Strength Training the Right Way: Chin-Ups by Fred Dimenna, CSCS

I was recently interviewed by a student doing research in body image and, specifically, how bodybuilding affects self-perception. One of the first questions he asked was what made me decide to become a competitive bodybuilder. While there is no easy answer, in many ways, it reverts back to the exercise I'll consider this month.

     It seemed like a simple physical challenge: Hang from a bar with your arms extended and pull yourself up so that your chin is above the bar. But for me as an eighth grader, it wasn't happening. It was the annual Presidents Physical Fitness Test and the entire gym class gathered around to watch as students established their personal best. I wound up matching mine from previous years - zero! As was always the case, I simply hung from the bar and tried futilely, then returned to the group in shame. Many years later, when I was able to perform the same exercise with 120 pounds strapped around my waist (and received trophies for it), it definitely healed old wounds.

     Chin-ups are classified as a compound exercise because muscles that cross both the shoulder and elbow are targeted. Major muscles of the upper back (latissimus dorsi and teres major) and the front portion of the upper arm (biceps brachii and brachialis) will be developed when you perform them on a regular basis. Of course, this presupposes that you can pull up the entire weight of your body in the first place.

     Choosing the weight against which to work when attempting to stimulate your muscles with resistance training is never simple. If ego takes over, it's easy to use more than you should and employ other muscle groups, as well as mechanisms that actually reduce the training effect that the muscle you're trying to target receives. Grabbing the lightest weight and simply going through the motions doesn't cut it either. But with chin-ups, the decision is complicated by the fact that the lightest weight you can use is not negotiable. This means the exercise is not appropriate for everyone looking to train the aforementioned muscles.

     If you can successfully pull your body's weight up for multiple repetitions, chin-ups are a great exercise to incorporate into your program. The movement should be done with other exercises that target the same areas. For example, rows for back and curls for arms are perfect complements. However, it's important to perform these exercises in the correct order. You should never do curls before chins because they are a single-joint exercise and doing so would exclusively weaken the muscles that flex (bend) your arm. This would render them the weak link that would give out first when you perform chin-ups later. Rows are a compound movement, so they can be done first without compromising the ability to work your back muscles to the max with chins. However, if body weight represents the greatest load you can use, doing rows first might make it impossible to complete chin-ups with proper form.    

     There are a number of ways to do chin-ups. In the Presidents test, we grabbed the bar narrower than shoulder width with the palms facing rearward. This results in the motion at the shoulder (extension) taking part in the sagittal plane (in line with a plane that divides the body into a left and right portion). On the other hand, using an over-grip (palms facing forward) and positioning your hands wider results in your elbows pointing out to the sides as you travel up and down. This would be classified as adduction in the frontal plane and subtly change the relative contribution of the muscles involved by making it less like the form of row that targets the back muscles (those done with the arms moving directly down at the sides).

     If you can't do chin-ups, fear not because there's another way to perform the same motion with less than your body weight. Pulldowns from an overhead pulley are the exact same exercise, with one major difference. Instead of your body traveling up and down, your body is held motionless with your legs fixed under the machine's pads. This stabilizes your frame and allows you to grab the hanging bar and pull it down to your chest.

     It's easy to cheat during this exercise by thrusting your body back, so select your opposing load wisely. Assisted chin-up machines are also a viable alternative for those who can't handle their body weight. However, the pad you kneel on that pushes you up also holds you as you descend, thereby reducing the weight you oppose in the negative phase of the rep. An alternative would be to have a training partner push you up to assist you when performing chin-ups from an overhead bar. The partner can then remove his hands and allow you to resist your entire body weight as you slowly return to the full hang. These forced reps provide a greater training stimulus that can help you develop the strength needed to eventually complete the positive phase of the movement on your own.    

     Fred Dimenna, a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and lifestyle and Weight Management Consultant is a two-time Natural Mr. United States and a WNBF drug-free professional bodybuilder. Visit him at www.freddimenna.com or email him: mrnatural@yahoo.com