Upper body strength is typically tested through the bench press or by max pushups.
Now a max pushup effort does not even test strength, so why does the bench press get all the glory?
Most likely it is because pull-ups and chin-ups are too hard.
You can find lots of people that can bench their bodyweight and beyond but cannot perform a single pull-up.
These people are severely imbalanced and are leaving performance on the table by not training both sides of the body.
The aim of this post is not to bash on the bench press but more to realize why pull-ups and chin-ups are hard and how to get better at them.
A lot of times people will talk about weight being a limiting factor. A lighter person will always perform more pull-ups, is what they say.
Under that logic, every 12 year old should be able to do more pull-ups than the high school kids because they weigh 100 pounds less than them.
It still takes strength to perform the chin-ups and pull-ups.
Arm length also becomes a limiting factor, because longer arms need to pull farther which is usually a detriment in either variation.
There is usually always an excuse for not being strong because the bottom line is:
Chinups and pull-ups are two of the hardest exercises for people to perform.
They are the ultimate test of maneuvering your body weight.
For starters, they have the largest range of motion for a bodyweight upper body exercise. Inverted rows and pushups do not involve as much movement.
They are not supported either. Pushups and rows are supported with the feet on the ground. When you lessen the base of support, the exercise becomes harder.
With the hands being the only points of contact, pull-ups and chin-ups are extremely challenging.
This lessened support also means that the entire bodyweight needs to be moved. When the feet are supported some of the load is dispersed, but not so much when you are just hanging there.
Chinups vs. Pullups
Chinups are typically easier to perform than pull-ups. There are some people that will perform better in the pull-up but that will depend on their anatomy.
Every person is different and their musculoskeletal alignment may favor a pull-up. Lines of pull and attachment sites are different in everyone.
To make a general statement, chin-ups are easier than pull-ups.
First, they involve the biceps and rhomboids to a greater extent than pull-ups. More muscle activity makes it easier to get from a hang into a chest over the bar position.
Second, the range of motion is shortened in the chin-ups. You do not hang as far down as a pull-up.
The less distance you have to travel in the movement, the easier it will be to perform.
That is why I prefer to start with chin-ups before moving to pull-ups, or train both simultaneously.
People can perform more chin-ups and it will start to build a base of strength needed to do more pull-ups.
Chin-ups are also much more shoulder friendly than pull-ups and more people will be able to perform them without pain, with the change of also improving symptoms.
Improve your Performance
To get better at these two pulls, you must actually perform them. Sounds simple but all too often the lat pulldown is used to improve pull-up performance.
They are not the same and one will not lead to the other. I have never had anyone who worked with lat pulldowns extensively be able to step up and have success with the pull-up.
It can be a good accessory way to train the lats but I must question the transfer between the two.
To get better at pull-ups or chin-ups, you must perform pull-ups and chin-ups.
At Evolution, we give the option of two ¾ inch black bands to go around the knees to provide some assistance.
When two bands become easier, we move to one band, and then no bands.
This is straight forward thinking and progression, BUT IT IS NEVER THIS EASY.
Without having a full array of bands to provide assistance, there is always a gap between them.
6 easy chin-ups with two bands might mean 3 extremely tough ones with one band. Do we go to 8 reps with two bands or more sets with 1?
More sets with 1. Once I started telling my adults to use less assistance and break up their sets, they have been seeing tons of progress.
We have had some get exactly 0 chinups at their body weight to now getting 6 for a set. This happened in half the time of more reps with the bands.
It is also a great feeling for them and me when they start banging out bodyweight chin-ups.
The real way to improve chin-up performance is repeated exposures.
If your goal is bodyweight chin-ups, you must perform as many as possible with the least amount of assistance possible.
If it’s one band, two bands, none, four; it does not matter. The strategy is to perform as many daily as possible.
If you can get 1 full bodyweight chin-up, then perform 1 at a time 6-10 times a day.
Buy a pull-up bar for wherever you spend the most amount of time.
Doing one at a time will turn into two, three, etc until you can do full sets.
Here is your strategy:
1. Make sure there is a pull-up bar available for most of your day.
2. Perform one or two at a time (use a band if necessary) 6-10+ times a day and keep track.
3. Realize that they are getting easier and you are getting better
4. Increase the number of reps per set until full sets of 6+ are being performed.
5. Become the envy of everyone around you.
To get really good at performing chin-ups practice them as much as you can. You will get better at them and it will make you stronger/leaner.