Imagine if a high school physical education teacher from the early 1900s were placed in a time machine and suddenly transported to present day. After overcoming the initial shock of learning that approximately 25 percent of Americans are so fat that they’re essentially spherical, the teacher would no doubt be extremely disappointed to see what has become of chin-ups and pull-ups.
For one thing, the teacher would discover that these exercises are no longer being performed in organized physical education classes, having been replaced by pulldown exercises and pull-up machines – if that. And in the few places that do continue to promote them, our teacher would find that these once popular, powerful movements have been downgraded into spastic variations that place enormous shearing forces on the shoulder joint. Although we can’t travel in time as with our mythical PE teacher, we can certainly go “Back to the Future!” with our approach to how we perform pull-ups and chin-ups.
First, let me say upfront that I am not absolutely against pulldown exercises, as I often prescribe them in my body composition workouts and they do add variety to exercise selection. It’s just that these are lower on my scale of bang-for-your-buck exercises – my clients want results as quickly as possible, and these exercises are simply less effective. Likewise, triceps kickbacks will add some strength and size to the triceps, but the return on your investment in time and effort is very poor, compared to decline triceps extensions with chains.
So that we have our definitions in synch, a pull-up is performed with a pronated grip (palms facing away from you) and a chin-up is performed with a supinated grip (palms facing you). A semi-supinated (or parallel) grip may be considered a hybrid of these two grips, as the palms are facing each other. From here you can add variations such as close, wide and medium grips; mixed grips; and also thick grips. In the Poliquin Principles I discuss in detail the performance of these eight types of pull-ups/chin-ups that I commonly prescribe in my training programs, especially for athletes.
1. Narrow, Parallel-Grip Chin-Up
2. Narrow, Supinated-Grip Chin-Up
3. Subscapularis Pull-Up
4. Sternum Chin-Up
5. Narrow, Pronated Pull-Up
6. Mixed-Grip Chin-Up
7. Mixed-Grip Chin-Up II
8. Medium, Parallel-Grip Chin-Up
Looking for Mr. Goodbar
At the Poliquin Strength Institute, I had the Canadian exercise equipment company Atlantis build me two special power racks with a variety of pull-up/chin-up attachments. Using these attachments which are mounted on the top of three sides of the rack, I can perform a variety of normal diameter and thick-grip pull-ups and chin-ups. In contrast, many companies that produce power racks simply place a slippery crossbar across the front of the rack and call it a chin-up bar – since the exercise is seldom performed anyway, there is little motivation for these companies to at least put that crossbar through a knurling machine.
If your gym has one of these slip-and-slide chin-up bars, you can ask the gym owner – as I did once – if you can wrap athletic tape around the bar to improve the grip. I had a female judo athlete who could perform five pull-ups. I put athletic tape around the bar and had her perform 5x5 pull-ups, twice a week. Prior to each workout I would wrap another piece of tape around the bar, making it thicker. At the end of five weeks she could perform five pull-ups with 45 pounds attached to her waist, when she returned to the regular grip. She went on to win the U.S. Open in her sport. There is also now a handy tool call Fat Gripz, which is a nonslip, dense foam-type device that can be attached to a narrow chin-up bar to provide a secure grip and make it a thick bar.
Another option is to position the safety rods in a power rack on a high setting, and then place an Olympic bar (which is knurled) across it. Position the barbell flush against the supports and stand to the outside of the rack, as from this orientation the barbell will tend to move backward against the supports– of course, having training partners hold the bar is ideal, as they can prevent it from rolling. For parallel-grip chin-ups, you can drape a V-handle attachment over the bar. Also, for parallel-grip chin-ups you may be able to use parallel dip bars – simply start the exercise on the floor with your knees bent so that your arms are straight at the start.
I don’t recommend pull-up machines for those who want to improve pull-ups. With a pull-up machine your body is stabilized and you follow a fixed, vertical path. With pull-ups and chin-ups, you have to rotate your body around the bar, and this requires considerably more effort and strongly engages the abdominals. The same goes for pulldowns – and with pulldowns you have the additional temptation of being able to cheat by crunching forward. Fortunately, some pull-up machines have a fold-up footrest so that regular pull-ups and chin-ups can be performed.
