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Chin to Win the Back Game

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Chinups are an essential part of building an impressive set of lats. If you’re one of the enlightened few who regularly include chins in your back training, you may be interested in a few tips I’ve picked up over the years.

No exercises before chins. Do your chins first in your back workout. If you don’t, you’ll suffer the performance difficulties associated with fatigue in your back, biceps and grip. Chins are the hardest exercise to do and demand the most strength, so always do them when you’re fresh. If you don’t believe me, try doing a set of wide-grip chins at the beginning and end of two back workouts. Compare the number of reps you get each time, and the logic of chinning first will be apparent.

No straps. I’m not saying you can never use straps, but doing chins without them will dramatically increase the strength of your grip and the muscularity of your forearms. You can also get most of those benefits by going strapless on your first set only, but it’s best to do two sets without them. At first your reps will suffer, but as your grip quickly strengthens, the numbers will move back up. If you’re one of the rare unfortunates who have such a weak grip that you can’t do even a few reps without straps, you may have no choice but to use them.

No thumbs. An important piece of advice, which I’ve heard from the late Don Ross as well as Kent Kuehn and Greg Zulak, is to do chins with your thumbs on the same side of the bar as your four fingers. The thumbless grip makes it easier to use your hands as hooks to transfer resistance directly to the back muscles without the weak link’the biceps’getting in the way. It takes a little getting used to, but once you’ve mastered it, you’ll be very surprised at how much more you feel chins in your lats. That also applies to rowing movements, though in those cases straps reinforce the grip.

No half-reps. Some guys and girls think that as long as they’re pulling up any distance, they’ve performed a chinup. Sorry’but unless you fully contract your lats by pulling all the way up until your chin’s over the bar, you have not. You’re better off getting just four or five full-range reps than doing 10 or 12 little wannabe reps. Make sure that your upper arms at least clear parallel to the ground at the top of the rep. It’s better if your elbows wind up pointing at an angle toward the floor.

No help. You’ll get the full spectrum of benefits from chins only if you do them yourself. Forget those assisted-chinning machines that let you counterbalance yourself with a lever pushing up on your feet. I’ve seen overweight, totally out-of-shape middle-aged women do sets of 20 on those dopey gadgets, and not one of them had a good back. Also forget about having a spotter help lift you up on your reps. That’s just a manual version of the same crap. Doing chinups all on your own is very difficult, but it’s the only way that works.

No excess bodyweight. It always struck me as odd that when I bulked up to 230 to 240 pounds and was stronger on every other exercise, my performance on chinups went right in the toilet. The reason was that a lot of the weight I gained in my off-season was nothing but fat, which only added to the resistance. As I leaned down, my ability to do reps on chinups would always improve. Since then I’ve come to accept that gaining weight is never a good thing if a lot of it is just fat. If you want a great back, you have to be a great chinner, and to be a great chinner, you can’t gain nonfunctional bodyweight.

No substitutes. Finally, remember that only chinups are chinups. A lat pulldown machine is not, nor are the various plate-loaded and selectorized stack machines that simulate the movement. They’re about as close to real chins as a blowup doll is to a real woman. It will always be tempting to get away from chins for a while, but don’t do it. You’ll know what a mistake it was when you return to them and see how miserable your performance is. I’m convinced that the only three things you would ever need to do for a great back are chinups, a rowing movement with free weights and deadlifts. Skipping chins or not doing them correctly will make your quest for a bigger and thicker lat spread an arduous’perhaps even impossible’task.

Editor’s note: Check out Ron Harris’ Web site:

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