Chin-ups are highly effective compound lifts. They have all the difficulty of a big barbell lift, but challenge the back and bicep muscles, so they grow muscle mass in ways that most of the major lifts don’t.
There will come a point in your novice linear progression when you won’t be able to deadlift every single session. That’s perfectly normal and to be expected – but there’s also a way around it. That way is the chin-up.
A chin-up, it should be understood from the beginning, is nobody’s soft option. It’s a compound lift that engages lots of muscle groups, and in particular, demands explosive power from the biceps at the bottom of the lift.
It also hones the upper back muscles, and is intensely effective at building bulk and tone on the abs – more effective, in fact, than either crunches or sit-ups.
If you can’t deadlift every session, try adding chin-ups into your weekly routine at the beginning and the end of the week, to give your lower back a chance to rest while you continue to build bulk and strength.
Performing the Chin-Up
For chin-ups, you take an underhand grip, so your palms are facing you. This is one of the things that differentiates a chin-up from a standard pull-up (for which you commonly use an overhand grip). The underhanded grip is what brings the biceps into play.
Grip the chin-up bar with your hands shoulder-width apart. You start the maneuver with a dead hang, with your arms straight and your shoulders open.
When you’re ready, pull yourself up from the dead hang, so that your chin goes above the bar. The higher you can get it, the better. For more experienced chin-up performers, there’s even a chest-up variant, where you try to touch the bar with your chest.
To get from the dead hang to the chin-up position, you need to pull your elbows down, and stay as close to the bar as you can. Once you achieve the position with your chin above the bar, you must let yourself back down to the dead hang under full control.
To simply drop back to a dead hang would risk popping something out of its socket – either your shoulder or your elbow.
The position of your legs should be in front of you throughout the maneuver – despite a natural temptation to bend them at the knee and point your toes behind you.
Your abs should remain braced throughout the lift, to maintain core strength while the biceps and upper back muscles are pushed towards the point of collapse. Avoid shortening the range of motion by flexing your elbow at the bottom of the lift.
Don’t shorten the range of motion with a flexed elbow at the bottom, and obviously, if you can perform the lift, don’t stop before your chin rises above the bar.
A quick aside: speaking of abs, the pull-up bar is a great tool to work your core. You can do toes to bar, L-sit hangs, knee raises, and more. Now, back to the chin-up…
The Beginner Variant
Because it works muscles in a different and challenging way, there will be novice deadlifters who might not be able to immediately complete the chin-up when they first attempt it.
There is a beginner variant called a lowered chin-up or negative chin-up. There is no shame in starting to do chin-ups this way. In fact, the lowered chin-up exercises all the same muscles in exactly the same ways as the standard chin-up – it merely gives the novice a hand up on that first explosive push.
In the lowered chin-up, you begin by either jumping up to catch the bar – beginning with your chin level with the bar – or use a stool to achieve the same result.
In this variant, the first movement is to uncurl downward under complete control before the first chin-up is expected. As you can imagine, that offers exactly the same workout for the same muscles as the standard variant chin-up.
Assistance and Accessory Lifts
For novice lifters who want to master the art of the chin-up, it might also be worth adding regular assistance and accessory lift sets spread throughout the week’s training, with sessions roughly three times per week.
Assistance lifts for chin-ups are regular sets of exercises that use the same – or at least, very similar – sets of muscles to those you need in order to perform the chin-up. Assistance lifts will include the likes of pull-ups (which are similar in nature to the chin-up but use a much smaller range of motion).
Underhand lat pulldowns will also be useful to train the muscles used during the full chin-up.
Accessory lifts for chin-ups include lifts that bulk up the particular muscles used in the chin-up, especially the biceps and the back muscles. These lifts will include barbell and dumbbell curls, which will help the biceps to grow, and pullovers, which will help develop the lats and the long head of the triceps.
It is important that you have a good level of strength before trying the chin-up, as the heavier you are, the more strength will be demanded by the biceps to achieve the lift.
Adding Weights and Other Options
By the time you can do three sets of between 6-12 reps – say 10 for the roundness of the number – you’ve moved out of the beginner stage of chin-ups and can start to think about doing not more chin-ups, but heavier chin-ups.
At that point, it makes sense to invest in a dip belt and plates. As with anything to do with lifting, start slowly, adding between 2.5-5 pounds of weight on the dip belt. See whether you can still do your three sets of 10 reps with the additional weight. If and when you can, add the same amount of weight again, to double the challenge to your muscles.
As with training to perform the full chin-up, as you add more weight, continue to use your assistance and accessory lift training to bulk up the necessary muscles and hone the necessary range of motion.
It is also possible, as you add more weight, to branch out and try different types of chin-ups, such as the gymnastics ring chin-up, to add extra discipline to elements like your elbow position through the lift.