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.
- What is a Chin-Up?
- How to Do Chin-Ups
- What Muscles Do Chin-Ups Work?
- The Best Chin-Up Variations
- The Best Chin-Up Alternatives
- How to Improve Your Chin-Ups
- How to Do More Chin-Ups
- How to Get Better at Chin-Ups
What is a Chin-Up?
The chin-up is a compound exercise that works our upper backs and biceps. It’s done by hanging from a bar with an underhand grip and then pulling your chin over the bar, hence its name.
The word “chin-up” is often used interchangeably with the word “pull-up,” but most experts use the different names to refer to two different lifts. The chin-up is done with an underhand grip, as shown above, whereas the pull-up is done with an overhand grip. We’ll talk about the differences in a minute, but the chin-up is a big compound exercise, whereas the pull-up is a much smaller lift.
With that said, you can do chin-up in a variety of different ways. You can use an angled bar or gymnastics rings to make them easier on your elbow joints. And you can do them with your bodyweight for as many reps as possible, or you can load them with weights and do heavy sets.
How to Do Chin-Ups
Chin-ups are a fairly simple lift. We grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder width, then we pull ourselves up. There’s a bit more nuance to it. For instance, it helps to brace your abs so that your torso doesn’t wobble around. But most people can learn the technique quite easily.
Here’s a tutorial video of Marco teaching the chin-up:
The trick with chin-up is that you need to be quite strong to do them, and the more you weigh, the stronger you’ll need to be. If you can’t do 2–3 full chin-ups yet, you can do lowered chin-ups instead, jumping up to the bar or using a stool, and then lowering yourself back down. You’ll still develop the same muscles and get the same benefits. (And we have more beginner strategies below.)
What Muscles Do Chin-Ups Work?
Main Muscles Worked
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).
This makes chin-ups one of the biggest compound lifts, and certainly the biggest lift for your upper body. But even so, 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 muscles, important for general strength, and contribute quite a lot to our appearance. That’s where the deadlift and barbell row come 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. You might have noticed that your triceps get sore from doing chin-ups, and that’s totally normal. Chin-ups work the long head of the triceps similar to how a pullover works the long head of the triceps. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the chin-up will work your triceps hard enough to build much muscle back there.
The long head of the triceps is a biarticular muscle that crosses both the elbow and the shoulder joint. It can extend the elbows, as in a skull crusher, and it can also extend the shoulders, as in a pullover. This means that when you flex our triceps during chin-ups, they pull your elbows back towards your torso, which helps, but they also open your arms, which hurts. As a result, we can’t fully engage our triceps for fear of interfering with our biceps. So the long head of your triceps will work, but it might not work enough to stimulate much muscle growth.
If you want to bulk up the long head of your triceps, chin-ups can certainly help, but skull crushers and overhead extensions are better bets. On the other hand, if you’ve already bulked your triceps up, chin-ups will be more than enough to maintain their size, and maybe even gain a bit of size.
- If you’re intentionally trying to build bigger triceps, it can help to include triceps isolation lifts like skull crushers and overhead extensions.
- If you’re focusing on other areas or building a minimalist workout routine, chin-ups and pressing movements are more than enough to maintain or make slow progress on your triceps.
The Best Chin-Up Variations
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 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.
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.
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.
Using gymnastics rings let’s your grip rotate freely as you do chin-ups. That tends to make chin-ups easier on our elbows, and it’s also fantastic for muscle activation. This is a great option.
Pull-ups are done with an overhand, wider grip. The thing is, using an overhand grip prevents the biceps from engaging, and using a wider grip shortens the range of motion. That’s why we use the chin-up as our default variation.
The advantage of pull-ups is that they work your lats just as hard as chin-ups, but with less work being done by your other muscles. So if you want a smaller assistance exercise that puts more emphasis on your lats than your biceps, pull-ups are great for that.
For more, we have a full article on chin-ups vs pull-ups, going over the differences in muscle activation and range of motion.
The Best Chin-Up Alternatives
We’ve already covered the best chin-up variations, including ones that are easier on our elbows and that emphasize different muscles. But sometimes people don’t have access to a chin-up bar. In that case, you can do rows, pullovers, and biceps curls. The row works many of the same upper back muscles as the chin-up, but the downside is that it doesn’t work our lats in a deep stretch, and it doesn’t do a very good job of challenging our biceps.
If we add in the pullover, we can challenge our lats in a deep stretch. And if we add in the biceps curl, we have an exercise that’s perfect for our biceps. So by combining the row, pullover, and curl, we have a combination of exercises that will help us fully develop our backs and biceps.
I realize that replacing a single exercise with three different exercises sounds like a pain, but keep in mind that even if you’re doing chin-ups, it still helps to be doing rows, pullovers, and curls. Variety is always a good thing.
How to Improve Your Chin-Ups
Using a Deep 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.
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.
How to Improve the 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.
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 Your 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.
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.
How to Do More Chin-Ups
As beginners, our strength on the chin-up is measured by how many bodyweight repetitions we can get. At first, we might only be able to do lowered chin-ups, or maybe grind out a couple hard reps. That’s when we’re focused on doing more chin-ups, adding more reps to each set we do.
There are a few ways we can work on that:
- We can do lowered chin-ups (a beginner variation). If you don’t have the strength to do full chin-ups, these will overload your muscles, stimulating quite a lot of muscle growth. These are especially valuable because they train the exact muscles that we need to do chin-ups. All of the strength you develop will improve your chin-ups.
