By Michael Berg, NSCA-CPT
To craft his legendary back, Arnold Schwarzenegger relied heavily on an exercise that didn’t even require dumbbells or a barbell. Pull-ups, or chins, were a potent weapon in his training arsenal — one that engages the back from the outer edges all the way in through the muscles at its center. Employing different grip widths on the bar, Schwarzenegger would stimulate his back in a variety of ways, sometimes just setting a goal of 50 total reps and taking as many sets as needed to hit that target. Try this simple yet potent exercise for yourself, and you’ll find its versatility an asset no matter how you may integrate it into your back attack.
The major muscles of the back — the latissimus dorsi (i.e., the “lats”), teres major, rhomboids and trapezius (or “traps”) — all chip in, along with the biceps and brachialis of the upper arms. The deltoids are also activated during pull-ups.
Grasp a fixed overhead bar with a wide overhand grip, a few inches outside shoulder width. Wrap your thumbs around the bar to maximize your grip and avoid slippage as you rep. Now, hang from the bar with your elbows fully extended and shoulders relaxed — this is called the “dead hang” position. To “clear” the floor so you don’t touch down during reps, you’ll want to bend your knees; you can cross your ankles behind you if you prefer.
Contract your lats and the muscles of your back as you bend your arms, lifting yourself up until your chin reaches the level of the bar. Hold yourself momentarily in the peak-contracted position before lowering yourself down to the starting “dead hang” position.
Keep your elbows pointing outward — think about pulling them down to your sides to raise yourself.
Generate momentum by swinging your body back and forth to complete your reps. While this is the method employed for the “kipping” version of the pull-up popularized by CrossFit, momentum is counterproductive when it comes to pure bodybuilding, because it removes tension from the working muscles.
Technically, there is a difference between a “pull-up” and a “chin-up,” although the terms are used interchangeably these days. For a pull-up, you take an overhand grip on the bar (your palms facing away from you), holding the bar at a shoulder-width or wider position; for a chin-up, your palms face you, and your grip on the bar is generally within shoulder-width. A third variation is a neutral-grip pull-up, where your palms face each other. You’ll want to experiment with all of them over time, since each stimulates the back in a slightly different way.
The pull-up can be a key player anywhere in a workout, from the warm-up to the finishing touch — in the latter position, take every set to failure, thoroughly exhausting your back before calling it quits.
Isometric holds in the top or midpoint positions of the pull-up can help strengthen the back. You can also do negatives, where a partner assists you at the feet to help you through the positive portion of the rep, and then you lower yourself as slowly and as under control as you can.