The A-Z of Chin-Ups

Chin-ups are a fantastic exercise to improve lots of muscle groups, including your abs, your upper back, and your grip strength. They also work well to build up your cardiovascular resilience. But the thing for which chin-ups are most famous is building biceps. Really huge biceps.

Successful chin-ups depend on bicep strength, so the more of these you do under controlled circumstances, the better and more defined your biceps are likely to be.

Add some bicep curls into the mix and you have an immensely impressive bicep game. But bear in mind, bicep curls are exercising the biceps in a smaller way, with just one joint movement, so of the two, if you want big biceps, chin-ups are your major event.

If you want a full-on bulking routine, chin-ups are crucial to build your bicep mass and power to integrate into the overall mix.

But how do you use the chin-up to bulk your biceps, as well as strengthening your back and building your abs?

We’ve got you covered. We’re about to take you through the routines you need to know to do all that. We’re also going to cover what kind of grip is best for you, how to self-assess and work on the areas where you need additional focus, the best assistance lifts to build your chin-up strength and resilience, and when to use accessory lifts.

Some of this you may already know, but hopefully you’ll find some answers to the questions you have about the importance and power of chin-ups in a bulking regime.
Let’s start at the very beginning…

What do we mean by a chin-up?

The chin-up is an exercise that works several muscle groups at the same time. To do a chin-up, you hang from a bar, using an underhand grip, then pull your chin up until it’s fully above the bar. The chin… goes up. It may not be rocket science, but it’s very clear.

Importantly, what a chin-up is not is a pull-up.

No, really, it’s not. Lots of people use the two descriptions interchangeably when really that just serves to confuse matters. A pull-up is done with an overhand grip. What that means is that the chin-up is a major compound exercise, bringing in lots of muscle groups, while the pull-up is a much smaller, more focused thing.

That said, the basic description of a chin-up we’ve just given is… well, precisely that. Basic. There are a whole raft of different ways you can do chin-ups to make them either easier, more difficult, or just as challenging but less strain on particular joints.

Do chin-ups with an angled bar, or with gymnastics rings and you take a lot of the pressure off your elbow joints. Do chin-ups with just your bodyweight for as many reps as you can for a more cardiovascular chin-up session, or add extra sets to do more challenging sets to build muscle mass.

How to do the chin-ups you want

We’re not going to overcomplicate chin-ups for you. The basics are simple. Grip the bar a little wider than shoulder-width. Pull up. Once your chin is over the bar, you’ve done a chin-up. If you want to get technical on form, you should brace your abs so you get less torso-wobble when you lift, but the basic chin-up form is just that. Shoulder-width plus a little. Brace the abs. Pull up.

Where chin-ups are challenging is that to do them successfully and repeatedly, you need to accept an inverse weight-difficulty ratio. In plain English, that means you need to be pretty strong to do them, but the more you weigh (including muscle mass), the stronger you need to be to complete the lift. It’s like an ever-building feedback loop – the more muscle you put on, the more toned your biceps need to be to lift you.

If, at the start, the standard chin-up is too hard for you to do, or do many of, there’s a way around it. Try lowered chin-ups, instead. In those, you either jump to grab the bar or use a stool to reach it, and then lower yourself under control, rather than flopping and dropping. That way, you use the same muscles and you get the same benefits, you just reverse the process, so your strength is deployed on the descent.

What muscles get the benefits of chin-ups?

Simply – a lot. As a bulking exercise for your biceps and back, they work better than most things out there. But they can also help you build the strength of your other forearm flexors, like the brachialis and brachioradialis. Meanwhile, the pull and the pressure of doing the chin-up maneuver strengthens your grip force and your upper chest, while toning your rear delts and your abs (remember the bracing?)

If you want to ultra-define your abs, work on your chin-ups – they out-perform both crunches and sit-ups for those muscles.

The sheer number of muscle groups they work, and how effective they are when it comes to working them, make chin-ups one of the biggest compound lifts available to you. Perhaps surprisingly, because they look like less impressive exercises than some others, the humble chin-up has got a lot going on for your workout and especially your bulking regime.

