Mastering the chin-up

Without doubt, the strongest and most aesthetic physiques in Olympic competition are the male gymnasts. With six-year old waistlines and a pair of shoulders wide enough to block out the sun, these muscular competitors have taken the meaning of “V-Taper” to another level.

Pound for pound, they are as strong as they look. They possess roadmap back development, cannonball-like deltoids and a pair of guns that could rip the sleeves off a loose-fitted t-shirt.

Such physiques were not built around lat pulldowns and bicep curls. This level of conditioning is a testimony to the countless number of chin-ups they can effortlessly perform.

The chin-up is king for upper back development. Nothing comes remotely close to adding more beef to your back and arms than this incredible exercise. No other movement can compete in difficulty.

In comparison to the lat pull-down, the goal is to move a fixed object around you. With a little momentum and some assistance from the abs along the way, it’s not difficult to eventually master.

Not with the chin-up.

First, you must be strong enough to escape from a dead-hanging position by overcoming the forces of inertia. Then, you must continue lifting the weight of your entire body, up and around a fixed object.

This is a genuine test of functional strength.

For this reason, very few people can execute this challenging movement. It has been said that less than 2% of the world’s female population can actually do a proper chin-up.

A woman who can perform chin-ups for reps will stand out a mile away. Just take a look at Linda Hamilton’s physique in Terminator II as walking proof.

Ironically enough, one of her opening scenes in the movie is in a mental institute, locked up in a cell and performing…yep, chin-ups!

That’s exactly what happens to a woman who’s known for cranking out chin-ups on her own – it isolates her from the general population.

Chin-ups recruit a cocktail of muscles all at once. They target the lattisimus dorsi, rhomboids, teres major, posterior deltoids, elbow flexors, sternal portion of the pectoralis major as well as the lower portions of the trapezius.

Heck, they even work the abdominals when executed correctly.

Beginners who attempt to perform this exercise can become very arm dominant at first. They try to pull themselves up by exclusively using their arms. Some even use their legs, kicking their trainer along the way in desperation to reach the top.

Yes, I’ve received a few blows in my lifetime.

To little avail, their hard-earned efforts fail to compensate them in return. They fall short of executing any possible movement from the starting position, possibly because they have forgotten one important concept:

The body is a kinetic chain that’s only as strong as its weakest link.

Our muscles are all linked up in such a way that they want to work as a whole, rather than independent from one another. Although the arms are moving up and down during the chin-up, that’s not where the movement initiates.

Any motion of the entire arm will involve the use of the scapula. In fact, it is the scapula that takes on all the labor initially. Those who can’t get out of the hanging position, lack the ability to recruit enough strength from the scapula to do so.

That’s where the weakest link lies.

In strength training, there is a little saying that goes something like this:

You can’t fire a cannon from a canoe.

In order to create maximum power, we must first have a stable base to work with. The stable base needed when performing chin-ups is the scapulae, as well as the stabilizing muscles surrounding it.

Getting geeky for a moment:

The scapulae are upwardly rotated during the isometric phase in the stretched position of a chin-up. This creates poor leveraging ability to initiate any concentric movement. It takes incredible strength by the medial rotators (levator scapulae, rhomboid minor, rhomboid major) to pull the inferior angle of the scapulae back to the anatomic position.

Now in plain English please:

Getting out of the hole from the hanging position of a chin-up is tough work, if your body is not strong enough to do so.

Regressing the chin-up

As a substitute, many settle for the assisted chin-up device found in almost every conventional health club. This counterbalanced machine offsets your own bodyweight by allowing you to mimic the same movement.

Although this appears to be a good thing, the stabilizer muscles are often absent during this exercise, resulting in poor performance and possible likelihood of an injury.

Assisted chin-up machines are a ‘Band-Aid’ effect for an apparent strength issue. If you can’t perform a proper chin-up, it would be wise to invest your time with other regressed alternatives that are more superior to this exercise.

