There's no way around it-if you want a muscular upper body, you have to do pullups.
In fact,according to Jason Ferruggia, a performance-enhancement coach in Warren, N.J., "the pullup works so much muscle that, if it were the only exercise you did for your upper body, you could still develop an impressive physique." This month, our goal is to help you improve your pulling power, whether you're a beginner just bellying up to the bar, or an iron veteran trying to widen your lats' wingspan.
"I can't do a single pullup."
Lacking the strength to do pullups doesn't make you a girly man-but relying on the pulldown machine while forever avoiding pullups does. To save face, try developing your pulling strength with an elastic flex band (available at elitefts.com). Tie the band to the bar, and let the loop hang down to about knee height. Grab the bar overhead, and place your feet on the band. Straighten your legs-you should feel the tension of the band supporting your weight somewhat, but you'll still have to pull hard to complete a rep. "The band should allow you to get one to two sets of three to five reps," says Ferruggia. In each succeeding workout, try to get another rep in each set-when you can do eight to 10 reps, switch to a lighter-tension band and start the progression over. "Keep switching to lighter bands until you can do a few reps without a band," adds Ferruggia.
"I can do 10 or more reps."
You're now ready to add weight to your pullups. You can do this by hanging a weight plate from a chain around your waist. "You can also move to more advanced variations of the pullup," says Ferruggia, "such as the subscap pullup," in which you push the bar away from you (as in a bench press) on the way down, which activates the subscapularis, a muscle that makes the chest look thicker.
Aren't lat pulldowns enough?
No. "Moving your body through space increases the levels of neuromuscular activity needed for increases in size and strength much more significantly than just moving a fixed object with your limbs," says Ferruggia. In other words, pulldowns work fewer muscles and never prepare you to perform better pullups. You can use them for high-rep sets, but you should substitute pullups in their place whenever possible.
What's the difference between pullups and chinups?
Chinups are performed with the palms facing you; pullups, with the palms facing outward. Chinups work the biceps harder, while pullups target the brachialis (the arm muscle between your bi's and tri's) better, but both moves are excellent and should be cycled back and forth in your training.