What do they not do? Well, chin-ups won’t grow your upper traps or your spinal erectors – both of which need to happen if you want to look good in your muscles. For those, you’re going to need to bring in some deadlifts and barbell rows, to mop up the few muscle groups the chin-ups leave behind. Work them all though, and your back should be truly impressive. Throw some assistance and accessory lifts in for good measure, and you’ll be getting in touch with your Inner Hulk.

Tricep Talk

People frequently report that their triceps ache after doing chin-ups. That’s perfectly fine – chin-ups work those muscles too.

While “no pain, no gain” is a valid precept, be aware that while you get the ache in the triceps from doing chin-ups, you may not work them hard enough from this exercise alone to really develop them, so you should eventually follow up with more tricep-specific work.

The triceps’ long head is a biarticular muscle, crossing both the elbow and shoulder joint, so you’re going to need several exercises to really do it justice.

The issue with triceps and chin-ups is that if you flex your triceps during the chin-up maneuver, they pull your arms backward, which is good, but then they also open your arms, which is unhelpful and painful in equal measure.

It also means you can’t fully engage your triceps without compromising your bicep work. So as a tricep workout, the chin-up is at least OK, but not particularly specialized. If you add some tricep-specific exercises, like overhead extensions and skull crushers, you’ll be doing more to help your triceps overall.

That said, if you already have triceps like tree trunks, then chin-ups will be your friend – they’ll help you maintain the size you have, and may even add just a little extra on top.

Variations on the Chin-Up Theme

We mentioned the grip difference between a chin-up and a pull-up. And we’ve explained that as a compound lift, the chin-up is by far superior when it comes to building muscle. But let’s take a walk around the most widely-used variations on the theme, and see what makes them so popular.

Underhand Grip Chin-Ups

Usually when doing chin-ups, you use a straight bar and a shoulder-width underhand grip. You do that because of the impressive range of motion you achieve, and the muscle-building it brings bulking up your back and biceps.

The underhand grip improves the stretch of your biceps to be sure, but it comes at a cost – elbow flexors like the brachialis and brachioradialis contribute less to the lift.

Chin-Ups Using a Neutral Grip

Neutral grip chin-ups need a special bar and are done with your palms facing one another. Why would you do them?

  • They bring in all the elbow flexors (biceps, brachialis, and brachioradialis), rather than focusing on the biceps at the expense of everything else. You don’t get the same quality of bicep workout from these chin-ups, but they do engage every elbow flexor you have.
  • If you have snarky shoulders, the neutral grip chin-up will be your friend, because it keeps your shoulders in a neutral position.
  • In what some people see as their biggest bonus, you can lift the most weight this way. If you think about it, this makes perfect sense – all your elbow flexors are engaged, so it’s like adding two extra members of a team to a game.

Chin-ups with an Angled Grip

If you need a middle-ground between the underhand and the neutral grip, the angled grip is probably what you need to use. You might be surprised how strong you find yourself using this grip, but it still grows the biceps at a good rate without aggravating any shoulder issues.

Chin-Ups Using Gymnastics Rings

Why would you use gymnastics rings to do chin-ups? Well, on the one hand, you get the option to rotate your grip as you like, to relieve any potential stress on your elbows. And on the other hand, you get a great deal of muscle activation from doing chin-ups this way, so it’s pretty much a win-win.

Pull-Ups Using Overhand Grips

Pull-ups are effectively chin-ups using overhand grips. The issue with pull-ups is that they don’t engage the biceps, and they work a much smaller set of muscles, because the wider grip that’s necessary shortens the available range of motion. So for choice, we’d go with chin-ups all day long.

But – there is an upside to pull-ups. You get exactly the same strength of workout on your lats with pull-ups as you do with chin-ups, but in a much more focused range, because you’re not engaging a whole host of other muscles. So for extra lat-focus with less of the stress, do some overhand pull-ups too.

Alternatives to Chin-Ups

What do you do if you need to do chin-ups, but you have no chin-up bar?

Simple: Do rows, pullovers, and bicep curls.

The rows will exercise most of the same back muscles as chin-ups do, but won’t give your lats a deep stretch or challenge your biceps. But the dumbbell pullover gives your lats the exercising they need, and the bicep curls, while smaller in their impact, will remind your biceps they exist.

