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:
- Chin-ups vs. Pull-ups — Which Are Best?
- A Guide to Good Chin-up and Pull-up Technique
- How to Make Chin-ups Easier and Harder by Adding Load or Removing it
- How to Progress With Chin-ups Based On Your Strength Level
Chin-ups vs. Pull-ups — Which Are Best?
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, which means a full range of motion (discussed and shown below). However, as most people can’t perform pull-ups for reps with anything approaching a proper range of motion, they’ll get a better training stimulus from chin-ups.
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 joint health. This means periods where you’ll do chin-up variations and periods where you’ll do pull-up variations.
Good Chin-up And Pull-Up Technique
Key Points On Good Technique
- Perform smooth reps. No kipping. Kipping = cheating. If you swing into your reps, you don’t know if you got stronger or just better at swinging.
- 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.
- For chin-ups, use a grip position slightly narrower than shoulder-width. If you go to extremes, your joints may not like it.
- The finish position is where your elbows touch your lats (sides). A common cue is to tell people to get their chin over the bar or their chest to the bar. I think this is a mistake. The goal is to train your back. How high your chin/chest come depends on the relative length of your forearm to your upper arm. You will notice that when I perform pull-ups at the end of the video the range of motion is a little shorter because this is the point where my arms touch my lats. This is normal. Forcing past this to get your chin over the bar may lead to an injury or joint issues over time, as the humeral head is forced into a compromised position.
- Keep your glutes and abs tight. This helps you stop swinging.
- No half reps. When you can no longer get a full rep, the set is over.
Tips for Shoulder Health
Avoid extreme grips positions (super-narrow or super-wide). For chin-ups (palms facing you), try one hand space inside of a shoulder-width grip. For pull-ups (palms away from you), try one to two hand spaces outside of shoulder-width.
Vary your grip style to keep the joints healthy. Rotate between grip variations every couple of months (under-hand, over-hand, neutral). If one particular grip style feels uncomfortable, don’t do it.
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 and pull-ups, it means adding weight to your body or taking it away.
How to Take Make Bodyweight Chin-ups and Pull-ups Easier
The best way to is to use resistance bands. For $50 you can get a good set that will last you a lifetime and will be useful when you travel or wish to train at home when you don’t have access to a gym.
Loop the a band over the top of the bar, pull the band down, and then stand in it with one or two feet.
Here’s a quick video I made showing how to use resistance bands. (Skip to the 1’13 mark.) Note, you can make these harder by looping the band around the knee rather than the foot.
The drawback with band-assisted chin-ups is that they give us the least help at the toughest part of the chin-up action — the very top position. But I have a workaround for that which I’ll come to in the progression example below.
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.
However, I still prefer the chin-up bar with bands because people tend to work a lot harder and progress quicker when faced with a bar. Put people on a graviton and they just tend to stay stuck there using it as a crutch. The same applies to the lat-pulldown machine (with an underhand grip) — it should work just as well in theory, but in practice, people don’t progress as well.
We’ll take advantage of this psychology in our progression recommendations below.
How To Add Weight To Make Chin-ups and Pull-Ups Harder
There are three ways to make a chin-up harder. All of them involve adding weight to yourself.
The easiest way to add weight is by using a belt with a chain threaded through plates. 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.
How To Progress With Chin-ups Based On Your Strength Level
There are many potential options for how to progress with chin-ups and pull-ups. I have two preferred methods depending on your current ability.
- If you can’t yet perform 8 bodyweight reps in a single set, do 5 sets of 5 which I have covered in the first progression example box.
- If you can do more than 8 bodyweight reps in a single set, use the Reverse Pyramid Training (RPT) principles in the second progression example box.
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 and then one eccentric set.
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. (If you need to use bands from the start, that is fine too.)
Do no more than the number of reps required for each of the five sets, even if you can do more.
Do one final set of eccentric chin-ups to train the top of the action. This is where you jump up to 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.
In this example, imagine you can currently perform no full-range chin-ups, but you can get half a rep. That is about to change. You have three kinds of resistance bands available (light, medium, and strong).
(If you don’t have resistance bands and don’t wish to buy them, you can use the lat. pull-down machine or assisted pull-up machine, if you have one available. If you don’t have access to either of those, see the “Bodyweight Only Progression Example” at the end of this grey box.)
^ 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!
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 by 3. Then work until you can get all the reps within three sets. From there increase the total targeted number of reps again by 3.
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.
Notes on Training Chin-ups
1. Don’t forget to account for the changes in your body weight. As you get leaner, they will become easier. Include your body weight in the loads that you log in your training plan.
2. It’s said that push-pull strength balance is about right when your Bench 1RM and Chin-up 1RM are around the same level. This seems like a good general rule of thumb to me. You’ll have slight differences, but if one is vastly stronger than the other, it might be a sign that you’re neglecting something.
Chin-up and Pull-up Q&A
Chin-ups are performed with an underhand (supinated) grip. Pull-ups are performed with an overhand (pronated) grip.
Studies have shown that the pull-up and chin-up train your back to a similar degree. The bicep stimulus is slightly higher with chin-ups.
Hang with your arms fully extended but your shoulders pulled down into the sockets. The finish position is where your elbows touch your body. Do not force your chin above the bar or your chest to the bar.
The ideal grip for a chin-up is slightly narrower than shoulder-width. The ideal grip for a pull-up is slightly wider than shoulder-width.
Thanks for reading. Questions welcomed in the comments as always.