By Josh Bryant, MFS, CSCS, PES ProSource
Chin-ups, cheat curls and other compound movements to grow your biceps and back
"Flex!" someone shouts. Odds are you won't turn and flex your glutes, you will flex your biceps. With that being said, let's take a look at an unorthodox bicep-building strategy.
Compound multi-joint movements are at the core of any effective strength training program. These big, multi-joint movements build big muscles and release large amounts of anabolic hormones that will aid in your acquisition of size and strength.
The bottom line is that compound exercises have a synergic effect, meaning the sum is greater than the individual parts.
What about compound movements for bicep growth?
Contrary to what the personal trainer at the local "chrome palace" pontificated while holding court over lattes, when it comes to paranormal bicep development, cheat curls are the preferred "call to arms" over strict isolation variations. As someone who has spent his life in the trenches, I can verify this.
From Arnold Schwarzenegger to Ronnie Coleman to Bill Kazmaier, cheat curls have played a prominent role in building huge biceps. The list of the greats that have used cheat curls could be a book in itself.
So. How does this apply to you?
It's established that the cheat curl is effective; however, there is one downfall: The movement is potentially dangerous. The cheat curl turns the curl into a compound movement via hip swing and some shoulder involvement. Let's take a look at a safer alternative using the same concept that built these great iron warriors.
Chin-ups are a compound bicep movement. Instead of using hip swing, your upper back helps you lift the weight. The difference is the chin-up is one of the safest ways to build your biceps! Compound movements build big muscles, increase inter-muscular coordination, and release the anabolic hormones that help your biceps grow.
Closed vs. Open Kinetic Chain
Closed kinetic chain movements, in layman's terms, are any exercise where you lift yourself through the air; an open kinetic chain exercise means the object you are lifting moves. Compare a cheat curl to a chin-up; during the chin-up you move and during the cheat curl the bar moves.
Closed kinetic chain movements build more functional strength and are safer because they allow an individual's body structure to determine the movement pattern of the joints along with the range of motion they operate in. This helps relieve stress on the joints and places it on the muscles, which should be doing the work and will be forced to grow.
Upper Body Squats
"Strongman equals strong back," said the legendary Bill Kazmaier. Kaz is right; additionally, a broad back equals a powerfully built physique, period.
The chin-up has been called the upper body squat by many legends within the iron game.
There is nothing that builds a wide back like pull-up and chin-up variations. These include narrow grips, wide grips, overhand, underhand and neutral grip. I suggest making these variations a staple in your back training routine. Almost all bodybuilders with great back development have included some sort of "chinning" in their routine.
"Chins" are the ultimate back builder; I had to draw you in with sharing the bicep benefits.
Pull-up / Chin-up Variations
Is there a difference between a chin-up and a pull-up? Yes! Pull-ups are harder than chin-ups. Pull-ups require your grip to be pronated (meaning you have an overhand grip with palms facing away from you). Both can serve in building strength and muscle.
When performing chin-ups your grip is supinated (meaning it is underhand and your palms are facing you). Pull-ups focus more on the back muscles, while chin-ups hit the back but put a greater emphasis on the biceps.
Other variations include neutral grip pull-ups (palms facing). This is the least difficult because your shoulder is able to stabilize your body most effectively with a neutral grip. Furthermore, this grip puts the elbows and shoulders in their most effective line of pull.
5 other reasons to include chin-ups in your training
Special Forces and other elite organizations use chin-ups as a testing standard, NUFF SAID!
Brett Contreas said, "When I conducted my EMG studies, I was shocked to find that the bodyweight chin-up led to the highest levels of lower rectus abdominis activation. It surpassed every ab exercise imaginable -- even ab wheel rollouts and hanging leg raises."
Brian Dobson Metroflex Gym Owner says, "Deadlifts and chins built Ronnie's back. Chin-ups are king for upper back development. Chin-ups are the upper body squat!"
Gymnasts use chin-ups as their primary means of strength training in comparison to the physiques of basketball players that use lat pull downs. Many gymnasts would fare quite well at a natural bodybuilding contest; a basketball player would be laughed off the stage.
Chin-ups build great grip strength, assuming you are not using straps. This, in turn, also helps build huge forearms.
How to correctly perform a pull-up/chin-up:
Grab the bar with grip of your choice
Hang at arms extension
Keep your chest up
Lead the movement with your chest up and shoulders back
Cross your feet behind you
Look up as you pull yourself up
Pull your chin over the bar
For some heavily muscled bodybuilders, they will not be able to get
their chins over the bar, just go as high as possible
Lower yourself under control to the starting position
What if I can't do chin-ups yet?
Great question! Don't use those assisted machines because they completely eliminate the stability component of chin-ups. In other words, they won't transfer directly to doing chin-up with your body weight. Even partner assisted chin-ups remove some of the stability aspect. Adding to that, it is impossible to know how much your partner is helping you, making it difficult to track workouts and progress.
Prolonging the negative portion of the chin-up for a specified count is a popular method in pursuit of developing the strength to do a chin-up. Grip strength and the ability to "handle" one's body weight can be improved with this strategy but keep in mind negative overloads can cause excessive soreness (DOMS) and the benefit to the chin-up is very limited because the first rep of a chin-up is a positive-only movement.
Now that you know what not to do, what is okay to do? Get resistance bands and do band assisted chin-ups. What size? Well, that depends on your strength to bodyweight ratio. By doing chin-ups this way, you keep the stability aspect and don't alter the mechanics of the movement.
Band Assisted Chin Up
What if my body weight isn't enough?
When sets extend beyond 15 repetitions you are starting to train muscle endurance. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but if your objective is muscle hypertrophy, keep the reps in the 6-15 range, for strength six or less. These sets should be with maximum intensity, if you hit these specified ranges with ease, you have to add weight! This can be with a dip belt adding plates or dumbbells.
Assuming form is not compromised, don't be afraid to pile it on!
National Bikini Competitor Priscilla Smith Weighted Pull-Ups
I have used chin-up variations with vast array of populations I have trained. I credit a large part of my success in the bench press, overhead press and deadlift to the inclusion of chin-ups. Mr. Olympia's, Navy SEALs, the strongest men off all time and combat athletes all have chin-ups in common. You are now armed with this knowledge about chin-ups, time to take action!