June 09, 2021 10 min read

Chin-ups and their close cousin the pull-up are one of the best displays of raw strength. Most people hitting the gym for the first time aspire to effortlessly pull off a chin-up.

When you dig into the mechanics of pull-ups, it’s easy to see why that is. They’re an exercise that’s engineered specifically to test the raw strength of your upper body.

From your grip strength to your core stability, you’re pushing yourself as hard as you can to move all of your body weight against the force of gravity. If you’re ready to take on the challenge, then read on.

men doing chin ups at the gym

Muscles Worked

If you’re going to try climbing the chin-up mountain, you need to fully understand all of the muscles that are being tested during this exercise. This is true of any exercise you decide to work into your routine, but we should pay particular attention to your muscle engagement during chin-ups because they’re an exercise that depends heavily on your understanding and mastery of your upper body.

Elbow Flexors

This is the family of muscles in your upper arm that are responsible for flexing your elbows, imparting stability, and generally sending strength to your elbows. Specifically, during chin-ups, you’re going to be working out your brachialis, brachioradialis, and biceps brachii.

We’re all familiar with the biceps brachii, these are the muscles we think of when we’re flexing our arms to show off all of the hard work we’ve endured in the gym. They’re a set of muscles set on your upper arms that consist of a thick “belly” that splits into a pair of heads connected to the inside of your elbow.

They provide most of the strength and mobility of your lower arm, and they’re an easy muscle to show off when you’re bodybuilding.

The brachialis are a set of muscles attached to your elbow that are found below your biceps. These often overlooked muscles are a massive component of the overall strength of your upper arms.

We think of our biceps as the muscles that are primarily providing power to our elbows, but upon closer inspection, the brachialis muscles are actually providing around 50% more power than the biceps alone would ever be capable of.

These are the muscles that are doing a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to bringing your body up towards the bar, and you need to be focusing on them when you’re training for the perfect chin-up.

Latissimus Dorsi

Your lats are a set of muscles located along your back. They’re your shoulder extensor and a crucial part of keeping your body set and allowing you to pull yourself up towards the bar. The downward force you feel in your back is your lats engaging and extending your shoulders so your body can be propelled upwards towards the bar.

Scapular Downward Rotator and Scapular Depressor

This set of muscles are a little harder to imagine than something like your biceps and your lats, but when you’re in the middle of a chin-up, you’ll feel them kicking in. These are the muscles you use when you’re bringing your spine up towards your humerus. This is most obvious when you’re pulling your body up towards the bar, and chin-ups are one of the most straightforward ways to train this area of your body.

How To Do a Chin-Up

The actual motion of a chin-up is pretty simple. The challenge only comes from having to lift your own bodyweight with nothing to assist you other than your muscles and their collective grit. The only equipment you’ll need is a horizontal bar sturdy enough to support your weight and your body. While training for chin-ups, some folks will bring an exercise band into the equation, but even if you’re working your way up, you won’t necessarily need one of these.

  • Find a horizontal bar, there are inexpensive door frame bars you can buy to do these are home, but even something as simple as a tree branch will be enough for our purposes
  • Grab the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart with your palms facing away from you
  • Once you’ve got a grip, hang from the bar with your arms fully extended, without disengaging your shoulders
  • Use your upper arms, back muscles, and set your core to pull your body up towards the bar until your chin is above the bar
  • Pause for a moment at the apex of your chin-up
  • Lower yourself all the way back down to the starting position

That might look like a lot of steps, but you’re really just grabbing, pulling, and dropping. It’s extremely simple, and as long as you’re smart about your joints (especially your shoulders) you won’t be running a very high risk of injury to yourself.

Now that you have the knowledge, the hard part can start. Actually getting yourself in shape to get a clean, perfect chin-up done, may take a lot of work depending on how fit you currently are. Thankfully, there are plenty of equally straightforward methods for training yourself up into chin-up shape.

Working Up To The Bar

1. Australian Pull-ups

Also known as inverted bodyweight rows, this exercise works out many of the same muscles you’ll need for the perfect chin-up, but you’re offsetting enough of your body weight to take some of the load off of your arms. This is an excellent compound exercise that will target all of the muscles you need to employ at once.

This way you won’t be whiling away your time in the gym with isolation exercises over the course of several weeks. It’s a much more effective use of your time, and you’ll be expertly crafting your mind-muslce connection, which is great for eliminating the mental barrier that tends to be the final foe most chin-up fanatics have to face up against.

2. Bent-over Dumbbell Rows

Chin-ups are engaging your upper arms as well as your back and chest. If you’re not deliberately working on your back muscles, they could easily become the weak spot in your chin-up arsenal. Bent-over rows are a good way to ensure that doesn’t become the case.

These are a great exercise for targeting a lot of the problem areas that tend to become a stumbling block when building your way up to chin-ups. If you’re consistently making time for these, then you’re going to be ahead of the curve before you ever hop up to the chin-up bar to begin with.

These rows shine when it comes to working out your lats and traps. If you’re working on your fitness from an at-home set up, they’re especially helpful. People tend to rely on something like a pec fly machine to get their back exercises done, so it’s easy to neglect the simpler options out there that just involve some ingenuity and a set of free weights.

3. Assisted Chin-ups

Assisted chin-ups, like Australian pull-ups, are extremely helpful for eliminating the mental block between you and your chin-ups. There are several ways to go about your assisted chin-ups, but they all boil down to “doing a chin-up with a little bit of a boost.” The different methods are really just to figure out what works best for you and your level of progress towards your goal.

Using an exercise band is a little awkward at first. If you’ve never done it, you’ll need to get used to slinging it over your bar and saddling your leg into it. Once you have it down, though, you’ll be getting a small boost from the elasticity of the exercise band. All it does is provide a small upward force, but that little kick is enough to help overcome the limitations of your muscles.

