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 can develop comparable biceps size are curls. 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.
This article is bulking: It will grow over time. Occasionally we’ll trim off some fat. Stay tuned.
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:
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. To quote Contreras:
The weighted chin-up edges out the weighted pull-up in mean activity, and the weighted pull up-edges out the weighted chin-up in peak activity. Quid pro quo.Bret Contreras, PhD
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is what turns the chin-up from a good lat and biceps exercise into an amazing full-body exercise.
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.
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 the lift has an uneven strength curve. Your 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). In fact, if you’re trying to bring your chest all the way up to the bar, you may need to rely on entirely different muscles to get you there.
Now, that’s usually a good thing. The more muscle mass we can involve in our lifts, the better. Why not build a bit of extra muscle with that extra range of motion, right? It’s just that we don’t want to make the mistake of calling off our sets as soon as we stop being able to bring our chests to the bar. After all, this is a chin-up, not a chest-up. As long as your chin clears the bar, it counts. (The same is true when you’re testing your 1-rep max. If your chin clears the bar, you’re good.)
If you consider a rep “failed” when you can no longer bring your chest to the bar, then you’ll be stopping your set before your lats have failed. That’s not always bad, especially if you’re trying to leave a couple reps in the tank, but keep in mind that it’s that bottom part of the lift—when your lats and biceps are contracting while stretched under a heavy load—that’s best for stimulating muscle growth.
Point being, do try to bring your chest all the way up to the bar but don’t use that high standard to gauge whether you’ve reached failure or not. Failure is when you can no longer bring your chin all the way up to the bar. It is, after all, a chin-up.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Biceps 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)