Get better at the chin up for big and defined muscles
The chin up is the ultimate test of upper-body strength but most people lack the strength and technique to manage even a single rep. If you want to join the training elite and master this classic bodyweight exercise – and build bigger, stronger and more defined back and biceps muscles in the process – use my expert guide to the chin up and its key variations, says New Body Plan’s fitness director Joe Warner
There are few better tests of raw upper-body strength than the classic chin-up. Requiring nothing more than an overhead bar, an impressive amount of back and biceps strength, and a bucket-load of grit and determination, it’s one of the best exercises for separating the men from the boys. And it’s no surprise that this classic bodyweight exercise still forms a key test of physical challenges all potential Royal Marine recruits must pass before entering basic training.
Many guys would love nothing more than to be able to bash out countless chin-ups. But most men can’t muster even one single full-range rep. Most gyms will only have a handful of members who can do them properly. So if you want to join this elite training group, and build incredible back and biceps size, strength and definition too, then here’s what you need to do!
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What is a chin up?
The chin up (sometimes spelled chin-up) is a bodyweight exercise that is a fantastic indicator of upper-body strength and stamina. The move is far simpler to explain than it is to do: you start in a dead hang with an underhand grip on a bar, then pull yourself up using your upper back and biceps muscles until your chin is higher than your hands. You then lower yourself back down to the start position – that’s one rep.
How to do the perfect chin up
Check out our video on how to do the perfect chin up on the New Body Plan YouTube channel!
Chin up form guide
• Hang from a bar with an underhand grip with straight arms with your hands shoulder-width apart.
• Keep your chin and chest up, back straight and engage your core and your glutes.
• Using your upper back and biceps, pull your torso upwards in a smooth and controlled fashion until your chin is about your hands.
• Pause in this top position, squeezing your back and biceps muscles hard.
• Slowly lower back down under complete control to the start position with your arms are fully straight.
Why are chin ups so difficult?
Most bodyweight moves, such as the press-up or the bodyweight squat, are easier options than doing the dumbbell bench press or barbell squat. But chin-ups are one of the most challenging exercises you can do – period. And they are far more difficult than doing a machine-based move, such as the lat pulldown.
Why? Because chin-ups require immense upper body strength (to lift your entire body weight up), a very strong grip (to maintain contact with the bar), and incredible abs strength (to stop your legs from swinging and to keep your body stable).
Are chin ups a good indicator of upper-body strength?
Absolutely. Chin-ups, and their harder variation, the pull-up, are such a solid indicator of upper-body strength that they feature in the Potential Royal Marine Course (PRMC), which is the selection course for potential recruits. Pull-ups are performed on a timed bleep: a minimum of 3 pull-ups are required to continue the selection process, but candidates are expected to get at least eight. Maximum points are given for 16 full-range pull-ups.
What’s the difference between a chin up and a pull up?
It’s not uncommon for the names of these two exercises to be used interchangeably. But there is one very simple but significant technical difference. A chin-up is performed with an underhand grip on the bar, with your hands about shoulder-width apart.
A pull up (sometimes written as pull-up) is done with an overhand grip on the bar, with your hands anywhere from shoulder-width apart to double that distance.
The different grip means that your biceps help out more during a chin-up, and your upper back does almost all of the work in a pull-up. That makes pull-ups harder to do than chin-ups, and the wider apart your hands, the more challenging the move.
Check out Jon and Joe’s video on how to do the perfect pull up on the New Body Plan YouTube channel!
What muscles does a chin up work?
The main muscles worked during a chin-up are found in the upper back and biceps. They are:
The latissimus dorsi (lats): a triangular-shaped paired muscle, and the largest in the upper body, responsible for adducting, extending and internally rotating the shoulder joint.
The teres major: a small, thick and flat paired muscle that works with the lats to rotate and adduct the arm.
The trapezius (traps): a large paired trapezium-shaped muscle that moves the scapula and supports the arm.
The rhomboid, minor and major: two upper back muscles that lie underneath the traps that hold the scapula to the ribcage and allow the retraction of the scapula towards the spine.
The brachioradialis: the muscle of the forearm that flexes the forearm at the elbow.
The brachialis: the primary muscle responsible for flexing the elbow, which sits underwear the biceps brachia.
The biceps brachii: the biceps, a two-headed muscle on the front of the upper arm responsible for supinating the forearm and bending the elbow.
Your abs, lower back and glutes must also be activated to maintain a stable body and prevent your legs rocking back and forth with each rep.
Why should I do chin-ups?
Do you want to build a bigger, stronger and more athletic body? Then you should consider building up your chin-up strength. Why? Because once you are fit and strong enough to bash out a decent number of full-range bodyweight chin-ups it’s almost certain you’re going to be the proud owner of an impressive physique.
How can I get better at chin ups?
As with any tough lift, you need to build up strength to get better at the move. You can do this is a structured and systematic way for many exercises. Take the barbell bench press: you can start benching with an empty barbell and then gradually add weight plates to the bar over time as you get stronger to keep building muscle size and strength. But chin-ups are different because the weight you need to move is internal and not adjustable (your own bodyweight), not external and adjustable (like a barbell or weight stack). Here’s what you should do based on your current condition.
Shift fat fast
Are you carrying a bit of extra weight? The first thing you should do is try to lose excess body fat, because that’s all extra weight your muscles have to lift. And the more body fat you have, the harder the chin up is. The good news is that as you drop body fat your power-to-weight ratio will improve, and you’ll massively increase your chances of mastering the move!
