Illustration of a man doing chin-ups (back view)

Chin-ups are a great lift for your upper back, abs, and grip strength. They’re even a great lift great for improving your cardiovascular fitness. What they’re most famous for, though, is building absolutely killer biceps.

In fact, the only other lift that’s as good for bulking up our biceps is the biceps curl. But given that curls are a smaller single-joint movement, they’re better thought of as an assistance lift to the chin-up anyway.

The chin-up is one of our Big 5 bulking lifts, and in this article we’re going to go over the best strategies for integrating it into your bulking routine, getting the most muscle mass and strength out of it as possible.

In this article, we’ll cover:

  • How to bulk up your arms, back and abs with the chin-up.
  • Whether you should use a neutral grip, overhand grip, or underhand grip as your main chin-up variation.
  • How to assess your weaknesses and then fix them.
  • The best assistance lifts for improving your chin-up strength.
  • How to use accessory lifts, such as biceps curls and rows.
Illustration of a man doing a chin-up.

Chin-Ups Versus Pull-Ups

The difference between a chin-up and a pull-up is simply the grip. A chin-up is done with an underhand or neutral-grip, whereas a pull-up is done with an overhand grip, like so:

Illustration of the difference between chin-ups and pull-ups

However, changing the grip changes the dynamics of the lift by a surprising amount. The chin-up is a heavy compound exercise that works many different muscles at once, whereas the pull-up is a lighter assistance exercise that’s best at targeting the lats.

There are a couple of reasons that the chin-up is so much bigger. First, the underhand grip allows our biceps to contribute far more to the lift, which means extra weight lifted. And second, the chin-up uses a larger range of motion.

If we look at the EMG research of Bret Contreras, PhD, we can see the differences in muscle activation.

Muscle Activation in a Bodyweight Chin-Up

  • Biceps: 43 mean, 100 peak
  • Lats: 81 mean, 133 peak
  • Mid Traps: 32 mean, 71 peak
  • Lower Traps: 45 mean, 101 peak

(These numbers are from the underhand chin-up, but they’re comparable to what you see with neutral-grip and gymnastic-ring chin-ups.)

Muscle Activation in a Bodyweight Pull-Up

  • Biceps: 28 mean, 66 peak
  • Lats: 86 mean, 151 peak
  • Mid Traps: 28 mean, 63 peak
  • Lower Traps: 33 mean, 87 peak

So what we’re seeing here is that the chin-up is 52–54% better at stimulating the biceps, 16–36% better for the lower traps, and 13–14% better for the mid traps. But then when it comes to the lats, pull-ups pull ahead by 13–14%.

It’s worth noting that another study found that pull-ups were better at activating the lower traps (study), so I’m less confident about the upper/lower trap differences between the two.

Anyway, we can see that chin-ups stimulate more overall muscle mass, it’s just that pull-ups are better for the lats, right? But here’s what everyone forgets: because chin-ups engage more muscle mass, people are usually much stronger at them. So to get a fair comparison, we need to compare weighted chin-ups and weighted pull-ups, each weighted to the same percentage of a person’s 1-rep max.

In Contreras’ case, he was able to do chin-ups with 90 pounds around his waist, pull-ups with 45 pounds. At that point, because of the heavier weights being used, the difference in lat activation disappeared. And then, of course, the difference in biceps and trap activation becomes all the starker. The chin-up goes from being 53% better for the biceps to being 60%+ better. It becomes a much better lift.

There’s more research we can look at, too. If we look at a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, we see that the chin-up uses an extra 8° of range of motion in the elbows when compared against the pull-up, which makes it even better for the biceps. Furthermore, chin-ups are initiated with more help from the chest than pull-ups (study).

So it’s clear that chin-ups are the bigger compound lift. They stimulate more muscle growth in more overall muscle mass with no real downside, even to your lats.

However, it’s true that pull-ups will force your lats to work proportionally harder than your other muscles. As a result, if you’re having trouble growing your lats, you might find that the pull-up helps you better target them. In that case, you might want to add some pull-ups into your routine, ideally as an assistance exercise to your chin-ups.

There are other reasons you might choose pull-ups as well. Perhaps the underhand grip gives you elbow pain, whereas the overhand grip does not. Although in that case, I’d usually recommend an angled or neutral grip instead of an overhand grip.

