Why You Should Include Chin Ups and Pull Ups In Your Workout Routine

I forgot how great chin ups work the upper body. Recently, the lat pull down machine in my gym was taken, so I walked over to the power rack and decided to do chin ups instead. I did 5 sets of 5 reps at a slow tempo to really get the best out of the exercise. By the last set my forearms, biceps, and back were on fire! The next day, my entire upper body was a bit sore including my abs.

fit man performing chin ups outside
[A guy performing wide grip pull ups outside]

What is the Difference Between a “Chin Up” and a “Pull Up”?

Basically you will get slightly different answers depending upon who you ask. I consider it a “pull up” when your palms are facing away from you (like in the picture) and a “chin up” when your palms are facing you, or facing each other. I really prefer the chin up version the best, because it seems to give you the best leverage and works your arms more than pull ups. That being said, both chin ups and pull ups work very well. They are both wonderful exercises.

Don’t Chin Ups and Lat Pull Downs Work the Same Muscles?

You would think so, since they visually look like your muscles are moving though the same range of motion. The biggest difference is that chin-ups are a “closed chain” exercise (your body is moving toward resistance) and lat pull downs are an “open chain” exercise (resistance is moving towards your body). The muscle recruitment patterns are extremely different for these two types of exercises. It has been show that closed chain exercises like chin ups will work the muscles harder than open chained exercises.

I Used To Avoid Chin Ups at All Costs

I’m 6’3″ tall, so I’m not the ideal build for doing chin ups or pull ups. My range of motion is huge, so the first time I tried adding these I struggled big-time! My workout partner at the time was 5’8″ tall and he could jump on a bar and do 10-12 reps and these reps looked easy for him. At the time I tried doing them I was into the bigger muscle look, so I also weighed closer to 225 (now I weigh 185-190). Anyway…I finally began doing chin ups every workout. Within 6 months, not only did my back look much more defined, so did my arms. The thing that surprised me the most was how much better my abs looked after doing chin ups for six months…in fact, most guys and girls I have run into who do a lot of chin ups have decent abs.

The Proper Way to Perform the Basic Chin Up

I really believe the best version is the basic underhand shoulder width or slightly narrower (I prefer a bit narrower) than shoulder width grip. Lean back a touch and inhale. Pull until your chin clears the bar and then go back down. Exhale as you descend back down. Go all the way to the bottom where your arms are fully extended and straightened.

Avoid Poor Form and the Use of Wrist Straps

When you perform a chin up, you don’t want to kick your legs or engage the hip flexors (unless you are doing L-Chin Ups). The legs should stay in line with the torso. You can bend your legs at the knees, just make sure your body and thighs form a straight line. Throw away your wrist straps! Seriously…there is no place for them in a good workout. One of the great benefits of lifting is getting defined forearms and functional strength. I don’t think you should train with any weights that you can’t grip. Your grip will improve in time, so ditch the wrist straps.

What If You Are Too Weak to Perform Chin Ups?

I’m all for low reps, so I typically don’t do any more than 5 reps. I get a great workout with 3-4 sets of 5 reps. I perform these in an extremely slow and controlled manner and squeeze the hell out of my arms, lats, and entire torso. If you have a tough time performing 5 reps, then a spotter can help you up by cupping his or her hands. You place your foot in one of their hands and get help on the way up by pushing off with your foot. An alternative is the special weight assisted machines that help with chins…you put your foot on a platform or bar that “lifts” you a bit to make the reps easier.

What If You Can Easily Do 5 Reps?

If you can do 5 reps of chin ups without even straining, then you have a few options. A friend of mine does them last in his back workout after he has completed 5-8 sets of rowing exercises. Normally 5 reps is easy for him, but his muscles are fatigued a bit by doing theses last, making chin ups tough. An alternative is to perform chins with a weighted belt (a lot of gyms have these). You basically put a belt around your waist that has a chain to add weights.

