Pete McCall, MS, CSCS, is an ACE Certified Personal Trainer and long-time player in the fitness industry. He has been featured as an expert in the Washington Post, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Runner's World and Self. He holds a master's degree in exercise science and health promotion, and several advanced certifications and specializations with NSCA and NASM.
ACE Technique Series: Chin-ups
Chin-ups are one of the most challenging body-weight exercises and one that many clients love to hate. While some clients can bang them out with no problem, others struggle to do even one. Others harbor no illusion that they’ll ever be able to do one, so they don’t even bother trying. Not surprisingly, chin-ups also happen to be an exercise that many exercise enthusiasts wish they could do, but wishing doesn’t give one the strength to lift his or her own body weight. The only way to do chin-ups is to start practicing.
Chin-ups can help improve grip strength, posture and appearance, while also helping to strengthen muscles that stabilize the spine. This, in turn, can help reduce one’s risk of back pain and injury. Even if a client is only able to do one or two chin-ups at a time, this exercise offers tremendous benefits, especially for the back, shoulders, forearms and biceps.
If your clients aren’t doing chin-ups, they probably should be. In fact, chin-ups may be one of the most important exercises your clients should be doing. In addition to helping develop strength in the involved muscles, the ability to lift one’s own body weight can provide clients with an enormous sense of empowerment.
Melissa Hinkley, a San Diego-based ACE Certified Personal Trainer who trains a number of female high school athletes, incorporates chin-ups into most of her client’s programs. “Most of my athletes come in and can't come close to being able to perform any sort of chin-up,” explains Hinkley. “They are a staple of my programs because they are fairly easy to progress, which allows clients to experience improvements rather quickly. It helps my athletes become motivated for their training program when they see that they can actually do a modified chin-up after only a few weeks.”
The only equipment needed to perform a proper chin-up is a solid, stationary horizontal bar. The purpose of the chin-up is to use the upper back and arm muscles to lift the body from a stationary hanging position—the focus is on developing strength with the minimal use of momentum. Other variations of the pull-up using momentum have recently been made popular by high-intensity conditioning programs, but for developing serious upper-body pulling strength, nothing beats performing chin-ups from a non-moving position.
Primary Movement Pattern
The primary movement pattern of the chin-up is pulling from an overhead position, and the specific joint actions include elbow flexion and shoulder extension in the sagittal plane. The movement involves hanging from a horizontal bar (usually at an overhead height) and using a supinated (underhand) grip while pulling the body toward the bar so that the elbows move past the rib cage until the chin elevates above the bar.
Major Muscles Involved
The primary muscles involved in the chin-up are the biceps brachii, brachialis, brachioradialis, latissimus dorsi, teres major, posterior deltoid and the deep spinal stabilizers, including the transverse abdominis, lumbar multifidus and thoracolumbar fascia.
Benefits of the Chin-up
The primary benefits of the chin-up are increasing strength and definition of the upper arms, specifically the biceps, the posterior deltoids of the shoulders and the teres major and latissimus dorsi muscles of the back. Additionally, holding on to a bar and being able to do chin-ups helps develop crushing grip strength, which can come in handy for opening stubborn jars or having an impressive handshake.
Why focus on the chin-up instead of the pull-up? (Chin-ups are performed with the palms up, while pull-ups are performed with the palm down). In short, the supinated grip of the chin-up places the shoulder in an externally rotated position, while also placing the radius and ulna bones of the forearm in their natural, parallel position. Mike Boyle, a Boston-based strength and conditioning coach and author of Advanced Functional Training for Sports, prefers to use the chin-up with his clients. “Palms-up is easier for my athletes because it includes the use of the elbow flexors (biceps),” explains Boyle. “In addition it places the shoulder in a more ‘friendly’ position of external rotation. A palms-forward (pull-up) grip creates the abduction and internal rotation that generates impingement. One of my main concerns with clients is helping reduce the risk of injury, and the supinated hand position is essential from an injury-prevention standpoint.”
Sitting all day at a desk using a computer or banging out texts while hunched over a mobile phone places the shoulders in an internally rotated position. Therefore, any exercise that helps increase the strength of the external rotators of the shoulder can help improve posture and reduce the chance of developing upper-back soreness. The pull-up uses a pronated (palms-down) grip, which places the shoulders in an internally rotated position, while causing the radius and ulna bones to cross over one another. This can create tightness of the pronator quadratus muscle in the forearm, which has been linked to carpal tunnel syndrome. While pull-ups offer many benefits, doing too many repetitions places a lot of torque on the elbow joints, which can be a possible cause of soreness in the forearms and elbows.