So what’s the difference between chin-ups and pull-ups? chin-ups are a bigger (and better) compound exercise than pull-ups. They’re heavier, they use a larger range of motion, and they’re better for your biceps, traps, and upper chest. However, pull-ups still have a role for people who have trouble stimulating their lats.

Muscles Worked by the Chin-Up

As covered in the last section, chin-ups are incredible for bulking up your back and biceps. But chin-ups will also work your other forearm flexors, both in your upper arms (brachialis) and forearms (brachioradialis). And they’ll work your grip, your upper chest, your rear delts, and even your abs. In fact, they’re one of the very best ab exercises, easily beating out crunches and sit-ups (reference).

Illustration of the muscles worked by the chin-up (and pull-up)
Chin-ups are the biggest upper-body lift.

This makes chin-ups one of the biggest compound lifts, and certainly the biggest lift for your upper body.

However, chin-ups still aren’t a complete back exercise. After all, they won’t grow your upper traps or spinal erectors, both of which are big and important muscles. That’s where the deadlift comes in, hitting all of the muscles that the chin-up misses.

With chin-ups and deadlifts, you’ll be able to build a truly fearsome back. Add in some smart assistance and accessory lifts, such as rows and curls, and men will cower before you. Or, rather, cower behind you.

Do chin-ups train the triceps? Yes, chin-ups work the triceps similar to how a pullover works the triceps. But no, chin-ups won’t train your triceps hard enough to cause any muscle growth.

Your triceps run into the same problem while doing chin-ups that your hamstrings run into while doing squats: flexing at the elbow lengthens the long heads of the triceps while extending the shoulder shortens them. Flexing the long head of your triceps would, therefore, help your lats but interfere with your biceps. So your triceps will work, but they won’t work well.

Chin-Up Grip Width & Hypertrophy

There are a few different ways to grip the bar when doing chin-ups. We’ve already covered the difference between chin-ups (using an underhand or neutral grip) and pull-ups (using an overhand grip). And we’ve already covered why chin-ups tend to be better for building muscle. They have a larger range of motion and do a better job of engaging our biceps.

But there are a few different variations of the chin-up, each with their own pros and cons.

The Classic Underhand Chin-Up

The traditional way of doing chin-ups is to use a straight bar, and grip it with a shoulder-width underhand grip. This variation has a huge range of motion and does a good job of bulking up both our biceps and back muscles.

What’s interesting about using this underhand grip is that it puts a greater stretch on our biceps, improving muscle growth. However, this comes at the cost of our other elbow flexors (brachialis and brachioradialis) having a harder time contributing to the lift.

The Neutral-Grip Chin-Up

Neutral grip chin-ups are done with our palms facing one another. They require a special bar, but there are some notable advantages to them:

  • All of our elbow flexors (biceps, brachialis, and brachioradialis) are engaged instead of putting the emphasis on just our biceps. However, our biceps aren’t stretched quite as much, which may be a disadvantage for biceps growth.
  • Our shoulders are in a neutral position. This doesn’t necessarily make them safer, per se—all chin-up variations are fairly safe—but it makes them a good choice for people with cranky shoulders.
  • We can lift the most weight. With all of our elbow flexors engaged and our shoulders in a pleasantly neutral position, most people are able to lift more weight. And that’s great.

The Angled-Grip Chin-Up

Doing chin-ups with an angled grip is a happy middle-ground between the underhand and neutral grip. People tend to be quite strong at it, it’s still quite good for growing the biceps, and it’s easy on the shoulders. It’s a great choice.

Range of Motion

To perform a chin-up, you start by hanging from the bar with arms fully extended, from what’s called a dead hang. Then you explode out of the bottom, pulling yourself up with all of your might, and bringing your chest all the way to the bar.

Illustration of chin-ups done with a full range of motion: from a dead hang and bringing chest to bar.

It’s not a small isolation movement where you focus on keeping tension on the muscles or feeling the burn. It’s more like an upper-body deadlift. You reset at the bottom, gather your energy, and bring every ounce of force that you can muster into pulling yourself up.

The purpose of starting from a dead hang and bringing your chest to the bar is that you want to use the largest range of motion that you can manage. As a general rule, using a larger range of motion will improve your mobility, develop a more versatile kind of strength, and, of course, stimulate more muscle growth.