Yes, absolutely, turning one single exercise into three is a pain, but it’s an effective workaround in the absence of a pull-up bar.

Enhancing Your Chin-Ups

Range of Motion Depth

A chin-up is an explosive exercise. You start in a dead hand with your arms fully extended, then pull yourself all the way up till your chest touches the bar.

That’s neither small nor isolated. It’s not about feeling the burn or maintaining the tension, it’s effectively a full-on upper-body deadlift. It’s not a small isolation movement where you focus on keeping tension on the muscles or feeling the burn. Each return to the bottom is a complete energy reset, so every chin-up you do is explosive from a fresh start.

The reason you do that is to make use of the largest range of motion possible in the maneuver. That will improve mobility for a more versatile strength. It will also of course promote more muscle growth.

The wider range of motion won’t necessarily do a thing for your lats or your biceps – each will benefit from a part of the extended motion curl, but really the point is to work a huge number of muscles on the way from the dead hang to the chest-touch.

At the bottom of the lift, you bring in whole groups of muscles you’d forgotten were there, just to facilitate the upward thrust.

Let’s be clear, though. If you can’t touch your chest to the bar, that’s not a reason to stop or give up. You need to exhaust your lats and biceps – keep doing what you can do until that happens. The chest-touch will be an aspiration to work towards.

Improving the Strength Curve of Your Chin-Up

The what-now curve?

The strength curve. It’s the marker of how challenging the lift is at different points of the range of motion.

Why is it important to know such a thing? Because our muscles only grow when they have a challenge to meet. No challenge? No growth. So you need to know the strength curve of the chin-up, and you need to know how to improve it.

For example, most barbell lifts have a bell-shaped strength curve, but for instance when training your back, you might find that most of the action is fairly easy, only to turn into sweating bloody murder for the last few inches. You can see this kind of pattern with pull-ups and barbell rows, but it also applies to chin-ups.

Don’t panic – it’s not that you have some sort of chronic strength imbalance you need to address. It’s that the moment arms on the majority of pulling exercises are at their peak at the height of the lift, rather than in the middle. Also, our muscles contract harder at the bottom of the lift than at the top.

The lats are worth considering too – they’re our main pulling force, but in something like a barbell row, they’re of no use to us if we’re trying to touch our chests to the bar.

Weirdly, in some ways, that’s useful – needing to use a wide range of muscles in a single lift is a good thing and a benefit of using a wide range of motion.

But on the other hand, the lats are your strongest pulling muscles, so by limiting how much you can lift based on how much your smaller muscles can handle, you’ll probably never set up a realistically useful challenge to the lats. Which means they won’t grow.

Strangely, perhaps, it’s at the bottom of the lift, when both our lats and biceps are stretched as we start the upward pull, that we stimulate the most muscle growth. That bottom part of the range of motion is the most important, because it’s where the biggest explosion of effort comes, and where the greatest muscular challenge is.

Once it’s begun in earnest, everything works to its completion, but that first, explosive motion – that’s what really makes the chin-up such a powerful compound lift, bringing in groups of muscles from several areas to achieve the lift.

In terms of the strength curve, chin-ups are pretty high up among the pulling movement exercises. But it’s important to reiterate one thing: it’s normal to struggle to bring your chest up to the chin-up bar.

It’s supposed to be hard. It’s in the hardness of the action that the challenge to the muscles is hidden, and you want your muscles challenged, or they’re not getting the food they need to grow. That said, we do not simply stop doing a thing because it’s hard.

Again, the hardness is the point. Keep doing what you can do, and keep trying to challenge yourself to use the wider angle of motion. The more you try it, the more you’ll achieve, and the more you achieve, the bigger your muscle growth will be.

Remember – while it would be extremely cool to be able to bring your chest up to the bar, you’re not doing chest-ups. You’re doing chin-ups. As long as you get that far, you’re doing more than fine for today.

That said, if you can get your chest to the bar, in the name of Atlas, get your chest to the bar. Do it whenever you can, don’t do it if you can’t do it – you’re trying to hone yourself, not break yourself, remember?

If you want to leave some reps unexhausted, then feel free to stop doing the chin-ups when you can’t touch your chest to the bar.

