What is better - Chin-ups, Pull-ups, Ring Pull-ups Or Lat-pulldowns?
I don't know about you but my high-school days are way behind me. However I still remember my sports teacher. And how can I forget her? She was such a tomboy. We called her Canon The Barbarian. Ah...I still have chills from her.
Usually at end of each school year she was making us cover certain physical standards. It was something like: 12 dips, 12, pull-ups, 40 push-ups, 100m sprint...etc. This seems like a joke right now but back then when I was 135 pounds kid this was nightmare. The hardest of all were the pull-ups. I was able to do only 1 and a half. Somewhere at this point I thought that if I can do 12 pull-ups I would be one of the strongest boys in class and I will get a mega wide back. I needed a few years to learn that it does not work like that. In this article I will discuss the pros and the cons of the three most popular and used back exercises - chin-ups, pull-ups and lat-pulldowns. Let's start with chin-ups and pull-ups.
In case you are not familiar what's the difference between chin-ups and pull-ups it's pretty simple. They are essentially the same movement except for the grip.
Chin-up: Palms facing you a.k.a underhand grip
Pull-up: Palms NOT facing you a.k.a overhand grip
People are usually much stronger at chin-ups because the underhand grip allows you to get the most out of your biceps and other elbow flexors. In other words there is more muscle mass helping you. On the other hand when you perform a pull-up you essentially take the biceps out of the game to a large degree. There is still bicep involvement but due to the hand placement it can't contract as efficiently and you end up doing less reps. So, what's better you ask?
Neither. Pull-ups and chin-ups are not as effective as many people would like them to be. There is a better way to do things. Both movements have too many limitations as you can see form the list below. Chin-ups:
Higher degree of biceps stimulation;
Wrist pain due to the extreme stretch of the wrists extensors;
Elbow pain at the bottom position;
Easier to cheat and use your biceps instead of your back;
Too many people don't start from a dead hang due to the mentioned wrist and elbow strain at the bottom;
Less stress on the wrist;
Easier to do from a dead hang;
Lower degree of biceps stimulation;
Possible overflexion of the elbow;
The pros and cons of both exercises are results from my personal experience. I think that pull-ups are not as effective as chin-ups because there is not enough work for the biceps since they can't contract as efficiently. This makes the chin-up the better exercise in terms of muscular stimulation. However the stress on the joints is much higher during a chin-up. So Like I said this makes both exercises far from optimal. Before starting posting angry comments wait for me to present you the solution to the problem - The Ring Pull-up.
The Ring Pull-up is just a pull-up performed on gymnastic rings. You don't have to buy expensive gymnastic rings. You can just build a homemade suspension trailer as shown here. The main advantage of the ring pull-up is the free rotation allowed by the rings. This makes the exercise much more elbow and wrist friendly. Actually I think that if you have any wrist or elbow discomfort from regular pull-ups or chin-ups this should be the first thing to try as an alternative. The ring pull-up is essentially a combination of pull-up and chin-up. You start from a dead hang and overhand or neutral grip (palms facing each other) and finish in a chin-up or underhand grip. That way you achieve two goals - you take the pressure of your joints, and you work the elbow flexors even harder thanks to the added rotation of the forearms. Below is a set of ring pull-ups.
Note the thumbless grip - this is the correct grip for pull-ups needed to place the elbows and wrists in perfect alignment
Her form is perfect - every reps starts from a dead hang and is finished in a chin-up position. Also notice that her back is arched during the whole movement. This is very important aspect of back training. In order to get a powerful contraction you must arch your back. If your back is flexed your lats simply can't help you and you end up doing an arm workout. Every time you do a lat exercise you should make an effort to arch your back. The minute you relax your upper back and let your chest sunk in you are defeating the purpose of the movement.
It doesn't matter what lat exercise you are doing. You should always keep you back arched like Franco does in the picture. Otherwise you are not getting a contraction. As long as you expand your chest you will be fine.
So if you are brave enough to overcome the fear of breaking the dogma that pull-ups and chin-ups done on a straight bar are the best exercises for your back you should try the ring pull-up. You will never regret it. Let's move on to the most hated exercise by the pull-up crowd - the lat-pull downs.
I know many of you are familiar with the term functional training. I will explain it anyway. "Functional Training" is a specific way of training which includes exercises that can improve your performance in real life or in the field. It was a great term when it arrived but over the years it has become just ridiculous.
I remember reading on some web-site how functional the pull-up is and one of the arguments was - it can save your life in the forest when a bear is running after you because you will be able to climb a tree. This is just an example of ridiculous "functional thinking". Let's face it chances you will never be chased by a bear. Also even if that happens your pull-ups skills won't be terribly important since it takes much more than a pull-up to climb a tree. Not to mention that most trees are not always climbing friendly and you will be better working on you climbing skills instead of psyching about pull-ups and functional training.
The reason why I wrote all this is that many hardcore fans of the "functional training" hate too much on the machines such as the lat-pull down. Machines, free weight and bodyweight exercises are just tools. Nobody can survive for too long using only one tool, nobody can build a house using only one tool so don't let yourself be brainwashed by some fitness gurus. The lat-pull down machine is an awesome lat exercise when performed correctly.
According to my experience the best way to perform lat-pulldowns is using the neutral grip handle.
The neutral grip pull-down puts your bicep in a stronger position which is very important during back training. Your biceps will always be the weak link and will go to failure way before your back has been punished. That's where the neutral grip comes into play.
Also the neutral close gip allows you to work your lats even more since the range of motion is longer. Your lats work the most when you perform back exercises with the elbows close to your body despite the common thinking that you need wide grip for wide back. This is ridiculous since the wide-grip decreases the range of motion of your upper arms and you end up with less muscular stimulation. To me a wide grip pull-up, chin-up or pull-down is a quater squat or an ineffective exercise.
Another good think about the lat-pulldown is that it allows you to perform the movement very strictly and you can really focus on your form and hitting those lats. Also it's easier to keep the arch of your back which is super important if you want to get a powerful contraction and really hit the back area.
Conclusion: After many years of performing pull-ups and chin-ups I came to the conclusion that the most effective lat exercises are - ring pull-ups and neutral grip pull-downs. They are easier on the joints and harder on the muscle. So if you have hurting elbows from years of pull-ups and chin-ups contests and macho mentality in general be sure to give those two a try. I promise your lats will be sore.