Do not settle for this space-invading device.

Starting Position

Unequivocally, the chin-up requires a basal amount of strength to master. Heavier individuals may not be able to lift themselves up from the starting position initially. The first regressed alternative would be to have a spotter assist them throughout the movement.

A chin-up is performed with either a neutral grip (palms facing each other) or a supinated grip (palms facing the body). A pull-up is a variation of the chin-up, which is much harder to perform. To do a pull up, the palms must be facing away from the body, known as a pronated grip.

Whether you choose to perform a chin-up or a pull-up, make sure that the entire body (arms, torso and legs) is perfectly aligned. Always start the exercise with arms hanging in the fully stretched position.  The elbows must be locked out completely, causing the shoulder blades to elevate.

(If you have ever seen Rambo II, picture the scene where Sylvester Stallone is hanging above the slime pit that is infested with leeches. That is the movement we are trying to mimic here.)

Grasp the bar, bend your knees and have the spotter hold your ankles. The spotter should give you just enough assistance to be able to get out from the hole, as you attempt to clear the bar.

You may need to push against the spotter to provide enough leverage to initiate movement. Make sure your knees are in alignment with your hips as you are about to ascend. A spotter can determine your current strength levels, based on how hard you push your feet against them. The harder you do so, the more you validate a weakness to this exercise.


Keep your head up at all times. Commence the movement by first bending the elbows and squeezing the shoulder blades together. To boost chin up performance, concentrate on driving your elbows down and back rapidly as you rise, like elbowing someone in the gut.

This will automatically increase your speed, making it easier to perform the chin up at full range. The key here is to not just bring your shoulders to the bar, but to drive your elbows down and back. Doing so will engage the lats more powerfully, taking less stress off the elbow flexors.

A chin-up is not a chin-up if you do not clear the bar. As the name implies, your chin must be up and over the bar.

Contrary to popular belief, the correct way to breathe when performing a chin-up is to inhale as you are pulling yourself up and exhale as you are descending. If you can’t master this technique, just breathe as you would naturally.

Progressing the chin-up

Once you can complete twelve reps with both legs, the next step is to have a spotter hold just one of your ankles. Doing so will put more stress on your muscles, through an increase in load by the weight of your free leg. Conquer twelve reps in this fashion and it’s onto the third progression of the chin-up.

This time, the spotter assists you either at the waistline or below the shoulder blades. As you develop strength, you will notice that you may only need assistance with certain ‘sticking points’ of the exercise. The spotter should provide just enough assistance to allow you to get past these points and clear the bar.

If you can’t get a spotter, another alternative would be to perform negative chin-ups. Before explaining how to do them, here’s a word of warning – prepare yourself for some deep muscle soreness. If you’re a beginner, this exercise may be harder than it appears on paper.

Instead of starting from the hanging position, stand on a platform so that your chin is over the bar. Whilst holding the bar, proceed by lowering yourself down as slow as possible for a total of thirty seconds. Remember to always count your seconds in “one-thousands”.

This exercise will really test your strength levels. Don’t be alarmed if you find yourself losing control prior to reaching the thirty-second mark. Many can’t even last ten seconds in their first attempt.

Once you can comfortably perform one negative chin-up for thirty seconds, you can progress this by getting someone to stick a dumbbell between your legs. Now try the same exercise with some resistance.

The idea with the negative chin-up is to reach eccentric failure by progressively increasing time under tension. This will eventually translate into an overall improvement in strength and performance. As you get stronger with all these variations, you will be able to perform a chin-up on your own. A great strength coach should have you doing twelve un-assisted reps in as little as twelve weeks.

If you’re already in the advanced stage of doing chin ups, let’s get you doing sets of twenty-five reps, with some weight attached.

For a strong, functional and physically appealing back, no other back exercise can compete with the chin-up. It demonstrates a perfect analogy to success:

The only way is up, so pull yourself in the same direction.