Here is your go to guide to chin ups!
A chin up is one of the most well known exercises right up there with push ups and sit ups. But do you really know how to do a chin up properly?
This detailed article is the ultimate guide for beginners, regular gym goers and even personal trainers and coaches. It walks you through what a chin up is, what equipment you need, what muscles it helps develop, proper technique, a guide to the weight to use, tips for success, variations and a description about what could go wrong and how to minimise the chance of injury.
Here it is …
The low down
This is one of the most well known exercises right up there with push ups and sit ups.
Basically, a chin up requires you to hang from a bar and pull your body up until your chin is above the bar and then lower back down into the hanging position again.
While it sounds simple enough, chin ups is the most difficult bodyweight exercise other than perhaps handstand push ups!
A heavy bench press is certainly impressive, but nothing is quite like being able to smash out a bunch of 20 or more chin ups.
Chin ups are often referred to as ‘chins’ or ‘pull ups’.
However pull ups are definitely different. A pull up involves bringing your chest up to the bar, not just getting your chin over the bar.
What does this one do?
Want a back of rippling muscles and an awesome set of wings, well working on your chin ups is gunna get you there quicker. And, bonus, your arms will also start popping.
Chin ups target mainly the arm and back muscles, including the latissimus dorsi muscles (also called your ‘lats’), but the rear shoulder muscles ((known as the rear deltoids or rear delts for short) are also heavily involved in this movement.
Also see what your abs feel like the next day for a little surprise!
While gyms, and even some outdoor exercise yards, will often have a range of chin up bars, all you really need is something secure to hang from. Even a tree branch can work – just ensure that it is strong enough before you go punching out a bunch of rigorous chins.
Chalk is also useful as it dries out your hands and helps stop your grip from slipping.
If you want to use gymnastic rings instead of a fixed bar, well you are obviously going to need a set of gymnastic rings!
If you are adding weight to your body you will also need a kettlebell or weight plate and something to chain it around your waste with, a dumbbell to hold between your legs or a weight vest you can fill with weight.
Stretch bands are helpful as you build up to your first unassisted chin up, but can also be used to help build endurance for multiple sets.
How do I do the standard version of this exercise?
Start by grabbing onto a straight bar, ideally one that is just above your reach. The standard grip is with your palms facing away from you.
Hold onto the bar nice and tight and hang there, bending your knees a little if you need to keep your feet off the ground.
Now, in this hanging position you need to engage your shoulder and upper back muscles. Do this by lifting your chest slightly and pulling your shoulders back and shoulder blades inwards towards each other.
Next, pull yourself up with straight arms first before the elbows start bending. This way you ensure the upper back musculature, specifically the retractors of the scapula will be activated. Get your chin to the bar and hey you just did your first chin up!
Coming back down is also important though, keep your muscles engaged and come down with control. The downward movement is just as important for building strength and muscle and keeping it nice and controlled will also help keep you safe from injury.
How much weight should I be using?
This is traditionally a bodyweight exercise, but that doesn’t mean you can’t add weight if you really want to!
You can add weight to your body through a weight vest, a kettlebell chained around your waste or a dumbbell held between your knees. Or all three!
Chin Up Tips
Always, and we mean always, stretch and mobilise all the muscles you intend to work before you start. A foam roller, a Rumble Roller, stretch bands and even a tennis ball placed in just the right spot are all useful tools.
If you are finding it difficult to complete one chin up, don’t despair. It is a tough upper body exercise and takes a good amount of upper body strength. Like all fitness, just keep at it!
Building up to even just one chin up could take a considerable amount of courage and consistency in training. But you will get there. And once you have done 1, then 2 is not far away!
If needed, you can use a machine, most gyms have one, that allows you to be given weighted assistance. With machines like these, a good starting point is half your body weight. But of course, feel free to adjust if this is too easy, or if you still cannot manage one chin. As you build up strength, decrease the amount of assisted weight.
Don’t get too complaisant with machine work though. Keep going back to bodyweight even if it is just to hang for a period of time. Nothing can substitute for the real thing!
There are also giant rubber band thingies (called resistance bands) of varying colours indicating the resistance. Use these bands by looping over the chin up bar and then step into the band with either one or both feet and away you go.
We prefer the bands to the machine in most cases as bands allow you to get used to the actual chin up movement and position, which a machine just can’t give you.
How can I mix it up a bit?
While chin ups seem like quite a basic exercise, it can be spiced up pretty easily. Check out these variations:
Change your grip: Instead of having your palms facing forward, try holding onto the bar with your palms facing you (also called ‘reverse grip’). Your guns and upper forearms will get a blasting with this one! Palms facing each other (or neutral grip) is also an option if you have access to the right equipment.
Change the tempo: Changing the time it takes you to pull yourself up and/or release can really bring on the burn. For example, pulling up as usual but lower with a four second count. Also try pausing at the top for a period of time. Or just for fun, hold at the top for as long as you can.
Change what you hold: Hey, you do not need to stick with a straight fixed bar. You can use gymnastic rings. And if all this isn’t enough, try a wider diameter bar like that found on lots of children’s play equipment found in most parks.
Make it dynamic: Instead of strict chin ups, which has been the focus of this article, try dynamic chin ups (sometimes called kipping chin ups). There is a definite technique to kipping chin ups which, while around before Cross Fit, have been made famous by Cross Fit.
What could go wrong?
Not many things can go wrong here. A chin up is pretty much a chin up. However, two things:
Protect your shoulders by maintaining control on the downward movement, particularly if you have added weight; and
While a half chin up is probably better than no chin up at all, you will get the most benefit and quicker results if you push through and complete the whole movement.