I have a confession to make: I’ve been disrespecting Chin-Ups.
Several years ago, I wrote an article for STACK that outlined how hand position changes the Pull-Up/Chin-Up exercise. For those who don’t know, a Pull-Up sees you grab the bar with your palms facing away from you (a pronated position), while a Chin-Up sees you grab the bar with palms facing towards you (a supinated position). Variations where the palms are facing one another in a neutral position are also frequently categorized as Chin-Ups.
As I explained in that article, the Pull-Up targets the lower trapezius (the middle back) and the latimuss dorsi more effectively than the Chin-Up. Meanwhile, the Chin-Up shifts some of that emphasis away from the upper back and onto the biceps and pecs. Largely for this reason, most people can do more bodyweight Chin-Ups than they can bodyweight Pull-Ups. In that sense, Chin-Ups are “easier” than Pull-Ups. After writing that article, I gradually began phasing Chin-Ups out of my routine. Though I deliberately stated in the piece that one is not necessarily better than another, I figured since I was fit enough to do sets of Pull-Ups, why not always go with the harder option? Plus I could just hit my biceps and pecs with moves like Curls and Bench Press. So why bother with the wussier version of Pull-Ups?
Only recently have I realized just how wrong I was. Pull-Ups are a great exercise, no doubt. But don’t buy the idea that Chin-Ups are simply the junior varsity version of them. On the contrary, many strength and conditioning experts consider Chin-Ups an irreplaceable upper-body exercise. The late Charles Poliquin dubbed them the “Squat of the Upper Body.” That certainly doesn’t sound like an exercise you should be skipping out on, does it?
Alan Bishop, Director of Sports Performance for Men’s Basketball at the University of Houston, tweeted that “Chin-Ups are the most underrated exercise in athletics. They are the foundational upper-body movement in our weight room because of their potential to develop true functional strength, improve structural balance, drive up core strength and pack on mass.”
One underrated aspect of the Chin-Up is the superior range of motion it typically offers compared to a Pull-Up. In a world where shoulder and upper-back mobility are often quite limited due to our lifestyles of constantly hunching over keyboards and screens, that’s a big plus. To get the most out of this aspect of the movement, be sure to go into a full hang at the bottom of each rep and to close the elbow at the top of each rep. Unless you’re specifically working on partial range of motion variations, half reps means half results!
The same supinated position that makes Chin-Ups “easier” than Pull-Ups may also make them easier on the shoulder, a key consideration when it comes to injury risk. Mike Boyle, co-founder of Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning, generally programs Chin-Ups more often than Pull-Ups for largely this reason. “Palms-up is easier for my athletes because it includes the use of the elbow flexors (biceps),” Boyle told the American Council on Exercise. “In addition it places the shoulder in a more ‘friendly’ position…One of my main concerns with clients is helping reduce the risk of injury, and the supinated hand position is essential from an injury-prevention standpoint.”
Toronto-based strength coach and writer Lee Boyce has Chin-Ups in his “New Big 3 for Non-Powerlifters,” calling them “the absolute king of upper-body movements.” He prefers the neutral grip as it generally keeps the pain in the wrists, elbows and shoulders to an a minimum. “To be honest, the mid-grip Chin-Up with neutral hands is what I consider king. You don’t torque the elbows and wrists if you’re a big lifter with flexibility or mobility issues, and you still get a massive recruitment for the lats and brachialis for biceps recruitment and development,” Boyce says.
It may seem like heresy to hear the Chin-Up—an exercise nowhere near as mythologized and glorified as the Bench Press—be dubbed the king of upper-body movements. After all, most people who’ve spent any significant amount of time in the gym can knock out at least one Chin-Up, and those with good-to-great bodyweight strength can bang out several reps with relative ease. Indeed, this sole fact is why Chin-Ups often fall by the wayside for many people. They progress to the point where they can bang out 10-15 reps in a set, eventually write off Chin-Ups as “too easy” for their level of fitness, then replace it with something more challenging. In reality, what they should’ve done is utilize the most basic form of progressive overload—add more weight. Weighted Chin-Ups are a straightforward way to continue using the movement once body weight no longer poses an appropriate challenge. The easiest way to add extra weight to your Chin-Ups is with a belt designed for this purpose. Quality ones can be had on Amazon for roughly $25. In a pinch, you can also hold a dumbbell between your feet.
