Without a shadow of a doubt, the best exercise for developing the lats and the muscles of the upper back is chinning. Although most people think chins are only useful for adding width to the lats, the truth is that chins, done in their many variations, can build back thickness, too. If you want a back that is thick and wide, chins can give it to you.
Unfortunately people don't seem to chin as much these days as they used to. Perhaps it's because chins are so hard to do. You have to work a lot harder to do a set of chins than you do for a set of lat pulldown. Pulldowns have their place, especially for beginners who are not strong enough to chin themselves, but more advanced people have no excuse. If more people devoted a large majority of their back workout to the chinning bar, they'd have a lot better back development.
Whether you need to widen your lats, thicken the lats, develop the lower lats, broaden your shoulder and upper back structure by pulling out the clavicles or thicken the back up, all this can be accomplished through chins. The bodybuilders with the best backs have all devoted lots of time to chinning. One top bodybuilder who never used to chin was Gary Strydom. At one time his back was his weakest muscle group. Not any more. Gary has done some wonders for his back and now has one of the very best in the world. It must be remembered that at a weight of 280 pounds in the off season, it is not easy to do reps on the chinning bar. Still, it can be done if you work at it.
There is no doubt that lighter guys have it easier when it comes to chins. People who have trouble chinning themselves more than a couple of times should forget about sets and reps. Instead, think in terms of doing X number of chins each back workout. This might be 20 or 25 chins, even it if takes 10 or 15 sets to accomplish. Slowly but surely build up your arm strength and back power, and your chinning ability will improve. Once the goal of 20-25 reps is reached in only three sets, increase the number of chins to be done to 30 or 35 . . . then 50 . . . then 75 . . . then 100. One hundred chins done every back workout will work wonders on your back and lat development.
If you think that 100 chins is impossible for you, I ask you to reconsider. Many people are capable of doing enormous numbers of chins once they work at it for a while. Jim Morris, Mr. America and Mr. Universe, followed a back specialization routine prior to his Mr. Universe win that included 20 sets of 20 reps of wide-grip chins. That's 400 reps per workout!
Curt Edmonds, written about often in IronMan magazine often in the 1970's, was able to chin his age in years past 60. That's right -- 60 consecutive chins at the age of 60, and I might add, those chins were done slowly, fully and correctly, with no kicking, wiggling or cheating. Each rep was done from a dead start. Curt weighed about 165 and was by no means a muscular marvel. I mean he didn't have the development that would lead you to believe he could chin 60 times, but his back was very developed.
I might add too that Curt was not a born chinner. At age 17 he couldn't even chin himself once. He started to work at chinning when he was 18 and by the age of 19 he could chin himself 19 times. Then he got stuck and for the next 13 years could only do 19 consecutive chins. After that for some reason his chins went up. By the age of 37 he made 38 strict chins and basically has done his age since then. The last I heard Curt was chinning for reps in the low 60's, and his son was doing about the same.
If you think that 60 chins for a 60 year old man is impressive, listen to this. According to the Guinness Book of Records, 1990, a 63 year old South Korean named Lee Chin-young performed 370 consecutive chins on May 14, 1988. Not only that, but a Mr. Robert Chisnall performed 22 consecutive one arm chins, 18 consecutive chins with only two fingers, and 12 consecutive one fingered chins. If these feats aren't superhuman I don't know what are. And if this doesn't motivate you to improve your chinning ability, nothing I say will do it.
Historical Performances in Chin-ups, Pull-ups, Levers and Crosses:
Let's get out of the twilight zone and back to the real world. Most of us will not be able to chin ourselves hundreds of times or be able to do 20 one arm chins. How can you rate yourself as far as chinups go?
20 consecutive chins is considered good. If you can't do at least that amount you can't call yourself a good chinner. 30 consecutive chins would make you a great chinner. 35 or more is exceptional.
As far as one hand chins are concerned, I've never been able to do one and I've never witnessed anyone doing a true one arm chinup. Bob Kennedy told me he tried for years but never succeeded in doing even one. All he got for his efforts were strained tendons and ligaments and a sore arm. It's a rare man who can do even a single one arm chin, let alone 22 like Mr. Chisnall.
Let's talk about exercise performance briefly . . .
