Many strength coaches believe chin ups to be the ultimate test of upper body strength. The problem is, many lifters, especially women, struggle with performing even a single bodyweight chin up. It is therefore of great interest for these lifters to figure out the quickest and most efficient route to being able to perform an unassisted bodyweight chin up. Here are some of the things that I’ve discovered over the past 17 years as a personal trainer.
1. Multiple Methods Can Work
There are many different methods that can build chin-up strength. No methods have been researched and compared in the literature to my knowledge. Therefore, we must rely on anecdotes, expert opinion, logic, and tradition in this case. Some lifters do chin ups very often, others 1-2 times per week, and others rarely do them and still retain their chin up strength. Seasoned lifters may perform advanced variations such as loaded chin-ups and side-to-side chin-ups twice per week. However, as a beginner, you will require different strategies to get you chinning, which I will expound upon at the end of this article.
2. There Are Three Primary Grips and Their Muscle Activation Requirements
There are three primary grip positions: supinated (chin-ups), parallel (neutral grip pull-ups), and pronated (pull-ups). The majority of lifters are strongest with supinated and parallel grips and weakest with pronated grips. Grip width can be adjusted as well, from wide to narrow. In time, you want to incorporate variety in your training and utilize all of the different styles of chin-ups. However, for now, I would prefer that you focus on the most basic style, which I will explain in the next tip.
What are the differences in muscle activation between the variations? In reality, there aren’t many differences. For example, Youdas et al. 2010 found that pull-ups, chin-ups, and pull-ups using the Perfect Pullup device didn’t involve dramatic differences in muscle activity, as shown below.
3. Master the Shoulder-Width Supinated Chin-Up First
Since the chin-up is the easiest grip to perform, it makes sense to master it first and then move on to neutral and pronated pull-ups. This is probably due to the fact that the biceps are in a better position to contribute to the lift and that the arms follow a sagittal plane path (shoulder extension), rather than a frontal plane path as in the case of the wide grip pull-up (shoulder adduction). Use an approximately shoulder-width grip as this tends to be most comfortable for people.
4. Methods for Those Who Are Currently Unable to Perform a Bodyweight Chin-Up
Here are some of the more popular methods for those who can’t yet perform a chin-up:
- Eccentric chin-ups
- Band-assisted chin-ups
- Gravitron (machine-assisted) chin-ups
- Lat pulldowns
Each of these have pros and cons, which I’ll discuss below.
5. The Most Difficult Portion of the Chin-Up is the Bottom Position
A minority of lifters struggle with locking out the chin-up. They can propel themselves toward the top of the movement but have trouble getting their chin over the bar. For these people, performing isoholds at the top position, consistently using a full ROM, and performing lat pulldowns with a pause at the bottom ROM will be a wise bet.
However, most lifters don’t have this problem – especially beginners. The majority of lifters find the bottom position of the chin-up to be the most challenging. If they have a trainer who gives them a nudge at the bottom of the motion, they can finish off the rest of the motion by themselves.
So how does a lifter best build bottom range chin-up strength? First, he or she can employ eccentric chin-ups where they accentuate the focus on the bottom range of motion. In this case, the lifter will lower him/herself under control but really slow down the last 25% of the motion, all the way until the arms are locked out. Second, the lifter can perform chin-up shrugs, where he or she hangs from the chin bar and “shrugs” by moving the scapula up and down (there will be upward and downward rotation too). The goal is to exert effort into the chin-up initiation motion so that eventually the lifter will get there on his/her own. And finally, heavy lat pulldowns can help, where the lifter starts from a full hang and only goes down half-way, thereby accentuating the top ROM and building bottom range chin-up strength.
6. Pros & Cons of Eccentric Chin-Ups
Eccentric chin-ups are great. They are performed by either having a trainer hoist the lifter up to the top position, or by having the lifter utilize a step or rack to help boost them into the top position, or by having the lifter jump explosively upward into the top position, upon which the lifter then lowers him/herself slowly toward the bottom of the movement. Having a trainer or lifting partner is additionally beneficial since he or she can provide just enough assistance to allow the lifter to perform the concentric motion as well (manual assisted concentric chin-ups, followed by the eccentric motion). In my opinion, eccentric chin-ups are the most effective strategy for helping beginners perform regular chin-ups.
