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August 15, 2020 10 min read
Bulging biceps and big lats to fly away with—what more could you want? (Other than big pecs)
These two muscle groups make up a very large and important portion of upper body aesthetic. You want those biceps to fill out the sleeves in your shirts, while lats are essential when it comes down to achieving that tapered v-shaped torso.
Not to mention all of the functional benefits that come along with having strong arms, and especially a strong back.
But how do wrap this up in a nice exercise-package? Look no further than the Cadillac of bodyweight exercises—chin-ups.
A close cousin of pull-ups, the chin-up promises to leave our upper backs and biceps burning and pumped up. Not only will it leave your upper body looking damn good, but the chin-up is also a fantastic exercise for conditioning. The ability to lift your own body weight up is one that a lot of people struggle with, but one that’s empowering and can easily be trained up to.
Chin-ups (and pull-ups) are difficult exercises to pull off correctly—even for the most gym-hardened of those out there. But as you might’ve guessed, that just means they come packed with benefits.
Even if you’re only able to do 1 or 2 at a time, or none at all, training up to do a proper chin-up will have amazing effects on your back, shoulders, forearms, and last but definitely not least, biceps. When it comes down to the muscles worked, this means:
What is most activated are the upper arms (biceps), posterior delts (the shoulders), and the teres major and lats of the back.
Grip strength is another important factor in training with chin-ups. The strength we have in our arms is one of the best indicators of upper body strength, and one of the slowest muscle areas to degrade as we age. Furthermore, there’s a lot of exercises out there that are only limited by our grip—so it makes sense to improve it in order to maximize our other lifts.
Furthermore, along with a strong back and arms, chin-ups will also improve your posture and therefore, your appearance. With better posture and increased stability around your spine, you’ll also have the benefit of being less prone to injury and back pain.
Additionally, you only need minimal equipment for chin-ups. Just find a pull-up bar that you can grab onto and can hold your weight, and you’re well on your way to some amazing workouts.
While these two movements are extremely similar, with both of them requiring pulling your body weight up on a vertical plane, there’s probably a good chance you’re better at chin-ups than pull-ups.
There are a couple of things that make chin-ups easier than proper pull-ups.
For one, it’s a more natural movement of the shoulder joint. Pull-ups require a pronated (overhand grip) of the bar so your palms are facing away from you. Chin-ups require a supinated (underhand grip), which has your palms face you.
Pull-ups use shoulder adduction in which the shoulders and elbows are in an internally rotated position with some bones crossing over one another. Not only less comfortable and natural for the body to do, but it also leads to tightness of the pronator muscle in the forearm—something that’s been linked to carpal tunnel syndrome.
On the other hand, the supinated grip of a chin-up allows the shoulder to be in an externally rotated position while placing the bones in question (the radius and ulna) in a natural, parallel state. This is a more friendly and natural position for people to be in based on our physiology, and which is why a lot of people recommend chin-ups over pull-ups.
This benefit is compounded by the fact that our lives these days—and especially for office workers—are spent in hunched over positions, over keyboards or phones. This puts out shoulders in the internally rotated position, so it’s important to develop the external rotators with a healthy, regular dose of chin-ups.
There is, however, one more important aspect that makes chin-ups much easier to do for beginners than pull-ups. That is greater bicep activation.
The oft-repeated major difference (other than the above) is that chin-ups are easier because more of your bicep is activated in the movement. With pull-ups, however, we have greater activation of the back (lats) due to the rotation of our elbows and because a wide grip is often used.
Since our biceps are relatively strong and they’re in a stronger line of pull with a chin-up, most beginners will find that they’re much better at doing these than they are at doing pull-ups.
Furthermore, this is why often people will recommend doing pull-ups over chin-ups. Obviously, this depends on your own programming and goals, but the biceps are already hit in a large portion of upper body exercises.
Pull-ups are recommended for the most part since they put a greater emphasis on the back muscles, which for a lot of people, is the main point of doing pull-ups and chin-ups—for lats big enough to fly away with.
While this is still true, as with most things, it’s a little more complicated than that.
Recent studies have shown that there actually isn’t that large of a difference between varying muscle activation and different grips with pull-up exercises. What does this mean? You’re pretty much just as likely to get a good back workout with chin-ups as you are with pull-ups.
Which brings us to our next point.
So, if both chin-ups and pull-ups are more similar than we thought in the past, then why do people (for the most part) find chin-ups easier to do than pull-ups?
The answer lies in what muscles are being activated.
A beginner, for example, is much more likely to lean into the strength of their biceps in order to get themselves up to the bar. And even though it’s easy to activate the biceps to help you out, most of the pull should still be coming from your lats (back).
If you find yourself being able to do significantly more chin-ups than pull-ups, chances are that you’re not engaging the proper muscles in your back to pull you up. This can be for several reasons. The back muscles might just be too weak, or good form was never explained well.
Even though you might opt for the more natural and safer path of chin-ups, it’s still just as important to keep your back activated throughout the entire movement. Rely on your biceps as little as possible to get you up—but they’ll still be able to help you out.
Pull-ups will force you into engaging your back since the rotation of your elbows and shoulders is towards the inside. However, if you’re able to focus on the back throughout the movement, chin-ups are superior in how they handle the natural physiology of the body.
It’s up to you to make sure they impart equal benefits.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get into the meat of the matter.
The form is very important, especially in movements where you’ll be using your own bodyweight. While chin-ups may be safer to do than pull-ups, it’s important to keep an eye on your form so nothing goes wrong.
