The general consensus in bodybuilding circles is that Dorian Yates anti Ronnie Coleman won their Mr. Olympia titles because of outstanding back development. Their superior lat spreads made each stand out from his competitors. Typically, people like to train the “show” muscles, like chest, arms and ahs; the back is usually overlooked and under trained. But back development is the key to creating the illusion of a waist smaller than Betty Boop’s and shoulders wider than the Grand Canyon.
My favorite back exercise is the pull-up, which has so many variations; your muscles will never get bored. Many variations, however, can lead to many questions: Which ones are more effective? Is the pull-clown as good as the pull-up? Are behind-neck movements dangerous?
Pull-Downs: An Acceptable Variation?
Most experts avoids having his or her athletes do pull-downs as much as possible, instead incorporating lots of variety into the pull-ups. Pull-ups involve greater neuromuscular coordination than pull-downs (in which your lower body is stabilized and you bring the cable in front of or behind your head), aiding a much better transfer to developing functional strength. Realize that these coaches train athletes who want to do more than just look good; they also want to perform well and physically dominate their opponents.
While this doesn’t mean that you can’t develop your back musculature by doing pull-downs or other exercises, coaches and trainers choose movements that produce big results in as little time as possible. Their athletes have to not only lift weights but also practice their respective sport for many hours each day.
The Behind-Neck Dilemma
Years ago, I did behind-neck movements (both pull-downs and pull-ups) all the time with my training partners, and we never got hurt or suffered any joint problems. However, today I take a different view.
The excessive external rotation (where the upper arm rotates backward) that’s required with behind-neck exercises is potentially dangerous to the shoulder. Also, when you lean forward to touch the bar to the back of your neck, problems can occur. First, the front portion of the shoulder joint can he exposed to excessive strain, which can lead to inflammation and painful impingement. Second, forward flexion of the head stretches the neck extensors, potentially leading to muscle pain and fatigue. For these reasons, I suggest you work to the front on the exercises listed.
In addition, most people have excessive forward head posture and find it difficult to maintain proper head position, which is exacerbated by the behind-neck pull-down. You can minimize any problems in pull-downs done behind the neck if your cable machine’s pulley extends far enough so that you pull completely vertically and don’t bend your neck forward. If you use a lat machine that doesn’t allow you to pull straight down, pull downs to the front are a safer bet.
Many of you may be doing these exercises behind your neck without any pain or other complications, and that’s fine. Just be careful and pay attention to your form, because cheating on this exercise can really create problems.
Chins vs. Pulls
Many of us grew up doing chins and pull-ups, but these two exercises aren’t identical and emphasize your muscles differently Chins work the arm flexors (biceps brachii, hrachialis and hrachioradialis) more strongly, and the work required by the lats is reduced. In back training, stick with pull-ups (hands facing forward, or overhand grip) for maximum growth.
Variety Is Key
Curiously, I see people in the gym all the time who do only wide-grip pull-ups or pull-downs. Guess what? Their backs have stopped growing, if you want complete back development, the real key isn’t whether you do pull-ups, chins or pull-clowns, but how much variety you incorporate into your training. This means varying your grip width (narrow, medium, wide), grip position (both hands pronated, both neutral or an alternating grip), speed of movement and angle of pull. Just change things around every 2-3 weeks to ensure that you blast those muscle fibers in different ways and directions, putting you on the road to continued muscle growth and strength.
Starting position:Through trial and error, set the machine’s weight to enable you to complete the desired number of reps. The stronger you are, the less weight you choose. Grasp the bar with an overhand grip, slightly wider than your shoulders. Allow yourself to come all the way down into a dead-hang position so that your elbows are fully extended, but not so you feel that your arms are being pulled out of their sockets.
Execution:In a smooth motion, pull your body to the bar, trying to touch your chin to it. Pause slightly at the top and lower yourself under control.
Training tip:Position yourself so that you pull straight up and down – not in an arc. Other alternatives include having a partner assist you or leaving your toes resting on a bench.
Close Grip Pull-Up
Starting position:Grasp the bar with a close grip, about 6 inches apart. Start from a dead-hang position.
Execution:Pull your body to the bar, trying to touch your chin to your hands. Pause momentarily at the top and lower yourself under control.
Training tip:As you get stronger, try arching back and pulling your chest to the bar. This will really blast your back!