The chin-up also offers less-tangible benefits like mental toughness. Hinkley likes using this exercise with her high school athletes because chin-ups are not an easy exercise. “It takes some mental stamina to get through them,” she explains, “which can help with their mental toughness for playing their sport.”
- Place a bench or jump box under a pull-up bar and step up to the top of the box.
- Reach up and grab the bar with both hands, using a palms-up grip.
- Keep the spine long, lift the chest and brace the abdominals to help create stability throughout the entire trunk, which helps to pull the body up to the bar. Think about lifting the chest to the bar by pulling the elbows past the rib cage. This cue is helpful because the lats and teres major muscles of the back attach to the humerus bones, which makes the upper arms the primary emphasis.
- At the top, pause briefly before slowly lowering back to the starting position. Do not simply drop back down—going slowly keeps the muscles under tension longer, which helps develop strength and definition.
Teaching the Chin-up
For clients who are unable to do the chin-up, you can offer two variations to help them experience the benefits of the exercise and develop the foundational strength they need to eventually progress to performing a full body-weight chin-up. The first variation involves gripping a barbell placed securely in a rack or squat cage and keeping the feet on the ground. From this position, the exerciser pulls only a percentage of his or her body weight up to the bar. The second variation involves using a thick rubber band (a superband works well) attached to the chin-up bar to help support an individual’s weight. Simply hang the band from the bar and have the client place his or her knees in the band and position the band on the ankles. The band acts much like an assisted pull-up machine by supporting a percentage of the exerciser’s body weight.
To teach the chin-up, Boyle recommends using the band for assistance. “Superband-type bands wrapped around the bar can help most people to do five to 10 reps fairly easily. The big key for beginners is helping them to realize that it is a back exercise, not an arm exercise.”
Hinkley also uses the band with her female clients. “I use a band that is strong enough to assist them with four to five chin-ups, but not strong enough to get them through the whole set. I assist them manually by spotting them to help complete their assigned reps.” Helping clients work beyond the initial point of fatigue can be an effective method for creating the overload necessary to produce significant strength gains.
Common Mistakes (and How to Fix Them)
“It is rare to see good quality pull-ups and chin-ups,” says Boyle, who identifies cheating as the most common mistake, including jumping up to the bar and then going halfway down.
One of the most common mistakes is using momentum to help move the body above the bar. If the body starts swinging, it can be harder to maintain a firm grip on the bar, which significantly increases the risk of injury from performing the exercise. One way to help control momentum is to coach clients how to brace their abdominal muscles to create stability between the pelvis and spine. Maintaining a stiff spine can create a stable lever, which can help make the chin-up easier. Crossing the feet at the ankles and squeezing the legs together is another way to create stiffness and reduce the urge to create momentum by swinging the legs.
Tips for Beginners
Here is Hinkley’s standard approach for teaching high school-aged clients who have minimal experience with exercise: “When I do the initial assessment with my clients, I see how long they can hold themselves in a flexed-arm hang. As they get stronger, they can hold themselves longer. The average time on the first assessment is 10 seconds,” notes Hinkley. “The record is just over a minute and a half for my female athletes.”
Using initial assessments and reassessing on a regular basis is a great way to show progress, which can help clients maintain adherence to their programs.
After the assessment process, Hinkley follows a consistent chin-up progression that she has developed over time. “I first start with band-assisted chin-ups before progressing to manual assistance with a spot. This helps clients learn how to control their body weight without relying on the elastic band for assistance. From there my clients progress to a low-bar chin-up with the feet on the ground before finally progressing to a chin-up from the hanging position. Even when most of my female athletes can do three to four unassisted chin-ups, we generally do two extra sets with a light band to get more volume, because they generally can only do one or two sets unassisted with good form.”
Many chin-up newbies may lack the grip strength to maintain a solid hold on the chin-up bar. If a person can’t grip the bar, it can be difficult to perform the complete exercise. The flexed-arm hang that Hinkley uses for an assessment is actually an effective exercise for helping clients develop grip strength. When using the flexed-arm hang, cue clients to keep the elbows bent and the feet on the floor without supporting any body weight. Keeping the elbows bent recruits more of the forearm and biceps muscles, which is important for successfully completing the movement. Additionally, keeping the feet relaxed on the floor is the safest way to practice the exercise—if the client’s grip fatigues, the feet can easily support his or her body weight.
Putting it All Together
“I think chin-ups are amazing for all athletes,” says Hinkley. “Very few exercises can stress the upper body and core like a chin-up does.” While chin-ups can help athletes perform their best in competition, they can also help the average client who simply wants to perform his or her best in the game of life. It’s usually not realistic to expect a client to be able to perform chin-ups at the first attempt, so using an elastic band or providing a spot can be essential for helping a client develop the strength and ability to eventually perform chin-ups without assistance.