Chin-ups 101: Steps, Proper Form, And Common Mistakes

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Updated: February 9, 2023

Chin-ups, a variant of pull-ups, are an exercise used to build the muscles of the back – especially the lats – and the strength and size of the upper body at large.

The chin-up is a great back builder and allows for a greater amount of bicep1 involvement during the pulling movement. So if you want bigger, more muscular arms, chin-ups will help. They do a great job of activating your abs, which is always a nice bonus.

What is a chin-ups?

chin-ups exercise - Fitzabout

Chin-ups are a compound exercise that works multiple muscle groups in the upper body. Grasp the pull-up bar and raise yourself from a dead hang until the bar is just below your chin. A range of powerful muscles in the upper and lower arms kick in to help accomplish this motion. These include the latissimus dorsi (lats), biceps brachii (biceps for short), trapezius, teres major, rhomboids, scapular and shoulder stabilizers, forearms, and abdominal.

How to do the chin-ups?

The chin-up is a bodyweight exercise, but it is much more difficult than other body-weight exercises like sit-ups or lunges.

To perform chin-ups, you use the pull-up bar to lift the body up with the strength of the back, arms, and other upper body muscles.

Chin-ups are very similar to pull-ups, but they differ in hand position. For pull-ups, the hands are in front of you, and this makes the move a little easier than chin-ups.

If you’re interested in trying chin-ups, make sure you’ve already put in the time into strength training, and don’t try them if you’re pregnant or have any injuries to your shoulders, wrists, elbows, or upper back.

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The setup, movement, and tips for chin-ups are described below.

1. Setup and movement

  • Begin by holding a chin-up bar with a shoulder-width supinated grip or an underhand grip – your palms facing you. Wrap your thumbs around the bar to keep it from slipping.
  • If you are unable to grip a chin-up bar, stand on a plyometric box or a secure flat bench.
  • Hang from the bar so that your feet are clear of the floor.
  • If desired, bend the legs and cross the ankles.
  • Your arms should be straight, your elbows should be slightly bent, but don’t let your shoulders relax.
  • Instead, pull shoulders down and back, squeeze glutes and quads, and engage the core.
  • Roll the shoulders outward to engage the lats. The shoulder blades should be rotated upwards from the spine. The chin should remain stationary throughout the movement, as if you are holding an egg under the chin. Begin all repetitions from this position.
  • Initiate the upward movement by simultaneously pulling the shoulder blades down and pulling the elbows in toward the body.
  • Continue to draw the shoulder blades toward the spine and squeeze the upper back and lat muscles until the collar bone reaches the chin-up bar.
  • Don’t kick or swing the legs, pull the chin-ups and over the bar.
  • Drive elbows down and back, and hinge upper arms out to the sides.
  • Hold for 1–2 seconds at the top of the movement.
  • Slowly return to the starting position by straightening the arms together and allowing the shoulder blades to curl down and away from the spine, controlling the descent so that you come under control.
  • The arms should be long with a slight bend in the elbows. Don’t rest down and repeat the process.

2. Tips

  • One of the most common mistakes people make is starting with an overhand grip. It is much more challenging because an overhand grip relies almost entirely on the lats, while an underhand grip provides support from the biceps and forearms.
  • Once you’ve mastered the underhand (chin-up) grip, use a false (thumbless grip) to reduce bicep involvement.
  • Try to keep a neutral head position (looking straight ahead or slightly upward) as excessively extending the neck can cause compensatory changes in the spine.
  • Grip the bar like you want to crush it. Your grip signals the shoulders that stability should be in full effect, making the movement more engaged. It’s like deadlifting- grip matters.
  • If the bar is high enough, keep your legs straight and in front of your body.
  • Avoid falling into overextension of the lumbar spine by squeezing your glutes and bracing your abs as if you’re in plank or breaking out of a deadlift or squat.
  • Keeping your trunk engaged will make it easier to pull the body up as a unit.
  • Chin-up is complete when lats are fully flexed, don’t continue to pull and compensate with pecs.
  • Keep your shoulders down and back, if they roll forward at the top, you’ve pulled too far.
  • The length of a lifter’s stretch will determine whether or not they can actually get their chin over the bar, which isn’t true for everyone.
  • Holding your breath is a very common and counterproductive response when attempting something physically challenging. However, the right way to breathe can make or break the lift. Breathe in and grab the bar, then exhale as you begin to pull up. Don’t wait until the top of the movement to breathe.
  • Go down to almost full extension of the elbow, but avoid fully extending out, as this can place excessive stress on the ligamentous structures within your elbow and shoulder.
  • When you can’t complete a single bodyweight chin-up, start at the top position with a slow negative or flexed arm hang.
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Bottom line

The chin-ups are a “test of true body-weight strength” because of how strong you have to be to do it. In this exercise, you pull the whole body upwards with the strength of hands and back.

This is a very challenging maneuver, so even if you are light in weight, the ability to pull your own weight will increase your upper body strength, especially the forearms. This will build serious grip strength, which can come in handy when it comes to opening tight jars or lifting heavy boxes.

Chin-ups can definitely be considered an advanced move. Due to its supinated grip, there will be more stress on the biceps. According to the American Council on Exercise, chin-ups can help develop the muscles that stabilize the spine as well as improve grip strength, posture, and appearance. 2

One study found that people without high blood pressure or diabetes had significantly greater grip strength than those with one or both diseases. This suggests that grip strength is an important factor in muscle quality. 3

Despite all this, the main benefit is recruiting dozens of muscles only in the upper back. These control the movement of the shoulder blades and attach to the neck – they are essential for balancing and stabilizing the shoulder joint.

Sources

  1. Jennifer K Hewit, Daniel A Jaffe and Todd Crowder. “A Comparison of Muscle Activation during the Pull-up and Three Alternative Pulling Exercises,” Human Performance Laboratory, Department of Physical Education, USA. Volume 5 Issue 4 – November 2018. DOI: 10.19080/JPFMTS.2018.05.555669.[]
  2. Pete McCall. “ACE Technique Series: Chin-ups.” Available here: https://www.acefitness.org/continuing-education/prosource/february-2016/5799/ace-technique-series-chin-ups/.[]
  3. Arch G. Mainous III, PhD, Rebecca J. Tanner, MA, Stephen D. Anton, PhD Ara Jo, MS. “Grip Strength as a Marker of Hypertension and Diabetes in Healthy Weight Adults.” VOLUME 49, ISSUE 6, P850-858, DECEMBER 01, 2015. July 29, 2015. DOI: 10.1016/j.amepre.2015.05.025.[]
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