Pull ups are perhaps the most misunderstood exercise on the gym floor. At the risk of descending into a ‘back in my day’ rant, when I was taught how do to a pull up or chin up, the form was simple; Pull chest to bar, lower until arms are straight. Rinse and repeat. It was a simple, although far from easy, thing to do. Nowadays pull ups seem to be a mixture between hurtling yourself at full speed towards the bar i.e. the kipping pull up or an exercise in which the body is lower a 1/2 inch from the bar, i.e. the bro pull up.
Admittedly I’ve varied through using strict, not so strict and completely reckless form when doing pull ups. On some day I’d use all three during the same set. What forced me to reevaluate my form was the Sternum Chin Up, an exercise synonymous with Vince Gironda. The Sternum Chin Up is perhaps one of the most effective and unforgiving exercises from yesterday I’ve recycled in my own training. In today’s post, we’ll run through the history of the exercise, what it looks like and how you can incorporate it into your own training.
The Sternum Chin Up
The Sternum Chin Up was devised by Vince Gironda during the 1960s and 70s to isolate the lat muscles and also as a corrective to the sloppy form he saw creeping into his own gym. When Gironda created the exercise is, much like the Preacher Curl, difficult to discover. What we can say is that he was unafraid of promoting its supposed wonders. Writing in his six week bulk course, Gironda told aspiring bodybuilders of his sternum chin up in no uncertain terms.
Place a towel or piece of sponge rubber over one end of the chinning bar and reach up and clasp your entwined fingers over the pad, taking a full, tight grip. Next, pull up and arch your back, chest up and touch the sternum just below the low pec attachment (head well back). Any other type of form is worthless!
The function of the latissimus is to draw the shoulder girdle down and back! If you can’t perform complete movements do singles (jump up off the floor).
What I find wonderful about this description was the typical Vince comment that this was the chosen path – ‘any other type of form is worthless’. Such confidence may have been misplaced from other trainers but in Gironda’s case it was often hard to disagree.
Now importantly, the trainer famed for tinkering and modifying exercises proved an unabashed supporter of the sternum chin up for the remainder of his training career. Writing with Robert Kennedy some years later in Unleashing the Wild Physique, Gironda expanded on the importance of this movement while simultaneously name dropping a famed bodybuilder into the mix.
The biggest mistake I have observed in lat work is not completing the movement or full contraction. This habit produces a flat back with no trapezius development or thickness.
The way I advocate chinning for lats is to pull upwards to the overhead bar so that the nipples touch it. I realise this isn’t practical for women because they lack the arm strength of men (although I have seen a number of women in my gym who could outchin the men!). Men should always try and pull to complete contraction (that’s what builds the lats) instead of just pulling up until the chin is level with the height of the bar.
Don Howorth, who really did have an outstanding lat development, performs his chins in this manner. Even though you may find it difficult to perform this chest-to-bar movement, keep trying. Eventually you will be able to do one. In time, you will be doing sets of 8-10 reps.
Admittedly Howorth was known more for his delts than his lats but Gironda’s point still stood. The Sternum Chin Up was effective and separated the serious from the rest.
Doing the Sternum Chin Up
Ben Bruno, a man whose writings informed a great deal of my early training, astutely noted the problems many have in doing the Sternum Chin:
If you type “sternum chin-ups” into YouTube, you’ll get a whole bunch of videos showing guys doing standard chin-ups where they simply pull their chest to the bar. That’s a great exercise, but I wouldn’t call that a sternum chin-up. I’d just call that a good chin-up.
What distinguishes a Sternum Chin Up from a good chin up? Two differences really. First you begin with your torso in a layback posture throughout the movement. In simpleton terms (which I most certainly am), you begin leaning back far more than in a traditional chin up. As you pull yourself closer to the bar, you push the head back and away from the bar, arching your spine in the process. The movement is complete when your lower sternum touches the bar and your head is near parallel with the floor. Sound tough? There’s a reason Charles Poliquin called the Sternum Chin Up ‘the undisputed king of compound exercises for the upper back.’
Returning to Bruno’s article, he provides an excellent example of the traditional Sternum Chin Up:
For anyone interested in the Iron Guru’s own directions on the exercise, Iron Guru provides them here.
Implementing the Sternum Chin
Again cards on the table, I was not strong enough to do these pull ups when I first tried them. Needless to say I’d been ego lifting for far too long. Having humbled myself in a busy gym, I took heed of the Iron Guru’s advice and did singles of the exercise, jumping up to the bar and slowly lowering myself in the sternum position. After a few sessions I was able to do them with proper form. Just as Vince suggested, I was able to build up to sets of eight after some months.
So how and why should you incorporate the Sternum Chin Up? First off, the exercise forces you to use correct form and, from personal experience, forces the lats to engage much more than in your standard chin. Second, it looks pretty cool which is always nice. For anyone looking to incorporate the Sternum Chin, I’ve found the following combination to work pretty well. On back days, I’ll begin with the Sternum Chin Up and then switch to a regular chin up when I start to get tired. The combination has made more of a difference to my training than anything else. Putting the Sternum Chin first in your routine is usually a good idea as its so taxing and also it helps to engage the often allusive mind-muscle connection when it comes to training the back.
Have you used the Sternum Chin Up before? Let us know in the comments below.
As always … Happy Lifting!
Hi- I’ve been doing them, but after regular pull-ups. I agree that it makes more sense to do them first, and will try that. I also like your method of doing regular pull-ups when you get too tired to do any more sternum pull-ups, will try that as well.
I couldn’t really do even one of them, so I had been draping a towel over the bar and pushing off the floor with my feet (but only as much as needed (feet in continuous contact with floor (my bar isn’t very high))), but I’m excited to see if I can actually do them with the feet of the floor now.
One reason why I find them to be so difficult is each rep seems to take a long time, so I feel pretty fried after each set.
Thanks for the great article!
Hi Jonathan, thanks so much and awesome. Happy you’ve been doing them! I was in the same position as you when it came to trying them out. I think you’re approach is likely the best in terms of easing your way in. I’ve been doing them for years now. The best I’ve gotten is 3 sets x 5 … I’m sure there’s a super strong person out there who can do more!
Are these always done with a supinated grip? It seems reminiscent of a row, albeit more difficult/potentially effective.
That’s what I’ve always done Dave with good results. As you say it’s very row like but trickier!