by Nick Tumminello T-Nation
Here’s what you need to know…
• The best way to improve chin-up or pull-up performance is to lose some blubber.
• As far as assistance tools, the often-maligned Gravitron beats bands almost every time.
• Personalize your chin-up or pull-up grip width to best fit your structure.
• Use drop sets and the kettlebell clinch to crank up intensity.
1. Improve your relative strength!
Pull-up and chin-up performance is determined by your relative strength, which is how strong you are in relation to your body weight. It stands to reason that the more unnecessary body weight you’re carrying (i.e., body fat), the weaker you’ll feel and the less work you’ll be able to complete.
It’s like putting on a weighted backpack – you’ll do a lot fewer reps with the weighted pack on than without it. Plus, you may not even be able to complete a single full chin-up without assistance.
That imaginary backpack represents the real-life performance limitations of carrying around an extra 5, 10, 20, or more pounds on your body. And, when you lose the extra fat (remove the weighted backpack), your relative strength automatically increases, which means your chin-up and pull-up performance potential automatically increases.
It’s for this non-negotiable reality that my single best piece of advice is this: If you want to quickly improve your chin-up and pull-up performance, lose the extra fat.
2. If you need assistance, ditch the bands.
If someone needs assistance with chins and pulls, I’ll pick the Gravitron over bands every single time. Bands, by their nature, help you less and less the closer you get to the bar, whereas the Gravitron machine provides consistent assistance throughout the entire range of motion.
In other words, if you need assistance, you don’ t just need that assistance at the bottom where you’re just hanging from the bar; you need it throughout the entire range of motion, especially in the middle when your humerus is parallel with the bar, as that’s the point when the lever arm is the longest.
However, when using band assistance, you get the most help at the bottom, when the band is most stretched, and as you pull yourself up the stretch in the band is progressively reduced so the band helps you less and less. Additionally, if the band offers you sufficient assistance at the top of the range of motion, it’s helping way too much in the bottom and mid-ranges of the chin-up or pull-up.
Many people don’t have access to a Gravitron machine, which leads me to my second choice: the lat pulldown machine.
I go with lat pull down machine over bands for improving chin-up and pull-up strength for the same reason I like the Gravitron – because it offers consistent resistance throughout the range of motion. In addition, both the Gravitron and pulldown machine allow for smaller adjustments in weight, whereas with bands you really only have three or four different thicknesses to work with.
Don’t get me wrong, I feel that bands are absolutely an effective way to add assistance. I’ve used them as an assistance tool on many occasions and will continue to use them when I feel the situation calls for it. Plus, bands are the most cost effective, space friendly, and travel-friendly means of adding assistance to chin-ups and pull-ups.
So I’m certainly not saying that people shouldn’t use bands as a means of adding assistance; I’m simply sharing my hierarchy of assistance tools.
Note: A recent study concluded that “the seemingly analogous exercises of pull-ups and lat-pulls were not highly related and should not be substituted for one another in a training regimen.”
Although this conclusion seems to contradict what I’m saying about using lat pulldowns to improve chin-up performance, it really doesn’t. I’m not saying that lat pulldowns directly correlate to pull-up performance, but rather for someone who’s pull-up deficient and carrying around extra body fat, my main objective is to reduce body fat, and this study proved my point as it also showed that as bodyweight went up, pull-up performance went down.
3. Find your best grip width.
Grip width should be determined by individual body structure to optimize your chin-up strength. Here’s a primer:
Your arms certainly won’t explode if you decide to use a wider or narrower hand placement. No one is saying that you should never do chin-ups any other way. This is just a technique that we developed and like to use because we feel it helps to better “personalize” chin-up grip width for each individual.
4. Use advanced drop sets.
We’re much stronger doing chin-ups than we are doing wide-grip pull-ups because we have a better mechanical advantage in the arm position. With this is mind, you can combine the two exercises into one drop set by beginning with the most difficult variation and progressively “working down” to the easiest version. As you fatigue, the exercises become easier, thus allowing you to continue to crank out high-quality reps.
To perform the drop set you’ll first perform as many wide grip pull-ups as possible. Then switch to a chin-up grip (closer and supinated) and perform as many reps as you can. If you’re looking to add even more volume, you can turn this sequence into a triple drop set by tacking on a max rep set of band-assisted chin-ups at the end, after you’ve done the bodyweight chin-ups.
Note: If you’re already capable of performing several reps of pull-ups and chin-ups without assistance, then my “go-to” method of adding assistance in instances like the above is bands, solely because they’re convenient.
5. Use the 3×3 protocol.
If you’re looking for a new challenge to an old standby exercise, the 3×3 pull-up protocol delivers big!
If you’re able to complete all 3 reps of this monster, simply add on some external load using a weight vest or dip belt. Keep in mind that you can do this protocol in a chin-up (underhand) grip or neutral grip as well.
6. Incorporate rope and peg-board climbing.
Rope climbing without using your feet and peg board climbing share the throne as the king of upper-body pulling exercises. I use these as advanced pull-up applications because they require a tremendous amount of extra body tension and add an increased grip strength challenge.
Note: Instead of going hole by hole or skipping one hole at time, I skipped several holes each time. However, in order to make these big moves, I used my right arm each time to create the power while using my left arm to reach. This is because I partially tore my left biceps in a bouldering competition years back, which prevents me from making big throws off my left arm.
In regards to rope climbs, I know many trainers and coaches don’t use rope climbs for safety reasons. That’s certainly a very legitimate concern, but to maximize safety, we have people begin from a sit start, and instead of climbing 16 feet up and 16 feet down, we have them climb up 8 feet, go back down, and do it again. This allowed us to create the same training stimulus without ever allowing the athlete to climb to a height he couldn’t safely drop from.
7. Try the kettlebell clinch pull-up.
I developed this exercise application to help our MMA and Muay Thai fighters improve their clinch strength.
This new pull-up variation can also help strengthen your forearms and hands.