If there's one question I get asked by guys a lot, it's "How can I improve my chin ups?" Below you'll find some tips, tricks and techniques to help you get better at pull ups and really get strong.
When it comes to building strength, there really is nothing new under the sun. You can faff around with special techniques and fancy equipment all you like, but unless you include some fundamental mass-building exercises in your routine, you'll never get really strong. We've previously looked at dips and how to do them properly. Now it's time to take a look at the king of back exercises - chins.
What are chin ups?
The chin (sometimes called pull-ups or chin ups) is primarily an exercise for the back.
Basically, you grip a bar above head height and pull yourself up until your chin clears the height of the bar. You'll get a great workout for the back and arm muscles.
Although considered a 'free' body exercise, chins can also be performed with the aid of a machine. In this assisted variation, a platform under your knees provides variable amounts of upwards force to assist you. In both standard and assisted chins, it's also possible to target different areas of the back by varying your grip on the bar.
Why perform chin ups and pull ups?
Quite simply, chins are one of the best back exercises around.
They develop strength and power in the large latissimus dorsi muscles in the side of the back. Additionally, they work the rear shoulders and upper back muscles as well as those in the biceps and forearms.
Together, these muscles are important prime movers in a number of sports and activities. For example, swimming, rowing, X-country skiing, racquet sports and even in running, where they help with the correct arm-swing motion.
The drawback of chins is that they're hard work. Consequently, many people end up just doing lat pulldowns for their back instead of chins.
However, good as pulldowns are, they'll never develop the width, thickness or sheer back strength that chins can. This is partly because of the different neurological recruitment patterns in the two exercises.
Chins are an example of closed chain exercise, where the body moves towards resistance.
The lat pull-down, on the other hand, is an open-chain exercise. The resistance moves towards the body.
As a rule of thumb, closed chain exercises generate a much greater neurological stimulation than their open chain equivalents. As a result, chins are hard to match for upper body development.
How do I perform chin ups?
As is so often the case with basic 'free body' exercises like chins, dips and squats, the key lies in the quality of the movement. A full range of motion while using strict form. This is more important than the absolute number of reps you can knock out.
It's also worth pointing out that there are a large number of grip combinations. To take full advantage of the benefits that chins have to offer, you should aim to incorporate at least a couple of variations in your routine.
The basic chin up - palms up grip
This chin exercise is good for beginners. It enables the biceps to give plenty of assistance to your back muscles. Furthermore, it also generates that all-important good range of movement:
- Stand under the bar, reach up and grip the bar with your palms facing towards you. You'll want them at about shoulder-width apart, or slightly narrower.
- Bend your legs at your knees and tuck one foot behind the other ankle so that you can hang freely unsupported.
- Check that your arms are fully straightened and that your torso is in line with your upper arms.
- Begin the lifting action towards the bar using your back and arms. As you lift, try to tilt your torso back slightly. A good tip is to direct your breastbone towards the bar rather than your chin. At the same time, you should try and draw your shoulder blades backwards and downwards during the lift. This will intensify the action on the back.
- At the top of the movement, when the chin is above the bar, pause briefly and squeeze your shoulder blades together
- Lower yourself smoothly all the way back down to the starting position. You're aiming to feel a stretch in the upper arms again.
Tips to help you get even better at chins and pull ups
Keep the lifting movement smooth and progressive. Don't try to 'whip' the body in an effort to get a few more reps. Additionally, try to ensure that your thighs stay roughly in line with your torso — i.e. don't flex your hips. Lastly, don't hold your breath.
Advanced 'Sternum' chin ups
This is a more difficult variation on basic chins.
In addition to the latissimus dorsi muscles it works the upper back and scapula retractors very thoroughly! Although the start of the exercise is like a basic chin, the end position is more like a rowing movement.
- Stand under the bar and grip with a narrow grip, palms up. You can increase the grip width to shoulder width if you're an advanced trainer.
- As you pull yourself towards the bar, lean your head back as far away from the bar as possible. Lift your chest. As you approach the bar, your hips and thighs should be angled at around 45° to the bar.
