Need to add some muscle to your upper back and lats? Up for a challenge? Then get a set of gymnastic rings.
Their freedom of motion tends to be a little friendlier to the joints of the upper body. Rings also allow for variety that can't be replicated with a regular fixed bar.
Give these moves a try if you're looking to spice up your upper-back training with some advanced chin-up and pull-up variations.
1. Subscapularis Ring Pull-Up
Charles Poliquin popularized standard bar subscapularis pull-ups. This ring version is a little friendlier on the wrists, elbows, and shoulders, plus it adds a stability component.
Do a regular pull-up with the rings. At the top, while maintaining a strong and straight torso, push yourself away from the rings while lowering under control. This will be a unique stress to your lats. Also, strengthening this rotator cuff muscle is important since it acts to prevent dislocation of the head of the humerus.
2. Chin-Up to Negative Tuck Lever
This move borrows some elements from the gymnastics world. At the top, make sure your neck is long, your shoulders are depressed, and your forearms are touching your biceps.
From here, tuck your legs and press yourself away from the rings while raising the hips. You should end up with your back parallel to the ground. Focus on keeping your neck long while actively pressing your hands towards your feet. Now slowly lower your torso while keeping your arms straight, shoulders depressed, and the legs tucked.
Think of this as an extremely challenging pullover or straight-arm pulldown movement. The accentuated negative will hammer your lats.
3. Chin-Up to Lever Row with a Negative Lever
This combination pull-up follows the same pattern as above, but this time you add a row from the parallel-torso lever position as well. This is a unique variation since it combines a vertical pull and a horizontal pull in one exercise.
4. Zottman Pull-Up
This one challenges the negative in a similar manner to a Zottman curl. Do a regular chin-up and let your hands supinate naturally as you pull. This hand position (palms facing you) hits the biceps and makes this a strong position to complete the movement.
From the top, pronate the hands or turn your palms away from you. Maintain this position while lowering all the way down to the bottom in control. The pronated position will deemphasize bicep recruitment while shifting the effort to the upper back and lats while you lower down.
5. Chin-Up to Pull-Apart
This is a monster for upper back development. Perform a regular concentric with the rings, letting your hands rotate naturally.
From the top, turn your hands out and pull the rings apart as wide as possible. Additionally, pull your shoulder blades back as you pull the rings apart. Visualize doing a rear double-biceps pose. This will lead you to externally rotate, abduct, depress, and retract the shoulder. Fight to keep your elbows wide and pulled back as you lower down to the start.
This move will really stress your middle traps and rhomboids. It's an excellent variation for lifters that tend to have their lats overpower pull-up movements.
6. DC Pull-Up-Lever Pull-Apart
For this variation, you'll need to experiment with the appropriate height of the rings and foot support. Don't let the leg assistance fool you; they blew my back up the first time I tried these.
In the bottom position, get your legs slightly bent on a bench or chair. Pull yourself up until your biceps are touching your forearms. From here, press yourself away from the rings while simultaneously bridging the hips up.
Your legs should now be bent at the knee. In this position, your torso should be roughly parallel to the ground, with hips, shoulders, and knees forming a straight line. Focus on pushing the rings to your hips to engage the lats and stay light in your feet in this modified lever position.
Return to the top of the chin-up. Pull the rings apart and retract your shoulder blades as you lower in control to the starting position.
Programming and Notes
You'll notice the ring chin-up variations will challenge the upper back and lats with more time under tension. The longer duration will lend itself to lower-rep sets, probably in the 1-5 range depending on the exercise. Additionally, there's a higher requirement for skill and coordination with these moves.
To get the most out of these, do them at the start of your back or pull workout when you're fresh. Adding weight or reps isn't the only way to progress your pull-ups. Break out some gymnastic rings and challenge yourself!
Note: Since gymnastic rings allow for natural rotation of the hands, the terms pull-up and chin-up are used interchangeably. Otherwise, on a bar, a palms facing away grip would be considered a pull-up, while a palms facing towards you grip is considered a chin-up.
- Jenkins, D. (2002). Hollinshead's functional anatomy of the limbs and back (8th ed.) Philadelphia: Saunders.