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Why Chin Ups Are The Most Powerful Exercise To Build Muscle & Core Strength

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 29 July 2014
Hits: 42860

Core Strength Training requires a great integration with lower body and upper body and possibly the best exercise for achieving this would be the CHIN UP! Many of the people we see when they first start training lack a considerable amount of upper body strength. And women find chin ups significantly more difficult than men. Funnily enough, this exercise is their most hated when they start, but becomes their favourite when they become good at it! Unfortunately, many people don't persist to learn good technique and build the strength to be able to lift your body which often leads to injuries and lack of ability, as many common movements such as lifting a box require strong upper body muscles. Just because pull-ups and chin-ups are hard, it doesn't mean women can't do them! In fact, you should be able to lift your own body with your arms. In nature, this sort of movement is very basic and in fact a matter of survival, in fact it mimics the skill of rock climbing!

Build Muscle & Tone Up

Chin ups are one of the most beneficial overall muscle and strength developers and are also one of the key exercises for most of the advanced sports stars. The Chin-up builds grip strength because your fingers, hands and forearms are all used. The amount of muscles on the job in this movement helps you to develop your biceps, triceps and shoulders, giving you powerful strength and superior muscularity. Muscles throughout the entire back are hit with enough stress to make them grow stronger. Additionally, your abdominal muscles are given a good workout due to the stabilisation needed through the entire core to stop your legs from swinging. Many people are very surprised to have very sore abdominal muscles the next day after doing a few sets of these for the first time.

The Chin-up is an exercise geared towards building the muscle mass of your latissimus dorsi, i.e. the broad back muscle that runs from the back of your shoulder to your lower back. This is the primary muscle responsible for that V-shaped look. Many people want to reduce the size of their waist, and the pull-up can certainly help you achieve that if you are eating a well balanced diet and consistently exercising.

It is obvious the exercise can build some serious muscle but how does this help you tone up and lose weight?

Unfortunately many females or endurance athletes still avoid building strength exercises into their daily routine out of fear of developing "bulging muscles", and becoming heavier. If you are female and reading this, understand that it is impossible for you to become big like a male as you lack the one important ingredient to do that: testosterone. Females have only 10% of the amount a male has and this is the most important factor you need to build muscle size. But apart from the fact chin ups are one of the best muscle-building exercises there is it is also one of the best fat-burning exercises also!

Always remember this fact:


Running, cycling, swimming and various cardio exercises are all great forms of exercise but they will not add muscle to you, in fact they will help you lose muscle faster! Adding muscles is very important if you want to tone up for it helps to increase your metabolic rate, regulating hormones and controlling blood sugars. The best part of adding muscle is it makes your body very inefficient, meaning it requires more energy to perform tasks resulting in an energy deficit that assists you in losing weight. Read our article "What is better? - Weight Training or Cardio" to see more detail on why exactly how this happens. 

Resistance training and other forms of resistance training are also a primary anti-ageing strategy and body weight exercises like push ups, step ups and lunges make up a big part of our Older Adults Training program. Lastly another great benefit with chin ups is that you don't need a lot of costly equipment. You can easily find a bar to pull yourself up on at any children's playground.

What If You Cannot Do A Chin-Up?

All this sounds great but the biggest problem with this exercise is that many people find it too difficult do perform even one single rep. No amount of psyching up or getting pumped will help if you simply do not have the strength or the power to weight ratio is stacked against you. As opposed to a lat pulldown exercise where you can adjust the weight lifted to your ability, the chin-up requires you to lift your entire body weight. This is another reason why many females avoid this exercise for they simply cannot do it.

This is where you can use large resistance bands to assist you or even a partner as I show you in the video below.

I like to use the resistance bands from Ironedge as they have several degrees of thickness with the bands so you can gradually work your way up to eventually nothing. I also vary how much help each band may provide by mixing up between using the foot or the knee in the loop. The knee is a lot harder with the same band but can be a great way to develop the necessary strength. I prefer the bands over the chin-up machines you see in some gyms as you learn the technique of using your whole body more effectively but most importantly the band only helps you in the sticking point. You will still need to do most of the work at the top of the movement where you are the strongest due to the muscle fibres being closed in together. 

Be Careful Of Your Shoulders & Always Use Good Technique

It's important to understand that more is not "better" when it comes to CHIN-ups. Proper form is key when performing these types of body-weight exercises—it's about the quality of your movement, as opposed to quantity. Never sacrifice technique to punch out more reps or you will pay a price for it later on. Chin-ups really do beat up the lats—and tight lats will cause shoulder trouble. This exercise can have a big effect on one of the small rotator cuff muscles, teres minor, which can also cause all types of problems around the neck and shoulder.

The funny thing with this exercise is it may not produce pain when you do it, but it will definitely be contributing to your injury if you are guilty of over-doing it. Loss of scapula upward rotation is a massive problem we see with many people with poor posture, winged scapula, and even sporting athletes in sports with throwing actions like tennis and cricket. In many of these cases these people have already developed tight lats from lack of activity and weakness or repetitive sports constantly using this powerful muscle. Adding chin-ups to their workout without addressing the stiffness and potential dysfunction around the shoulder is a recipe for disaster. Rotator cuff tears and shoulder impingements are never far away if you are not aware of this potential danger with this movement. I should know as I have been guilty of this myself.

