Chin ups (or pull ups) are one of the most polarizing exercises in the gym – some people love them, most people hate them … from my experience how you feel is largely dependent on if you are good at them or not 😉 That said, chin ups are something that just about everybody wants to be better at, so I put together a few of the most important tips / details here. These tips will largely be focused on chin up technique, but before diving into the technique cues keep in mind the obvious: managing your body weight is one of the most important factors here, as well as just being generally strong, so make sure you’re addressing those things in addition to honing your technique.
1) Use a full range of motion on every rep
If you know me then you’ll know this is a huge theme of my coaching – do your exercise through a full range of motion with good control at both the bottom and top positions. If you want both strong muscles and healthy joints, then there is no denying you need to work through a full range of motion as your standard (partial reps have their place when done intentionally, but they should be the exception, not the rule, and never as a way of cutting corners). For chins ups, this means locked elbows at the bottom, and the lower half of your neck getting to bar-height at the top. A cue we use at Industrial Strength is to try to touch your T-shirt to the bar at the top. Also, it’s a good idea to briefly pause at both the top and bottom positions of all reps to establish control.
2) Control your core
Even though chin ups are primarily considered to be an upper body exercise, there is no excuse to just disregard your core and legs. There are a few options of what to do here, but my recommendation as your “default” is to maintain a cylinder or hollow position with your core, which takes a conscious effort. If ignored, what will probably happen is the front side of your body will “open up,” meaning the distance from your lowest rib to your hip pointer will increase, which results in weaker abs and less control of the motion. I advise you to manage the distance from your bottom rib to your hip pointer and keep it constant, it should be the same distance as when you are standing or doing a plank. One thing that will help this is thinking of keeping your feet out in front of you, rather than tucked behind you (if your pull up bar is too low this isn’t possible, so just do the best you can). Getting the core position correct is much easier said than done, and for many people it becomes one of the most challenging aspects of doing chin ups. If that sounds like you, then be sure to get in some extra ab work to supplement, and also keep an eye on your shoulder mobility / lat flexibility.
3) Incorporate your shoulder blades
Your shoulder blades connect your arms to your body, and are (in my opinion) one of the most overlooked aspects of upper body strength training. Your shoulder blades should move rhythmically with your arms during most exercises, meaning they’ll glide and rotate upwards when your arms are straight overhead, and do the opposite of that when your arms are at your sides. At the top part of the chin up (when your T-shirt is touching the bar) your shoulders should be anti-shrugged, as if you’re trying to tuck your shoulder blades into your back pockets. This is another aspect that is quite difficult for a lot of people, but working on it is time well spent as it will make your shoulders feel great while you build your strength.
4) Eye position
This one is super simple, yet so many people don’t do it (even if they’ve been coached to). You should be looking straight ahead the entire time when doing chin ups, or possibly even looking slightly down once your eyes clear the bar. At no point should your head be tipped back and you looking up – that will cause you to fall away from the bar instead of pulling up towards the bar, and it will also do you no favors when it comes to keeping your abs tight. Find a focal point that is straight ahead to stare at throughout the set, and keep your eyes fixed on that spot.
This one applies to “most people, most of the time” … but there are some exceptions. My advice is that you squeeze the bar extra tight and keep your hands as closed as possible throughout your set. There are several reasons for this, one of which is that your rotator cuff strength / function is enhanced by a strong squeeze, so squeezing extra tight will give your shoulders more stability. I see a lot of people who right from the start of their set look like they’re going to slip off the bar and have a nearly open hand (this is not a fatigue issue, that is how they grip from the start), and I think this really robs them of both safety and performance. The one major exception here is if someone can do a lot of pull ups (say 15 or more) and grip endurance starts to become an issue, in which case they need to tailor their grip effort to their individual needs. That said, if you’re not in the “teens” with your chin ups, then you should be gripping the bar tightly at all times.