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A Guide To Pull Ups

Updated on February 17, 2014

Chin-ups and pull-ups are the oldest exercise in the book. Everyone knows that they are the thing if you want a good back. Even the most hopeless machine fanatics find time for a good old session of pull-ups, and rightly so.

Chin-ups and pull-ups are a great thing for your back. They can even be called therapeutic, as if you start from a diligent dead hang, relaxed, your spine stretches and straightens are bit. Using pull-ups and chin-ups to cure lower back pain is a bit silly, however. Using them to build a good back is smart.

All variations of the exercise hit your latissimus dorsi, or more simply, lats, as well as rhomboidus, teres major, serratus and rotator cuff muscles, plus forearms and hands. All those people claiming chin-ups and pull-ups work abs are only right if you do enough reps to fatigue the abdominal muscles. So if you think you’ll get away with only doing the pull-ups as your ab work, don’t kid yourself. Go do the roman chair.

We’ll pay close attention to the chin-ups in this article, since they also hit your biceps a little bit, are easier to do, and involve more muscle mass, which is always a good thing.

It should be noted that using a bar that is anything but straight is not really recommended for chins. You want your wrists to be as straight as possible. The variations that get much love from the gym crowd can be harmful to elbow, wrist, and shoulder health, and the perceived effect from them can be compensated for by doing simple chin-ups with added weight. The use of added weight gives you the additional bonus of providing more control over increasing the difficult of the lift, resulting in a more even progression and fewer (if any) plateaus.

So how do the simple chin-up?

First, grab the bar with palms facing you. You will have to find the width that works for you personally. Starting from shoulder width is typical, as palms at shoulder width is comfortable for most. You will want to remember that the wider you place your hands, the more significant the biceps involvement will be. This is just a matter of priorities; if you want to focus on your back more, use a narrower grip. This will also exclude deltoids from the movement.

After you figure the grip width out, the rest should be simple and straightforward. Just pull your elbows down once you’ve grabbed the bar properly. Congratulations, you’ve left the ground. Now pull yourself up until the chin clears the bar. Strictly speaking, you want to continue pulling up until your chest touches the bar, but it’s not that important. Now lower yourself back by extending your arms fully until you are in a dead hang. Hard to make a mistake, isn’t it?

Pretty easy, actually. Most people don’t do full chin-ups for some reason. The only do partials, either not going to a dead hang, keeping the arms partially contracted, or don’t go all the way up. And this is actually a big issue, because chin-ups give the biggest benefit when done with the fullest range of motion possible.

This exercise is dead simple. Considering you have only your ego to fight, as there aren’t that many professional chin-up competitions around, doing this exercise with anything less than a full range of motion is simply pointless. It’s not even because of discipline that you have to do full range of motion chin-ups. No, it’s because the lats are only involved in the bottommost part of the exercise. Once you go higher up, you are actually working your biceps and triceps. And biceps and triceps are best worked by other exercises.

So make sure you do each chin-up with the full range of movement. Say your “no” to nose-ups, go all the way up, then all the way down. If you find that you actually can’t do as much chin-ups using a full range of motion, take a few breaths while hanging down. And don’t kip.

On the other hand, if you are doing a very high rep set, you can let yourself use a bit of a stretch reflex at the bottom of the movement. This doesn’t mean you can wiggle around like a gummy worm, though. Let yourself spring a little once you hit the bottom of the movement, then raise up, take a quick breath on top, move down, spring, move up.

Finally, what to do if you can’t do a single chin-up?

Kipping is still forbidden. If you can’t do a single chin-up, your best bet would be to either lower the bar and start off the floor, start with the jump to get the movement started, or jump all the way up so your chin is above the bar, and then gradually lower yourself down as slow as possible.


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