Should you do full reps, full extensions to full contractions, or partial, half or three-quarter constant-tension reps? It depends on which expert you talk to. Vince Gironda maintains that unless a full movement is done -- and by full he means the chest hits the bar on a front chin with either a wide, medium or narrow grip -- the movement is useless. On the other hand, when I was in Chicago to watch Sergio Oliva train back in the spring of 1985, he did only half of constant-tension chins -- and his lats were enormous. He would go all the way up until his chin was over the bar but he would only go halfway down.
Larry Scott said it wasn't necessary to chin in such a manner that the chest hit the bar to make the lats contract. He advocated taking a wide grip on the bar and chinning just until the nose hit that bar -- no higher. Most bodybuilders tend to chin this way. It's just too hard to hit the chest to the bar, at least for any reasonable number of reps. Fuller movements are reserved for the lat machine.
Although many champions do not come all the way down when they chin, there is great benefit to be derived from doing so. Hanging with the arms fully extended stretches the scapula so that eventually the cartilage between the shoulder blades begins to increase and expand because of the tremendous pull experienced while hanging from the chin bar. Over time the shoulder and lat width keeps widening. There is a definite look to the back of a bodybuilder who has done a lot of wide grip chinning and lat stretching while hanging from a bar.
Although people such as Arthur Jones, Nautilus inventor, say wide grip chins do not stretch the lats or widen them as effectively as medium grip chins, I don't believe it. Yes, the lower lats stretch more with medium grip chins, but you don't get the widening effect of the scapulae and clavicles from medium or narrow grip chins. Wide grip chins work the outer fibers of the lats more effectively as well. Many people have built backs from wide grip chinning alone so to say it doesn't work is absurd, because it obviously does.
Of course, there is wide grip chinning and really wide grip chinning. If you go too wide, only the upper lats, teres major and minor and rhomboids do the work, along with the biceps and muscles of the chest and shoulder girdle. I find that holding the bar where the handles begin to b end on most commercial chinning bars works my lats hard, but if I go any wider than that I don't feel the lats as much.
154 page book - "Training the Lats for Maximum Isolation, Stimulation, Innervation and Pump" by Greg Zulak:
Sometimes you need to go really wide to get the stretching effect for the scapulae and clavicles. For all-round development probably both types should be done.
Because of the length of a chinning bar you can do virtually dozens of different width chins, from very wide to very narrow and everything in between. You can do parallel grip chins, underhand chins (with wide, medium and narrow grips). You can do triangle bar chinning. alternate or side-to-side chinning. You can do (if you're strong enough) one arm chins. You can chin to the front or the back. By doing various chins you can work virtually every section of your back, even the spinal erectors to some degree.
Let's go over the key points of different kinds of chins you can do in your back-lat workouts.
The Wide Grip Chin to the Front
This is the old standby of chins, one that nearly every champion includes in his back workouts. To do the wide grip chin to the front, grab the chinning bar where the handles start to curve down or about six inches wider than shoulder width. Use a thumbless grip (with your thumb on the same side of the bar as your fingers). This might seem like a minor point but wrapping your thumb around the bar definitely brings more biceps into play and prevents better lat isolation. Arch your chest and throw your head back as pull yourself up. For your first reps, when you are strong, you might try touching your chest to the bar. As you tire and cannot get that high, get your chin up to the bar before lowering yourself down to full stretch. Remain at the bottom for a count of two to distend and stretch the scapulae. If possible try to hold at the top for a count of two to really contract the lats hard. Holding sends stronger contraction impulses to the muscles of the back.
Another point to remember is not to simply drop from the top. Lower yourself under tension and try to keep tension on your back throughout the movement. Remember to arch your chest and to drop your shoulders as you pull yourself up but don't excessively arch the back. Try to work up to sets of 15 to 20 reps. When you can do at least 20 strict reps start adding small amounts of weight to your body, either by holding a light dumbbell between your feet (start with 5 or 10 pounds), or by using a dipping/chinning belt that you can attach plates to. When you can chin with a 45-pound plate hanging off your body there should me a marked improvement in your back development.
