How to Do Chin Ups — Muscles Worked, Variations, and Benefits

Working to get your first chin-up? Let our definitive guide help get you there!

When it comes to building a serious set of arms (and a monstrous back), few exercises can offer the strength and muscle hypertrophy stimulus as the chin up. The chin up, in addition to movements like pull ups, rows, and hammer curls, and deadlifts offer strength, power, and fitness athletes a prime opportunity to increase biceps strength, size, and functionality (not to mention back and grip strength improvements).

In this chin up exercise guide we set out to equip strength coaches, athletes, and everyday lifters with the information they need to maximize their chin up strength, skill, and performance:

  • Chin Up Form and Technique
  • Benefits of the Chin Up
  • Muscles Worked by the Chin Up
  • Who Should Do Chin Ups?
  • Chin Up Sets, Reps, and Programming Recommendations
  • Chin Up Variations and Alternatives
  • and more…

How to Do a Chin Up

Below is a step-by-step guide on how to properly set up and perform the chin up.

1.
Get Your Grip

Start by assuming a supinated grip on a bar with your hands about shoulder-width apart.

Be sure to freely hang at the bottom of the chin up. You should be able to have your head in between your biceps with the elbows fully extended.

2.
Set Your Shoulder Blades

Set your shoulder blades down the back by retracting and depressing them, this will help secure the shoulder girdle from moving around during the chin up.

By setting the upper back, you stabilize the shoulders and allow the back and bicep muscles to work exclusively in this movement. Failure to stabilize the shoulder complex could result in shoulder discomfort or overuse injury. Additionally, be sure to pull your belly button (navel) into the body, making sure to contract the core and glutes, much like you would in the plank/hollow hold.

3.
The Pull

Once set, pull the chest and chin to the barbell by way of the biceps and the back muscles.

Think about pulling the bar to your chest so that the elbows drive into your back pockets. You can also think about driving the elbows through the floor as you pull yourself upwards.

4.
Stabilize and Descend

Once you have arrived at the top of the bar, stabilize your body and then lower yourself to the start position under control.

Be sure to keep tension on the back and biceps throughout this moment, and always secure a stable core and shoulder girdle prior to proceeding into another repetition.

3 Benefits of Chin Ups

Below are (3) benefits of chin ups that coaches and athletes from most strength, power, and fitness sports can expect when implementing chin ups into a training regimen.

1. Upper Body Functional Strength

For most athletes, the ability to pull one’s chin up to the bar can increase arm and back size, build serious grip strength, and improve performance. For others, this could be a key movement to enhance grip strength and endurance, pulling abilities (with things like deadlifting, strongman exercises, and CrossFit movements) and more. Like bent over rows, pull ups, deadlifts, and hammer curls; chin ups deserve a spot within most strength, power, and fitness programs for their ability to add quality strength and muscle that translates to a wide variety of movements and skills.

2. Bigger, Stronger Biceps and Forearms

The chin up, unlike the pull up, places high amounts of loading on the biceps (and forearms) due to the supinated grip positioning on the bar. In doing so, the bicep must flex the elbow joint to produce vertical movement of the lifter’s chin towards the bar. Due to the high amount of loading that is often placed on the biceps and forearms during the chin up (either due to added weight or simply the weight of the individual), the muscle damage and force demands often produce muscle hypertrophy and strength gains in the biceps, forearms, and back muscles.

3. Master Your Bodyweight

Being able to move your own bodywight in a wide array of movement patterns is key for most sports. While some strength and power athletes may not directly have the need to do gymnastic movements and pull themselves up onto a bar for sports performance (such as powerlifters, weightlifters, and Strongman athletes), the pure strength and mass needed for larger athletes to do chin ups can translate into a stronger back, biceps, and forearms; all of which ARE necessary for heavy cleans, snatches, deadlifts, squats, carries, and presses.

Muscles Worked – Chin Ups

The chin up is an upper body exercise that can be done to increase back, arm, and overall pulling strength and hypertrophy. Below is a breakdown of the primary muscle groups involved in this exercise.

Biceps

The chin up targets the biceps due to the supinated grip that is taken on the bar. In doing so, you force high amounts of elbow flexion, which is the biceps primary role as a muscle.

Latissimus Dorsi

The back muscles (latissimus dorsi) are active in the chin up similarly to the pull up, row, and other back movements. While the biceps do play a larger role in force production, the back muscles are the secondary movers in the chin up and assist in the overall pulling movement.

Forearms and Grip (Hand) Muscles

The forearms and grip (hand) muscles are needed to secure the lifter to the bar in order for chin ups to take place. The supinated grip (vs the pronated or neutral grip used in a pull up) offers coaches and athletes an additional training variation to maximize overall grip strength and muscular endurance.

Who Should Do the Chin Up?

Below are some reasons why strength, power, and fitness athletes can benefit from performing the chin up.

Strength and Power Athletes

When maximal strength, hypertrophy, and performance is the name of the game, we often want to look at accessory exercises that allow us to target muscle mass and increase overall training volumes and loading (one of the best factors for muscle growth). The chin up can be used as a back and arm accessory exercise, much like the pull up, to increase arm and back pulling strength, increase muscle hypertrophy of the back and biceps, and improve grip strength and muscle endurance necessary for heavy lifts or grip dependent exercises.

