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Chinups vs. Pulldowns for Massive Lat Spread

Q: I want a lat spread like Phil Heath’s. Which exercises are best for that, chins or pulldowns?

A: To have the potential to build such a massive lat spread, you’d need to have inherited superfreaky genetics for bodybuilding, as Phil did, plus you’d need to apply his extraordinary dedication to training and everything else he does related to bodybuilding. Even so, hardly anyone has super-freaky genetics for bodybuilding, most of what Phil does is inappropriate for typical bodybuilders, and some of what he does is potentially very dangerous.

As for lat exercises, both chins and pulldowns are excellent if they are done correctly. Provided you have the strength to perform at least six perfect, full-range chinups, make the chinup a mainstay exercise, and add a little poundage to your weight belt whenever possible. If you can’t do that many chinups, stick with pulldowns until you can.

With a counterbalanced chinning machine you can do a modified chinup—even if you can’t perform a single regular one. Then you can gradually build up the resistance until you have the strength to perform the chinup normally.

The chinup and the pulldown work the lats similarly, so both can develop the muscles; however, you want to avoid using an overly wide grip. It’s not the case that a wide hand spacing will develop wide lats. What you want is a safe, comfortable hand position that most readily enables you to train hard and safely—a moderate hand spacing is usually best.

Some people use pullup and chinup interchangeably. I consider the pullup to involve a pronated grip, knuckles facing you, and the chinup to involve a supinated grip, knuckles facing away from you. A safe, comfortable hand position for chinups and undergrip pulldowns is closer than what you would use for pullups and pronated pulldowns. Start at about shoulder width for chinups and undergrip pulldowns, and then try a little closer to find the best grip for you. If it’s not comfortable after you try several spacings, try doing pullups or pronated pulldowns but use a grip that’s one to two hands wider on each side than your shoulders.

Keeping track of the resistance you use for chinups and pullups is trickier than for pulldowns because you have to lift your bodyweight in the former. Let’s say that currently you can do eight chinups and you weigh 170 pounds. Six months from now you can still do only eight reps, but you weigh 178 pounds. So, basically, even though you’re performing the same number of reps, you’re pulling more weight and have gotten stronger and made progress. With pulldowns the only weight you have to consider is what’s on the apparatus.

Editor’s note: Stuart McRobert’s first byline in IRON MAN appeared in 1981. He’s the author of the new 638-page opus on bodybuilding Build Muscle, Lose Fat, Look Great, available from Home Gym Warehouse, (800) 447-0008 or at


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