“I think being able to do 10-12 unbroken, good, quality Chin-Up reps when fresh is a good (sign) to start to gauge capability and earn the right to add load,” Boyce says. “When loaded, your reps should look the same as bodyweight. Not cut in range of motion or quality. That usually means adding 10 or 15 pounds (at first), and not 45 or 60.”
Weighted Chin-Ups are an absolutely fantastic way to build upper-body strength and pack on muscle in your lats, back and biceps. Making the bar itself thicker (via a product like Fat Gripz) is another smart way to kick up the challenge of the basic Chin-Up, and you can also toy with tempo and isometric holds at different points during the movement. With all these ways to increase their difficulty, saying that Chin-Ups “aren’t hard enough” to be worth your time is a foolish statement.
Chin-Ups can also have additional sports-specific carryover, as well. For example, the ability to perform one Chin-Up with 250 pounds is a key component of Dr. Josh Heenan’s “90MPH Formula” for baseball pitchers, a collection of measurables that correlates with increased odds of throwing 90+ mph pain-free. That total includes an athlete’s body weight, so a 200-pound athlete must be capable of one Weighted Chin-Up with at least 50 additional pounds to meet the baseline.
“We use the supinated Chin-Up in The 90mph Formula as it closely relates to the throwing motion,” Heenan told STACK. “Ironically enough, the majority of throwers we see lack adequate concentric strength of the infraspinatus and external rotators. The biceps is often the culprit for many of the elbow and shoulder inquiries related to throwing such as laberal degeneration, SLAP and UCL tears. Some of this can be caused by a lack of using the full range of motion in training. When throwing, you will reach full arm extension and need adequate mobility of the biceps to decelerate the radius and ulna. By not having having/training full extension, we are going to ask the adjacent structures (such as the UCL) to take up the load the biceps can’t adequately handle.
“Many stay away from Chin-Ups for throwers as the location of SLAP tears is at the origin of the long head of the biceps. I get that many don’t want to potentially exacerbate issues at the labrum, but research points to the distraction forces on the shoulder are over 100% of the pitchers body weight. By not training the shoulder to handle these distraction forces, we are wasting a great opportunity to proactively prepare the pitcher for these forces. If we have have SLAP issues with Chin-Ups we need to refer out to an orthopedist to see what the root of the issue is. I’d much rather irritate a labrum issue in the first phase of the offseason and refer out if a surgical intervention is needed to fix the issue than wait till throwing ramps up to find they need surgery and now they will need to miss a whole season!”
What if you can’t yet do a full Chin-Up? Instead of gravitating toward the Assisted Chin-Up/Pull-Up machines now found in many gyms, try Eccentric or Negative Chin-Ups. This entails using a box or bench to get into the top position of the Chin-Up then slowly lowering yourself down into the bottom position with control. You can even weight them to increase the challenge. These can be a great way to work up to real Chin-Ups. You can also try performing full Chin-Ups while using a band for assistance. While this is normally done by looping a band around the top of the bar and then “stepping through” the opposite end so it’s around one leg, a smarter variation may involve horizontally stretching the band on pegs or hooks, as demonstrated in this video from Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning:
“We’ve liked it so far because there’s more ways to progress and regress the athletes. With the bands around the chin-up bars, going from one band to the next can be too big of a jump. With the bands around the J-hooks, we can bridge the gap between bands by raising or lowering the J-hooks,” Boyle writes of this tweak. Give both a try to see what you prefer.
Just like saying Chin-Ups are “too easy” is not a valid excuse, saying they’re “too hard” doesn’t fly, either! Regress or progress as needed and this staple will always be a worthy part of your routine.
In summation, although Pull-Ups are a great movement, just because they’re “harder” than Chin-Ups doesn’t mean the latter should be seen as a stepping stone to the former. In fact, Chin-Ups carry some distinct advantages that make them an extremely valuable addition to just about any athlete or lifter’s program. It’s time they get the respect they deserve.
Photo Credit: bogdankosanovic/iStock