Wide Grip Pull-Up
Starting position:Grasp the bar with an overhand grip, much wider than shoulder width. Start from a dead hang. This is the way most people do pull-ups.
Execution:Pull your body to the bar, trying to touch your chin to it. Pause for a moment at the top and lower yourself under control.
Training tip:Keep your back slightly arched as you pull to keep tension on the back muscles. If you’re too straight, you can actually cheat and generate less at involvement.
Starting position:Throw a rope over a high bar (like the top of a power rack or cable machine). Grasp one end of the rope with each hand using a neutral grip. This is similar to the close-grip pull-up, but your grip is the limiting factor here.
Execution:Pull your body as high as you can, trying to touch your chin to your hands. Pause momentarily at the top and lower yourself under control.
Training tip:Lots of athletes do this type of pull-up because it develops your grip strength and pulling power at the same time, which is important in many sports. If you don’t have a rope, try using a towel, but don’t wrap the towel around your hands.
Staggered Grip Rope Pull-Up
Starting position:Like the rope pull-up, except that one hand is 6—8 inches higher than the other.
Execution:Pull your body to the higher hand, trying to get your chin to it. Pause for a moment at the top and lower yourself under control.
Training tip:Besides working your grip strength, this exercise really blasts the lats on the lower-hand side. The upper-hand side does some hard work, too. You’ll find it to be excellent training for one-arm pull-ups. Don’t forget to alternate the higher hand in each set. Do an even number of sets, so that each side gets worked the same amount.
Iron Cross Pull-Up
Starting position:This can be done with ropes if they’re spaced far enough apart, but most athletes do these on a bar. Grasp the bar with an overhand grip, slightly wider than shoulder width. Start from a dead-hang position, only this time raise your legs straight out in front of you until they’re at 90 degrees with your torso.
Execution:Hold your legs in position using abdominal strength as you do your pull-ups. Talk about working your back and abs at the same time! Pause momentarily at the top and lower yourself under control.
Training tip:This one’s tough. Most people will swing all over the place, bringing in other muscles. The key here is to first learn how to do hanging leg raises, and then work on incorporating the pull-up into the exercise.
Anatomy & Kinesiology of Pull-Ups
All variations of pull-ups and pull-downs described here require movement at the shoulder and elbow joints. Let’s take a look at the major muscles involved during pull-ups and pull-downs, and how to apply this information in the gym.
This is the main muscle worked during pull-ups and pull-downs. The function of the lats is to move your arms backward (extension) and toward your body (adduction). If you perform pull-ups or pull-downs with a relatively narrow grip (shoulder width or narrower), your arms will undergo more extension than adduction. Conversely, if you perform pull-ups or pull-downs with a relatively wide grip (wider than shoulder width), your arms will undergo more adduction than extension. Which is better for developing wide, thick lats?
The teres major, subscapularis and coracobrachialis muscles are the three main shoulder-joint muscles worked during pull-ups and pull-downs. The teres major is a flat rectangular muscle that forms a raised oval or rounded area on the outside of your shoulder blade. Like the lats, the teres major adducts and extends the arm at the shoulder joint.
The subscapularis is a thick triangular muscle that lies on the deep surface of the shoulder blade. This rotator-cuff muscle helps adduct your arms during pull-ups and pull-downs, and helps the other three rotator-cuff muscles (supraspinatus, infraspinatus and teres minor) stabilize the shoulder joint.
The coracobrachialis is an elongated, narrow muscle along the upper, side part of your arm. A well-developed coracobrachialis muscle can be observed below the top part of the biceps, near the armpit during a front double-biceps pose. This muscle also helps to adduct the arm during pull-ups and pull-downs.
The brachialis, biceps brachii and brachioradialis are the three main muscles worked at the elbow joint during pull-ups and pull-downs. The flat brachialis muscle, the main flexor of the forearm, lies underneath the biceps. Unlike the biceps, the brachialis flexes the forearm in all positions.
The biceps brachii has two heads that unite near the middle of your arm. The biceps barely contract when you perform pull-ups and pull-downs with a pronated grip (palms facing away). Yet contraction increases when you perform chins and pull-downs using a supinated grip (palms facing you). To minimize use of the biceps, then, don’t perform chins or supinated-grip pull-downs.
The brachioradialis is found on the front, side part of your forearms. It flexes your forearms and works to its best advantage when performing pull-ups and pull-downs with your palms facing each other.