The Wide Grip Chin to Back of Neck
This exercise is recommended for really widening the back. Franco Columbu, who had one of the widest backs in bodybuilding, favored this exercise. Personally I prefer the chin to the front as I seem to feel my lats working better that way. When I do chins to the front, I imagine my muscles working like the letter U -- that is, the outer sections of the lats work hard but the inner back doesn't work too much. When I do chins to the back of the neck, I see my muscles working like the letter T -- I don't feel the outer sections working as head but I feel it more along the upper back and down the spine. Most of the widening effect from this exercise takes place as you lower yourself, and on a bodybuilder with good lat development you can really see the lats spreading and widening, along with the scapulae, as he does wide grip chins to the back of neck.
Again use a thumbless grip and pull yourself up slowly until the base of your neck touches the bar. Hold yourself for a count of two and then slowly lower yourself down all the way for a good stretch. Work up to at least 15 reps before adding weight to your body.
At the end of each set of wide grip chins, whether to the front or back, hang in the bottom position for as long as you can to really give those lats a good stretch. Wrist straps to reinforce your grip are a definite plus on this exercise. Try working up to a minute or more on each set of hanging lat stretches. To make this exercise even more effective try hanging until the shoulders are separated to the maximum and then trying to contract the shoulders together again. Then relax and let the shoulders be stretched out again. Do this several times during each hang.
Medium Grip Chins
These can be done with either an overhand or curl grip. The lats receive more overall stretch with the medium grip than with wide grip chins. While the total lats receive more stretch with the medium grip, especially the lower lats, you lose the clavicle-widening effect. John Parillo feels one of the main reasons why so many of today's bodybuilders lack lower lats is that they've spent too much time using machines for their back training and they arch too much when they do finally get around to chinning. He says that when a bodybuilder arches excessively the stress is placed on the upper lats and rhomboids instead of the lower lats.
To counteract this he recommends that the bodybuilder bend and hold his knees in front of his torso. This keeps the back straight and prevents arching. Next he says to pull the shoulders down and back before starting to pull up with the arms. At the top of the movement the bodybuilder is instructed to pull his elbows in to his sides nd to make sure his shoulders are pressed down.
Make sure the chins are done slowly and smoothly, with no jerking or cheating. Use a thumbless grip, hold at the top for a hard contraction, and lower all the way down for a full stretch.
Triangle Bar Chinning
This exercise really blasts the lower lats -- and serratus to some degree -- as well as the muscles of the middle back. Hook the triangle bar over the chinning bar and pull yourself up so that your chest and upper abdomen hit the chin bar. Hold for a count of two before lowering yourself for a full stretch. This version is very grueling to do, and it will be a while before you can do 15 reps with extra weight added. This chin will add a lot of thickness and density to your lats and back if your work it hard consistently.
Depending on where you pull your body up to the chin bar when using the triangle attachment, you can work different parts of your body. If you pull yourself up until your chin and upper chest hit the chin bar, you work mostly the lower lats, the belly of the lats and some upper back muscles. By pulling yourself up to that your upper abdomen/lower chest hits the chin bar you can work more lower lats and some spinal erectors and lower mid-back. Try both versions to give your back a total workout.
Close Grip Chins
This exercise can be done either with palms forward (overhand) or palms backward (curl grip). You might want to do both for maximum lat and back stimulation. The key is to pull yourself up slowly until your chest hits the bar. You'll have to arch your chest to do this properly. Hold for a count of two for a fuller contraction before lowering slowly for a full stretch. Hang in the bottom position for a full count of two for extra stretch.
Try a variety of grip while doing close grip chins, anywhere from 12-14 inches right up to where the hands touch. Each grip hits the muscle fibers of the lats and back in a slightly different way. When you do the close grip chin with a curl grip, your biceps will get a terrific workout too, as will your lower lats, serratus and the muscles of the upper back. If you've only been doing wide grip chins previously, you will find the close grips to be harder. They will stimulate new muscle fibers never worked before.
The Alternate Wide Grip Chip
This is an unusual and rarely seen move any more. Vince Gironda often recommended this version of chinning, especially for someone who had one lat less developed than the other. Take your usual wide grip on the chin bar and lower yourself to the starting position. As you begin to pull yourself up, lean to the right and try to touch your right shoulder to the chin bar below your right hand. You should feel a contraction in the right lat and then a stretch in the right lat as you lower yourself to the starting position again. For the next rep lean left and try to touch your left shoulder below where your left hand grips the chin bar. Lower and repeat, alternating back and forth for as many chins as you can do for each side.
