Chin-ups are a great upper-back exercise. You know it, and I’m not going to waffle on with an unnecessary paragraph explaining why. They’re hard, which is why most gym bros avoid doing them, well, at least with anything approaching good form. Most people stay the hell away from them and stick to the lat-pulldown machine instead. Their loss, don’t make it yours. Here’s what this article covers:
- A guide to adjusting resistance to optimise the training effect.
- A full progression guide from rank beginner through to advanced trainee.
- Chin-ups vs pull-ups – which you should do and when.
- Common technique mistakes and considerations for long-term joint health.
How to Make Chin-ups Easier and Harder
The principles with chin-ups are the same as with any other exercise – you need to have the right difficulty level to get the right training effect. With most exercises this means more or less weight on the barbell, but with chin-ups it means adding weight to your body or taking it away. This is a little more involved but can easily be achieved.
The easiest way to add weight is by using a belt, attaching a strong chain and then threading weight plates through it. If you have a thick link chain then you don’t even need to have a belt. It will be a little uncomfortable at first (like front squats are) but then you just get used to it.
The shorter you make the chain; the better, as it stops the plates swinging around when you are getting into position. Just be careful not to make it so short that it crushes your balls – this will happen if you start raising your legs in an attempt to make the exercise easier, and you’ll make this mistake only once.
A weighted vest will work equally well, but few gyms have them and they are impractical to carry around. Clamping a dumbbell between your feet is only a temporary solution as the weight will slip as you get stronger and the amount needed gets heavier. When traveling, a fully waterproof daypack backpack can be filled with water and is a great option for those that want to train when they travel for extended periods.
Taking Weight Away
The best way to take weight away is to use resistance bands. They are not available in many gyms and they are more expensive than they look like they should be, however, for $50-100 you can get a good set that will last you a lifetime and will be useful in other areas – the most immediately applicable way being band-resisted pushups for example.
The drawback with bands-assisted chin-ups is that they give us the least help at the toughest part of the chin-up action – the very top position. We have a workaround for that discussed in the progression example below.
Here’s a quick showing how to use resistance bands. Note, the video explanation shows them done by looping around the knee. Equally, you can do two knees (which will make it slightly easier as the band stretches more), one straight leg (even easier) and two straight legs (even easier). In this way you can get differing levels of resistance from one band. (My man Tony Gentilcore has an example video showing this here)
Some gyms will have a machine called a graviton (pictured below) which has a pad that supports your knees and makes the chin-up action easier. This is a good machine and makes it easier to target incremental resistance changes on working your way to bodyweight chin-ups. However, I still prefer the chin-up bar with bands. Why? Because people work a lot harder and progress quicker when faced with a bar – it’s more immediately and obviously rewarding when you can finally get one, plus if you’re in a public gym there is social pressure to perform.
Put people on a graviton and they just tend to stay stuck there using it as a crutch for longer. The same applies to people that use the lat-pulldown machine (with an underhand grip). We’ll take advantage of this psychology in our progression recommendations below.
How To Progress With Chin-ups
There is no single set-rep pattern that is best here, but here’s what I recommend:
- People that can get more than 8 bodyweight reps in a single set – use the Reverse Pyramid Training (RPT) principles. The total number of reps used per set is higher, which is more joint friendly. This is an important consideration as you start adding more and more weight.
- People that can’t yet get 8 bodyweight reps in a single set, do 5 sets of 5. The lower number of reps to target per set gives a greater sense of achievement.
First, let’s use an example with RPT as that’s going to be more applicable to most readers. If anything doesn’t make sense, have a quick read of the RPT principles (section: ‘How to Progress‘).
RPT Progression Example
Do this if you can get more than 8 bodyweight reps for a single set.
Progression rules: We’ll do three sets. The rep targets are 6-8 reps, 8-10 reps, and 10-12 reps for the three sets respectively. You progress by increasing the number of reps, or the total weight lifted. Let’s say we have three kinds of resistance bands available (light, medium and strong) and a chain with some weight plates. BW denotes bodyweight.
(This is a progression example helping to show and explain how one might apply these rules.)