Setting the Standards
One reason a lot of trainees don’t perform pull-ups is they believe these types of exercises are too difficult – that perhaps only preadolescent gymnasts can perform high reps. OK, let’s start by leading by example. The record for most pull-ups in one minute for a male is 50, made by Jason Petzold (USA) on 20 June 2009; and for a female it’s 34, made by Alicia Weber (USA). PICP Level 5 coach Andre Benoit, holder of the fastest start time in double luge at the Albertvielle Olympics, who could do wide-grip pull-ups with a 120-pound dumbbell for a set of 3 reps on a 40X0 tempo. Considering these standards, I believe just about anyone in the weightroom should be able to perform 12 pull-ups, and that’s true for females as well.
Some time ago I testified for a fire department about its physical fitness requirements. The guy who testified first said the fire department’s pull-up standard was impossible for most women to achieve. I responded by showing that, statistically, the lift in which a female’s performance is closest to a male’s is not the push-up but the pull-up. If trained properly. I found that with my national teams, if you go on a pound-for-pound basis, women’s capacities in the pull-up are generally about 85 percent of men’s. Then I showed a video in court of a woman doing 12 pull-ups holding on to a 25-pound dumbbell with her feet. I used to teach conditioning to a local gymnastics club, we had an eleven year old who could 50 pull-ups.
I tell those who become certified by me that if they can’t train a typical female client to do 12 chin-ups in 12 weeks, then they don’t know how to train. That’s how you can evaluate a good trainer. If they can get a female client to do 12 chins, they’re a good trainer. If they don’t know how to do it, then they don’t know training. Period. One example is when I worked with the women on the Canadian National Ski Team in which the average number of chin-ups went from zero to 12 reps in 11 weeks. Again, this was a national sports team, and the simple reason they could not perform chin-ups was because they did not practice them, and their lower body was very well hypertrophied, which makes it harder.
Fast Track to Pull-up Success
For increasing pull-ups, one key loading parameter you want to consider is time under tension. For example, if you can only do three pull-ups by yourself, do those three, and then on the third repetition try to lower yourself for 30 seconds. Focusing on the eccentric contraction in this manner leads to fast results in pull-up performance.
One effective system I use to improve pull-up performance in more advanced individuals is to do 10 sets of the exercise. If you can do six pull-ups by yourself, divide that by two, so that’s three pull-ups. Do 10 sets of 3 reps. In the next workout you try to increase the total number of reps until you can do 10 sets of 6. The day you can do 10 sets of 6 you’ll be able to do 12 by yourself. I’ve seen trainees accomplish that in as little as three weeks.
Another method is to shoot for a number, say 30. Perform as many sets as it takes to get 30 reps and see how long it takes you. Then, the next time you do 30, try to beat that time. I’ve also used this progression with arm training with tremendous success, but using 100 reps as the goal.
Now let’s talk about how to add additional load – because although high reps are impressive, a certain rep range is better for strength and hypertrophy. Weighted vests can compress the nerves, so the best thing for the average gym member to use to add load is a dipping belt. Arthur Jones had designed an innovative assisted chin/dip machine that had a self-contained belt harness and climbing steps to enable users to easily position themselves for these exercises. But this unit unfortunately was made obsolete with the introduction of pull-up machines. You can hold light dumbbells between your ankles, but for heavier weights what I use in my facilities is a tree-climbing belt and a chain.
Tree-climbing belts can run up to 300 bucks, but you can get them on eBay for as little as ninety-nine cents. With a tree-climbing belt the weight is equally distributed, and it’s much sturdier than a dipping belt. You can add 250 pounds to it and not feel any pressure on your hips. As for added load to the pull-up, anyone who can do three dead-hang pull-ups with an additional load equivalent to 66 percent of their bodyweight is pretty damn impressive in my book.
Chin-ups and pull-ups are great exercises that need to be rediscovered by the American public. It’s part of the progressive future of exercise!