- We can do exercises that work a similar movement pattern (assistance lifts), such as doing underhand lat pulldowns, band-assisted chin-ups, or using an assisted pull-up machine. These exercises aren’t quite the same as chin-ups, and they don’t work quite the same muscles, but there’s quite a lot of carryover. Most of the strength you gain will help you improve your chin-ups.
- We can do exercises that build muscle mass in the relevant muscles (accessory lifts), such as doing barbell curls for our biceps, pullovers for our lats, and barbell rows for our upper backs. Some of the strength you gain will improve your chin-ups.
So as a beginner, we want to focus most of our attention on doing a beginner variation of the chin-up, since it has the best carryover to our chin-up performance. After that, we want to use some assistance lifts, such as lat pulldowns. And then we want to spend a bit of time bulking up the relevant muscles, such as by doing barbell curls and pullovers.
So maybe every week, you work the following exercises into your workout routine:
- Lowered chin-ups: 4 sets of as many repetitions as you can do. Maybe do these twice per week, giving you 8 total sets per week.
- Lat pulldowns: 3 sets of 8 reps. Perhaps do these twice per week, giving you 6 total sets per week.
- Barbell curls: 2 sets of 10 reps, done just once per week.
- Pullovers: 2 sets of 10 reps, done just once per week.
Over time, you’ll get stronger at the chin-up, your reps will start to climb. When you can do 6–12 reps, you can start adding weight to your chin-ups. You don’t have to ever add weight, but since chin-ups are quite taxing, it can help to do them for 6–12 reps so that your cardiovascular system doesn’t start to limit your performance.
How to Get Better at Chin-Ups
Once you’re able to do at least 6 chin-ups in a row, starting from a dead hang and bringing your chin over the bar, you’re past the beginner stage. Now it’s not about doing more chin-ups, it’s about doing heavier chin-ups. Now we’re trying to get stronger at the chin-up. This is when we buy a dip belt (like this one) or start holding dumbbells between our legs.
To get stronger at the chin-up, we want to take the same approach that a beginner would take.
- Main variations: the best way to get stronger at chin-ups is to do more chin-ups. So we prioritize chin-up variations (straight bar, neutral grip, gymnastics rings, and so on). These give us the most bang for our buck, and all of the muscle and strength we can will directly make us stronger at the chin-up. (And they’re amazing for building muscle.)
- Assistance lifts: after we’ve done our heavy chin-ups, we do some assistance lifts, such as pull-ups, lat pulldowns, and rows. These will make us stronger in a variety of similar movement patterns, and most of the muscle we build will improve our chin-up strength.
- Accessory lifts: we also want to hit the relevant muscles from different angles and make sure that we’re giving all of them a chance to get close enough to failure. In this case, we have the biceps curl for our biceps and the pullover for our lats.
You don’t need to do all of these lifts every time you do chin-ups. You can spread them out over the week. Maybe you do chin-ups and curls on Monday, rows on Wednesday, and pull-ups and pullovers on Friday. That way you’re stimulating your muscles 3 times per week, which is perfect for building muscle, and you’re adding up enough sets per week to maximize your rate of muscle growth.
There’s plenty of room for customization, though, especially as you get more and more advanced. Let’s go over the pros and cons of the assistance and accessory lifts so that you know how to choose the ones that are best for you.
The Best Assistance Lifts
The best assistance lifts for the chin-up are pulling lifts that work our back and biceps at the same time, such as underhand lat pulldowns. The movement is very similar, but it’s a lighter and easier variation that isn’t as fatiguing, allowing us to sneak in some extra volume. We can also use assistance lifts like the pull-up or row to work our upper backs and forearms.
Here’s a more complete list of chin-up assistance lifts:
- 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.
The Best Accessory Lifts
The best accessory lifts for the chin-up are the ones that work our biceps or lats under a deep stretch. For our biceps, barbell curls are great for engaging our upper backs and forearms, whereas incline curls work our biceps in an even deeper stretch. Both are fantastic. For our lats, we want to look at lifts like pullovers and straight-arm pulldowns. Both of those challenge our lats in a deep stretch with a great strength curve. These lifts don’t engage as much overall muscle mass as the chin-up, but they’re perfectly ideal for bulking up our lats and biceps one by one.
Here are more examples of chin-up accessory lifts, along with their pros and cons:
- 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 skull crushers, you’ll engage both your triceps and lats. That turns skull crushers 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.)
The chin-up is perhaps the single best lift for bulking up our upper backs and biceps, and is one of the very best compound lifts for gaining overall muscle mass. There are many different ways of doing chin-ups, but the underhand chin-up is the heaviest variation that works the most overall muscle mass. The only variations that rival it are the neutral grip, angled grip, and gymnastics rings variations, all of which are similarly heavy and work the same muscles.
The pull-up is equally popular to the chin-up, but because it uses and overhand grip, it prevents our biceps from engaging. Because our biceps don’t engage, they don’t grow, and they also don’t help us lift more weight. So the pull-up becomes a smaller, more advanced lift. It’s still a great lift, but the chin-up is better for gaining overall muscle mass.
To get better at chin-ups, we want to focus most of our efforts on doing chin-ups themselves. (Or, if you can’t do 2–3 chin-ups yet, doing lowered chin-ups instead.) But we also want to use a wide variety of similar exercises, such as lat pulldowns and rows, and to work our muscles in different ways, such as with curls and pullovers. That’s how we build a balanced workout routine that will develop all of our muscles while making us stronger at the chin-up itself.
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.