However, there are a couple of caveats. First, the lifter must be able to lower him/herself under control. If the lifter can’t perform them with a 2-second eccentric tempo or greater, then he or she is better off using another strategy for the time being, such as band assisted chin-ups, lat pulldowns, or the gravitron. And second, the lifter must fight equally hard throughout the entire ROM. Many times lifters will lower themselves slowly during the first half of the motion and then “let go” during the second half of the motion. This is problematic because the bottom half of the motion is the more challenging part of the ROM for most beginners.
Eccentric chin-ups are highly specific in that the lifter will be doing half of the actual chin-up repetition on his or her own. But some lifters aren’t quite ready for them (typically obese beginners, very weak beginners, or those with big legs and small upper bodies) and some lifters perform them sub-optimally due to inferior tempos.
7. Pros & Cons of Band-Assisted Chin-Ups
Band-assisted chin-ups are fantastic for allowing for a productive workout and for building lat and upper back hypertrophy. They allow for more time under tension and boost lifters’ confidence in regards to being able to eventually perform a chin-up. However, the draw-back is that they provide assistance mostly at the bottom of the lift, which is the exact ROM that lifters need to build on their own. Can a lifter rely solely on band-assisted chin-ups and eventually become proficient at regular chin-ups? Of course, but this strategy would not be optimal. The lifter would become proficient at chin-ups more quickly if he or she also performed eccentric chin-ups with a focus on exerting the most effort in the bottom ROM.
8. Pros & Cons of Gravitron (Machine-Assisted) Chin-Ups
The gravitron (and similar machine-assisted chin/dip stations) is also an effective tool for allowing lifters to achieve greater time under tension. The upside of these types of machines is that they provide consistent assistance throughout the entire range of motion. In contrast, bands provide greater assistance at the bottom of the ROM and less assistance at the top. The gravitron will provide for an effective upper body workout. The theory is that as the lifter gains strength, he or she will require less and less assistance from the machine, and will eventually be able to wean him/herself off of the unit. However, the downside is that the gravitron is not highly specific to a chin-up, and therefore relying solely upon it rarely pans out as intended for producing good chinners.
The chin-up requires considerable joint stability in the glenohumeral, scapular, and lumbopelvic regions. Since the gravitron provides for a relatively stable base of support at the knees, the stability demands on the body are greatly reduced. Therefore, the gravitron is not highly effective as a standalone method for beginners seeking improved chin-up performance. It can definitely be used in conjunction with other methods such as eccentric chin-ups, so make sure you include some exercises that are more specific to actual chin-ups if you want to eventually be able to perform an unassisted chin-up.
9. Pros & Cons of Lat Pulldowns
Lat pulldowns can be thought of as an open-chain chin-up. The chin-up is a closed-chain exercise that requires the lifter to move his or her body up and around a fixed bar, whereas the pulldown has the lifter pulling the bar downward toward his or her fixed body. Lat pulldowns are under-appreciated in the strength training community since they tend to be easier on the joints when compared to chin-ups and they can be loaded to aptly apply resistance to any rep range desired. They are versatile in that any rep range, grip style, or grip width can be utilized, and they can be used by the weakest beginners and the strongest lifters alike.
However, when used as a standalone method, lat pulldowns will not build good chin-up prowess for the beginner because they lack the specificity and whole body stability demands that are inherent to chin-ups. Doma et al. 2013 found that the erectors and biceps worked harder in a pull-up whereas the abs worked harder in a lat pulldown, as shown below, but this depends on the technique employed. Moreover, every lift requires skill and coordination and is best improved with specificity.
If using lat pulldowns in conjunction with more specific chin-up exercises such as eccentric chin-ups, use the same grip and width if seeking maximal transfer. For example, perform underhand grip (supinated) pulldowns with a shoulder-width grip to maximize the transfer to the chin-up, and wider pronated grip pulldowns to maximize transfer to the pull-up.
10. Rows and Deadlifts Maintain and Possibly Build Chin-Up Strength
Many lifters find that as long as they’re regularly performing deadlifts and rows, their chin-up strength doesn’t diminish, even if they’re not chinning. Rows and deadlifts work the lats and place large demands on the scapular muscles including the rhomboids and varying trapezius fibers. Therefore, they work many of the same muscles that chin-ups do, and they will indeed transfer over to chin-up performance. Inverted rows are particularly useful for beginners since they involve bodyweight rowing. However, the degree of transfer is undoubtedly much higher for advanced lifters compared to beginners. Beginners must spend ample time “under the bar” chinning if they want to be able to perform an unassisted chin-up.
