Back to Basics: Elevate Your Back Training

No More Easy Machines

The time: 1982
The place: A rugged gym in the Soviet Union
The lesson: Never underestimate a Russian athlete.

Picture this: a petite Russian girl walks into a gym and challenges everyone, including myself, to a chin-up contest. The bet? Ten American dollars for each person she out-reps. Despite our confidence, we were blown away when she cranked out 60 perfect reps, leaving us speechless and a bit poorer. This experience reinforced my belief that chin-ups and pull-ups are the ultimate upper body mass builders.

If you believe squats are king for legs, think of chin-ups as the “upper body squat” due to their mass-building and strength-enhancing capabilities. Look at the back development of top-level gymnasts and kayakers. Their conditioning programs are centered around chin-ups, and for good reason. These movements build real-world strength, unlike the geeky pull-down machine.

Why Chin-Ups Over Pulldowns?

Pulldowns allow you to move a free-moving object (the bar) around you, which makes it easier to use momentum and your lower back. Chin-ups, however, require you to move your body around a fixed object, ensuring maximum overload on your back and upper arms. This is more realistic and has better transference to sports performance.

Mastering the Basics

Let’s get the fundamentals straight. Chin-ups and pull-ups differ in grip:

  • Chin-Up: Supinated grip (palms facing you).
  • Pull-Up: Pronated grip (palms facing away).

When doing these exercises:

  • Lower your body to a full extension.
  • Inhale at the start and exhale as you descend.
  • Never use straps to maintain grip strength.

Progressing from Zero to Hero

If you can’t do a single rep, don’t worry. Here’s a progression to get you started:

  1. Eccentric-Only Reps: Jump or step up to get your chin above the bar, then lower yourself slowly. Aim for 4 sets of 1 rep, with each descent lasting 30 seconds. Progress to holding positions on the way down, pausing at various points.
  2. Spotter Assistance: Have a partner hold your ankles. As you get stronger, use only one ankle, and eventually have your partner support you at the waist. Aim for 12 reps with minimal assistance before moving to the next phase.
  3. Increase Overload:
    • Hold a dumbbell between your ankles.
    • Have your partner apply downward pressure on your ankles.
    • Use a chin/dip belt with weights.

With this progression, you can significantly improve your chin-up performance. For example, the women’s Canadian National ski team increased their average from zero to 12 reps in 11 weeks using this method.

Advanced Routines and Variations

Once you’ve mastered basic chin-ups, it’s time to diversify:

  1. Gymnast’s Extended-Set Back Routine:
    • Wide-grip pull-ups to failure, rest 10 seconds.
    • Medium-grip pull-ups to failure, rest 10 seconds.
    • Medium-grip chin-ups to failure, rest 10 seconds.
    • Narrow-grip chin-ups to failure, rest 3 minutes.
    • Repeat twice.
  2. Sternum Chins: Hold your torso in a layback posture throughout. Pull yourself up, extending your head back and arching your spine. Aim to touch your lower sternum to the bar. This exercise works the scapulae retractors, lats, and more.
  3. Side-to-Side Chins: Start in a wide-grip pull-up position and pull yourself toward one hand at a time. This is great for judokas and wrestlers.
  4. One-Armed Chins: Progress from mixed-grip chins (one hand pronated, one supinated) to one-arm chins using a rope for support. Gradually lower your grip on the rope as you get stronger.
  5. Thick-Grip Training: Use a thicker bar (or wrap a towel around a regular bar) to increase muscle fiber recruitment, leading to faster strength gains and bigger forearms.

No More Geek Training

With these variations and progressions, you’ll never need to rely on pulldown machines for back training again. By changing your grip, tempo, and resistance, you can continually challenge yourself and see significant gains in size and strength. So, ditch the easy machines and embrace the challenge of chin-ups. Your back will thank you.