How to do Chin-ups
Chin-ups are a basic exercise that you were probably taught early in your life, possibly as a kid. They are pretty simple, and fairly difficult, though not as hard as pull-ups.
To perform a chin-up, hang on to any bar, doorway, tree branch, etc… with your arms straight and your palms facing towards you. Using your back and biceps, pull yourself up until your chin passes the bar. It’s that simple.
Chin-ups can be performed on anything that allows you to hang with your arms straight and your knees not touching the floor.
Beginners usually can’t perform many chin-up, if any. This post intends to be a proper tutorial for increasing chin-up strength using optimal chin-up technique.
Proper Chin-up Technique
Now that you know how to perform a chin-up, let’s examine proper chin-up technique.
- Straighten Your Arms. Always start each rep with nearly straight arms. Don’t hyper-extend your elbows, but execute each rep with a full range of motion (ROM).
- Total Arm Recruitment. Squeeze the bar to maximally recruit the muscles in your forearms and biceps.
- Proper Grip. A conventional underhand grip is required, whether or not you use a reverse hook (no thumbs) grip is up to you. Your fingers, rather than your palm, should be primarily responsible for gripping the bar.
- How to Breathe. It is much easier to breathe in at the bottom and out at the top, although some trainers will make you breathe out on the way up, rather than after you reach the top. I prefer to have a belly full of air through the entire concentric motion on most every exercise.
- Position the Chest and Shoulders. The chest is always puffed out and the shoulders are always back. Anything else makes the exercise harder and could lead to shoulder injury.
- Position the Eyes and Chin. Always look up towards the bar, never look down. The chin should always point up. Your body always follows your chin.
- Leg Position. I actually prefer to chin-up with my legs extended and knees slightly bent. However, most athletes prefer to fully bend their knees and cross their legs. Sometimes the crossed-leg technique gives me hamstrings cramps, but I generally recommend to perform chin-ups with bent knees.
Chin-ups vs. Pull-ups
We should also consider the difference between chin-ups and pulls-ups. as the two exercises are very similar. The main difference is in the grip:
- Chin-ups are easier, and are performed with your palms facing towards you. You will use more of your biceps than you will with chin ups.
- Pull-ups are the harder of the two, and are performed with your palms facing away from you. You will use your back more and your biceps less than you will with chin-ups.
The Benefits of Chin-ups
Chin-ups are one of the better strength training exercises you can choose to use to build strength and muscle in your back and biceps. By forcing you to use your own body weight, chin ups work a significantly greater number of muscles in the back and biceps, than do lat pull-downs and other machines.
Here are some reported benefits of perfecting and excelling at chin-ups:
- Gain muscle mass. Since chin-ups force you to lift your own body weight, your arms and back will gain a tremendous amount of muscle as you increase the added weight.
- Carryover to other exercises. Your overhead press and bench press strength will increase along with your chin-up strength. Elite powerlifters strive to increase their back strength in order to set new PRs in the bench press. No joke.
- Shoulder stability. You need to balance out overhead and bench pressing, with an equal amount of back work. This should include barbell and dumbbell rows, as well as chin-ups and pull-ups.
- Sports performance. Chin-ups will benefit any sport requiring a strong grip such as rowing, strongman events, MMA and grappling, or rock climbing.
What if You Can’t Perform a Single Chin-up?
As I wrote earlier, beginners often can’t perform a single chin-up.
Here are several great options for increasing chin-up strength without actually having to perform a single legit chin-up:
- Use resistance bands for assistance. Hang a resistance band from the bar and loop it around your knees. This will assist you more at the bottom of the movement than at the top, which will help you develop acceleration through the chin-up movement. Take advantage of this by using maximum intensity with every single pull.
- Get a spotter. There are several ways to spot a chin-up. Your spotter can place his hands on your lats, use one hand at the small of your back, or place his hands under your feet/shins. Any of those choices will help you to complete a rep when you know you just can’t. Whatever you do, tell your spotter not to help you until you absolutely need it.
- Use a kip. Just read about How to Perform Kipping Pull-ups for more information.
- Use a jump. Use your legs to jump up to the top of the chin-up position. Then control your descent. Since these are essentially forced negatives, you might end up with a pretty sore back due to DOMs about 48 hours after the set.
- Assisted chin-up machine. While not the best option, assisted chin-ups can help you perform a real chin-up one day. Just don’t let the assistance get into your head. Still apply maximal intensity to each rep, and always TRY to perform at least 1 real chin-up every week.
- Any pull-down machine. Lat pull-downs just do not translate into chin-ups. Don’t kid yourself. If you want to do chin-ups, do chin-ups.
- Try pull-ups. Pull-ups are harder than chin-ups, so using pull-ups to improve your chin-up strength won’t help much until you can actually perform a pull-up, which would mean you can probably perform several chin-ups. However, once you can perform at least one pull-up, you should work them into your back training. They will generally make your back stronger, faster than chin-ups will.
If you are too heavy to perform a chin-up then you have two options:
- Lose fat. Nutrient partitioning is optimal when you have low body fat. Therefore lose fat first, before trying to gain muscle or strength. Once you’re at your desired body fat, then focus on gaining.
- Get stronger. There are dudes out there who weigh more than 300 lbs and can do 20+ chin-ups. Use the tips outlined above to increase your chin-up strength.
Once you can perform more than 10 consecutive chin-ups, it is time to add weight. You’re not going to maximize your strength potential by using sets any higher than 10-15 reps. You might get stronger, but not as strong as if you started to incorporate weighted chin-ups. 1-5 rep sets are best for gaining strength.
Here are some options for adding weight to chin-ups:
- Use a weight belt with a chain. Put on the belt. Loop the chain through weight plates, or around a dumbbell. Attach the chain to your belt. Pull.
- Wear a backpack. Put weight plates in your backpack. Wear it. Pull.
- Hold a dumbbell with your legs. This doesn’t work for dumbbells heavier than 50 pounds or so. It just becomes cumbersome at that point. Get yourself a belt with a chain.
- Resistance bands. Secure the bands around something heavy on the floor. Loop the band over your shoulders and behind your neck. Pull.
Common Chin-up Mistakes
Range of motion. The most common breakdown in chin-up technique, is incomplete ROM. If your arms aren’t straight and your chin isn’t over the bar, then your rep is not complete.
Using momentum. Do not use your hips or legs for momentum unless you are performing kipping chin-ups on purpose.
Using stretch-reflex. Performing reps too quickly by using the stretch-reflex at the bottom of each rep, is cheating. Only use the stretch-reflex when you are forcing the last rep on the last set, otherwise you’re just fooling yourself.
- pull-ups – palms facing away from you
- thumbless, or hook grip
- medium or narrow grip – wide grip chin-ups aren’t physiologically possible
- pull ups with a towel – works the grip
- fat bar chin-ups – more grip work
- kipping chin-ups
- clapping chin-ups – clap at the top, very difficult
- chin-ups with legs extended to the front – works the abs