Saying that pull-ups and chin-ups are good exercises are like saying that Ferraris and Bentleys are good cars. They're just about the best exercise that anyone could possibly do. They just don't get mentioned enough as being the best exercises you could do. I know they get mentioned a lot, but even then, it isn't enough.
I guess that was a long-winded way of saying that they are under-rated. How is that? Are they really? Yeah, I still think that they are. How could such a renowned and well-known exercise still be under rated?
It actually a pretty simple answer: when people pigeon-hole it as a lat, bicep and grip strength builder. It was already awesome to a lot of people when they thought that was the primary benefit of pull-ups and chin-ups. As it turns out, there are a lot more benefits to pull-ups than a lot of people realize.
The first one I mentioned a while back in the same blog as my first quote: core strength. Like I said in that same blog, T-Nation decided to check out the level of core activation of a bunch of exercises using a device called an EMG that measures the amount of nerve signal going to a muscle. The more signal going to the muscle, the more activation. You can read about how this works here. Once you've got that down, we'll talk some numbers.
Okay, here's the part that I'm getting at here: On mean and peak activation of the lower rectus adomininus, the Author Bret Contreras reported 249% mean contraction and 461% peak contraction! The answer to what the hell is going on here isn't that hard to understand. The abs are firing like crazy to keep the weight of the legs and hips from forcing excessive extension of the spine. Think about it: when was the last time that you saw a pull-up junkie with a bad set of abs?
The second, and should be more obvious benefit to pull-ups and chin-ups is the Trap activation. If you were paying attention to that link to T-Nation that I threw up above, you'll not that it was about the best Trap and delt exercises based on EMG readings. Looking at the chart, you'll also note that they were measuring the UPPER Trapezuis. While having that big cobra-hood of muscles rising above your shoulder looks really sweet, that isn't the only part of your trapezuis muscle, is it?
So, you shouldn't be thinking only about that awesome piece of meat-real estate. The lower part of your Traps are critically important for maintaining shoulder health because they help rotate each shoulder blade downwards towards the spine. Do this right now: try to pinch your spine between your shoulder blades. Look at your arms in a mirror while doing this. Remind you of something? This is why you're supposed to lift yourself up to the bar with your back and not just your arms: Trapezuis activation. Also, bringing your chest to the bar, rather than just getting your chin up over, helps out even more. I'm not saying this is easy or always doable but it's worth it if you can.
So, why aren't Trap and ab work mentioned along with grip, lat and biceps building benefits of the pulls and chins? This shouldn't be a revelation to anyone. Unless, there is a lot of people doing pulls & chins with bad form. I don't want to turn into a form nazi here but this is one of the reasons why we should strive to do exercise with good form. Getting sloppy too often results in lost strength-training benefits. Obviously, if you're weak and building yourself up then that's a different store. Otherwise, clean up your form and do them right. Your ego may take some bruising from the lost reps but that heals and gets stronger.