Tons of Ways to Add Variety to Chin Ups and Pull Ups

You can use an over hand grip, a parallel grip, one arm chin ups, wide grip chin ups, weighted chin ups, etc. I would recommend sticking with one version and getting the most of that version before moving on to a variation. Arthur Jones (inventor of Nautilus) believed the best grip was a medium parallel grip (palms facing each other). Supposedly, this gives your body the most leverage and puts your arms and back in the strongest position. Most gyms have this sort of chin up bar, so give this one a try.

Experiment With Reps, Tempo, Etc…

For me, 5 super slow reps really does the trick…that doesn’t mean that 5 reps is the best for everyone. You don’t necessarily have to go slow either. I just hopped on to Youtube and saw a bunch of great variations. Here is a guy who is doing the “L chin up” and is releasing the bar in between reps. The L chin up is a great one for the abs, since they have to remain flexed to a certain degree to hold the weight of your legs forward. Releasing the bar in between reps has to be amazing for building forearm density!


[This guy has a thick shirt on, but you can tell he is in tremendous shape]

In Case Regular Chin Ups Get Too Easy!

[Looks like I have some work to do!]

Spend Some Time Building “Functional Strength”!

Chin ups and pull ups are all about building functional strength. You can get really strong at “lat pull downs”, but it doesn’t translate into being strong at pulling your body weight. The reason the military puts so much emphasis on pull ups and chin ups is these exercises build functional “pulling muscles”. Anything that involves gripping, pulling or climbing is greatly made easier by being strong at chin ups and pull ups. They greatly improve the appearance of your back, abs, and arms as well.

58 thoughts on “Why You Should Include Chin Ups and Pull Ups In Your Workout Routine”

  1. Excellent blog,Rusty….Very informative.

    I am 5 ft 11 inches, and weight around 143 pounds. I have been working out a while.(I don’t have access to a gym). I am able to do 9 consecutive pull ups . Other than pull ups, I love doing push ups. Can you give me a routine for a week where I can include pullups, push ups and chin ups(if necessary.). Currently, I am doing pull ups and push ups on alternate days(no else exercise), with Sunday as rest.

    Thanks,
    Sajeev.

  2. Hi Christopher

    Try this to “find” your lats. Stretch your arms out to the sides, then bend your elbows to 90 deg. Move your arms back a bit, pushing your chest out and notice which muscles in your back contract.

  3. Hello. I love pull ups and chin ups, but I’m getting discouraged because I can’t seem to engage my lats when I do a pull up or chin up. I don’t know how. How exactly do you engage your lats when pulling yourself up? I feel it in my arms of course, and shoulders, but not my back. Any advice would be appreciated. Thanks,
    Christopher

  4. Great post. Body weight exersices should be a part of everyones workout. I think we rely too much on weights and machines.

  5. Hi Rusty,

    Thank you so much for your amazing blog posts. They are informational and at the same time inspiring to me!
    In many ways you have helped me by just being there.

    However, if it’s not too much to ask, I would like a little bit more advice on chin ups.
    I’ve started doing chin ups and started by using your low reps high volume style training 3 times a week for the past 2 months.
    My starting max reps were only 6 reps, but at the current moment, I can only push out 7 max reps.

    I am quite certain that I am using good form during each rep, but why is it that I cannot seem to drastically increase my max reps?

  6. Nice post, mainly the slow and controlled chin ups for 5 reps. Today is gym day and im definitely trying this. Im thinking 5 reps are doable (hopefully) lol but i know how much harder they will be in a slower motion.

  7. i had been working out with kettlebells pretty seriously for 2 years. I had found them to be a great for general fitness, functional strength and the posterior chain. Then this summer, I hurt my lower back trying to duplicate a kettlebell snatch with a dumbbell in the gym at work.

    So I backed off and started doing pull-ups and dips. Exercises I used to do a lot when I was in my early 20s (nearly 20 years ago) but had mostly done very sporadically as ‘finishing’ exercises at best. I was very pleasantly surprised how many muscles are taxed with pull-ups (and to a slightly lesser degree with dips). Even though I had been exercising quite regularly, I was surprised to see some of my muscles start to fill out again from doing ‘ladders’ with these exercises. I realized that there is a lot of ‘time under tension’ with a pull-up (and of course, your entire bw as resistance). And very little momentum compared to some of the kettlebell exercises & that there was a lot of utility to bringing these two exercises back into the routine!

