Chin ups – a.k.a. supinated grip pull ups – are my preferred vertical pulling exercise for building strength and size in the upper back, biceps and forearms.
If you have time for only one vertical pulling exercise, choose chin ups over all others.
A supinated grip – palms facing towards you – puts the biceps in their strongest pulling position. That means you can train with more load and repetitions for the upper back as well as the biceps.
Most people do pull ups with a pronated grip, with palms facing away from you. This puts the biceps in their weakest position. Consequently you have introduced a weak link into training the upper back; by using a pronated grip you can't generate as much bicep force, so you are limiting the load you can impose on your upper back.
In addition, the pronated grip is inferior for training the biceps. If you try to contract your bicep with your palm in a pronated position – such as a reverse curl – you will find that you can't contract it as fully as if you supinate the palm. This is why we do bicep curls with a supinated grip!
By performing EMG experiments, Bret Contreras found that the weighted chin up strongly activates both the latissimus dorsi and the biceps. The weighted chin up was superior to all other upper back and bicep exercises for both muscle groups.
Yes, chin ups produced greater activation of the biceps (mean and peak values) than all bicep curl variations. Research has shown that if you do progressive weighted chin ups, you may not need bicep curls.1 As Arthur Jones wrote, when you get to the point where you can do 6-10 one-arm chin ups – or 6-10 chin ups with an additional load equal to your body weight strapped to your waist – "your arms will leave very little to be desired."2
Chin ups are most comfortable performed on rings or a suspension trainer, which allow you to rotate your wrist to your natural position. My power rack has a cambered bar which is also more comfortable than a straight bar.
Chin Ups With 45 lbs Added
Once you can perform 10-12 bodyweight chin ups, you progress by adding resistance in the form of barbell plates hung from a belt around your waist.
I don’t recommend using elastic resistance bands to load chin ups because elastic bands have a resistance curve that is opposite to the strength curve of chin ups.
To build a big upper back and big biceps, think in terms of gradually working up to performing 8 chin ups with 100-150 lbs. additional load (barbell plates) strapped to your waist. I have found the progression in 1 pound increments weekly works very well. For this you need a good chin up and dip belt – I use and recommend the Brute Belt – as well as fractional plates.
Chin ups are the best vertical pulling exercise for building strength and size in the upper back and biceps.
You train chin ups once weekly in the Gaining Strength program. There is no reason to do inferior exercises.
1. Gentil, P., Fisher, J., & Steele, J. (2016). A Review of the Acute Effects and Long-Term Adaptations of Single- and Multi-Joint Exercises during Resistance Training. Sports Medicine, 47(5), 843-855.
2. Jones A. My First Half-Century in the Iron Game, No. 68. http://www.arthurjonesexercise.come/First_Half/68.pdf
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