Now, to be clear, doing chin-ups with the largest possible range of motion won’t necessarily benefit your lats or your biceps. We’re actually going beyond their functional range of motion. Your lats will benefit from part of the extended range of motion, your biceps will benefit from another part of it, but the main reason you want that massive range of motion is that you’ll work dozens of other muscles along the way. At the bottom of the lift you’re going to need to bring in entirely different muscles to get you out of the hole. To pull yourself into the bar, again, more muscles will need to assist.

However, we don’t want to be too strict about range of motion, either. We don’t want to stop our sets as soon as we can’t touch our chests to the bar. That would be stopping too soon—long before our lats and biceps have been fully exhausted. That brings us to the next section.

Strength Curve

The strength curve of a lift is how challenging it is at various parts of the range of motion. This is important because our muscles only grow when they’re challenged, so if some parts of the range of motion are too easy, they won’t stimulate any muscle growth.

Most barbell lifts have a fairly similar (bell-shaped) strength curve, but pulling movements fall into their own unique category. When you’re training your back, you might notice that it’s relatively easy to get the weight moving, but then the last few inches become incredibly difficult. This is most pronounced with pull-ups and barbell rows, but it applies to chin-ups as well.

This isn’t because you have a strength imbalance that needs fixing, it’s because, first, the moment arms on most pulling exercises are longest at the top of the lift instead of in the middle (like the front squat) or at the bottom (like the bench press). Second, our muscles are able to contract far harder at the bottom of the lift (in the stretched position) than they are at the top (as they move towards full contraction).

There’s something else happening here, too. The lats, which are the main muscle we use when pulling, can’t bring the arms behind the body, meaning that with a lift like a barbell row, our strongest muscles can’t help us touch the barbell to our chests. Now, in some ways, that’s a good thing. Needing to use different muscles over the course of a single lift is one of the benefits of lifting with a large range of motion. I mean, why not build an even wider variety of muscles with that extra range of motion, right? However, since our lats are our strongest pulling muscle, if we limit how much we can lift based on how much weight our smaller muscles lift, then we won’t ever be lifting enough weight to challenge our lats, and our lats won’t grow.

Furthermore, it’s that bottom part of the lift—when our lats and biceps are stretched and we’re starting to pull ourselves up—that we stimulate the most muscle growth. It’s the bottom part of the range of motion that’s the most important.

Of all the pulling movements, the chin-up has one of the better strength curves, but even so, it’s normal to struggle to bring our chests all the way to the bar, and we shouldn’t necessarily stop our sets when that happens. After all, this is a chin-up, not a chest-up. As long as our chin clears the bar, it counts. (The same is true when we’re testing our 1-rep max. If our chin clears the bar, we’re all good.)

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with bringing our chests all the way to the bar. For most of our reps, that’s a great goal. In fact, if we’re trying to leave a couple of reps in reserve, we might indeed stop our sets when we can no longer touch our chests to the bar. We just need to be clear that not being able to bring our chests all the way to the bar doesn’t count as reaching failure yet.

Illustration of a man doing a chin-up with his chin over the bar but his chest not quite touching.

Point being, we should try to bring our chests all the way up to the bar when doing chin-ups, but we shouldn’t use that high standard to gauge whether we’ve reached failure. Failure is when we can no longer bring our chins all the way up to the bar. It is, after all, a chin-up.

Stretching Our Lats Between Sets

Recently, it’s been shown that stretching our muscles between sets may slightly increase muscle growth, perhaps by giving our muscles a bit of extra overall tension, and thus boosting our training volume a little higher (study). The research is still young, but so long as we aren’t stretching so painfully hard that we impair our strength, at worst it would have a neutral effect. Plus, since we’re stretching during our rest times, it won’t even increase the length of our workouts.

This technique, called interset stretching, involves stretching the prime movers of a lift for thirty seconds between sets to the point where we can feel a hearty but not painful stretch. If we stretch harder or longer, other research shows that it could start to impair our performance on subsequent sets, which would do more harm than good. We want to make sure that this stretching still allows us to lift just as heavy and hard as usual.

Illustration of a woman doing a full range of motion chin-up.

