There are some aha moments in my life that I’ll never forget.
I was 14 years old at Lifestyles gym on Warren Avenue in Portland, Maine. I had my Muscle and Fitness back and biceps routine torn out of the magazine and was getting after it.
I was cranking out set after set of wide grip pulldowns, neutral grip pulldowns, and close grip pulldowns. (I say cranking but I probably had 50 pounds on the stack so I could do the 28 required sets or whatever it was.) I remember really trying to focus on pulling my shoulder blades down but I couldn’t get the bar to my chest and I was getting way more of a biceps pump than anything.
After my marathon lift as I carried my imaginary watermelons under my pumped 10 inch arms to the locker room I saw one of the biggest guys I’d ever seen to that point absolutely crushing pull ups.
I remember thinking, that guy is jacked and he’s not doing what I’m doing, so maybe I should ask him what his secret is. I couldn’t muster up the courage to ask him, though, so I continued to the locker room to fill up my protein shake of Met-Rx.
Luckily, while I was at the fountain, he finished up his workout, which set the stage for a 30 second conversation that changed my training forever.
He walked by me and I involuntarily blurted out my question. “How did you get your back soooo big?”
The guy was nice as hell, and he told me the secret. He did 50 pull ups before every upper body training session.
Ever since, pull ups have been my favorite upper body exercise, bar none. In high school, we had to do one set of as many as we could do and log the number in a notebook before every wrestling practice. As the season progressed, you saw everyone’s numbers slowly climb. I’ve since instituted that practice with my own teams, and every year, you see the improvement over the course of the season. It’s hard to argue that an extra fifteen hundred pull ups over the course of 3 months doesn’t help performance.
To get semantics out of the way, pull ups are done with your palms facing away from you, and chin ups are done with your palms either facing you or neutral. Both are great, and I suggest that you change your grips frequently to avoid pissing off your shoulders with any overuse issues.
The issue I see when I look around most gyms is the execution of pull ups. I a ton of body English and people trying to reach their chin over the bar like a Pez dispenser.
I don’t mean to pick on these people, as they’re doing what they think they’re supposed to. Somewhere along the way, we’re taught that getting your chin over the bar is all that matters, and they’re still running with that.
Chin ups and pull ups are both meant to be completed with the upper shoulders touching the bar with the chest caved in and shoulder blades flared out.
The reason many people struggle to reach this position is because they flare their elbows way out to the sides, jamming up their shoulders so they can’t pull any higher.
This is a recipe for sore and achy shoulder joints, and unfulfilled strength and muscle gains.
Both pull ups and chins ups should have an elbows forward movement, as when you do them on a bar in a doorway. You can’t flare the elbows out then because you’ll whack the door casing.
Part of the problem is those weird ass curved chin up bars in gyms combined with the notion that a wider grip will make a wider back. Full range of motion, properly executed chin ups and pull ups will lead to a well developed back, and I would argue that a narrower grip is in your best interest, as you’ll be in a stronger position and it’ll save your joints.
There are a lot of chin up variations to choose from, and lots of ways to get better at them, but that’s for another day. All I want to convey today is how chin ups and pull ups should be performed, each and every rep. After all, just because your program says pull up, it doesn’t mean that’s what you’re actually doing.
This is how they’re supposed to look:
Knees are locked out, toes are pulled up, and hips are bent just a bit. Pavel calls this the hollow position, but I call it the boomerang. It doesn’t really matter what you call it, just be sure to not extend through the back at the bottom. We want to keep tight throughout the entire rep, and you’ll know when you find this position because your abs will be screaming throughout the set.
Each rep is done in a small little arc, rather than a straight up and down movement. I personally prefer to use a thumbless grip, as it feels a bit smoother on my shoulders, but feel free to play around a little bit to see what feels best for you.
Start with low reps and really lock in your technique on these, as technique=strength, and strength=technique. Low to medium volume and high frequency is often a recipe to improve your pull ups quickly.
Whether you prefer chin ups or pull ups, it doesn’t really matter, just change your grips frequently, and focus on the elbows forward action. You’ll build a king cobra back, your joints won’t hate you, and you’ll improve your numbers significantly faster.
If you’re going to put in the effort, you might as well do them right! Tighten up that technique and let me know how it goes!