In terms of equipment, all you really need is a chin-up bar—or a bar of any sort that you can easily grab onto and one that will hold your weight. Your gym will most likely have one, or you can always install one at home, so you never have an excuse not to work out.
Here are the steps for completing a successful chin-up.
1. Place your hands on your bar of choice with your palms facing your body—the underhand grip. Make sure to hold onto the bar firmly, while also keeping your hands about shoulder-width apart or narrower.
2. After you have your placement, straighten out your arms while bending your knees and crossing your legs so you don’t touch the floor and free hang instead. Retract your shoulder blades by pulling them back slightly in order for there to be less stress on the shoulder joints.
3. You want to make sure your core is stable throughout the entire movement. This means not only bracing the abdominals but keeping the spine long as well. The image you want in your head is of lifting your chest up to the bar by pulling your elbows down past your rib cage.
4. Slowly and steadily lift yourself up, not too quickly, and without jerky movements. Lift your body until your chin is aligned with the bar or slightly over.
5. At the top of the movement, you want to pause for a couple of seconds in order to really feel the burn in your muscles. You want a full range of motion in order to garner all the benefits and gains from the exercise.
6. Then, slowly yourself back down into the starting position. Again, don’t go too fast and definitely don’t allow your body to just drop. The descent should be controlled and slow. Focusing on the eccentric movement is a good way to make sure you’re not leaving any gains on the table.
And there you have it! A proper chin-up that will leave your upper body in much greater shape than it was found.
Much like with push-ups, a well-executed chin-up is surprisingly difficult to come by. And the biggest indicator of a poor chin-up is a poor range of motion.
In order to fully contract all your muscles and to eke out everything in terms of exertion, it’s important to complete the exercise by starting from the bottom and going all the way up. This means beginning each chin-up with your arms straight and ending the chin-up with your chin above the bar.
That doesn’t mean beginning each set with your arms straight, it means beginning each individual chin-up with straight arms. The same goes for getting the chin up to the bar.
This is tied in closely with using momentum to cheat your way into a higher chin-up personal best. Along with going all the way down after each rep, you also don’t want to be jumping up at the beginning to pull yourself up over the bar. It might be disheartening at the beginning when you find yourself struggling, but in the long run, you don’t want to be chasing numbers—you want to be chasing real gains.
Bracing your abdominals correctly will also aid in this. If you start swinging, it might be tempting to use the momentum from raising your lower body up. Of course, you don’t want to do this. Keeping a straight spine and braced or crossed legs will prevent this, along with preventing you from swinging and making the exercise more difficult.
But that’s not to see that this exercise isn’t difficult in its own right.
While the proper form is important, where do you start if the only way you can do a chin-up is by using some of these cheats?
There are some good variations and other exercises that you can do instead if you’re having trouble with chin-ups. While something as simple as a dead hang can help out, these exercises will turbocharge your chin-up game.
A terrific way to get into chin-ups is by doingisometric chin-ups. This movement has you completely focusing on the eccentric motion in the exercise. That is, the muscles and contractions you use to lower yourself from the highest point back down to the lowest.
These are simpler since you don’t have to worry about lifting yourself up, and just the motion of controlling your descent will improve your chin-ups if you can’t do any (or are working up to more). Simply place a chair or other elevated surface in front and under the bar and grip it. Step off the object while holding on firmly, and slowly lower yourself back down to the ground in a controlled fashion. The higher the elevation is the higher you’ll begin and the more you’ll get out of the exercise.
Another great exercise is bodyweight rows. These are great for both training your chin-up and pull-up. You’ll want a rack and a barbell to grab on to. Depending on how fit you already are, adjust the bar and step in front of it while gripping it.
The trick here is that you don’t have to support all your body weight. If the bar is high and you’re mostly vertical to the ground, it’ll be much easier since most of your weight will be supported by your legs. On the other hand, a shallow angle will force you to support most of your weight.
Finally, we have assisted chin-ups. Much like assisted pull-ups, these are usually the final step before doing real chin-ups and they’re very easy to adjust for different experience levels. Furthermore, they can either be assisted with a partner or more commonly, with bands.
By looping a strong band around the bar and then down around the foot, the resistance and springiness will give a lot of support both when you’re coming up to the top and when you’re going back down. Or you can even ask a partner to support your torso when you’re trying to crank out a few reps. This works excellently if you want to increase the overall volume of training but can’t manage any more unassisted chin-ups.
But what to do if a regular chin-up just isn’t scratching the itch anymore? There’s nothing to worry about with such an easily modifiable movement.
While not necessarily more difficult, using a neutral grip (with palms facing each other) will elicit more muscle activation in your brachialis. Although it’s a smaller muscle, it can help to fill out your sleeves and it’s often neglected.
Furthermore, you can weigh yourself down by attaching something heavy to yourself. For weighted chin-ups, you won’t just be lifting your body weight, but whatever load you’ve decided on. This can come in the form of a weight vest, holding a dumbbell (or some other object) between your ankles—or even laying a chain across your shoulders. Furthermore, you can also attach a resistance band from you to something on the ground. This would work well in a strength training routine.
Lastly, we have towel chin-ups. If you’re looking for massive forearms, this is the move for you. Instead of using a bar, you’ll be holding onto a couple of towels draped over the top—good luck.
If you’re looking for that extra edge in your training program, chin-ups are a great and adaptable way to take your gains to the next level.