineffective line of pull. For many individuals this grip is easier on their wrists than the supinated grip. It is another very effective upper arm builder, particularly if your brachialis muscles are under-developped.

Warning: At the bottom of the range of motion, the hanging position, if you are experiencing shoulder discomfort it is a warning sign that you may have less than optimal shoulder mechanics. You may want to consult a shoulder specialist that can evaluate and correct your shoulder mechanics).

Mixed Grip Chin-ups I

In this variation the trainee uses a mixed grip: one hand pronated, one hand supinated, for example on your first set, with the left hand use a supinated grip and with the right hand use a pronated grip. With this variation, a greater portion of the load is on the trainee’s left arm because the brain will shift the arm to the more mechanically efficient arm. The stronger the trainee the wider the grip. Make sure to equal sets and reps by reversing the grip on each alternating set.

Mixed Grip Chin-Ups II

The last variation is an even more advanced version of the mixed grip chin-up. This has the support hand placed on the working arm’s wrist. The stronger the athlete, the lower the hand is placed on the working arm.

The Subscapularis Pull-up

Probably what Professor Mengele would prescribe if in charge of a gymnast’s training. In this variation, you assume the starting position of the wide grip pull-up, and pull yourself to the bar until the upper pecs make contact with the chin-up bar. The nuance being that at the top of the movement, you push yourself away from the bar, and lower yourself under control. Believe me, your subscapularis muscles will curse you the next 3 days, as they are strongly activated to control the descent.

The Gymnast’s Extended Set Back Routine

This routine is for the advanced trainee only, it is inspired by the routines that Olympic gymnasts do to condition their enormous backs. You must be able to do 12 strict form shoulder width supinated chins, to do this routine.

1. Wide grip Pull-ups , as many reps as possible
2. 10 seconds rest pause
3. Medium grip Pull-ups , as many reps as possible
4. 10 seconds rest pause
5. Medium grip Chin-ups , as many reps as possible
6. 10 seconds rest pause
7. Narrow grip Chin-ups
8. Rest 3 minutes
9. Repeat steps 1 to 8 twice, cry and curse me.

Andr?© The Flying Squirrel Routine

This routine is named after Andr?© Benoit, holder of the fastest in Luge double at the Lillehammer Olympics, who could do wide grip pull-ups with a 120 lbs dumbbell for a set of 3 reps on a 401 tempo. It is reserved for people who can chin-up with at least 33% of additional load for 8 reps (supinated grip shoulder width grip.)

1. Sternum Chin-ups 5 x 4-6 on a 601 tempo, rest 4 minutes between sets.
2. Subscapularis Pull-ups 3 x max reps on a 501 tempo, rest 3 minutes between sets.
3. Negative Close Grip Chins 3 x 4-6 rest 3 minutes between sets, use additional loads if possible, lower the body for a 6-8 seconds count on every rep.

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