A surface underneath you like a chair or a box is a good way to explore the latter half of the chin-up’s range of motion. You’ll want to do this by setting up a sturdy surface that will allow you to begin your chin-ups from a slightly elevated position rather than the fully extended starting position. This reduces the overall load your arms and back will have to pull, and the reduced distance means your muscles will stay fresh for more reps.

You can even bring along a partner. Assisted chin-ups are a great way to explore your range of motion and pinpoint the weak points you might not have realized you developed. 

They’re also a good way to get the full effects of this exercise so you’ll know you’re training the exact right muscles. You shouldn't rely on the assistance so much that you're not feeling the effects of your chin-ups, remember that these are just stepping stones, not a crutch.

4. Negative Chin-ups

By far, our favorite way to train chin-ups is through negative chin-ups. This is when you jump up onto the bar (or lift yourself under your own power) to the point where your chin is already over the bar. Then instead of lowering yourself quickly to the starting position, you keep tension on your upper body and slowly lower yourself until your arms are fully extended.

Negative chin-ups are a form of eccentric exercise.

Eccentric exercise is when you maintain tension on a muscle while lengthening it. The go-to example of this is when you’re lowering your weights during a bicep curl.The benefit of eccentric exercise is the amount of tension you’re able to generate (and therefore the amount of work and the weight you’re able to control).

These exercises tend to focus on challenge and they’re excellent for muscle growth. These two things together make negative chin-ups perfect for training your chin-ups.

Other Tips

1. Stay Engaged

Since chin-ups are such a full engaging exercise for your upper body, you’re going to need to make sure you’re using all of the relevant muscles in a useful fashion. Your arms, core muscles, and your back are all going to need to work in perfect harmony to get your chin over the bar. Part of the difficulty of banging out your first set of chin-ups is being unfamiliar with the motion of the exercise.

If you’re only using your back, you’re not going to get very much vertical movement, your arms aren’t going to be able to handle your body weight on their own, and if you’re using a loose core when you try to pull yourself over the bar, then you’re not going to be able to harness the power of your muscles and the momentum of your swinging body is going to make the exercise essentially impossible.

Your body is a complicated series of interlocking systems, which is a blessing and a curse. If you don’t understand how one part of your body affects another, then you’re going to spend a lot of time frustrating yourself. On the other hand, though, you’ll be able to draw incredible feats out of your body through understanding and hard work.

2. Don’t Give Up

A huge barrier to entry for chin-ups is the mentality you bring along to the gym. Because chin-ups have such a reputation for  showing off your strength, folks want to be able to show off the first time they grip the bar. If you go in without a realistic goal, however, you’re just going to disappoint yourself.

If you’ve never done a chin-up in your life, then it’s going to take practice and time. We also can’t understate how important the brain-body connection is. There are countless stories of folks that spent months working towards a full chin-up and felt like they weren’t making any progress until they shook off the training wheels and came to the bar with a fresh mindset.

If there’s one piece of advice that’s going to get your chin over the bar it’s this one. Don’t give up when you’re faced with failure. Being honest about your performance doesn’t just mean being moderate with the weights, it also means that you should give yourself a little credit if you’ve been dedicated to the work.

Male Athlete Doing Pull Ups

Variations

Chin-ups are an excellent upper body exercise. Any variation on them is going to be an exercise worth adding to your routine because of that. You’re going to be targeting all of your major upper body muscles with these variants as well as continually training towards the perfect chin-up.

1. Pull-ups

Pull-ups are the most simple and familiar variation of chin-ups. There are only a few changes required, you’re going to be working out similar muscles, and you aren’t going to need to change the setup of your gym or workout area.

Pull-ups are as simple as reversing your grip and bringing your hands in towards your shoulders a little more than chin-ups require. This exercise targets the muscles along your back a little bit more than chin-ups will.

The closer reversed grip takes a lot of the weight off of the muscles in your upper arm, so if you’re struggling with chin-ups, you may want to give pull-ups a try, allowing you to strengthen your back and spend your time with arm workouts somewhere else until you’re ready to go back to trying chin-ups.

2.Australian Pull-ups

The only thing Australian about these is the fact that they’re “upside down.” Australian pull-ups are a calisthenic exercise that are much more approachable and customizable than standard chin-ups or pull-ups.

  • Find a low bar, these can usually be found in your local park or a well-equipped gym
  • Slide yourself underneath the bar and grasp it with your arms a little wider than shoulder-width apart in a neutral grip
  • Keep your heels on the ground and your body fully extended
  • Pull your body up towards the bar until your chest is touching, then lower yourself until your arms are fully extended again

3. Weighted Chin-Ups

These are exactly what they sound like. Once you’ve broken through the chin-up barrier, you’re likely going to want to continue building strength and muscle mass. Weighing down your chin-ups is the perfect way to achieve that goal. There are belts that are designed to live around your waist with a barbell weight safely dangling from your core.

This will easily increase the resistance your arms will need to overcome in order to bring your body up towards your chin-up bar, and the overload is going to bring about fatigue quicker and in a more drastic fashion than simply using your body weight. If you can keep this trajectory up and progressively overload your body week over week, you can beef up your upper body in a pretty short amount of time.

Chin Up to the Challenge

It’s not easy, and it’s going to take a lot of work if your upper body game isn’t up to snuff. The best thing about setting your sights on flawlessly executing chin-ups is the immense satisfaction you’ll feel when your chin finally crosses that bar after weeks upon weeks of work.

Don’t get impatient, work your way through all of the build up exercises if you’re hitting a wall, and you’ll be pumping with the best of them in no time. `


x