Q and A: How Chin-Ups/Pull-Ups Can Help Your Bench
Q: I have a question for you. My bench is moving up rather well (245 lb 1RM, 215 lb 5×5), but I’m still struggling with my chin-ups (can almost manage two in a row, chin over bar). Am I setting myself up for some muscle imbalances by continuing to increase my bench, or should I concentrate more on my chin-ups/pull-ups until I get a closer ratio?
A: I’m going to attack this question in bullet-point format because my mind is going in all different directions with this one.
– Generally speaking, your 1RM (or even your 3RM) bench should be on par with your 1-3RM chin-up. And if I were to be perfectly honest, while I understand it’s part of the “bro-code” to want a big bench (who doesn’t, really), I think having an impressive chin-up is going to be a better indicator of overall functional upper body strength than a bench press.
Not that this is a surprise or anything, but there are plenty of guys out there who have impressive bench numbers. Go to any local powerlifting meet and you’re bound to see a handful of dudes put up 500 lbs without batting an eye. Likewise, walk into any commercial gym in America and you’ll readily see dozens of guys benching their body weight for numerous reps (they all used to bench 400 lbs back in high school, too).
Funny thing is, though, put a lot (not all) of these guys underneath a chin-up bar, and they’re a walking ball of fail.
Rarely, if ever, will you find someone who can easily perform 10+, legit chin-ups/pull-ups with their body weight, let alone with over 300+ lbs of external load. If for some magical reason you do see it, though, that’s a true indication of great upper body strength.
– On an a side, just to give you an idea of what it takes to get on our HIGH SCHOOL leader board at Cressey Performance, for 3RM chin-ups, the best is 272 lbs. In order to even get your name on the board, you have to do at least 245 lbs (again, for three reps).
In terms of the STAFF stats, the best is Eric with 317 lbs, although EVERYONE is above 300 lbs.
1 RM Bench Press = 315 lbs
3 RM Chin-Up = 301 lbs (body weight + external load)
Total # of Shoulder Issues = Nada
– Moving on, if you do find that your chin-up numbers are lagging behind your bench, it’s not going to be the end of the world to put your bench on the back-burner for the time being and hammer those chins!
You may come to find, surprisingly, that your bench will go up! There’s something to be said about improving vertical pulling strength (which has a direct effect on scapular stability, assuming you’re performing your chins correctly – more on this below) which translates very well to overall benching badassery.
As a strength coach, and as someone who’s regularly teaching young athletes how to do things correctly, one of the very first things I focus on with regards to the bench is scapular placement. It’s no secret that having a stable base of support leads to improved performance on the bench.
That said, keeping the shoulder blades together AND depressed is going to be paramount. The analogy I like to use here is trying to shoot a cannon from a canoe. Poor scapular stability is going to lead to energy leaks (poor transfer of force), which in turn equates to poor bench performance.
Of course dedicated bench technique work is going to reign supreme here, but as I noted above, chin-ups and pull-ups, when done correctly, can have a profound influence on helping to improve overall scapular stability, as well as help counteract (along with a healthy dose of horizontal row variations) many of the nasty muscular imbalances that can occur from too much benching in the first place.
– So the question then becomes: Okay Gentilcore, what can I do to improve my chin-ups?
Here’s a brief check-list of what I like to focus on:
- Start from a full hang position, elbows slllllliiiigggghhhttttly bent.
- Brace your abs
- Initiate by “pulling through the elbows.” Many trainees make the mistake of “shrugging” themselves up
- Focus on keeping your shoulder blades in your back pocket – effectively, much like the bench press, keeping your shoulder blades together AND depressed.
- Pull all the way to your upper chest. Really, these should be called chest ups, but I digress.
- Pause for a 1-2 second count, and CONTROL yourself down to the starting position.
Understandably, I could go into more detail on technique here, as well as discuss progressions for those who are unable to perform a chin-up/pull-up. Luckily, my good friend Mike Robertson beat me to the punch and just released a great video demonstrating how to conquer chin-ups.
All in all, I really do believe that from a performance standpoint, as well as an overall shoulder health standpoint, it’s important to balance out those numbers as best you can. Furthermore, it’s not un-common for me to see trainees drastically improve their bench just by getting stronger with their chin-ups! Besides, chicks dig chin-ups. Right ladies?