The Two Arm Assisted Chin
This is a very difficult version of the alternate wide grip chin. Take your grip on the chin bar as you would if you were about to start a set of wide grip chins to the front. Start to chin but only pull up with one arm, say, your right arm. The left arm merely holds the bar and stabilizes the body. Do not alternate back and forth. Do as many chins as you can for the right arm. Needless to say, your right arm and lat get a terrific workout. For the next set do as many chins as you can for the left arm and left lat. Do several sets for each side. This exercise takes some getting used to, but when you become proficient at it your arms and lats will take on new size, strength and development.
The One Arm Chin
This is definitely the most difficult chin of all. Actually this is more of a strength feat than an exercise, but I've included it in this article because it is a chin variation and because anyone who actually succeeds in doing a one arm chin has accomplished a rare feat and must have great strength in his hands, wrists, arms and shoulders. With practice, hard work and determination, as well as great natural strength and ability, you might be one of the rare ones who can perform a one arm chin. Give it a try . . .
One of the most difficult feats to perform in the gym is a proper one arm chin. Just because you are very proficient at two arm chinning -- in any manner -- is no guarantee that you'll be able to perform a one arm chin. Some are never able to do master this awesome feat of strength.
Although it is true that lighter men have an advantage over heavyweights when it comes to one arm chinning, it was said that Mr. Universe Steve Stanko did 10 one arm chins while weighing 225 pounds.
To do a one arm chin takes special techniques. If you just go over to a chin bar and hang by one arm and try to chin yourself you are doomed to fail for sure. The trouble is when you hang by one arm the arm cannot strengthen enough to allow the feat to be done, no, there is a knack to one arm chinning and I will now reveal it to you.
First of all, make sure that you are strong enough to chin yourself strictly 20 times using an underhand or curl grip. Once you have acquired this basic strength, you are ready to begin training for an eventual one arm chin.
Decide which arm is the stronger. For me it is my left arm, but for most people it will be their right arm. If it is your right arm, hold the chin bar in a curl grip with your right hand and an overhand grip with hour left hand. Chin yourself up but make sure the right arm does most of the work. The left arm merely stabilizes the body. It's much like doing the one arm assisted chin explained earlier.
Over a period of weeks work up to at least 15 repetitions of chins like this. Now you're ready to begin the actual work on one arm chinning.
You begin with the easiest form of one arm assisted chinning possible and keep making it progressively harder until you can do a one arm chin up. After work on the chin explained above, the next easiest method is to chin with right hand holding the chin bar while the left hand grasps the right wrists. At first you will have to grip your right wrist very hard in order to do some chins, but as you gain strength you'll gradually be able to loosen your grip. To balance our your arm strength, try some one arm chins in this manner using both arms.
The next position is the right hand holding the chin bar but the left hand in gripping the right arm in the crook of the elbow below the biceps. Once you've mastered a few reps this way (which may take several weeks or more), move the left hand grip over the top of the biceps. This makes the feat much more difficult. When you are finally able to chin a few reps this way, move the left hand grip up to the deltoid. You'll have even less leverage in this position and everything becomes that much harder. It may take you several more weeks of practice before you can do some one arm chins this way. By now you are pretty much doing a one arm chin with the strength of the right arm alone, with just a bit of help from the left arm.
You are now ready to try for a true one arm chin. If you can't do it at first, keep trying. If after two weeks of practice you still can't do it, tie a thick piece of rope to the chinning bar. Grasp the rope with your free hand and assist yourself as much as necessary to do a one arm chin. Lower yourself slowly using only right arm strength to take advantage of negative resistance. In fact, doing some negative only one arm chins will definitely build up strength in your working arm, but make sure you are well warmed up.
You might try wearing iron boots or strapping extra weight onto your body to make the one arm assisted and negative only one arm chins even harder so that when you get around to trying one arm chins you will have extra strength. And definitely try some one arm work with your opposite or weaker arm to balance out your strength and development. If you work only your strong arm, it will become even stronger and better developed than your weaker one.
If and when you are finally able to do a one arm chin, it will have been worth all the hard work and practice and it will enhance your strength and reputation in the gym too.
Remember, the glory of a man's strength is in his arms. The crowning glory can be yours in no uncertain manner by using the chinning bar as part of your bodybuilding training. It takes the monotony out of exercise, providing you with lots of fun, and finally rewards you with the magnificent arms and stately upper body that you've always wanted to possess.
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