Set 1 you got 8 reps – the top of the rep range target. Increase the load slightly for the next session.
Set 1 you are in the middle of the target rep range. No change to the loading next time, see if you can get 8 reps next time.
Set 1 you got 9 reps. That’s more than your target. Excellent. Increase the weight next time.
You got greedy and increased the weight too quickly. This also affected your second set. Drop down to 7.5lbs next session.
You spend the weekend partying, slept like shit, ate crap and your vision was blurry going into the gym. Ignore this bad session and carry on as normal next time.
Congratulations, you can now do at least 27 bodyweight chin-ups, when previously you could only do 14 before needing assistance. Excellent work.
But what if I don’t have a belt and chain to add weight?
Buy one. Go to a hardware store and get a thick chain and climbing carabiner. A thicker chain is more expensive but digs into your skin less. Or get a belt too and that solves the problem.
But what if I’m not strong enough to get a single, perfect chin-up?
…yet, but you will be able to though in time. We’re going to do eccentric only chin-ups. Firstly, train using the bands. After you finish that, rest for two minutes and go over to the chin-up bar. Jump up grab hold in the top position and fight gravity for as long as you can on your way down. Do this for a maximum of 30 seconds or 5 reps, whichever is less. These are called eccentric chin-ups. As you get stronger you’ll do less and less reps in those 30 seconds. Keep repeating this and it won’t be long before you become able to do a full chin-up. We’ve got this covered in the 5×5 Progression Example box below.
5×5 Progression Example
Do this if you can’t get more than 8 bodyweight reps for a single set.
Progression rules: We will do 5 sets of 5 reps. The first set will start with as many bodyweight reps as we can, we’ll then use a band to assist to finish the set. We will finish with one set of eccentric chin-ups to train the top of the action.
We do no more than the number of reps required for the set, even if we can do more. Three kinds of resistance bands available (light, medium and strong). BW denotes bodyweight.
(This is a progression example helping to show and explain how one might apply these rules.)
In this example you can currently perform no full range chin-ups, but you can get half a rep. That is about to change.
^ Once you can get 5 bodyweight chins the eccentric chin-up set is probably no longer necessary and can be dropped.
You’re now capable of doing 12 bodyweight reps and are probably able to perform 8 consecutive reps in a single set. Test yourself at the next session. Get 12? Congratulations. This is something that most of the population can’t do.
Time to move onto the RPT progression method and start adding weight. Woo!
Notes on Training Chin-ups
1. Don’t forget to account for the changes in your body weight. Weigh yourself before doing chins if possible. This saves you from worrying about a lost rep or two because of a bodyweight fluctuation.
2. Chin-ups are harder to recover from between sets than other movements. This means your performance on subsequent sets goes down a lot more than on other exercises. (e.g. 1st set: 10 reps, 2nd set: 6 reps, 3rd set: 3 reps) So, if you’ve been doing RPT for your chin-ups and wondering why this happened and whether you are normal – now you know. Always adjust sets independently of each other.
3. Push-pull strength balance is good when your Bench 1RM and Chin-up 1RM are around the same level. This is something I’ve seen coaches Martin Berkhan and Naoki Kawamori conclude independently of each other. Certainly makes sense as a general rule of thumb to me.
I can’t say I’ve ever heard of people having shoulder issues because of an exceptionally strong back, but if your chest is a lot stronger then you need to work to correct it. One look around most gyms and you’ll see that for many people, every day is chest and arm day. That’s a mistake. Get on a balanced training routine (recommendations) and start taking the back work seriously (deadlifts, chin-ups, rows, etc., when included in your routine). This means putting as much focus and effort into those sets as you do your chest work, if not more. Put your phone down, Facebook can come later.
But what if I don’t have any resistance bands and don’t want to buy them?
Option 1: Lat pulldown use. After that first bodyweight attempt, move to the lat-pull down machine and do 3 sets of 8-10 with your plams facing you like with a chin-up. (Or use the Graviton if you have one).
Option 2: Use Bodyweight only. See the grey box.
