Are Pull-ups a Complete Upper Back Exercise?

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

I got one chin-up repetition with the help of every fiber 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.

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.

I would like to see Conan’s face now when I can do those numbers easily. (As always, you want things that you can’t have, and when you have them, they don’t feel so special anymore. The value is 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 give birth to training disinformation that could last for multiple generations. To this day, I see 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 while accepting notions provided by the entertainment sources. With the right advertisement, pull-ups and chin-ups can be made to appear as the best leg exercises too. After all, if you are short, and the bar is high, you have to jump, right? Sick logic is sick.

Chin-ups and pull-ups are legit, but 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 and the bar hanging nuts say.

Pull-ups are the opposite of the overhead press. Guess, what? The overhead press is not a complete pushing exercise either. The pectoral muscles help very little, as seen in the photos of old-time strongmen when the bench press was yet to conquer the hearts of the bros, and dips were not a priority.

On the other hand, rows are essentially a reverse bench press (a more complete pushing exercise). 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.

I remember watching an interview with a popular female bodybuilder. She looked like a UHRC (Unidentified Human Resembling Creature) and had a great line for the bar hanging addicts – “Lat pull-downs build wide backs without details.”

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, there are pull-up variations that can increase the recruitment of the upper back musculature significantly. A popular example would be the sternum chin-up/pull-up. This is the real way to do pull-ups according to the “iron guru” Vince Gironda.

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

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 intensely because the torso is more horizontal to the floor. The position resembles a high row.

The problem with this variation is that it could be too hard for noobs. Unless you are already good at pull-ups and rows, you won’t do many reps. Therefore, I don’t consider this movement beginner friendly.

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