A chin up is one of the ultimate upper body strengthening exercises. It is a true test of functional strength that works a majority of the muscles in the back, while also engaging other muscles in the upper body including the chest, shoulders, and arms. A chin up involves lifting oneself upward using an overhead bar while the hand grip is facing towards the body. This differs from a pull up where the palms are facing outward. A chin up is also able to to recruit more bicep usage compared to the pull up due to the positioning of the hands.
How To Do a Chin Up
- Stand underneath a chin up bar, or step up on a box or bench if you need to assistance to get to the height of the bar
- Reach up to grab the bar with a palms inward grip with the grip around shoulder-level apart
- Keep the core tight and start pulling upward focusing on lifting your chest towards the bar. Pull the elbows backward as you lift making sure to keep them in close to the rib cage and not flailing outward
- Keep pulling upward until your chin is at least level with the bar, pause for a moment, then slowly lower back down under control to the starting position.
A simple chin up bar will be all that’s needed to perform chin ups. Every gym will have some form of bar whether it’s a free standing bar, part of a squat rack, or attached to a cable machine.
There are also chin up bars that you can use at home that can be attached in a doorway.
Other helpful equipment can be a box or bench to help get up to the bar if it’s too high. The box or bench will also be helpful if you want to do some assisted chin ups. Resistance bands can also be a good option to give you some assistance if you are not able to do many chin ups, or if you want to do some extra reps with assistance after you have hit failure.
What Are the Benefits of Chin Ups
Besides being one of the best upper body exercises a person can do, they are also a functional exercise. The ability to lift one’s own weight is a true test of strength. Chin ups help to build muscle throughout the entire back and biceps while still being a good core exercise. Many consider the chin up the “squat of the upper body” meaning it’s one of the most effective exercises you can do.
Chin ups will help to build more muscle coordination and strength through the back. This will translate over to other lifts such as barbell rows, deadlifts, cleans, snatches, and any type of pulling motion.
Chin ups are also a great way to build up grip strength and this carries over to every type of lift. Most often, failure on a lift comes from when the grip gives out as opposed to muscle failure. The improved grip strength from chin ups will allow you to deadlift more weight, and for more reps. Improved grip strength will also help you in cleans, snatches, dumbbell rows, cable rows, lat pull downs, one arm dumbbell rows, and even bench presses.
Chin Up Muscles Used
- Biceps brachii
- Lattissimus dorsi
- Teres major
- Rear deltoid
- Pectoralis major
- Erector spinae
- External obliques
- Thoracolumbar Fascia
Chin Up Progression
If you haven’t been able to do a chin up, the goal is to perform a chin-up workout twice per week. For the first few weeks, you will want to do an assisted chin up with a machine, or resistance bands to get out the sufficient amount of reps. You want to choose a band–or resistance– that allows you to do 6-8 reps. This might take some time to figure out, but it’s a good place to start.
The next week or two–or when you can do the 6-8 reps–you can start to use a lighter resistance band, but still aim for the 6-8 reps. On the second workout of the week, you can focus on doing some negative reps. You will need a box or bench for this. You will step up on the box to get yourself up to the top of the chin up position, then perform the negative portion of the movement making sure to keep control–Aim for the same 6-8 reps.
You want to keep progress through the lighter resistance bands–or assisted chin up machine–while still performing 6-8 reps. This may take some time, but after a few weeks, you can try to do some bodyweight-only chin ups. Using proper form, do as many bodyweight chin ups as you can before switching over to the band or assisted pull up machine to finish the 6-8 reps. Continue to progress this way until you are able to do at least 5-6 reps using just your bodyweight.
Everyone progresses at different rates so this may take awhile, but you are getting the benefit of still performing the motion (even assisted) which is still building muscle, strength, and fitness.
Chin Up Alternative
If you’re having trouble with regular bodyweight chin ups, there are some great alternatives to still work the same muscles, and build strength while doing so. The other benefit of some of these chin up alternatives is that they help develop the muscle strength, and coordination that will help you in performing a bodyweight chin up.
Lat pull downs will be a great alternative as they are one of the best exercises to mimic the effect of a chin up. With a lat pull down, you are really able to focus on working the lats, and muscles in the back, in the same motion as a chin up. You can also adjust the weight and go for a higher amount of reps in the 10 to 15 range.
Barbell rows are another great option. WIth a barbell row, you get a compound movement that recruits a large amount of muscle. Not only does this engage the same muscle as a chin up, but you are able to lift heavier with this movement which can lead to more gains in strength and muscle.
One arm dumbbell rows will help to isolate the lats and arm on each side of your body to help build more concentrated strength. With a one arm dumbbell row, you are able to get a greater range of motion which will recruit more muscle fiber, build more muscle, and increase strength.
Personal Trainer Tips
It’s important not to use momentum to lift yourself upward such as trying to swing your body to get it up to the bar. The movement should be controlled the whole time for proper muscle usage and also for safety. Make sure to lower back down under control instead of just dropping downward. Not only is this cheating the exercise, but you also risk injury of the rotator cuff and other joints.
Keep the muscles under tension throughout the lift for maximum muscle development and strength.
Perform chin ups earlier in your workout when your strength levels are most optimal. Also be sure to properly warm up beforehand. Start with some light cardio and dynamic stretching to elevate the heart rate, warm up the muscles, and increase blood flow. It can also be beneficial to do some lighter warm up sets with the lat pulldown machine to get the muscles ready for the movement.
Be sure to breathe properly through the exercise. Exhale as you lift yourself upward and inhale as you lower back down to the starting position. This will keep the blood oxygenated which will help performance and decrease fatigue.