Let’s start with some history. On July 16, 1956 President Dwight D. Eisenhower created the President’s Council on Youth Fitness in response to a study which found that European kids were more physically fit than American kids. This was followed in 1966 when President Lyndon B. Johnson enacted the Presidential Physical Fitness Award. One the exercises tested to earn the coveted award was the chin-up. It was a good choice.
The chin-up is one of the best all-around exercises for the upper body, involving the latissimus dorsi, teres major, posterior deltoid, rhomboids, the sternal portion of the pectoralis major, the lower portions of the trapezius, and the elbow flexors. If you look at the physiques of gymnasts, especially male gymnasts who compete in the still rings, you’ll see that they have especially impressive upper back development. But chin-ups are not just for gymnasts and bodybuilders. A wide variety of sports require strength in these muscles, particularly sports that involve powerful upper-body pulling actions, such as judo and wrestling.
It’s important before I go any further to explain the difference between a pull-up and a chin-up, as the two exercises are often confused. A chin-up is performed with your palms facing you (supinated grip) and a pull-up is performed with your palms facing away from you (pronated grip). How the hands are positioned influences which muscle groups are emphasized in chin-ups. For example, chin-ups with your hands about six inches (15 cm) apart will emphasize the biceps brachii, while pull-ups with the same hand spacing will focus more on the brachialis and brachioradialis. Performing the exercise with a parallel grip (so that your palms face each other), increases the stress on your rhomboids and lats. And the percentage of recruitment of the brachio-radialis increases at the expense of the other elbow flexors.
The pull-up is often the overhead pulling strength test most used in the military/law enforcement Worlds to assess climbing strength. Makes sense, try climbing a wall with a supinated grip.For example, a leading US federal agency asks candidates to its counter assault team to be able to do 4 pull-ups with a 40 kg load on the back, which represents the tactical gear commonly worn on missions. Candidates must be able to perform that test before they do any shooting proficiency test. In other words, if you can’t pull yourself up into an hovering helicopter with your tactical gear, you are of no use to the unit.
A study about the differences between pull-ups and chin-ups, using EMG analysis, was published in the December 2010 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. The researchers found that both variations of the exercise were initiated by the lower trapezius and pectoralis major, and then completed by the biceps brachii and latissimus. The major differences are that chin-ups more strongly activated the pectoralis major and biceps brachii than the pull-up, whereas the pull-up more strongly activated the lower trapezius than the chin-up. To this I would add that pull-ups work the forearm muscles more and tend to put less stress on the wrists and elbows.
Further, the study found that both variations were initiated by the lower trapezius and pectoralis major, and then completed by the biceps brachii and latissimus. However, consider that because the lats are internal rotators of the shoulders, chin-ups are not a good exercise to reverse round shoulders.
Unfortunately, chin-ups have all but been abandoned by not only our physical education systems, but also the fields of personal training and strength and conditioning. There are “boot camp” programs that promote chin-ups/pull-ups which is great, but I have some issues with the ways these are being performed.
The popular trend in these programs is to use momentum to perform the exercise in a kipping manner, and as a result not all areas of the strength curve will be developed adequately. Further, these types of chin-ups are extremely stressful on the joints, and could contribute to shoulder impingement syndromes and especially injury to the long head of the biceps.
Regardless of the type of chin-up or pull-up performed, the legs, torso and upper arms should remain in alignment throughout the exercise – don’t pull your knees up to try and complete a final rep. What you want is to recruit the most muscle mass and work the muscles throughout the fullest range of motion possible. At the start of the exercise, the arms should be fully straightened and the rhomboids at maximal stretch as well.. The motion should begin with the scapulae, following by the combined bending of the elbows and extension of the upper arms., and should finish with a full contraction of all the muscles at the end of the exercise. Regarding breathing, the trainee should inhale as he or she begins pulling, and then exhales as they lower themselves.
Performing a single chin-up requires a base level of strength, and women and heavier persons of both sexes may not have enough strength to perform multiple repetitions properly. The solution is to develop adequate base chin-up strength by having a spotter assist the trainee with the concentric portion exercise. The trainee bends their knees while the spotter lift the ankles with just enough assistance to enable them to clear the bar; the trainee could just bend one knee keeping the other leg straight, but care must be made to avoid twisting during the exercise. Another option is to perform negative chin-ups, which means the trainee climbs onto a bench so that he or she can start the exercise with the chin over the bar, and then lowers their body slowly. When a trainee can lower themselves to a count of 30, they should be able to perform one regular chin-up without assistance.
If you’ve neglected chin-ups in your workout, I recommend using a progression series I designed many years ago for the Women’s Canadian National Ski Team. In 11 weeks, this program increased the average number of chin-ups these young women could perform from zero to 12 reps! Here is the program:
1. The first progression uses a spotter and starts by hanging from the chin-up bar with the knees bent. During the ascent, the spotter should support you by holding your ankles. If extra assistance is required during this phase, you can extend your legs against the spotter’s base of support. Once you’re able to perform 12 repetitions in this style with minimal assistance, you’re ready to move on to the next progression.
2. In the second progression the same starting position is used, but this time only one ankle should be in the spotter’s hands – the extra weight of your free leg will increase the overload on the muscles. When you can perform 12 repetitions with minimal assistance, you can move on to the next level.
3. In the third progression the exercise is performed in the same manner, but this time the spotter will hold you at your waist. As your strength increases, you will find that you require assistance only in certain parts of the exercise. At these parts of the movement your spotter should offer only enough assistance to help you clear the bar.
When you can perform the full range of movement without any assistance, you’re ready to use additional resistance. An increase in overload is accomplished by using the following methods:
1. Holding a dumbbell between the ankles
2. Wearing a power hook attached to a weightlifting belt
3. Wearing a chin/dip belt with weights attached to it. Tree climbing belts are the best option, especially when a loading pin is fastened to the belt hooks by chains
Unfortunately, somewhere in the evolution of physical education, bodybuilding and strength coaching we got distracted and forgot about chin-ups – just as we have forgotten about other great exercises such as the deadlift and the standing military press.