You can read more about what to look for with good shoulder motion in the article - 3 Key Factors needed for optimal shoulder function

By slowing down your movement, you effectively reduce your reps, meaning the slower you perform the exercise, the fewer repetitions you will manage before your muscles fail. This is actually one of the keys to its effectiveness. The rep speed is therefore very important. The majority of the time, the appropriate speed is a slow count of: 3, 2, 1—pause—3, 2, 1—pause. Watch the two videos below with some good tips about technique.

Slower reps also help prevent injuries because as soon as you feel the first twinge of pain, you can stop before you hurt yourself. It also helps you link up your mind-muscle connection. If you find it that hard to even do one rep, then get someone to help boost you up, or use the resistance bands we mentioned earlier and just practice on coming down slowly. 

Here's a quick summary of key points to remember:

  • Place your hands on the chin-up bar, palms facing forward, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Keep your
  • legs slightly bent, and your knees together.
  • Focus on your latissimus dorsi, your back muscle, and feel the contraction as you're pulling yourself upward. It's not necessary to get your chin over the bar.
  • As you pull up, open up your posture by pushing your stomach forward and keeping your sternum high. (Visualizing pulling your elbows down through the floor can help you feel your back muscles more.) Pull up to the slow count of three, pause while squeezing your back muscles, then come down to the slow count of three.
  • Between reps, let yourself hang while looking down and relaxing, to allow the latissimus dorsi to pull away from your scapula.
  • Make sure all your movements are slow and controlled.

If you do have a shoulder injury and suspect the chin-up is to blame I suggest getting a copy of our special shoulder pain report below that details how to assess and correct this injury. Click here to see more.

Change Your Grip Position

By varying your grip positions you can accomplish muscle confusion, which will help you build more muscle and increase fat loss. Also many people may not be aware that a chin-up is when your hands are facing each other as shown in the first two pictures below, and the pull up is when the hands are pronated. I don't really think it makes much difference what you want to call the exercise as all the same muscles are used anyway but if you want to read more about this you can check out this article by Fitness Volt with a detailed definition of each.

The first position is a regular palm forward-facing grip. To vary your position, you can either change your hand grip, or the location of your grip—moving your hands closer together on the bar, or further apart. Another alternative grip is to place your hands on the bar with palms facing toward you. This grip can be difficult for some however, depending on the range of motion of your forearm. Yet another strategy to induce muscle confusion is to use mid range motion; instead of pulling yourself all the way up, stop about half-way. Hold there for a couple of seconds, and feel the warmth between your shoulder blades as you squeeze the muscles. These are just some of the small changes you can make to really change things up.

Make sure you check out the bottom of the page to get a copy of our report that gives you over 100 different workouts to take your training to new level.


Now you have quite a few tips to get you started on doing more chin ups and get that chiselled and toned physique you always wanted. Remember exercise alone will not get the athletic toned appearance you are looking for, or improve your sporting performance, you MUST apply a health strategy that is more than just working out. You must eat good healthy nutrition, reduce your stress, get to bed on time and drink plenty of water. Exercise is only worth about 10-15% of what is needed.

The main point to get out of this article is that you need to use resistance training as your key exercise strategy regardless of your goal, and one of the best exercises you can use is undoubtedly the CHIN UP!

Don't forget to stretch your latissimus dorsi after your workout and the following day to prevent any unwanted stiffness creeping in. Below is a quick video of my preferred way to stretch the lats.

Do You Want More Ideas On How To Create Great Workouts Using Chin Ups?

If you really love your chin ups but find it is hard to make it more interesting or get more out of it then you need to really change your workout methods. This is one mistake I see so many people make with their training, NEVER CHANGING SETS, REPS & TEMPO. With chin ups you can add weight vests, or weight plates attached to a belt around your waist but I find this makes it hard to get many reps out and can even cause shoulder and elbow problems later on. To make it harder you don't always need to add load. By using supersets, change in tempo, giant sets, and various other advanced programming methods you can create massive muscle and strength growth.

Late in 2016 I put pen to paper to show just how many variations of workouts you can actually use exploring all the variables of muscle size, maximal strength, power, endurance and even core or movement skill focus. I put together a massive PDF report called The Little Black Book Of Training Secrets with over 150 pages of workouts with instructions, exercise examples and basically everything you need to know about creating the best strength program. Chin ups featured a lot in all of the hardest workouts for the simple reason they are a great exercise!

To get your copy click here

If you live in Melbourne and would like to know more about our Personal Training Programs fill in the form below and I will be in touch with you within 24 hours to schedule a Free Health & Fitness consultation.

About The Author

Nick Jack is owner of No Regrets Personal Training and has over 15 years’ experience as a qualified Personal Trainer, Level 2 Rehabilitation trainer, CHEK practitioner, and Level 2 Sports conditioning Coach. Based in Melbourne Australia he specialises in providing solutions to injury and health problems for people of all ages using the latest methods of assessing movement and corrective exercise.


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