Bodyweight Only Progression Example
Target a rep total for a session, then do as many sets as it takes to do that. If your target total is 15 reps then that might be 5,4,2,2,1,1 for example the first session, then 5,5,3,2 the next session, then 7,5,3 the following. When you can get your target number of reps all within… let’s say 3 sets, you can look to increase the total reps targeted (to say 17) and then work until you can get all the reps within three sets. From there you increase the total targeted number of reps again (to 19 perhaps).
If you’re doing 5 sets the progression will look like this:
The only issue with bodyweight only progressions is that we don’t take into account fluctuations / changes in bodyweight. Might be worth jumping on the scale before you do them if possible.
Good Chin-up Technique
Good chin-up technique is going to look like this:
Key Points On Good Technique:
- Perform smooth reps. (No kipping. Kipping = cheating. – Did you get stronger or just better at swinging yourself up and looking like a plonker in the process? Bonus: Add weight to your kipping chin-ups to fast track your way to needing shoulder surgery.)
- The arms should be straight at the start of each rep but not a dead hang. Keep your shoulders in their sockets. To illustrate what I mean, put your arms straight above your head right now. Ok, shrug up as high as you can. Now shrug down. We don’t want our shoulders loose in that shrugged up position, especially when you have a lot of weight swinging from your crotch later on. It’s the ‘down’ position with the shoulders ‘packed’ that we want to keep throughout the set. When people say “dead hang”, what they actually mean is arms straight, not an actual dead hang.
- Use a shoulder-width grip or slightly narrower.
- The finish position is where your chin goes over the bar, elbows brought down to touch your side but not past it. Your chest may touch the bar depending on limb proportions, but that is not a defining factor of a full rep. More on this in Eric Cressey’s video below.
- Keep your glutes and abs tight. Tuck your neck, and do not cheat by craning your neck upwards as the reps get harder. You’re probably going to do it without realising it, don’t.
- No half reps. When you can no longer get a full rep, the set is over.
Tips for Shoulder Health:
- Vary your grip style to keep the joints healthy – Consider rotating between grip variations every couple of months. Narrow-grip chin-ups > shoulder-width chin-ups > neutral grip shoulder width > shoulder width pull-ups > wide grip pull-ups > ring chin-ups. (Order of increasing difficulty.) Needless to say, if one particular grip style feels uncomfortable, don’t do it.
- Avoid extreme grips positions (super-narrow or super-wide) – you’ll only knacker your joints. (And yes, you might not feel any pain at the time, that will come down the road.) – One hand space inside of a shoulder width grip for each hand is what I’d consider narrow (suitable only for chin-ups), one hand space outside of shoulder width grip for each hand is what I’d consider wide (suitable only for pull-ups). Greater than this and you don’t really get extra benefit, but you do put your joints at risk. The reason you see very wide-grip pull-ups in magazines is because it displays the lat spread better and looks cooler.
Chin-up Progression FAQ
Chin-ups or Pull-ups – which are better?
Chin-ups are where the palms are facing you. Pull-ups are where the palms face away from you.
Chin-ups work the biceps slightly harder, pull-ups work the lats slightly harder. But people get themselves into a pickle when they start worrying about the difference and miss the bigger picture.
Total muscle activation is similar for both chin-ups and pull-ups, when performed properly. That means a full range of motion as discussed above. However, most people can’t perform pull-ups for reps with anything approaching a proper range of motion – they’re harder and this leads to half reps.
Full-range, smooth rep chin-ups will develop your lats far better than partial-rep, shitty pull-ups. Cheat on your form and you only cheat yourself.
Beginners should stick with chin-ups. Intermediates are free to choose, however, you’re probably best to rotate your grip style over 2-3 month blocks for elbow health. This means periods where you’ll do chin-up variations and periods where you’ll do pull-up variations.
Where can I buy those resistance bands?
I bought mine here (medium) because that’s where Eric Cressey recommended I get them when asked, and I trust him. There may be slightly cheaper places but beware of anything way cheaper – rubber isn’t cheap and that probably signals an inferior product.
Thanks for reading.
Questions welcomed in the comments as always. – Andy.