Vertical Pulling For the horizontally challenged – Part 2
The chin-up is one of the best upper body exercises you can do. It is known in strength training circles as the “king of upper body movement.” While fans of the bench press would debate this, it is safe to say that chin-ups are the king of vertical pulling movements.
It is said that training to master the chin-up, and its close cousin the pull-up, can be a humbling experience. As in, check your manhood at the door humbling. The reason is that bodyweight plays a huge role in the performance of chin-ups, not just pure muscle strength. So big guys can often be outperformed by tiny fitness girls or skinny guys with wiry frames.
However, it is a rewarding movement to master and it pays big dividends in muscle mass and core stability, IF it is properly done. Which is a pretty rare occurrence, sadly. This is not just because of the popularity of the kipping/butterfly version used in Crossfit, but also because of poorly understood coaching cues and body mechanics. Let’s dive in to fix this and get you crowned with the king of upper body lifts!
Elements of the perfect chin-up
Let’s make one thing clear first. A chin-up is done with the palms either in supination (facing you) or parallel (facing each other). The pull-up is performed with a pronated (palms facing away from you) grip exclusively. Don’t confuse one for the other, otherwise you or your clients will not be happy campers. Especially in the early stage of training this lift. Both are types of vertical pulling, but they offer different challenges
That being said, both chin-ups and pull-ups share similar coaching cues in order to get maximum benefits.
1) Chin must clear the bar. It is called the chin-up for a reason. And this reason is that your chin must go over the bar, otherwise it is not bring done properly. Coach Poliquin went one step further and coached his athletes to touch the bar with their collarbones. This ensured full range of motion, which is a key element of performance.
Example of the chin clearing the bar
2) Keep your chest up. A proper chin-up requires the shoulder blades to retract maximally. To do this, the upper back must be slightly arched. A good coaching cue to use with your athletes is to have them stick out their chest during every repetition.
3) Start with the shoulder blades. Too many chin-ups get turned into a curling movement, using the arms only. It is a pulling motion, a traction of the body by the upper limbs and back. As such, the movement should begin at the shoulder blades and the shoulders.
4) Full Range of Motion, also at the bottom. Just as the chin must clear the bar at the top, the bottom must also be done in full ROM. The arms are completely straightened at the bottom. The shoulder blades must slide up slightly to stretch the lower traps and the lats. Basically, you must be fully stretched and relaxed at the bottom.
As a bonus, here is a tip to increase performance during chin-ups. Imagine you are elbowing someone standing behind you. This will drive the elbows back and help activate the lats should be able to do 1-3 more chin-ups with this great coaching cue.
Why are chin-ups/pull-ups important?
Chin-ups and pull-ups are critical for a great many tasks and endeavors. There should be a hashtag like #ChinupsMatter to emphasize this. Yes, the different types of rows are great for back hypertrophy and strength as well. They are not sufficient however. The chin-up offers a lot more range of motion. This extra ROM in vertical pulling is important to recruit more fibers, especially at the muscle-tendon junction.
They are used as a relative strength test by many military and police organizations, such as the U.S Marines, SWAT, and the Special Forces, to name a few. This is also true overseas. The PMRC (Potential Royal Marine Course), is the course that qualifies participants to become a Royal Marine in the U.K., where recruits are required to perform a minimum of 3 strict pull-ups, while 16 will get you top score.
As mentioned in part 1 of this article, many sports have a pulling component. It would be easy to think of sports such as mountain climbing for its overhead pulling actions, but the strength gains with chin-ups and pull-ups offer great transfer to any plane of pulling. Thus, sports such a rowing and kayaking profit from these exercises as well.
Combat sports such as wrestling, judo and Brazilian Ju-jitsu require a good balance between pushing and pulling to ensure control of the opponent and good positioning. Of course, it goes without saying that those exercises are a crucial element of performance for gymnasts.
A matter of balance
Proper strength with chin-ups and pull-ups is also critical to balance out the pressing, punching, and throwing motion. Those actions require a lot of strength and power. Think of your pectoralis major and triceps brachii as the accelerator in this case. In order for them to give their full potential, your body needs brakes that are just as strong.
A great example of this is when coach Poliquin trained hockey Hall of Famer Al McInnis to have the strongest slapshot in the NHL by increasing the strength of his lats with a steady regimen of chin-ups and pull-ups. This allowed his pecs and triceps to give their best and reach a puck speed of 100.4 mph. While this speed is no longer the greatest, McInnis never used a composite graphite stick, which might have increased his speed. He is still ranked #1 for legendary slapshots in the NHL according to the Bleacher Report as of 2016. You can still hear stories about how goalies feared his slapshots, because they came in fast and hard. Can’t ask for a better endorsement for chin-ups than that!
What are the differences between chin-ups & pull-ups?
Chin-ups and pull-ups are often confused. They are very similar, other than the grip difference mentioned earlier in this article. However, research has outlined a few interesting differences.
1) Both chin-ups and pull-ups are equally effective at recruiting the latissimus dorsi.
Although the pull-up is considered a more difficult exercise, EMG studies have shown that both movements recruit the lats almost as effectively. Recruitment of the lats is increased when you add an adduction component to the exercise.
However, this is an effect of grip width. Pronation and supination, in and of themselves, do not affect this parameter. The pull-up does however offer the possibility of a wider grip than the chin-up. But when both movements were tested at equal widths, differences in lat activation were minimal.
