If you browse through social media these days, you can no doubt find some very impressive feats of physical strength. Powerlifters deadlifting 900lbs, athletes jumping on boxes taller than some people, and people performing human flags like its nothing.
Although, there’s one exercise that when performed correctly just screams athleticism, strength, and badassery all at once.
When you bang out a few quality chin-ups it basically announces to the world, “Hey world, I have a very respectable amount of relative strength (how strong you are relative to how much you weigh) and can probably handle myself in most physically demanding situations.”
When women do chin-ups, it screams, “I KICK ASS AND TAKE NAMES REGULARLY. DO NOT CROSS ME, FOR I WILL END YOUR LIFE, PEASANT.”
But there’s a catch.
Chin-ups ain’t easy.
So if you’ve got a goal to become a chin-up master… where do you start?
First Things First…
Before you see if you can perform a chin-up, take a second and see if you even should perform chin-ups. A simple way to do this is to assess your shoulder flexion. Since your arms are directly above your head during a chin-up, it only makes sense that if you struggle to even get your arms there in the first place, chin-ups might not be the best idea.
Lay flat on the floor with your knees bent. Letting gravity do almost all of the work, raise your arms above head and let them fall in a controlled manner.
If you can get them overhead where your biceps are to your ears and your thumbs are basically touching the floor, congrats, you can probably start doing chinups.
But if your shoulder flexion test looks like this next pic, ehh… maybe pump the brakes a little bit. You can’t really get your hands above your head, so loading the shoulder joint beyond your available range of motion (which you’ll need to do for chin-ups) might not be a great idea.
Another thing to watch for is an excessive rib flare, or letting your low back arch off the ground when letting your arms drop. This is a common compensation to allow for full shoulder flexion, but it’s not exactly ideal.
Some of the more common reasons why your shoulder flexion sucks might be tight lats, poor anterior core control, and faulty breathing patterns (faulty breathing overworks accessory breathing muscles which can result in muscle tightness, aka poor shoulder range of motion), just to name a few.
If you present more like the last picture, give your upper body some love in the form of foam rolling, try to incorporate some diaphragmatic breathing into your daily/warmup routine, and hammer some anterior core exercises (planks, rollouts, inchworms, etc).
I’ve Assessed Myself…Time For Chinups??
Not yet, Hoss.
Before you get on a bar, it’s probably a good idea to learn how to develop the necessary tension in your body to increase the efficiency of your chin-ups. The worst thing you can do is get on a bar and flail around like a fish out of water. Or worse, you could look like…
Someone who does kipping pullups.
Tension is muy importante because it’ll keep the rest of your body and your joints in proper position so you don’t get hurt while simultaneously allowing yourself to exert the most force you can without suffering any ‘energy leaks’.
Per Mark Verstegen, the founder of EXOS (one of the top athletic performance facilities out there), “Energy leaks occur when your body tries to produce force, such as when your foot hits the ground while walking or running. The energy goes up your leg into the rest of the body and finds an area of instability, perhaps around a hip. There the energy dissipates or “leaks” into this unstable joint creating greater trauma on the joint and surrounding connective and muscular tissue.”
Apply this to chinups, and maybe instead of pain at the hip, you get it at your shoulder or low back. We don’t want that.
So in order to combat this, you can become an expert at the hollow body hold.
The hollow body hold is an amazing way to learn what your body should feel like during a chin-up by creating and maintaining tension from head to toe. Don’t know what a hollow body hold is or how to do it? OMG look at this, a video detailing just those things! WHAT A MAJOR COINCIDENCE.
So Now That That’s Taken Care Of…
Now we can start doing chin-ups! So go ahead, hop on that bar and get to pullin’!
But there’s probably a good chance you won’t be able to do one. That’s OK! There’s a few things you can do if you’re not quite able to do strict chin-ups just yet.
First, just practice hanging from a bar. Seriously. Grip strength can be a huge limiting factor and just dangling from a bar can really help improve that.
To up the ante, you can practice your hollow body holds from a hanging position, which can progress to hanging bent leg raises (where you bring your knees to your chest from the hanging position). When doing the hanging leg raises though, you need to keep your body still. Tons of people will just wildly swing back and forth or aggressively let their back arch as they raise their legs, which is not what you want. Your legs should move while your arms and torso stays completely still.
From there, it still might be too difficult to do a strict chin-up. So that’s where you put on the training wheels.
Modified chin-ups are basically junior chin-ups because they’re chin-up/squat combos. With your feet on the floor, they’ll essentially serve as your safety net, catching you if need be. If you can’t pull yourself up using just your arms, that’s when you can push with your legs for a little boost. These are ideal for beginners, and you can also progress these to where you only stand on one leg, thus limiting how much can you actually ‘boost’ yourself up.
Once those get easy, strict chin-ups will probably still be too difficult. But don’t you worry cupcake!
Eccentric chin-ups focus on the negative, or lowering portion of the movement which is an AWESOME method for helping rapidly increase strength for any given movement. Be warned though, because these suck and they will leave you drained. You can aim for 5, 10, even up to 20 second descents. Focus on lowering yourself under control and MAINTAIN THAT FULL BODY TENSION!! Keep the volume lower with these, especially as your drops get slower and slower. Sets of 5 or less are usually a good starting point.
When you get to a point that eccentrics are no longer incredibly challenging, you can combine an eccentric chin-up with a modified chin-up.
