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. Hey there Rusty.

    My friend told me about your site, it’s excellent.

    Slight problem here, My rear delt is hunched. It’s like the shoulder blades are pulling towards front.
    I’ve been doing rear delts and also rowing as well so that they could pull back. I’m even doing chest and back in one day so it could the work. But It’s not really showing any obvious results.
    What should I do, I’m desperate, I’ve also strecth proper my pecs but still.

    What should I do Rusty. Thank you.

  2. Brad,

    I’m glad you have experienced a “mental shift”. I changed my way of thinking about working out almost 9 years ago now. I am not impressed by bodybuilders at all anymore. I am much more impressed by the physiques and physical accomplishments of “special forces” in the military, high level masters of martial arts, middle weights in boxing, gymnasts, etc.

    In a military engagement, big bulky guys are toast. They simply aren’t quick enough to head for cover, climb over and under things, can’t run for long periods of time, etc. I don’t plan on being in a battle any time soon, but it does give you a better perspective when you workout to realize that you are better equipped in a life or death situation.



  3. Rusty, that is a really good article about pullups and chinups and I enjoyed reading many of the posts and you’re responses. So much good stuff here!
    I really enjoy my workouts again since I’ve been reading your articles. I never realized before that you can improve muscle density without adding size. I always thought that if I wasn’t trying to add muscle size then my workouts were just a waiste of time.
    I really focus on functional strength now more then ever. Chinups, pullups, dips, pushups etc……. These are great exercises and I never seen any of the bodybuilders in my gym doing these. It is more impressive to see guys who can do 50 pushups or 20 chinups then a guy who can bench 300 pounds once or twice.
    You have forever changed the way I workout and my attitude towards each workout. Seriously can’t thank you enough!
    I also love the 21 day workout you gave to Gators. I can’t wait to try that sometime this summer. I will wait until I know when and where I’m going on vacation and then I will do that exact workout for 21 days along with my healthy diet. I’d imagine that will really put my body over the top and lose any stubborn bodyfat that I still might have.
    Thanks again Rusty, great stuff!

  4. Hulbs,

    I am a long-armed guy like yourself. Pull ups are tough when you have such a large range, but they are worth the effort. I also notice that my abs get a bit sharper when I do a lot of chin ups in my workout. They are a really solid exercise.


  5. Hi Rusty,

    3 months ago when I was 198 pounds (90kg) and quite weak i hated these exercises and would sometimes do them on the assisted wide grip chin machine (palms facing away) needing at least 85 pounds of assistance by the machine.

    Now i’m at 173.5 pounds and relatively a lot stronger and it’s great that I can actually do 4 reps unassisted on the wide grip chins (palms away) or 6 reps unassited with shoulder width pull ups (palms towards). I now love these exercises and my functional strength is a lot better than most of the’big guys’ at our gym. They are also starting to give me that V shape i’ve always wanted, and given that i’ve gotten my waist down to 30″ (from about 34″) it doesn’t take much muscle or much shoulder width to get a decent V i’ve realised.


  6. Staki,

    The best way to build up the shoulders a bit is to do overhead presses of any sort. Go as light as you want and add weight as you get stonger. You could buy those really light dumbbells at any sporting good store until you get stronger.

    You could also do really light lateral raises.

    That should do the trick!


  7. Hi,
    I have a question, great article, this is kind of off topic, but I want to build up my shoulders without getting them too wide. I bought power tubes (the light ones–as you can see I am weak), and doing the shoulder press was a bit hard. How can I widen my shoulders by using the power tubes or even without them? I saw different exercises, and they have biceps too, or other upper body parts and I just want to focus on my shoulders. Thanks so much for your help.

  8. David,

    You will actually get 90% of the way there the first 3-6 months. The last 6 months, you physique will go from great to outstanding…you don’t have to wait 12 months to look good…it jut takes a while to look amazing.

    I get WAY more done now that I’ve dropped eating throughout my day. I was just reading Ori’s newest version of The Warrior diet. I saw it at Border’s books for $18, so I picked up a copy yesterday. He believes that people who eat this way have clearer thinking, or more creative, more energetic, and happier (no blood sugar mood swings). I am beginning to agree with him.