So in this case, what we want to do is stretch our lats between sets of pull-ups and perhaps barbell rows. Because our lats are often hard to bring close to failure during those back exercises, this can help give them a bit of extra stimulation, and so will likely give us some extra muscle growth.

Giving our lats a hearty but comfortable stretch for around thirty seconds between sets of chin-ups and rows could help boost muscle growth.

Best Chin-Up Variations

The best chin-up variations are just chin-ups using a different grip:

  • Underhand Grip (Classic): doing chin-ups with an underhand grip is perfectly good, and most people are fine with it. However, you might find that it hurts your elbows. One solution is to grip the bar deeper into your palm and to squeeze harder. Another solution is to use an angled grip.
  • Angled Grip: using an angled “EZ-Bar” grip will reduce the stress on your elbows while still engaging just as much muscle mass and allowing you to lift just as heavy. The only disadvantage is that you’ll need a special chin-up bar. But if you have access to one, this makes a good default.
  • Neutral Grip: you’d think that using a neutral grip would reduce biceps involvement while increasing brachialis involvement, but it doesn’t seem to. It seems to be just as good for our biceps. Some people also find that using a neutral grip allows them to use heavier weights, which would technically make this grip superior. Give it a try and see how it feels.
  • Gymnastic Rings (Rotating Grip): using gymnastic rings allows your grip to rotate freely, which is a neat boon. If you can lift a comparable amount of weight using gymnastics rings, they’re a great option.
  • Overhand Grip: as we’ve covered above, using an overhand grip reduces the range of motion, takes our biceps out of the lift, and reduces how heavy we can lift. However, these are fairly minor quibbles in the grand scheme of things. If using an underhand grip hurts your forearms and all you have is a straight chin-up bar, then go for it—it’s still a fantastic lift.
Illustration of a bodybuilding flexing his back and biceps.

However, it’s possible that you don’t have access to a chin-up bar or that you can’t do very many chin-ups yet. Here are some good ways to solve those problems:

  • Underhand Barbell Rows: if you do rows with an underhand grip, you’ll be working both your lats and biceps in a similar way to chin-ups. The downside is that the range of motion is cut in half, going from 180 degrees down to 90 degrees. On the plus side, though, you can do these with just a barbell, and you can load that barbell as heavy or light as you like.
  • Lowered Chin-Ups: if you aren’t strong enough to do a full chin-up yet, jump up to the bar (or use a stool), then slowly lower yourself down. The trick is to lower yourself slowly through the entire range of motion. Start with your chest at the bar and keep tension on your biceps and lats until you get all the way down to a dead hang. This will reliably build strength through the entire range of motion, allowing you to eventually progress to full chin-ups.
  • Band Chin-Ups: if you have a resistance band, you can tie it around the chin-up bar and then slip a knee into it. That will help launch you up from the bottom of the lift, hopefully giving you the momentum that you need in order to bring your chest all the way up to the bar. You can use progressively weaker resistance bands until you’re able to do unassisted chin-ups.
  • Assisted Chin-Ups: many gyms have an assisted chin-up machine. These are good, but they change the lift by quite a bit. Any other option is better.

Assistance Lifts

Illustration of a man doing a 3-point dumbbell row with one arm.
  • Pull-Ups: using an overhand grip removes your biceps from the exercise, but still works your lats and forearms just as hard. This will force you to use lighter weight, making the pull-ups quite a bit easier to recover from. It’s a good assistance lift for guys with lagging lats.
  • Underhand Lat Pulldowns: using an underhand grip while doing pulldowns is a great way to train the same muscles as the chin-up through the same range of motion, just with a lighter weight.
  • 1-Arm Lat Pulldowns: you do these by attaching a one-handed grip to a lat pulldown machine. They’re absolutely fantastic for your biceps, lats, and rear delts. If you haven’t tried these yet, I highly recommend giving them a shot.
  • Overhand Lat Pulldowns: these are great for emphasizing your lats and forearms, but keep in mind that the overhand grip won’t do a good job of engaging your biceps, and so you’ll need to use a lighter weight.
  • Underhand Barbell Rows: if your lower back and spinal erectors aren’t overly fatigued from your deadlifting, these are a good assistance lift for both your chin-ups and deadlifts. Be careful about fatiguing your lower back, though. There’s only so much it can take.
  • Dumbbell Rows: these are a fantastic lift for bulking up your lats and forearms. There are a bunch of different variations: 1-arm, 2-arm, chest-supported, with your hand resting on a bench, and so on. All of these variations are great, but the classic 1-arm dumbbell row with your hand on a bench is a good default.
  • Chest-Supported Rows: If your lower back is already getting beaten up from your deadlift training, this is a great way to train your upper back without stressing your spinal erectors even more.