Get strong with smart lifts
Don’t yet have the upper-body strength to do one chin-up rep? You need to look to other exercises that work the same muscle groups to build the strength required. Read on for some of the best moves for developing the stronger muscles needed to master the bodyweight chin-up.
The best exercises to build chin-up strength
Add some of these assistance exercises into your training programme to increase your upper back and biceps strength and power to become a chin-up champion!
Why should I do assisted chin-ups?
A normal chin-up requires you to lift 100% of your bodyweight. If you’re not strong enough to move and manage your entire weight you can do assisted chins to offset some of the weight you have to loft to gradually build the upper body strength required to do the main move.
How do I do assisted chin-ups?
Assisted chin-ups can be done on your gym’s assisted pull-up machine. Simply place the pin in the weight stack to select the amount of your bodyweight you want to offset to make each rep easier. For example, if you weigh 80kg and select 40kg on the weight stack, you’ll offset 40kg of weight so will be lifting 40kg of resistance, or 50% of your bodyweight. You can also use resistance bands on the normal chin-up bar. Loop the band with the desired resistance around the bar then around your knees or feet to offset some of your bodyweight to build up your back and biceps strength.
Underhand lat pulldown
Why should I do underhand lat pulldowns?
The underhand lat pulldown is the resistance machine exercise most similar to the bodyweight chin-up. It’s a great move for building chin-up power because you can adjust the amount of resistance you’re lifting in very small and incremental steps, allowing you to gradually build up your back and biceps strength. It’s arguably the single-best exercise to start with when you want to get better at chin ups. Not just because you can start with a very light level of resistance if you’re a complete beginner, but also because the machine allows you to lift a total weight heavier than your bodyweight, making it a fantastic move for advanced lifters too.
How do I do the underhand lat pulldown?
Sit on the lat pulldown machine and select the desired weight on the weight stake. With straight arms take a shoulder-width underhand grip on a long bar. Keeping your chin and chest up and your back straight, pull the bar straight down, leading with your elbows, under your hands are just below chin height. Pause in this bottom position, squeezing your back and biceps muscles hard, then slowly return the bar back up until your arms are fully straight. That’s one rep.
Why should I do the seated row?
The seated row works many of the same muscles as the chin-up – lats, teres major, rhomboids, biceps and forearms – but from a different angle to work these muscle fibres through a different movement pattern to maximise strength. Don’t forget to use different cable attachments and grip positions to work the muscles more thoroughly. A wide grip on a straight or curved bar, or hammer (neutral) grip are the most popular seated row hand positions.
How do I do the seated row?
Sit on the machine and grip the bar or handles with the desired grip. Keep your chin and chest up, brace your abs and straighten your back. From a straight-arm position, row your hands in towards your torso, leading with you elbows. Hold and pause this position, squeezing your back muscles hard, then slowly reverse the movement back to the start until your arms are again straight. That’s one rep.
Cable straight-arm pulldown
Why should I do the cable straight-arm pulldown?
The cable straight-arm pulldown is one of the best cable moves for a stronger back. It works the lats through a very full range of motion to work those muscle fibres that might not always be fully activated during other back exercises. It also works the front shoulders and chest through certain parts of the movement range. Here’s our full article on the cable straight-arm pulldown, including a detailed form guide and bonus tips.
How do I do the cable-straight-arm pulldown?
Stand tall facing a cable machine holding a straight bar with an overhand grip, or a double-rope handle with a palms-facing grip, secured to the high pulley. Take a few steps back and hinge forwards from the hips so that your arms are fully straight and you can feel a good stretch in your lats. Keeping your chest and chip up and your back straight, move your hands down in a smooth arc until they touch your thighs. Pause in this position, squeezing your lats hard, then reverse the movement back to the start. That’s one rep.
Why should I do eccentric chin-ups?
Eccentric training is based on the principle that your muscles are stronger when they are lowering a weight (the eccentric phase of rep) than they are during the lifting phase of a rep (the concentric phase).
Eccentric chin-ups, in which you jump to the top position then lower yourself down as slowly as possible, are a great way to build upper-back strength and get used to the feeling of doing full chin-ups. Why? Because you don’t have to do the pulling-up phase (the most difficult part and the one most people can’t do) of each rep, so can focus solely on the slow and controlled lowering phase.
How do I do eccentric chin-ups?
Jump to the top position of a chin-up, squeeze your back and biceps hard, then lower yourself down slowly and under complete control under your arms are fully straight. Drop your feet down to the ground then jump back up to the top position and repeat.
Eccentric chin-ups can either be done as a standalone set – just jump to the top to start each rep, then lower yourself down slowly until your arms are straight then repeat – or as a set-extension strategy. Do as many full chin-ups as you can, then extend the set by doing as many eccentric reps as you can manage. Stop when you’re no longer able to control the descent back down.
Why should I do dead hangs?
Dead hangs are essentially the very start and very end position of each chin-up rep. While they won’t build much upper back or biceps strength, they are fantastic for improving your forearm and grip strength. A weak grip is the reason why many people struggle with many strength moves, not only chin-ups and pull-ups, but also deadlifts and most kinds of “pulling” moves, such as biceps curls.
How do I do dead hangs?
Grip a chin-up bar and hang down from it with fully-straight arms. Keep your core and glutes fully engaged to prevent your body swinging. Start with five seconds of hanging for each rep, and gradually increase the duration of each hang every session you do them.
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