Functional Fitness Athletes

The chin up, while not often found in competitive workouts (unlike kipping pull ups, muscle ups, rope climbs, etc) does offer overall upper body pulling strength, hypertrophy, and muscle endurance benefits. Integrating chin ups into programs can offer much needed training variety and offer new stimulus to potentiate muscle growth, minimize overuse injuries (due to performing the same movements over and over), and enhance grip strength/endurance. Lastly, the chin up is a great way to increase overall upper body pulling strength and muscle mass as a lifter can often perform many repetitions and/or high amounts of loading in relation to other pull up movements.

General Fitness and Movement

Like the pull up, the chin up is a foundational bodyweight exercise that can develop upper body pulling strength, increase back and arm muscle hypertrophy, and be highly functional for fitness athletes and everyday lifters. Additionally, the chin up is a multi-joint upper body exercise making it a great moment to add to anyone’s exercise library.

How to Program the Chin Up

Below are three primary training goals and programming recommendations when utilizing the chin up in specific programs. Note, that these are general guidelines, and by no means should be used as the only way to program chin ups.

General Strength– Reps and Sets

For general strength building sets, athletes can perform lower repetition ranges for more sets.

  • 4-6 sets of 4-6 repetitions, resting 2-3 minutes

Muscle Hypertrophy – Reps and Sets

For increased muscular size and hypertrophy, the below repetitions can be used to increase muscular loading volume.

  • 4-6 sets of 6-12 repetitions, resting 60-90 seconds between, with heavy to moderate loads

Muscle Endurance – Reps and Sets

Some lifters may want to train greater muscle endurance (for sport), in which higher repetition ranges and/or shorter rest periods are recommended.

  • 2-3 sets of 12+ repetitions, resting 60-90 seconds between (this is highly sport specific)

Chin Up Variations

Below are three (3) chin up variations that can be used by coaches and athletes to keep training varied and progressive.

1. Weighted Chin Up

The weighted chin up is simply a chin up with added weight, either by wearing a weighted vest, having a weight belt on, or simply by squeezing a dumbbell between the thigh/legs. This is a great way to turn the bodyweight chin up into a weighted pulling exercise for endless arm and back growth.

2. Eccentric Chin Up (Negatives)

This chin up variation is beneficial for individuals who may lack overall chin up strength and/or muscle mass to perform full chin ups (or for individuals looking to increase maximal strength and hypertrophy). Simply perform the lowering phase of the chin up on a strict cadence, between 5-10 seconds, either with additional loading or using bodyweight. Once you have reached the bottom of the chin up, jump or stand up and bring yourself back to the top of the moment, and repeat.

3. Chin Up 21s

Similarly to bicep curl 21s, chin up 21s are a very advanced repetitions scheme that can be done to increase strength and muscle hypertrophy throughout the entire range of motion in the chin up. Simply perform seven partial chin ups at the bottom half (bottom to half way), seven partial chin ups at the top half (halfway to top), and then seven full range of motion chin ups.

Chin Up Alternatives

Below are three (3) chin up alternatives coaches and athletes can use to increase arm strength and muscle hypertrophy.

1. Pull Up

The pull up is a staple bodyweight strength and hypertrophy exercise implemented within most strength, power, and functional fitness programs. This is very similar to the chin up, however does target more of the back muscles and places less emphasis on the biceps (however it can increase general arm size and strength).

2. Supinated/Underhand Row

The underhand/supinated barbell row is very similar to the chin up and can increase bicep strength and hypertrophy. Unlike the chin up, this exercise does target the back and arms in the horizontal plane, rather than in the vertical plane. That said, many lifters will find they can use significantly more loading with the underhand row, further increasing muscle damage and growth potential to the biceps.

3. Hammer Curl

The hammer curl is a great single joint biceps and forearm exercise to develop stronger arms and grip muscles. Hammer curls are most often done with dumbbells, which can further enhance unilateral arm strength, grip performance, and muscle hypertrophy.

Featured Image: Mike Dewar

Mike Dewar

Mike Dewar

Mike holds a Master's in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor's in Exercise Science. Currently, Mike has been with BarBend since 2016, where he covers Olympic weightlifting, sports performance training, and functional fitness. He's a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and is the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at New York University, in which he works primarily with baseball, softball, track and field, cross country. Mike is also the Founder of J2FIT, a strength and conditioning brand in New York City that offers personal training, online programs for sports performance, and has an established USAW Olympic Weightlifting club.

In his first two years writing with BarBend, Mike has published over 500+ articles related to strength and conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, strength development, and fitness. Mike’s passion for fitness, strength training, and athletics was inspired by his athletic career in both football and baseball, in which he developed a deep respect for the barbell, speed training, and the acquisition on muscle.

Mike has extensive education and real-world experience in the realms of strength development, advanced sports conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, and human movement. He has a deep passion for Olympic weightlifting as well as functional fitness, old-school bodybuilding, and strength sports.

Outside of the gym, Mike is an avid outdoorsman and traveller, who takes annual hunting and fishing trips to Canada and other parts of the Midwest, and has made it a personal goal of his to travel to one new country, every year (he has made it to 10 in the past 3 years). Lastly, Mike runs Rugged Self, which is dedicated to enjoying the finer things in life; like a nice glass of whiskey (and a medium to full-bodied cigar) after a hard day of squatting with great conversations with his close friends and family.

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