The Pull Up and Chin Up Guide: Building A Bigger Back this Winter
When it comes to exercise, chin ups and pull ups are one of the best demonstrations of upper-body strength. There is something impressive about lifting your whole body up repeatedly while dangling on a bar. Not only are they are an impressive strength feat, but they are a fantastic mass building exercises in developing back musculature. The perfect exercise to focus on this winter.
Despite their fame, chin ups and pull ups can be a difficult one to tackle. When starting off, performing a single rep can be an ambitious goal in itself. This leads people to opt for lat pulldowns instead and pass up on the chin up bar. Conversely, once the chin up has been mastered, it can be hard to find ways to spice things up and ensure that progress doesn't stall.
Below we will take a look at the chin ups and pull ups from a few different angles covering the different grips and their benefits, form hacks and tips for the beginner. We will also look at some ways to structure your sets and reps and make things more challenging.
Chin Ups and Pull Ups - Basics
The difference between a pull up and a chin up is determined by the grip. A chin up is performed with palms facing you (supinated). The pull up is performed with the palms facing away from you (pronated). Most gyms will also have an option for a neutral grip (palms facing each other) which I guess you could call a ''neutral grip pull up''.
While all three grips work the same muscles, they do have slight differences. Research shows that chin ups have a greater range of motion and involve more biceps. On the other hand, pull ups activate more of the lower trapezius and back. As for neutral grip pulls ups, the hand positioning puts less strain on the joints and may have benefits for a beat-up lifter.
None of the above differences makes one variation better than the other. At the end of the day, it comes down to personal preference and whatever feels best for the individual lifter. As the difference between chin ups and pull ups is so minor, from here on in I will just refer to all variations using the catch-all term ''pull up''.
What classifies as good form with pull ups can vary drastically depending on who you talk to. The truth is there are a variety of ways of performing the exercise that classifies as acceptable. Starting from a dead-hang each rep or keeping the elbows slightly bent are both accepted, as long as tension is maintained throughout the movement. Touching the bar with the chest or clavicles or just ensuring the chin goes over the bar are all accepted as good form as well. What's important is that the movement is controlled the whole way through and that there is skimping on form for reps.
Here is an excellent video on technique and basic dos and do nots:
One of the trickier aspects of the pull up is starting the movement, due to the disadvantageous position the shoulder is in. Unlike rowing, the start of the pull up is where you are at your weakest. The below video has some useful tips on getting into an optimal position to lift from. I found the below helpful in improving my own form.
Practice makes perfect. Starting a new exercise usually involves firstly understanding what constitutes good form and what the cardinal form sins of that exercise are. Then you get to work, getting some repetitions under the belt to dial things in, usually with a lower weight. Pull ups are harder to tackle in this regard because reps can be so hard to come by. Doing a single rep can be a goal in itself. This can be an issue not only for people starting out with pull ups but for people with different body shapes and body weights. The more you weigh, the more you have to lift.
The difficulty of getting reps out on a pull up bar can lead people to give up on the pursuit and opt for the lat pulldown instead. While the lat pulldown is still a great exercise, persisting with pull ups is worth it.
The easiest way to get more reps out on the pull up is if your Gym is lucky enough to have an ''Assisted Pull Up Machine''. These machines allow for adjustments to the assistance as required. The idea is you gradually build yourself up and slowly wean yourself off the assistance, using less and less until you can work your way to the real deal.
Unfortunately, not everyone is lucky enough to have access to an Assisted Pull Up Machine. For those that don't have access to one, another way of performing an assisted version of the pull up is the ''Band Assisted Pull Up''. Band Assisted Pull Ups are equal to, or possibly even better than then Assisted Pull Up Machine because they allow you to move more naturally. The assistance can be adjusted by using different strength resistance bands (the stronger and more resistance on the band, the easier it will be).
Here is a video on how to perform them:
If you don't have access to bands or an Assisted Pull Up Machine, or you are just looking for an alternative, another variation of assisted pull up is the Rack Pull Up or more commonly known as ''Rack Chins''.
Rack chins are generally performed in a squat rack or using a smith machine and a decline situp bench to elevate your feet. Resting the feet on the elevated decline pad decreases the load substantially compared to a standard pull up, making it easier, but still closely mimicking a pull up.
Within the Rack Chin, there are also various variations to make it either harder or easier. If even with feet elevated the movement is too easy a dumbbell or weight plate can be added to your lap for further resistance. On the flip side, if the feet elevated makes the movement too hard, you can place your feet lower - even to the floor if you are a complete beginner.
Making Things Harder
Once proficiency is achieved with pull ups and the technique is perfected, it can be time to make things harder and challenge yourself a little. As with all exercises that are performed primarily with body weight only, things can become stagnant quickly as you are always lifting the same thing, your body. Also, merely repping out to failure every set can make progress hard as well. Especially when reps can be so hard to come by when first getting accustomed to the world of pull ups.
Finding new ways to structure your reps and sets from traditional 4 sets of 'x' rep ranges can be an effective strategy to ensure that you continually make progress on your pull ups. A few ways of structuring reps and sets that you might find useful are as follows:
Ladders are a way of structuring reps and sets that was popularised by Strength Coaches in the Soviet Union (in particular Pavel Tsatsouline) that rarely finds it's way into the average Gym, which is a real shame.
The easiest way of doing them is to do 1 rep, rest. Do 2 reps, rest and so on, until you get to your goal reps (for example 10). If you are feeling really ambitious, you can start working your way back down (i.e. 9 reps, rest. 8 reps, rest etc.).
The second way of doing ladders is to jump back and forth on reps. Say you can do 10 reps of pull ups pretty confidently, you start with 1 rep, rest. 10 reps, rest. 2 reps, rest. 9 reps, rest (etc).
The trick is to not go to failure, at least not on the initial reps to maximise your volume.
Arnies Pull Up Workout
Another way of structuring reps and sets for pull ups is trick pulled from one of bodybuilding's greatest, Arnold Schwarzenegger. I think I read about it way back in the day in an Iron magazine. Essentially what you do is pick a number - say 50 - and just do as many sets until you reach that number. Even if it gets to the point where you are doing 1 or 2 reps a set. The goal is to reduce the amount of sets it takes to reach that number each week.
Weighted Pull Ups
The easiest way to make an exercise harder is to add more resistance. Usually, this involves adding more weight to the bar. For obvious reasons, this does not work for pull ups.
The best way to add resistance to pull ups is by using a ''dip belt''. They reasonably comfortable and involve minimal stuffing around. More and less weight can easily be added as needed. Most Gyms will have a communal one lying around that can be used. If not, they can be purchased and added to the Gym bag at a relatively low cost.
If you don't have a dip belt and neither does the Gym then you need to get a bit more creative when performing weighted pull ups. You can get someone or a training partner to put a dumbbell between your legs - although this feels far more precarious than a dip belt.
If the dip belt or the dumbbell between the legs isn't doable, a weighted vest is another alternative. There are purpose made weight vests designed for the very purpose, but you could just as easily chuck a 10kg plate in a backpack. Although it isn't the most fashionable look.
Pull ups are a key back building and upper body exercise, but they can be hard to master. Initially focus on form and getting the technique down. This comes from repetition. Find a grip that works for you. If you cannot get a single rep of unassisted initially, use one of the assisted techniques mentioned above, or a combination all of them. You can do pull ups multiple times per week. Ladders can be a great way to build up your proficiency and get you to the point where you can start looking to add weight.