As American children have become heavier and more sedentary, physical education standards and training methods in this country have changed accordingly – for the worse. One indicator is that chin-ups, formerly a standard exercise in PE classes, are seldom tested or practiced. In fact, one colleague of mine told me that at one military academy in the early ’90s, 75 percent of the incoming female freshmen could not perform a single chin-up – and consider that a large percentage of the female cadets were recruited athletes! That’s the bad news.
The good news is that chin-ups are getting more attention now thanks to the current popularity of boot camp programs – chin-ups are even part of many fitness competitions. Although there is little carryover from the “cheating” forms of chin-ups that many of these programs use to the performance of conventional chin-ups, at least they are significantly more demanding than pulldowns. And it’s not that I have anything against pulldowns, but they are simply not as effective as chin-ups. That being said, consider that pulldowns can be an effective exercise variation for rehabilitation – such as when an individual develops a shoulder injury from the shearing stresses that occur by performing cheating chin-ups!
For anyone confused about the difference between pull-ups and chin-ups, a pull-up is performed with a pronated grip (palms facing away from you) and a chin-up is performed with a supinated grip (palms facing you). In terms of the effects of each type of movement, there is a study published in the December 2010 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research that looked at this very topic with EMG analysis. Here is what the researchers found: “The pectoralis major and biceps brachii had significantly higher EMG activation during the chin-up than during the pull-up, whereas the lower trapezius was significantly more active during the pull-up.” The researchers also found that both variations were initiated by the lower trapezius and pectoralis major, and then completed by the biceps brachii and latissimus. Bottom line: Both versions have value and both should be used to add variety to your program.
With that background, here are my 12 top tips for getting the most from chin-ups:
1. Get soft-tissue work
. Chin-up performance often can be improved instantly with the right soft-tissue work. For example, many people cannot clear the chin above the bar, but once they release muscular adhesions between the teres major and the latissimus dorsi – boom! – the person clears the chin. To find the right person to improve your chin-ups, see this list of soft-tissue practitioners
2. Initiate the movement by learning to retract the scapulae
. A basic principle in biomechanics is that force production is a product of joint summation. Using the scapulae retractors to initiate the movement produces more force, which translates in better rate of force development.
3. Concentrate on moving the elbows back and down.
Most trainees overemphasize pulling with the elbow flexors to initiate the chin-up. Once you have retracted the scapulae (as mentioned in #2), concentrate on elbowing the gut of someone who is standing behind you. That action will activate the latissimus dorsi and the teres major, which are powerful shoulder extensors.
4. Vary the grip orientation and width.
Not only will varying the grip keep your training from becoming monotonous, it also will accelerate gains. When you change the grip width and/or its orientation, you will draw from a different motor-unit pool. At the Poliquin Strength Institute, I had the Canadian exercise equipment company Atlantis build me two special power racks with a variety of pull-up/chin-up attachments. These attachments, which are mounted on the top of three sides of the rack, enable us to perform a variety of normal-diameter and thick-grip pull-ups and chin-ups. Changing from pronated to neutral to supinated effects the percentage of recruitment from the various elbow flexors. As a rule of thumb, when pressed for time, I prefer the athletes to use the thick grip versions, as they tend to accelerate gains, and have a greater transfer to sport tasks.Changing the grip orientation also effects the percentage of contribution from the scapulae muscles and the shoulder extensors.
5. Fully stretch eccentrically the elbow flexors and scapulae retractors
. A common mistake made by incompetent trainers is instructing their clients not to fully extend their elbows in the eccentric portion and not to fully lower the scapulae. Having poor range of motion eventually also leads to soft tissue problems. Yes, you do perform more reps with that reduced range technique, but they are still partial reps. Remember this: Strength is gained in the range that is trained! A good tip to make sure they go low enough, is that I tell the athletes to pretend to touch the floor with their toes at the bottom of the eccentric range.
6. Perform slow eccentrics.
In my experience, doing slow eccentrics is the best loading parameter for people who perform poorly at chin-ups. I shoot for 30 seconds of lowering on the last rep of every set. That brings record chinning strength in no time. Make sure that the pace is even. So for example, if you are at a 20 seconds level, the elbows should be at mid flexion by second number 10.
7. Recognize that volume is key.
You need a minimum of 30 reps per workout to make continual improvements in chin-ups. If you need to perform 10 sets to get those total reps, so be it.
8. Improve curling strength.
Doing chin-ups should improve curling strength, but the reverse is also true, particularly for female trainees. Choose a curling grip that mimics the grip you are using in your chin-ups and pull-ups. For example, hammer curls will improve your neutral-grip pull-ups.
9. Improve gripping strength.
Never use straps! Isometric holds for eight seconds using various gripping devices will prevent your grip from being the limiting factor in your chin-up progress.
10. The chin must clear the bar.
The only way your scapulae retractors will ever get strong is by making sure that your chin goes above the bar. If you need a spot in the early stages of your training to complete the range, that doesn’t make you a bad person – just keep working hard and you’ll get there. Make sure that the person spotting you gives you just enough help to get your to clear the bar.
11. Use tree-climbing belts when using additional loads
. Tree-climbing belts can cost up to 300 bucks, but you can get them on eBay for as little as 99 cents. With a tree-climbing belt the weight is equally distributed, and it’s much sturdier than a dipping belt. You can add 250 pounds to it and not feel any pressure on your hips. As for added load to the pull-up, anyone who can do three dead-hang pull-ups with an additional load equivalent to 66 percent of their bodyweight is pretty damn impressive in my book.
12. Become as lean as you can: Doing chin-ups with extra bodyfat is like doing chin-ups with a back pack.
For lots of information on how you can achieve optimal body composition, check out the numerous articles on nutrition and supplementation in our website.
Chin-ups once were a regular part of physical education classes and were often performed by the general population to stay in shape. I’m glad to see that chin-ups are becoming popular again. To be part of that movement be sure to apply these 12 guidelines. You’ll be surprised just how quickly you can master this great exercise.