    The other thing I noticed from doing the pullups regularly and keeping the volume up with ‘ladders’ is that as you keep doing the exercise, you start to get better and better at engaging the large muscles of the back and even the pecs into the exercise and your arms no longer become the weak link for the exercise. As I started to notice this – the reps started to climb right up!

  8. “The reason most guys don’t get a refined looking physique like Jared is that they workout in a way where the body grows at the same rate as their strength levels…this just creates a bigger version of their average looking physique (this might be the longest run-on sentence of my entire blog).”

    I think the key is that they are getting bulkier (added muscle but with equal or more gains in fat) as they are eating or drinking excess calories to maximize hypertrophy. Inevitably this leads to a bigger but softer look. With pro bodybuilders, this is fine because they will (and know how to) lean out for competition, but for regular folks, they just end up – as you said before – bigger versions of themselves.

  9. I feel like being a good person, so here’s a tip if you’re having trouble doing pull ups/chin ups:

    Start off at the top of the bar and perform negatives instead. (a chin down?) Negatives are easier but remember you’re trying to build yourself up to being able to do a full pull up, so don’t just drop like a rock (ow my sockets…). Go slowly and controlled. You can also do this for other exercises like tricep dips.

    There’s my good deed done for the week (:

  10. lol, i suck at benching, can’t even do 160 but when it comes to the back i can rock out like tons of chinups i could do a lot of chinups and pulups a day at when i was at 290 and i had tennis elbow at the time.

  11. Just wanted to say Rusty, that had it not been for your site to give me motivation….I would always have believed pullups were beyond my reach. Looking muscular yet fem was beyond. But wow. I can do pullups now.

    I couldn’t even do them in the Army!

    Thanks Rusty!

  12. Pull ups are king for upper back along with the bench press. I am now starting to do them with the weighted belt after doing them for 2 months with my own bodyweight. I suggest every serious trainee incorporate pull/chin ups in their programme!!

  13. BNY,

    I’m still going to recommend that you do them last. Your friend is probably saying that your back will be strongest if you work it first. I have never found that working the chest first makes me lift lighter when I get to the back lifts.

    I like the idea of leaving the gym in good posture. If the last thing that you do is pull your shoulders back, then that is going to enforce better posture than pulling them back for 20-30 minutes…and then pulling them forward right after by hitting chest right after.

    Just my two cents,

    Rusty

  14. Hi Rusty.

    As i know, we are recommended to do back after chest, so that the rear delt and rhomboids will pull back our pecs in odrer not to get hunched. And that’s what i do.
    But recently, my friend told me to do pull up first then do chest muslce. He said that the back will be more dominant then. It does not make sense to me.
    Is it true, or my friend just don’t what he’s talking about ?

    My neck is a bit hunched forward. Any idea what should I do? My neck is a bit long too.

    Thanks Rusty.

  15. Bob,

    One of the reasons I chose this split is that smaller muscles like biceps and triceps recover quicker than big muscles like chest and back. By doing the split like this your biceps get worked directly on shoulders and arms day…then they get worked indirectly on back and chest day. The same thing happens with triceps.

    Your arms are getting worked on a more frequent basis than your bigger muscles. It works out very well!

    Rusty

  16. Hey man, great article as usual. Incorporating pull/chin ups into my workout is something that I have gotten away from (I got too into doing lat pull down for mass), and this is definitely inspiring me to get back into them. I’m just trying to decide which days are best to do these exercises on. I want to start doing a split like yours, chest/back Mon and Thurs, and shoulders/arms Tues and Fri.

    Which and how many days do you think I should do pull ups and chin ups, since they both rely heavily on both your back and biceps?

    Thanks for the help Rusty!

  17. Jamie,

    Thanks for the compliment…and tell your friend “thanks”. You are doing the right things, it just doesn’t happen overnight. Make sure you put in a decent amount of time doing seated low pulley rows. Do the narrow grip, medium grip, and wide grip. Maybe you want to specialize in this for the next year or so. That will definitely help.

    Rusty

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