Chin-Ups Are a Challenge—Here's How to Do Them

Woman performing chin up

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Some body-weight exercises can be done by nearly anyone. That makes sense because without weights involved and most of us having some strength just from living and walking around, it's rare that body-weight workout moves are a very big challenge. Think push-ups, sit-ups, or lunges: Most of us can perform at least a few reps as beginners and many more once we are advanced.

And then there are chin-ups. Like pull-ups, chin-ups are very difficult, and not everyone can come close to doing one. The act of lifting your entire body up by your arms is no easy feat! Many people who work out for years never even come close to achieving a single chin-up or pull-up. It's normal to barely be able to hang by your arms for long, let alone lift your entire body with just the strength of them.

If you're one of the lucky ones who has built up enough strength to do more than just hang from a bar for a few tough moments, this tutorial is for you. Ahead, learn everything you need to know about chin-ups, from their benefits to proper form.

Meet the Expert

  • Katie Kollath is an ACE-certified personal trainer and co-Founder of Barpath Fitness.
  • Josh Honore is a NASM-certifed personal trainer and XPRO for STRIDE and Row House GO.

What Is a Chin-Up?

Though a chin-up is a body-weight exercise and not a weighted one, it does require a piece of equipment. You'll need a bar, commonly referred to as a pull-up bar, to perform one. Kollath refers to chin-ups as "a test of true body-weight strength" because of how strong you need to be in order to do one. You'll be pulling your entire body up by the strength of your arms and back in this move. Even if you are light in weight, this is a very challenging maneuver. Chin-ups can definitely be considered an advanced move. That's not because they are complicated at all, but because it takes a whole lot of strength to be able to lift yourself up by using only the power of your upper body.

Benefits of Chin-Ups

They require a lot of strength to do, but chin-ups also make you stronger. Honore tells us that "chin-ups are a great exercise to develop the upper back, biceps, and grip strength." Multiple muscles are used at once, including your back muscles, biceps, and forearms. Honore also notes that because it's slightly easier to do chin-ups than pull-ups, there's an improved opportunity to do more of them. He says that by doing chin-ups, "the strength we develop can improve our posture as well as make us stronger at other movements like yoga inversions, rowing, and day-to-day tasks like moving heavy furniture."

Proper Chin-Up Form

If you'd like to try doing chin-ups, you'll want to first make sure that you've spent time building up sufficient strength for this exercise. Otherwise, you could risk injury. Here are the steps to follow for proper chin-up form.

  1. Grab a pull-up bar. Kollath says that your palms should be facing you and your arms should be shoulder-width apart.
  2. Engage your upper back and core. Kollath recommends that you pinch " the shoulder blades back and down." Additionally, she says to "try to keep your hips under you so you don’t lose your scapula retraction."
  3. Continuing to hold on to the bar, lift your chest up toward it. Honore tells us to "pull yourself up until your chin is over the bar."
  4. Slowly lower yourself until you are back to your starting position, and repeat.

How to Modify

Due to the difficult nature of this exercise, it's not unusual to require an easier place to start from. If you'd like to have chin-ups as a goal, begin with one of these modifications.

  • Hang from the bar. Kollath suggests you "work your way up to be able to hang for 60 seconds."
  • Use a box or other piece of equipment, such as a step stool, to help you through the move. Kollath recommends you hold at the top of the position this way, working up to holding at the top for 20 seconds.
  • Try a band to assist you.
  • With a step stool, begin from the pull-up position and spend time lowering yourself. Kollath suggests you "work your way up to being able to lower for 10 seconds."

Chin-Ups vs. Pull-Ups

The action of performing a chin-up and a pull-up look nearly identical. The one main difference, though, is how your hands are positioned. Honore tells us that "chin-ups are performed with the hands supinated (palms facing our face)," and that "this helps recruit more lats and biceps than traditional pull-ups." Conversely, Kollath says that "pull-ups use a pronated grip (palms facing away from you)." She adds that "both chin-ups and pull-ups are a great movement to strengthen the back and upper body in general. Chin-ups have a little more leverage by using the biceps and more elbow flexion so they tend to be a little easier to perform than pull-ups for most people."

Safety Considerations

Chin-ups shouldn't be attempted by anyone who hasn't already been working on building up strength in their upper body. Additionally, chin-ups aren't a fit for anyone who has an injury to their shoulders, wrists, upper back, or elbows. Josh warns that "pregnant women without assistance should also avoid this exercise."

The Takeaway

Chin-ups are a body-weight exercise, but they're a much more difficult one than other body-weight exercises like sit-ups or lunges. To do a chin-up, you use a pull-up bar to lift your body up with the strength of your back, arms, and other upper-body muscles. Chin-ups are very similar to pull-ups, but they differ in hand position. For pull-ups, your hands face you, and that makes the move slightly easier to do than a chin-up. If you're interested in trying chin-ups, be sure to have already invested time in strength training, and do not attempt them if you are pregnant or have suffered any injuries to your shoulders, wrists, elbows, or upper back.

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