Accessory Lifts

Illustration of. a man doing a barbell curl with an Ez-bar
  • Barbell and Dumbell Curls: biceps curls are a classic, no-brainer accessory lift for the chin-up. Your biceps are one of the main muscle groups being trained in the chin-up, and curls will do a great job of bulking them up. A lesser-known fact is that heavy biceps curls (especially with a barbell or curl-bar) are also great for your upper back, given that it needs to stabilize the weight.
  • Preacher Curls: preacher curls have the advantage of working our biceps harder in a stretched position, which seems to improve biceps growth by quite a lot. These are perhaps the best biceps isolation exercise. The downside is that they require a preacher curl bench, which brings us to …
  • Sissy Curls: if you don’t have access to a preacher curl bench, you can create a similar effect by leaning back when doing barbell curls. You do this by bending at the knees and ankles, not at the lower back. Here’s our guide to doing sissy curls. Again, because these challenge our biceps in a stretched position, they may stimulate more biceps growth than a standard curl.
  • Power Curls: power curls are similar to biceps curls, except instead of using strict form, you throw some hip drive in there. This will let you use heavier weights. The trick is to make sure that you’re contracting your biceps with full force all throughout the lift. Really try to accelerate that weight up. Then, to get the benefit of the heavier weight, lower the weight down under full control.
  • Pullovers: pullovers are great for training both your lats and the long head of your triceps, which will help you pull your elbows to your torso while doing chin-ups. You can do these with dumbbells until you get so strong that you need to use a barbell or curl-bar. These challenge our lats in a stretched position, making them a great lat hypertrophy exercise.
  • Texan Skullcrushers (aka heavy lying triceps extensions): if you add a pullover movement to your skullcrushers, you’ll engage both your triceps and lats. That turns skullcrushers into a great accessory lift for both the bench press and the chin-up. (This variation was popularized by Mark Rippetoe in the Texas Method.)
Cover illustration of the Outlift intermediate bulking program for naturally skinny guys.

If you want a customizable workout program (and full guide) that builds these principles in, then check out our Outlift Intermediate Bulking Program. Or, if you’re still skinny or skinny-fat, try our Bony to Beastly (men’s) program or Bony to Bombshell (women’s) program. If you liked this article, you’ll love our full programs.

Shane Duquette is the co-founder and creative lead of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, and has a degree in design from York University in Toronto, Canada. He's personally gained sixty pounds at 11% body fat and has nine years of experience helping nearly ten thousand skinny people bulk up.

Marco Walker-Ng is the co-founder and strength coach of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, and is a certified trainer (PTS) with a Bachelor's degree in Health Sciences (BHSc) from the University of Ottawa. His specialty is helping people build muscle to improve their strength and general health, with clients including college, professional, and Olympic athletes.

How to build 20 to 30 pounds of muscle in 30 days. Even if you have failed before

12 Comments

  1. Jeje on June 11, 2020 at 5:04 pm

    What is the best distance between the hands? Are close grip chin ups even better because they further increase the range of motion?

    • Shane Duquette on June 11, 2020 at 5:29 pm

      Gripping the bar about shoulder-width is a good default. With your arms hanging straight down, that would give you the largest range of motion. But you want to pick a grip width that you’re strong with and that feels good on your joints. If gripping the bar a little narrower or wider feels better or makes you stronger, go for it.

      Also, feel free to vary your grip width from phase to phase. For example, you could spend a couple of months with a moderate grip, then switch to a super close grip, then switch to overhand pull-ups. That might help to ward off plateaus, it could lead to more balanced muscle growth, and it will vary the stress on your joints (giving them a better chance to adapt/recover).

  2. John Norman on July 1, 2020 at 5:19 am

    I do pull-ups along the bar parallel, moving from side to side. First right hand in front, then after 10 swap to left in front, trying to touch my shoulder against the bar. It’s great for the core as well. I use this as a variation to stop any boredom.