11. Curls Aren’t Highly Effective in Building Chin-Up Strength
You might be wondering about curls and chin-up strength. Since the chin-up involves elbow flexion and works the biceps sufficiently hard, it is plausible that curls could help improve chin-up performance. While this makes sense in theory, it doesn’t pan out so well in the real world. Chin-ups are a full body exercise that require considerable amounts of coordination. While various types of curls can be marginally effective in building chin-up strength, the long-head of the biceps doesn’t change much length during a chin-up since it shortens at the shoulder and lengthens at the elbow during the eccentric phase of the chin-up (and vice versa during the concentric phase), and therefore the biomechanics are different and the degree of transfer isn’t that great. Feel free to perform curls, but don’t expect curls to make a huge difference in terms of helping you achieve your first unassisted chin-up.
12. RKC Planks and Hollow Body Holds for Better Chin-Up Form
I mentioned earlier that chin-up technique can effect core muscle activation. Take a look at the video below.
In the first example, the erectors will be working hard as the spine is being actively arched (extended). In the second example, the hip flexors will be working hard as they are being actively contracted to provide momentum. In the third example, the abdominals will be working hard as they are stabilizing the spine and pelvis and preventing lumbar hyperextension and anterior pelvic tilt. Chin-ups are markedly harder for the core when you perform them in the third manner. To help you achieve this, special core exercises can be utilized. Two such exercises are the long lever posterior tilt plank and the hollow body hold, which both require strong core contractions to maintain pelvic positioning.
13. Frequency is Key
If you aspire to perform your first unassisted chin-up, then you’ll get there much faster if you’re training the chin-up pattern multiple times per week as opposed to once per week. I recommend that beginners invest in a door-mounted chin-up device so that they can perform chin-ups in their own homes. The Iron Gym is one such popular device. This allows lifters to perform daily chin-up work (or at least chin-up work 3-5 times per week), which greatly enhances the rate of adaptations and expedites progress. Below is Mrs. Kellie Davis using an Iron Gym.
14. Anthropometry Impacts Chin-Up Performance
One of the several reasons why women are not quite as proficient at chin-ups as men is due to their anthropometry. Women tend to have smaller upper bodies and store more of their mass in their lower body when compared to men. This makes the chin-up even more challenging. The best chinners in the world tend to be smaller sized males with wide lats and smaller legs. Therefore, having muscular hips and thighs will be detrimental to chin-up performance, but not lat pulldown performance, where bodyweight and distribution doesn’t matter so much. Don’t fret though, you can have a big booty and muscular legs and still be able to perform chin-ups.
15. Body Composition Also Impacts Chin-Up Performance
In addition, body composition will affect chin-up performance, but not lat pulldown performance. A 200 pound male at 25% bodyfat is carrying around 50 pounds of fat. In contrast, a 120 pound female at 15% bodyfat is only carrying around 18 pounds of fat. Fat does not produce muscle force or create joint torque; it just weighs the lifter down during bodyweight exercises and makes the movement more challenging. So the less fat, the better. Losing weight in general tends to improve relative strength in the chin-up, as does losing fat. If you want to maximize your chin-up performance, pay attention to your diet and increase your leanness.
Here is a simple routine that you can follow to help you perform your first unassisted chin-up. I wrote a 3-day per week program, but a 5-day per week plan would work even better.
Eccentric chin-ups 3 sets of 3 reps (3-5 second tempo)
Inverted rows 3 sets of 5 reps
Hollow body hold 3 sets of 20 seconds
Band assisted chin-up 3 sets of 6 reps
Pause underhand grip lat pulldown 3 sets of 4 reps (3-sec pause at the bottom of each rep)
RKC plank 3 sets of 20 seconds
Eccentric chin-ups 6 sets of 1 rep (5-10 second tempo)
Inverted rows 3 sets of 5 reps
Hollow body hold 3 sets of 20 seconds
So there you have it – 15 tips to help you achieve your first unassisted chin-up. As a personal trainer, I can tell you that there are few things that bring as much joy to a client as when they perform their first chin-up. Huge smiles and incidents of jumping for joy are sure to follow. I hope that this article has provided some value in steering you in the right direction. Keep your chin up!