The point is to know what you can and can’t do, and to live and work in the challenge zone – you want it to hurt in a good way, because that means your muscles are being challenged, which is what makes them grow.

You just need to be sensible enough to know when to stop them from hurting in a bad way because pain that produces setbacks, not growth, is both needless, unproductive, and arguably wasted pain.

Do chest-ups if you can, and do as many of them as you can. But remember not to snap anything vital in searching for that last chest-up when your immediate goal is bicep-challenging chin-ups.

Lat Stretching Between Chin-Up Sets

Recent research has suggested that if you stretch your muscles between sets, it might slightly increase muscle growth. Yes, the research is hardly conclusive, but if it might help, it’s worth trying, no?

Obviously, don’t go wild on the interest stretching – you don’t want to pull or tear anything you’re going to need to complete the sets, but while you can, during your rest periods, try stretching the prime movers of a given lift for about thirty seconds between sets.

Seriously though, don’t overdo it – there’s contrary research that suggests stretching for longer than half a minute between sets could start to impair your progress. Aim for a good stretch you can feel, rather than anything that’s anywhere close to the territory of pain.

Above all, don’t injure yourself so you can’t complete your lifts. That would be the ultimate in broken victories.

So in the case of chin-ups, your aim should be to stretch your lats between sets of chin-ups, pull-ups, and barbell rows.

Because back exercises regularly struggle to challenge the lats, interest stretching should, if nothing else, give the lats a bit of an extra workout, to keep them in the overall game, even when we’re ultimately focusing on different muscle groups.

Thirty seconds of lat stretching between sets of chin-ups and barbell rows. Where’s the harm? And if it helps boost muscle growth, it’s got to be something worth trying, right?

Importantly, monitor your progress over time – see if your lats have grown even slightly after, say, six weeks of adding in the interset lat stretching. If nothing else, additional anecdotal evidence of whether the technique works or not might be of use to the researchers.

Powering On: How to Do More Chin-Ups

When we start out on the chin-up ladder, we measure strength and success by the number of bodyweight repetitions we can do – if any. It’s always worth repeating that when we start, it’s perfectly fine not to be able to do any and to have to do lowered chin-ups instead.

Again, there’s no shame in doing these – chin-ups are meant to be hard, that’s why we’re trying to do them, so as to challenge our muscle groups. As we get stronger and more resilient though, the key becomes trying to do full chin-ups – and then trying to do more of them.

There are several things we can work on that will help us to achieve that goal:

  • Firstly, do those lowered chin-ups. Everything in fitness and bodybuilding is about seeing what we can do, and doing it repeatedly until we discover we can do more. While full chin-ups are still out of your league (which they won’t be forever), lowered chin-ups will give your muscles the stimulation overload they need, putting them on notice to grow in response to the challenge. These lowered chin-ups are a gift in the early stages, because as we’ve said, they stimulate exactly the same muscles as regular chin-ups, and they stimulate them in the same ways as regular chin-ups, without making you cry on the floor and feel the sting of chin-up defeat. As such, they’re a great gateway chin-up, and everything you develop by doing these lowered chin-ups will help improve your ability eventually to do full-on hardcore chin-ups, and even eventually chest-ups using that wider range of motion.
  • Assistance lifts are your friend. Assistance lifts? Yes – exercises that work the same or a similar movement pattern. Doing things that use the same movement pattern help build a repetition principle, so when you come to do the full-on chin-ups, there’s less shock to your system, and you’re more likely to be able to muster the explosive energy you need. Try exercises like underhand lat pulldowns and band-assisted chin-ups. You could even add in some work on an assisted pull-up machine. Admittedly, these exercises don’t work in quite the same way as hardcore chin-ups, and they don’t work exactly the same muscles, but there’s enough similarity in them to give you a good sense of what you need to do, and as build-up exercises, they can be useful.
  • Do exercises that build the right muscle mass to help you when you get to the real chin-ups. Building this mass is known as using accessory lifts. For chin-ups, you’re looking at things like barbell curls to build up your biceps, doing pullovers to strengthen your lats, and barbell rows to add power to your upper backs. While they’re not as effective as some of the other techniques, using accessory lifts will let you gain some of the strength you need to complete your chin-ups.