    • Shane Duquette on July 1, 2020 at 8:26 am

      Variations like that can definitely be helpful and it’s a nice way to mix things up. Offset pull-ups can be good, too, where you pull towards just one arm at a time. The problem with moving along the bar with all of your muscles contracted is that you’d be training at very short muscle lengths, with your muscles fully contracted. When doing isometrics like that, you’ll build more muscle doing them at longer muscle lengths, with your muscles in a stretched position, as explained in our range of motion article.

      If it were me, I’d do offset pull-ups and chin-ups through a full range of motion instead.

  3. Winston on July 23, 2020 at 9:15 am

    Hi Shane,

    Just wondering what you might recommend as an alternative for performing a chin-up or pull-up from home without the bar. I currently don’t have one but would like to do some type of variation while I wait in the meantime with retail shipping being under pandemic delay, not to mention backorders.

    Many thanks!

    W.

    • Shane Duquette on July 23, 2020 at 10:27 am

      Hey Winston, you might like our article on bodyweight hypertrophy training. There’s no great alternative to the chin-up that you can do without any equipment, but the best might be an inverted row using the underside of a table, as explained in that article. Not quite the same as a chin-up, but you’ll still be able to build your back that way.

      If you have weights but not a chin-up bar, then other row variations would do the trick. Barbell and dumbbell rows. Pullovers can work well, too. Again, not quite the same as a chin-up, but you’ll be able to build a big back that way just fine 🙂

      • Winston on July 23, 2020 at 8:56 pm

        Thanks for the quick feedback, Shane; that at least gives me a starting point. I read through the article on hypertrophy training and with regards to reps, if I did a set that included say, the push-up, vertical push-up, squat, chin-up, and deadlift, would 3 sets of 8 repetitions be a good starting point, or should I do 3 sets of as many reps as I can get in as close to failure as possible? : )

        W.

        • Shane Duquette on July 24, 2020 at 9:07 am

          You always want to bring your sets within 0–3 reps of failure, and when doing bodyweight training, it’s usually helpful to push it even harder, especially if the rep ranges are higher. So, no, don’t cap it at 8 reps. Do as many reps as you can for each exercise, stopping just shy of failure.

          • Winston on July 24, 2020 at 9:47 am

            Thanks again Shane for the clarification! You do a really great job at keeping up with all of these blog questions, so hats off to you!

            For a beginner who is trying to bulk, it seems the logic here is that it is best to start with BODYWEIGHT hypertrophy before moving to FREE-WEIGHT hypertrophy training. Am I understanding that correctly from the articles?

            Coupled with stopping just shy of failure, will one naturally realize that it’s time to add weights when it takes longer and longer to reach just shy of failure? Now I’m wondering, is there any harm in doing both BODYWEIGHT + FREE-WEIGHT exercises simultaneously when starting out, or are they most effectively done in tandem?



          • Shane Duquette on July 24, 2020 at 12:40 pm

            My pleasure, man! 🙂

            No, no, beginners don’t need to start with bodyweight training. It’s more complicated and painful than free weights, so if you have access to lifting equipment, I’d definitely take advantage of it right from the very beginning. Free weights are popular for a reason. They really do make it simpler and more pleasant to build muscle. It’s just that not everyone has access to free weights. In that case, starting with bodyweight training is perfectly fine. It hurts and it’s a bit more finicky, yes, but it still yields comparable muscle growth, making it a totally valid option.

            If you have free weights, you can still do the better bodyweight exercises, yeah. Push-ups and chin-ups are great even when you’re training at a fully stocked gym.

            As for increasing the weight, if you have free weights that you can add weight to, you can add weight whenever you’re able to hit your rep goal. If your program says 3 sets of 10 repetitions, you can add weight whenever you can do 10 repetitions for all 3 sets. If you can’t add weight, try to add reps. If the reps get painfully high (or they’re above 40 reps), use a more difficult variation.



  4. Douae on August 7, 2020 at 7:01 pm

    Hey Shane, I am a seventeen teenage girl who wants to build muscle, get curvier and stronger. I’ve been doing cardio and a few bodyweight exercises in the last months while aiming for weight loss. I would appreciate if you inform me about where to start my journey as a female beginner on strength training and some tips to stay as lean as possible.

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