Are Pull-ups a Complete Upper Back Exercise?

I was 15 years old when I did my first chin-up. My gym teacher, better known as Conan the Barbarian, was a crazy bitch with wild and clotted hair that made all boys do chin-ups and dips that day. One could only wonder what has happened to her the night before.

I got one chin-up repetition with the help of all fibers in my body. It was so sluggish that somebody in the background said: “The Matrix”. The guy was obviously referring to the slow motion scenes part of this occult movie that very few people can actually decode. It’s not a film about ninjas, that’s for sure.

“You have to learn to use your power,” said Conan to me.

I looked at her with tired eyes and said: “What power are you talking about…..?” I decided to keep the crazy bitch part silent. I think everybody was thinking it subconsciously anyway.

“Just pull, kid. Back in my day girls were five times stronger than you, chicken muscles,” said Conan and sent a mean look full of fury towards me and a group of students that were well known computer game addicts, talking non-stop about Diablo and other cybernetic pleasures and addictions.

I don’t want to sound like a loser, but she expected a little too much from untrained individuals – 10 chin-ups without prior training. Who can do that? Very few people. That’s just ludicrous.

Anyway, I would like to see Conan’s face now when I can do those easily. As with everything in life, you want things that you can’t have and when you have them, they don’t feel so special anymore. The value is somehow diminished due to the off timing. Oh, the irony.

Most people form their opinion on chin-ups and pull-ups from similar experiences and mainstream movies containing shallow muscle building scenes, which cause training disinformation that could last for multiple generations. To this day I see unaware propaganda victims in the gym doing behind the neck pull-ups and pull-downs. I wonder where they have seen this nonsense.

We tend to put critical thinking aside and accept what entertainment sources are giving us as the ultimate truth and aspiration. With the right advertising and actors pull-ups and chin-ups can be made to appear as the best leg exercise too. After all, if you are short and the bar is high, you have to jump, right? Sick logic is sick.

While those two are very good exercises, they can never be complete back movements, because a significant part of the musculature is not working to the fullest. The primary movers are the lats and the arms – biceps, brachialis and the long head of the triceps. The upper back and the spinal erectors are not forced to work very hard and are almost in sleep mode. That’s why full back development cannot be achieved solely true pull-ups regardless of what the mentally challenged experts in the movies or the bar hanging nuts say.

Pull-ups are the opposite of the overhead press, and guess what? The overhead press is not a complete pushing exercise either. The pectoral muscles help very little, as seen in photos of old-time strongmen when the bench press was yet to conquer the hearts of the bros, and dips were not a priority. “How much do you bench and dip,” said no one ever before the chest revolution.

On the other hand, rows are essentially a reverse bench press, which technically works all major pushing muscle groups, except for the serratus anterior. That’s why if you have to choose between rows and pull-ups, it may be wiser to stick with rows. However, realistically you will never have to select only one, unless you are in a far than optimal situation such as prison, traveling…etc.

I remember watching an interview with a popular female bodybuilder from my country. She looked like an UHRC (Unidentified Human Resembling Creature), but had a great line for the bar hanging addicts: “Lat pull-downs develop backs without detail.” She was trying to say that while pull-downs develop the lats and can make your back appear wider, the detail can only be achieved by working the upper back (teres, rhomboids, traps) with horizontal pulling. Normally, taking advice from UHRCs is not very wise, but I think in this case the observation is right.

Mohamed Makkawy, one of Gironda's students doing sternum pull-ups.

Mohamed Makkawy, one of Gironda’s students, doing sternum pull-ups.

With that said, all of this remains true only for classic pull-up and chin-up variations. There are modifications of the exercise that can increase the recruitment of the upper back musculature significantly. A popular example would be the so-called sternum chin-up/pull-up, which the hysterical Vince Gironda used to promote as the real way to do pull-ups. Many of his students were obligated to do pull-ups this way only or else. The guy was definitely hard to deal with.

People tend to attribute magic and sorcery to Gironda’s methods, but I never bought into it. I don’t think his approach is that groundbreaking. This exercise, however, is definitely a strong choice that will build serious back strength, except when it comes to the spinal muscles.

The sternum pull-up is a regular pull followed by a row. As you can probably guess already, it requires you to get your sternum as close as you can to the bar. In the best case scenario you are going to touch the bar, or respectively get to the level of your hands, if you are using gymnastic rings for your monkey adventures. The sternum chin-up works the upper back much more because the torso is more horizontal to the floor and the position resembles a high row.

The problem with this variation is that it could be too hard for noobs. Unless you are already decent at pull-ups and rows, you won’t be able to do many reps. Therefore, I don’t consider this movement exactly beginner friendly. You need to be able to do at least 10-12 chin-ups/pull-ups and be decently strong on some rowing exercise too. Otherwise, you will be using way too much momentum and will look like Jay Cutler when he is trying to do pull-ups.

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