Byron Chandler: Developing Chinning Ability

The traditional notion has always been that rows build thickness and chins build width.

Actually, it’s more that chins build lats and rows build the rest of the back.

Nothing beats chins for the lats . . . period.

But chins can be rough on the shoulders. Especially rough for heavier people.

Most people learn to chin without pulling the shoulders back and instead they stick the chest up. This is how they get the most reps, just doing the bare minimum needed to get the chin over the bar. The common way of counting reps, it just matters if you get your chin over the bar; there are no extra points for getting the collarbones or sternum up there.

This “barely over” style trains the lats without training the scapular retractors. That is, it builds the ability to move the arms without moving the shoulder blades. Over time, that extra movement is not good for the shoulders, but it will build a big set of lats.

However, that will be a small consolation if your shoulders give up the ghost.

Chins beat the heck out of the lats—and tight lats will cause shoulder trouble. Chins can also really pound the teres, which can also cause problems. The problem isn’t impingement during the chins; it’s the effect they have on the muscles that can have a negative effect on the joints.

Similarly, any pulldown will develop the lats to make a back wider. Wide-grip pulldowns often tear up the shoulders, so if there is any difference in width development, it still isn’t worth it.

Of course . . . pulldowns are only for people who can’t chin yet.

Chins are better.

Chins work a huge number of muscles—all the pulling muscles of the arms and middle back. The same muscles are working no matter which grip you’re using, but grip certainly changes the emphasis. Work a wide variety of grips; there are at least 25 variations you could try right off the bat.

Don’t think about which muscles are doing what. Just focus on good, natural form and let your body figure out what to use.

Chins on a pair of rings are great because your hands will automatically rotate to the most natural position and the pull is even through your elbows. You can hang a couple d-rings on swivels and links from a chinning bar and get much the same effect on the elbows. Hung from a high ceiling, your hands also find a natural grip width. It’s hard to duplicate that effect in the average training space, though.

Extend the shoulders when chinning, but don’t relax them. Relax the lats and you’re hanging on your rotator cuff . . . that’s definitely bad news.

Grip Position
There is a lot to be said for working a big variety of chins. You can use an overhand, underhand or an over-and-under grip. You can use a parallel grip. You can vary the width. There are all kinds of fancy variants, like clapping chins, Archer chins, over-and-unders and towel chins.

Overhand and underhand chins are very different. The forearms, upper arms and back all work differently, with different emphasis on the muscles involved. If you can do 25 chins underhand, your overhand chins will come up quickly as you start working them because much of the basic strength is already there.

Another thing that might help building overhand chin ability is to start pulling your underhand chinups much lower, toward the bottom of the pecs. This will force more of the mid-back to work, which is good in general and could help bring up your overhand chins.

With an underhand grip, the biceps are in a better position, and so are the lats. For most people, it’s the better exercise. If you can do underhand-grip chins, you might be able to do mixed-grip chins, that is, one hand underhand, one hand overhand. Vary the grip on these for different effects. Mixed-grip chins may bridge the gap from under- to overhand chins.

Wide-grip underhand isn’t really a natural position for the wrists unless the chinning bar is V-shaped. These V bars used to be pretty easy to find; the old Universal gyms had a V bar on them, but now it’s just about impossible to find. Widening the grip does not have the same effect with an undergrip anyway; the extra strain in the armpit area doesn’t really happen like it does with the overhand grip. Your elbows are still out in front of you with the under-grip.

  • Don’t go wider than what feels right with the underhand grip. It’s pointless.
  • Without a doubt, there is more shoulder strain in the wide position.

Here’s another option: Change from the wide grip on your pulldowns and chins to all chins with a medium grip, index fingers about shoulder width apart. Do some overhand and some underhand, and if you want to, some with a parallel grip.

If you’re feeling everything in the teres, it could be that you’re beating up those muscles with the wide-grip work. Have someone massage that area when you’re clear of post-workout soreness or get after it with self-myofascial massage on a small or medium-sized ball. If you’re feeling exceptional tenderness there, look out; that is a warning sign.

Most importantly: Don’t make chins all of your arm-pulling work; do some barbell rows, too.

Chin Variations

  • Wide, medium or narrow grip
  • Palms up, down, right up/left down, right down /left up, palms parallel
  • Use rings, a towel, rope, or other odd thing to hang from
  • Pull to the chin, collarbones, sternum (tough!), or behind the neck (caution!)
  •  Fancy stuff like clapping chin-ups, or Archer chins— one arm stays straight, the other does the work
  • One-hand chins
  • Use body English or do them strict
  • Add resistance with weights or a ban
  • Pauses

Building Ability

My favorite suggestions for building up chinning ability—

  • Negatives
  • Static holds
  • Low bar or bench below so the feet are touching at the beginning

Experiment with different grips to find the easiest one to start with, such as the commando grip—one hand over, one under, hands close together, as your head naturally goes to one side of the bar.

Using a giant rubber band for assistance is a good way to work up to chins. The nicest ones are Jumpstretch bands; you can also buy the largest size pallet bands available at an industrial supply. You choke the band to the bar— also called a girth hitch—then put your foot in the loop, straighten your leg, and chin away. For less assistance, instead of your foot, put your knee in the loop.

You’ll learn your pullup groove and build your pulling strength by self-assisting your pull-ups. This is much better than a chin-assist machine because the motion is truer with no pressure on the low back. What you’re doing is taking some of the bodyweight off, rather than using propulsion. It’s similar to using a chin-assist machine, only quite a bit better because it’s the actual movement.

Use assistance in your chins as much as needed. A preacher curl bench under your feet to push against works well—as you get a little better at it you can drape the top of your feet over the rounded top of the bench rather than pressing with your toes. That’s a move to make as soon as possible since we all have a tendency to push too much if our toes are tipped on the top of the spotter bench.

You’ll also have to adapt the bench’s height and distance from the bar based on chinning bar height and your leg length. Move it closer or farther from the bar until it’s comfortable. When it’s wrong, you’ll feel it in the low back.

Either of these methods will get the first chin fairly quickly, although the Jumpstretch band assistance is more true to the chin movement. The next few reps develop pretty fast, too, but after that, it’s slow-go.

And, of course, there’s nothing wrong with doing singles for strength.

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