- Keep pulling yourself up until the lower part of your breastbone makes contact with the bar. At this point, your head and chest should be almost parallel to the floor!
- Lower slowly back to the start position. Position the rest of the body as described before and commence the lift.
Variations of chin ups and pull ups to help you get better quicker
Narrow Grip Chins for biceps development
In this variation, you grip the bar palms-up, with only 4-6 inches between your hands.
This places additional stress on the biceps.
Neutral Grip chin for more comfort
Some chinning bars are shaped to allow you to grip the bar with a semi supinated neutral grip. That is, your palms are facing each other thumbs towards your face.
This grip not only gives you the best leverage, but it also places the least amount of stress on your wrists, elbows and shoulders. This makes neutral grip dins especially good for when you're trying to lift additional loads.
Safety considerations while improving your chin up game
Although chins are hard work and you may need to start with some assistance (see below), they normally present few problems.
However, the fully extended start position can be contraindicated for those with a history of shoulder injuries. Conditions such as impingement or dislocation may need a modified approach.
It's also important to keep your head and neck muscles relaxed. Take care that you don't jerk yourself upwards, especially at the end of a set when you begin to fatigue.
Since you're lifting your entire body weight, unassisted chins can be very difficult for those who are overweight, especially beginners. In this instance, straightforward lat pulls are probably a better bet, to begin with.
Assistance for chin ups and progression for when you get stronger
If you're new to chins, you may find it impossible to complete a set of least 8 reps with strict form. In that case, you'll need some assistance while you master the technique and build strength.
If your gym has one, you can use an 'assisted chin machine'. These have a pad that you kneel on and which supplies upwards force to assist you.
Select a weight that gives you enough upwards force to enable you to complete 12 reps with good form. The technique is the same as described above.
In time you'll be able to reduce the amount of assistance until you no longer need it.
If there's no assisted machine, you can get a friend or training partner to provide some assistance on the lifting phase. If you need lots of assistance, get them to support your ankles.
However, if you only need a little help, they can provide some assistance from the waist at the 'sticking points'. It's best to master basic chins before you go on and attempt sternum chins.
If you become really strong, you can always increase the resistance further. You might wear a chin/dip belt with weights attached to it.
Which muscles are used in chin ups and pull ups?
The prime movers are the latissimus dorsi muscles (side of the back) and biceps muscles of the upper arms.
However, the brachialis muscles of the forearm are also strengthened. Additionally, you'll work the rhomboids and trapezius of the upper back and rear deltoid (shoulder) muscles.
Widening the gip tends to reduce the involvement of the biceps and increase the involvement of the latissimus muscles. The sternum variation increases the involvement of the rear deltoids, rhomboids and lower portions of the trapezius.
How should I construct a chin up routine?
Chins are hard work.
Even if you're quite strong, you may struggle to get more than one decent set in before fatigue sets in.
For most people, 2 to 3 sets of chins are ample.
Select a variation that allows you to achieve somewhere between 8 and 15 reps, using assistance if required. As ever, the emphasis should be on the quality of movement.
2 strict sets of 8 reps are worth far more than 3 sloppy sets of 12 reps.
Try at least two of the variations above in your chin routine. This will enable you to hit the back from differing angles. Therefore, it's more effective than banging out set after set of the same variation.
How should I integrate chin ups and pull ups into the rest of my workout?
Chins can be thought of as a harder version of lat pulldowns. For that reason, they should be performed before pulldowns.
If you do them afterwards, you'll probably find you simply have no energy left for chins.
Since they are similar, you might want to replace pulldowns with chins completely in a particular workout. For example, you can perform chins and lat pull-downs on alternate workouts.
This not only maintains variety but also helps to keep the muscles guessing at what's coming in the next workout.
One final point...
If you're planning biceps work and chins in the same workout, it's a good idea to complete your chins BEFORE isolating the limbs. Otherwise, they'll be too tired to assist.
In general, helper muscles such as biceps and triceps should be isolated and worked at the end of a workout.