Are Chin-Ups the Best Exercise for Lat Development?

Q: My favorite author said in a magazine that chin-ups were the best lat exercise, hands down. Do you think this is true,? and can I benefit from this exercise if I can only perform three or four repetitions per set?

Charles Staley: I’m always hesitant to call anything ‘the best,’ but I will say chin-ups are pretty darn good. All rowing and pulldown motions innervate the lats, but I cannot think of an exercise that places such great demands on the musculature of the back the way that chins (and pull-ups) do. The results that this demanding exercise can produce is obvious in gymnasts and rock climbers, who tend to posses great lat development, despite the fact that they do not strength train in the way that you and I think of it.

The chin-up and it’s variations work the latissimus dorsi, teres major, deltoid, trapezius, bicep, brachialis, brachioradialis, and many other muscles. Adjustments in grip spacing, palm direction, and even plane of movement can influence where the emphasis is placed, so they possible variations are endless.

However, if you can count the number of chins you can do on one hand, I have a few tricks in my bag for you:

1) Improve your absolute strength. Since traditionally this is done using between 85 and 100 percent of maximal ability, you’ll need to use additional weight in the form of a dumbbell between the calves or a weight plate on a belt specially make for this purpose. Choosing a weight (it might be only your bodyweight, of course) you can comfortably get 6 sets of 2 reps with, try this great three week program, which is an abbreviated version of something called the “Soviet Squat Routine.” Just don’t tell your Ruskie workout buddies that you’ve perverted it for your own upper body objectives! You’ll use the same weight for every workout:

Monday Wednesday Friday
Week 1 6×2 6×3 6×2
Week 2 6×4 6×2 6×5
Week 3 6×2 6×6 6×2

After you complete this program, rest about 4-5 days, and then after a proper warm-up, perform one, all-out set of chins. You’ll completely freak out at how strong you’ve gotten, and wherever there’s strength, size isnĀ¹t far behind!

2) On days I run into a personality conflict with my athletes, I love to prescribe a drill I call “intermittent sets.” Here’s how it works: you simply perform as many chins as possible within 60 seconds. It doesn’t matter how you arrange the reps – for example, you might do 3 reps, then rest 20 seconds, then another 2 reps, then rest another 15 seconds, and then another 2 reps. When 60 seconds is up, you’ve done one set. Three sets of these and you’ll still have a lat pump when you wake up the next morning!

3) The supine ball pull was introduced to me by my colleague, Lorne Goldenberg, strength coach for the Ottawa Senators. I really love this exercise because of the ease in which you can vary the intensity, and because it takes so little in the way of equipment. Place a bar low on the power rack, just high enough so your back would clear the floor if you were hanging with your torso parallel to the floor (see Photo #1).

Then place a Swiss ball (please use only the ABS ball by Sissel USA – never compromise on safety) somewhere between your knees and your feet (the former is easier, the latter is harder), resting both legs on top of the ball. The more proficient you become with the exercise the further the ball should be placed toward the feet. Creating an imaginary straight line through your spine down to your feet, pull yourself toward the bar, while maintaining balance on the ball (see photo#2).

At the top, really arch your back and hold for a full second; at the bottom, be sure to allow your shoulder blades to completely retract (pull apart). This exercise is the exact antagonist to bench pressing of course, and the tow exercises can be performed together during workouts.

IFBB pro bodybuilder Darrem CharlesPhoto credit: Muscletime

Originally published: MESO-Rx, July 1998

About Charles Staley

Charles I. Staley, B.Sc., MSS, is a sports conditioning specialist and consultant based in Santa Barbara, California. A former martial arts competitor and trainer, Staley is also an Olympic weightlifting coach, as well as a master's level track and field competitor (discus event). He has coached elite athletes from many sports, including martial arts, boxing, track & field, football, Olympic weightlifting, and bodybuilding. Staley has written over 100 published articles, and has lectured extensively on the topics of human performance and sport training. He has recently authored a text on conditioning for the martial arts, and has several other books in the planning stages. Staley's award-winning web site is consistently ranked among the top 50 in the world in the health & fitness category.