Start like you’re about to perform a modified chin-up on a TRX or barbell, but this time, simply pick your feet off the ground and bring your knees to your chest. Slowly lower yourself until your arms are straight, put your feet back on the ground, and then give yourself a little boost up just like you would with a regular modified chin-up. Now repeat for reps. HOW FUN. SO MUCH FUN.
You can also perform chin-ups with a band around your feet or bent knee to boost you up as well. This is extremely similar to the modified version just mentioned, but the degree of difficulty will be increased just a little bit. For this version, you’ll really need to focus on maintaining that full body tension throughout the movement as you are now essentially performing a ‘real’ chin-up.
You will eventually get to the point where you’re able to do strict chin-ups without any sort of assistance and what a glorious day that will be! Make sure to reward yourself with a Ninja Turtles themed party and some Reese’s Pieces!
But believe it or not, there’s actually some technique to pulling your chin to a bar.
Chin-up Coaching Cues
So remember, these cues apply to any and all chin-up variations. Modified, eccentric, strict, lat pulldowns, etc.
First, build that full body tension. You don’t wanna aggressively arch your back as your pull yourself up or as you lower yourself. Remember, your chin-up should resemble a hollow body hold, or at least come pretty close. Arched back = no tension = no bueno.
But we’ve already covered that… assuming you watched that hollow body hold video…
The second point you’re gonna wanna be well aware of during your set is probably the one thing any internet troll will look for, and that’s getting your chin above the bar when you actually pull. A quality cue to tell yourself or clients is simply to pull your chest to your bar. I just double checked my anatomy books and it looks like your chest is located below your chin. So by focusing on pulling your chest to the bar, your chin will clear it every single time.
Leave your ego at the door! If you can’t clear the bar with your chin without aggressively reaching your head towards the bar, practice more eccentrics and modified chin-ups.
Once your chin clears the bar, the next thing to keep in mind is exactly what’s happening in this picture. On the left, you’ll notice the elbows drive back behind the body, the upper back rounds, and the scapula (shoulder blade) tilts forward. This isn’t ideal, and if done regularly, can actually cause some shoulder irritation.
On the right, you’ll notice a cleaner rep with the elbows ‘tucked into the pockets’, a less rounded back, and the scapula aren’t diving forward. This is an ideal rep.
During the bottom, or the ‘hang’ portion of the chin-up, another mistake you’ll wanna avoid is letting yourself come to a dead hang. Some characteristics of a dead hang are having your shoulders shrugged up, biceps pressing up next to your ears, and essentially just ‘relaxing’ while you hang. You may even feel a stretch in your lats (in your armpits and alongside your ribs) depending on your level of mobility.
While this is admirable because it indicates you’re trying to complete every rep through the fullest range of motion possible (usually a good thing), it’s possibly a little misguided with chin-ups. Coming to a dead hang after every rep is a great way to possibly lose full body tension and become reliant on passive structures (like ligaments) to keep everything held together, especially at the shoulder.
Dead hangs can be particularly problematic for those individuals who lack shoulder flexion range of motion to begin with. Dead hangs force your shoulders into full flexion while adding the stress of all your bodyweight. Taking joints through ranges of motion they don’t have and then placing them under heavy loads during those ranges is like giving a toddler a toaster as a bath toy… not smart.
I’ll cue clients to lock out their arms about 90-95% of the way, as this allows you to maintain good tension throughout the body, as well as spare your shoulders in the long run.
When choosing your grip, you’ve got 3 main choices. The chin-up grip (palms facing you), pull-up grip (palms facing away from you), and a neutral grip (palms facing each other… you’ll need a bar or handles that allow this). I’m a fan of neutral grip as it’s the most shoulder friendly out of the 3, but it’s usually a good idea to rotate all the grips in throughout your training cycle to avoid stagnation or overuse injuries.
Even better, if you’ve got rotating handles that allow your hands to rotate as you perform a chin-up, those will really give you a lot of bang for your buck. Gymnast rings or TRX handles allow for this as well.
Once you get strong enough, you can also add resistance to your chin-ups by wearing a dip belt and attaching some weight to it, like in the picture above. Again, try not to let your ego get the best of you with an added external load. Clear that bar with your chin on every rep.
Things To Keep In Mind
Now, if you’re wondering if there are any strength standards for a chin-up, a solid guideline to live by is that you should be able to perform a chin-up with whatever you can bench press, if not more.
For example, if you can bench press 250lbs for 1 rep, you should be able to do a chin-up with 250lbs (your bodyweight + external load on a dip belt).
If your pressing strength and pulling strength are lopsided in favor of your presses… well, you’ve got some work to do 🙂
To be even more specific, males should strive to perform one rep with 140% of their bodyweight (180lb male would need 72lbs of external resistance), while females should strive to do 100% of their bodyweight. If you can hit those numbers, you’re decently strong. Give yourself a high five.
Now as awesome as chin-ups are, it’s a good idea to perform more horizontal rowing variations in your training when compared to chin-ups. Horizontal rows will help keep your shoulders healthy in the long run. Aim for 2 rows for every chin-up and your body will thank you.
And lastly, yes, it is perfectly acceptable to start off on a lat pulldown machine if you’re a beginner. However, I’ll always choose a modified chin-ups on a barbell or TRX over a lat pulldown as they mimic a chin-up more closely. But hey, you gotta start somewhere!