To recap, then:

  • Start off by doing beginner variations of chin-ups, like the lowered chin-ups, because they’re the closest thing to full-on chin-ups, so the carryover between the two will be significant.
  • Use assistance lifts like the lat pulldowns, to train various muscles in the sort of action we need them to perform.
  • And build up your muscle strength in particular muscle groups by accessory lifts like barbell curls and pullovers.

How does that look as a weekly workout routine?

  • Lowered chin-ups: Do 4 sets of as many repetitions as you can manage. Try doing these twice a week, for 8 sets per week in total.
  • Lat pulldowns: Do 3 sets of 8 reps. Again, try doing these twice per week, for a total of 6 sets per week.
  • Barbell curls: Do 2 sets of 10 reps. Do these just once per week.
  • Pullovers: Do 2 sets of 10 reps, likewise done just once per week.

As time goes on, your chin-ups will get stronger and your rep numbers will climb. How do you know when to advance? Maybe when you can do between 6–12 reps, start adding weight to your chin-ups.

Note: You don’t have to add weight to your chin-ups, but chin-ups are taxing compound lifts, so if you can, do them for 6–12 reps before your cardiovascular system starts to artificially limit what your muscles are capable of.

Improving at Chin-Ups

Once you’re at the level of doing at least 6 chin-ups from a dead hang, bringing your chin to the bar each time – congratulations! You’re no longer a chin-up beginner!

So, now what?

Now it’s not about doing more of the same – you’ll probably be limited by your cardiovascular system in any case. Now it’s about making each chin-up you do harder, so as to increase the muscle challenge.

How do you do that? Simple – you add weight and do heavier chin-ups. Now it’s not about doing more chin-ups, it’s about doing heavier chin-ups. Maybe buy a dip belt, or hold dumbbells between your legs.

The process of getting stronger with the increased weight though is the same as our initial process was:

  • Practice chin-up variations: try straight bar, neutral grip, and gymnastics rings chin-ups. Pretty much all the muscle and strength you build doing these will help you with your heavier chin-ups.
  • Do more assistance lifts: do your heavy chin-ups, then add in the likes of pull-ups, lat pulldowns, and rows. These will all increase your strength in similar ranges of motion, and most of the muscle you build this way will also help with your heavier chin-ups.
  • Do more accessory lifts too: hit the relevant muscles, and push all of them close to the failure-point, so they can grow. When looking at heavier chin-ups, try bicep curls and pullovers.

Obviously, there’s no need to do all of these every time you hit the chin-up bar. Spread them out across the course of the week’s training. That way you’re not overtaxing your system, but you are still stimulating the muscles you need to do your heavier chin-ups, adding something to your rep bank at least three times a week.

And always remember – sure, there are rules to follow for maximized build, but the schedule is not the boss of you. You can customize the way to advance so that it works for you. And obviously, the more advanced you get, the more freedom you have to set your own agenda.

Let’s run down the assistance and accessory lifts, so you have an idea which ones will work best for your program.

Assistance Lifts for Chin-Up Training

When you’re training to be able to do chin-ups, you need assistance lifts that work your back and your biceps.Those are where the money’s at in terms of achieving your chin-ups.

You’re looking at the likes of underhand lat pulldowns, because the movement is very similar in those to what you need to be able to do in your chin-ups, but the lat pulldown is lighter and easier, so it doesn’t put such a strain on your system.

Also, look at lifts like a standard pull-up or row to keep your back and forearms in the mix.

Let’s take a more detailed look at some chin-up assistance lifts:

  • Pull-ups: the overhand grip takes your biceps out of the equation, but still gives your lats and forearms a workout. That means you’ll need to use lighter weight, which will be easier to recover from. If your lats are lagging, pull-ups can help.
  • Underhand lat pulldowns: pulldowns using an underhand grip train the muscles you need when doing chin-ups, but again, using a lighter weight.
  • 1-arm lat pulldowns: attach a one-handed grip to a lat pulldown machine, so you can train your biceps, lats, and rear delts all at once.
  • Overhand lat pulldowns: focus on your lats and forearms. The point of the focus though means you won’t build biceps through these lifts, so again, you’ll need to use lighter weight.
  • Underhand barbell rows: this is a useful assistance lift for both chin-ups and deadlifts. Beware of straining your lower back though if you add these in after your deadlift training.
  • Dumbbell rows: these can really help to bulk up your forearms and lats. They also come in a lot of variations – you can do 1-arm, 2-arm and chest-supported versions of dumbbell rows. These will all add bulk, but maybe start with the 1-arm and work your way up from there.
  • Chest-supported rows: this is a cheat mode lift. If your deadlifting is punishing your lower back, go for chest-supported rows as an effective assistance lift to train your upper back, without adding to the stress on your spinal erectors.

Accessory Lifts for Chin-Up Training

When you’re training to do chin-ups like a master, you need accessory lifts that work your biceps or your lats under a deep stretch.

To train your biceps, try barbell curls. They engage both your upper back and your forearms. If you want to get an even deeper stretch, try incline curls instead or, or as well as, your standard barbell curls.

When it comes to training your lats, try looking at lifts like straight-arm pulldowns and pullovers. They’ll challenge your lats and they have an impressive strength curve. They won’t engage as many muscles as the chin-up, for as an accessory lift to bulk up biceps and lats, they work extremely well.

Let’s take a more detailed look at some chin-up accessory lifts:

  • Barbell and dumbbell curls: anything that especially targets the biceps are a must-have on the way to chin-ups, because the biceps are one of the main muscles you use during that lift. Curls work well to bulk up the biceps, but as an additional bonus, if you do heavier curls, you can also workout the upper back.
  • Preacher curls: these improve your bicep growth significantly, by working them harder while in a stretched position. That sounds great, but it’s important to remember that to add these into your workout, you’re going to need a dedicated preacher curl bench.
  • Sissy curls: OK, so you don’t have a preacher curl bench. No preacher curls for you then. But you can get a similar result if you lean back and do standard barbell curls. Be sure you bend at the knees and ankles when doing these curls, rather than the lower back. Again, while the science is currently soft, there’s at least a theory that doing these curls, challenging the biceps from a stretched position, you might encourage more bicep growth through these curls than you would through the standard variety.
  • Power curls: imagine a standard bicep curl with a little added hip drive. That’s a power curl. Why do these? Because they let you use heavier weights, that’s why. Make sure you contract your biceps with all your force through the course of the lift. Push the weight up hard, but then, to make the most of the heavier weight, be sure to bring it down again under full control.
  • Pullovers: these will help train your lats and the long head of your triceps. That means you’ll train yourself to pull in your elbows when you come to do your chin-ups. Try doing these with standard dumbbells until you need to move on to a barbell or a curl-bar. Challenging your lats in a stretched position makes pullovers a very useful lat hypertrophy lift.
  • Texan skull crushers: These are essentially heavy lying tricep extensions. Adding a pullover maneuver to your skull crushers will bring both your triceps and your lats into the picture. That makes skull crushers a useful accessory lift for your chin-up training.

Recap

The chin-up is an almost all-round compound lift that helps bulk up both your back and your biceps, while engaging a host of other muscle groups along the way – including the abs. where it beats both crunches and sit-ups as a bulker and toner.

There are lots of varieties of the chin-up, with the underhand chin-up being the version that works the most overall muscle mass. The neutral grip, angled grip, and gymnastics rings variations are also useful in building the same muscle groups.

The pull-up is a popular alternative to the chin-up, and is often casually mistaken for it. But there are significant differences between them. Using the overhand grip means a pull-up prevents your biceps from engaging, so it works in a much narrower range of motion and is less effective overall in using muscle groups. That said, it can be a useful lift in its own right, for all it does not help you build bicep muscle mass.

To improve your ability to do chin-ups, focus most on doing the chin-ups themselves. If you need to start slower, try lowered chin-ups, which will exercise the same muscle groups in the same ways, but will put less of a strain on your system.

In addition to lowered chin-ups, bring in a range of assistance and accessory lifts, spreading them evenly throughout your weekly training sessions to both train yourself in similar ranges of motion and build up the muscles you need to ultimately perform flawless explosive chin-ups.

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