  9. (Longest run-on sentence on your blog..lol).

    Awesome. So really he is an example of the type of physique you reccomend. I feel good doing the strength training. It’s only been 5 weeks but already I am seeing results! More tone and definition without bulk. 12 months is a long time when your statring out, but I’m gonna be working out that whole time anyway, just a case of wanting the results instantly…lol.

    I have been trying my own version of the Warrior Diet over the last 3 weeks. I workout in the morning so I have porridge and a protein shake afterwards. Then I just have fresh fruit or vegetable juice or fruit during the day then my main meal in at night. I feel I have more energy. I have also noticed how free my mind feels not having to constantly think about my next meal or snack.

    Have you noticed this?

  10. David,

    Jared is the classic example of a guy who watches his diet and does a lot of cardio. Judging by his physique he is a guy who obviously has gained all the muscle that he wants and now focuses on staying lean. I actually think his band, 30 Seconds to Mars, has a couple of decent songs.

    So to answer your question, once you are satisfied with all the muscle you want, you can begin working on making your physique exceptional. Over time, if you don’t increase your body size…you will increase your muscle density…especially if you focus on getting stronger without gaining mass (like an Olympic gymnast).

    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).

    So…workout under a slight calorie deficit and include cardio, with the goal of gaining strength and performance without adding size…in 12 months you will be transformed.


  11. Sorry I forgot to say that he had improved his physique since being in ‘Fight Club’. THe movie I’ talking about (‘Highway’) would have been made about 3 years after ‘Fight Club’. Yeah so just wondering.

  12. Rusty,
    I was wondering if you could help me out here?
    I have been doing the strength training programme and took the advice you gave me. I was wondering is it possible to over train where your not damaging the muscles by training to failure? I do a two day split, lifting weights 6 days per week with Sunday off.

    Also a bit off topic. I watched a movie over the holidays called ‘Highway’ (2002) with Jared Leto and Selma Blair. I’m a big fan of ‘Fight Club’, so that is why I couldn’t help but notice that Jared is in seriously good shape, even more so since he is a vegetarian. He seems to have improved his body some how, without getting bulkier, but more streamlined. Any ideas on what he might have done to get that kinda result?

  13. Ron,

    I can’t even do a handstand and hold that in place. Doing handstand push ups is something to aim for!


  14. I guess great minds do think alike! I started doing chin ups last week. It makes sense that the old school ways of building strength still work. Not like we have changed drastically on a physiological level in the last 30 years.

    I’m looking forward to becoming stronger without getting bulkey in 2008!

  15. Jeff,

    Great idea with the back pack! I never thought of that before, but that is perfect for weighted chins and dips. I am all about getting out of the gym and living life. There are a much bigger variety of people outside of the gym.


    I completely agree with your mental state being extremely important. To be honest, over 1/2 the reason you want to be in great shape is so that you “feel” more desirable. If you feel confident and attractive, then she will see you that way as well. We actually project a lot of how people see us. Kick butt and get in awesome shape buddy!



  16. Cheers Rusty
    hope you had a great NYE…that’s an awesome workout! i’ve never done 21 days straight before, especially with loaded cardio so i’m going all out..i look forward to it starting today. i’m also hoping it’ll take my mental state to a new level of confidence…this is actually what i hope she’ll notice the most, if that makes any sense…i think a lot of times it comes down to how you hold yourself and the aura you project, not so much how you look…we’ll see! will keep you posted how it goes now the countdown has begun….

  17. Rusty, another great post! What I love about the ideas on this site are that many can be done outside of the gym! I love doing pullups/chinups-the best upper body exersise-barnone (pun intended). A tip for those who can do more than 10 reps is throw a dumbbell into a backpack if you don’t have one of those weighted vests/belts. I’ve found this to be very helpful with creating muscle-density. Who needs a gym when you have a pullup bar and determination. Here’s to 2008!

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