The interesting part shown in these studies was the location of that recruitment. If overall activity of the muscle was the same, it was not the same everywhere depending on the variation being tested. The close-grip chin-up was shown to recruit the upper portion of the lats (close to insertion on the humerus) better. The wide grip pull-up was better at recruiting the lower lats. Case in point: vary your grip to get the best of both worlds.
2) Chin-ups recruit the biceps more… but not by much
Grip orientation will affect the recruitment of the biceps. When the hands are in pronation, the biceps have an inefficient lever. This is because the biceps, on top of being an elbow flexor, are also a powerful forearm supinator. Doing pull-ups will shift the elbow flexor activity more on the brachialis and the brachioradialis than the chin-ups. That is not to say the biceps are not being recruited during pull-ups though. One study looked at 3 variations of vertical pulling. They found that in all cases, activity of the biceps was very high – upward of 80% of Muscle Voluntary Contraction.
3) Both exercises recruit the traps
Shoulder retraction is an important component of the pulling motion. This allows a better recruitment of the lats throughout the exercise. This job falls on all three heads of the trapezius muscle. While the retraction movement is more associated with the middle trapezius, the lower and upper parts also do their share of the work when they are both active. Think of them working together to pull the scapula in the same way you would think of the anterior and posterior deltoids working together to abduct the arm.
Studies have shown comparable activation of the traps during chin-ups and pull-ups. One study did find greater activation of the traps during the pull-up. However the researchers made the point that this could be due to the pull-up being harder than the chin-up. This extra effort explained the slight increase in muscle activation.
One sign of poor recruitment of the lower trap is when trainees elevate their shoulders. This may later cause neck and shoulder pain due to spasm on the levator scapulae muscle.
7 factors that limits vertical pulling performance
Several factors can impede your performance of vertical pulling movements. This is even more true for chin-ups and pull-ups than it is for lat pulldowns.
1) Lose the extra baggage
Chin-ups and pull-ups are bodyweight movements. This means that any extra body weight can and will impede performance. While this might be true for hypertrophy, we need to consider that functional hypertrophy comes with greater strength. Training for strength, or the type of hypertrophy that also makes you stronger, will offset this. Fat, however, is just extra baggage. It is non-contractile tissue. So if you aim to master the king of upper body movements, start with body composition.
Coach Poliquin was famous for saying that a test of the competence of a strength coach should be to take his athletes from 1 to 12 chin-ups in 12 weeks. He was criticized for this statement because people assumed this was true at any bodyweight. It is not. The trainee should be reasonably lean FIRST before tackling this challenge.
2) Get the proper hang time in
Grip strength and static strength-endurance is another often overlooked factor in chin-up performance. If you want to be able to perform 12 strict chin-ups (or more), you have to be able to grip the bar for the duration of the exercise.
Of course, this also includes strength of the forearm musculature. No grip, no vertical pulling. Period
3) Make sure you have proper thoracic extension
Being able to adequately extend the thoracic spine is a third factor. Many people are restricted in their t-spine ROM and this limits the activation of the lats and traps. Make sure you have full mobility of the ribcage to perform chin-ups optimally.
4) Latissimus dorsi activation
This factor is a frequent contributor to poor performance. Adhesions between the lats and teres major has been mentioned in part 1 as a common cause. It can also be caused by improper training of these muscles, especially if the athlete is not used to the vertical pulling motion.
5) Strength of the elbow flexors
While the biceps get all the attention, the brachialis and brachioradialis are also great contributors to chin-ups and pull-ups. Make sure their strength is up to par.
6) Abdominal bracing and endurance
A strong core is a great thing to have. But to execute great chin-ups, it is a must have. This is not about chiseled abs, but rather about having a core strong enough to properly brace yourself during the vertical pulling motion.
7) Back Pain
The latissimus muscle is a major contributor to core strength as well. It attaches to the thoracolumbar fascia and thus participates in its tension. Improper tension of this fascia contributes to back pain and vice-versa. So back pain can make the recruitment of the lats harder and impede chin-up performance. Make sure you consider vertical pulling and proper lats training when you deal with low back pain.
Variations of chin-ups and pull-ups worth doing
Neutral Grip Chin-ups
This is the bread and butter chin-up for beginners. It will give them the best performance results and make them increase the number of chin-ups they can perform.
This variation is great to build biceps strength and mass.
A favorite of 70’s Iron Guru Vince Gironda, the sternum chin-up combines the best feature of chin-ups and rows.
Chin-ups in rings
If you’re comfortable doing at least 12 chin-ups and want to be further humbled, give chin-ups on gymnastic rings a try. They are great to build stability in the shoulders and in the whole body.
Wide Grip Pull-ups
This is what most people think of when thinking about pull-ups. It is one of the most performed variations and is a great lower lat builder.
This variation is certainly one of most difficult around. On the eccentric portion of the pull-up, try to push yourself away from the bar while going down. It recruits the subscapularis muscle, the underdog of the rotator cuff.
This variation is great for anyone looking to increase grip strength while working on chin-up strength. Just hang an old kimono on the squat rack and use it to perform chin-ups. Alternatively, you can also use 1 or 2 towels with a knot at the end to perform this exercise.
Give the chin-up a try and you will see that your whole body will make tremendous gains in both strength and mass, not just your lats. So the question is, will you rise up to the vertical pulling challenge? Mastery of both chin-ups and pull-ups will make you the king or queen of the upper body!