Exercise Essentials, Part 3: Chin-Up

In this series of posts, I am outlining several of the most basic lifts with which every lifter should be familiar.  I consider them the cornerstones of intermediate and advanced exercise programming.

See also – Part 1: Squat & Part 2: Deadlift

What is a chin-up?

Like all of the exercise essentials, the chin-up is a very simple concept.  Grab a bar.  Hang at arms length.  Pull yourself up so your chin is over the bar.  Return to dead hang.  For the purpose of this article, I will lump all exercises of this sort (using any hand position) together.

girl doing chin-up

Why chin-up?

The chin-up is an excellent upper-body muscle builder.  A properly executed chin-up recruits the upper back muscles (lats and teres major in particular) and biceps as prime movers, as well as many core/abdominal muscles as stabilizers.  In fact, a properly performed chin-up is one of the most potent stimulators of the abdominals around!  The forearms, rear delts, and other back muscles (middle and lower traps, rhomboids) are also recruited.  Due to it’s vast muscle recruitment, the chin-up has been called the “upper body squat.”

Because the chin-up requires you to lift your own body-weight, in addition to any added weight, it is variably difficult based on your weight.  That is, a heavier person has to be that much stronger to perform a chin-up.  A person who can bang out rep after rep of perfect chins probably isn’t carrying a lot of extra body fat.

Types of chin-ups

There are many variations of the chin-up.  Here are some common varieties.

  • Supinated Grip (“Chin-Up”) – Generally, “chin-up” refers to the variation where your hands are supinated (palms facing towards you).  This version tends to shift the emphasis somewhat towards the biceps rather than the back, but it also allows most people to lift more weight.  This makes it an excellent back and biceps builder.  Hands are generally placed at about shoulder width on the bar, but different widths may be used.
    supinated chin-up
  • Pronated Grip (“Pull-Up”) – This version, where the hands are pronated (palms facing away from you), shifts emphasis a bit more towards the back musculature over the biceps, but tends to be a bit more difficult, so load must be reduced.  Most people are comfortable using a slightly wider grip than they use for chin-ups.  A very wide grip recruits the lats even more, but can be very difficult.
    pull-up
  • Semi-Supinated (“Neutral Grip”) - Neutral grip chins (palms facing each other) can have different muscle recruitment results depending on the width of the grip.  Narrow grips tend to be more bicep-dominant.  Generally weight used is somewhere in between pronated and supinated versions.
    neutral grip chin-up
  • Sternum Chins – These can be performed with any grip (often neutral) but are altered by leaning back during the movement so that the torso is close to horizontal at the top of the movement and the sternum (breastbone) touches the bar.  This is an advanced variation, but recruits the mid-back muscles (traps, rhomboids) extensively.
    sternun chin-up
  • Assisted Chins – Let’s face it, not everyone can do a chin-up the first day they try.  Various types of assistance can be used to train the movement without being able to do one.  More info in the next section.

While you will probably have a favorite variation, using a wide variety of chin-up and pull-up variations along with a variety of hand widths in your programming will result in the most complete back training.

Progressing a chin-up

For those who cannot perform full chin-ups, there are several ways to assist the movement, so you can train it anyway.

  • Band-Assisted Chin-Ups – Perform chins with an elastic band wrapped from the bar around your knee.  The band will lessen the weight you have to pull yourself without changing the mechanics of the exercise too much.  As you get stronger, use a lighter-grade band to increase the difficulty until you don’t need a band at all.
    band assisted chin-up
  • Object Assisted Chin-Ups – Use a chair, stool, bench, or friend to support your feet while you chin.  You choose how much to push against said object.  More leg push makes the exercise easier.  This method works fine, but can be difficult to judge progress (hard to measure how hard you are pushing off).
  • Eccentric-Only Chin-Ups - Use a stool, partner, or strong jump to get your chin over the bar.  Hang for a moment, then lower yourself slowly to a dead hang and repeat.  As you gain strength, take more time to lower yourself.  Strong people can drag this period out to 60 seconds or more!
  • Machine Assisted Chin-Ups – Yep, they’ve got a machine for this.  The platform reduces your perceived weight by the amount you select on the weight stack.  As you gain strength, reduce the weight you choose.  This variation is not the best choice because the platform holds your knees still, which alters the movement pattern.
    machine assisted chin-ups

What about pull-downs (you might be asking)?  Pull-downs performed on a cable pull-down machine do utilize the same prime movers as chin-ups and pull-ups – the lats, biceps, etc.  However, since you are no longer forced to stabilize the body, much of the magic is lost.  Recruitment of stabilizers is much diminished, particularly the abdominals and other core muscles.  In fact, carry over strength from pull-downs to pull-ups is not that great; plenty of people are very strong on the pull-down machine but still aren’t able to do pull-ups or chin-ups.  To get the most bang for your buck, stick to pulling yourself up, not a cable down.

Performing a chin-up (or pull-up) correctly

With any chin-up variation, there are several important things to remember about form.

  • Use a full range of motion – Each repetition should begin from a dead hang, with the elbows and shoulders at full extension, and end with the chin over the bar (or the sternum touching it).  None of this 6 inch range of motion crap.
  • Initiate with your scapulae – Begin every rep by consciously retracting and depressing your scapulae (pulling your shoulder blades toward each other and down towards your butt).  Only then should you begin pulling through the arms.
  • Pull through your elbows – Once you’ve properly initiated the motion, be conscious of pulling through your elbows, not your hands.  This may sound strange, but focusing on bringing the elbows down (rather than just pulling yourself up) recruits more back musculature.
  • Keep your body stable and still - You should not swing back and forth or “buck” with the legs and hips to get your chin over the bar.  Keep your core tight and your body still.

Summary

Take home points on chin-ups

  • The chin-up is a great upper body muscle builder (maybe the best), utilizing most of the back musculature as well as the elbow flexors (biceps) and core stabilizers.
  • There are many variations of chin-ups to choose from, each with its own emphasis.  Mix it up for best results.
  • If you can’t do a chin-up yet, don’t despair!  There are many ways to progress the chin-up until you are able to complete one (or many).

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