Chin ups and pull ups: the best bet

By Daryl Richards

Chin ups and pull ups are markers for upper body strength in the same way that the squat applies to the lower body. In a sporting environment they provide a great functional carryover to a range of sports including gymnastics, swimming and many contact sports, especially where grappling is present. If you persevere, you will reap the rewards, but don't settle for anything less!

Variations of chin ups and pull ups should be a mainstay in all strength training programmes whether for maximal strength, hypertrophy or even fat loss. All variations are good compound exercises for the upper body, working a wide range of muscle mass including the latissiums dorsi, biceps brachii, brachialis and brachioradialis in the forearms, and even the rectus abdominus.

Unfortunately, many regular trainees and gym-goers seem to prefer the lat pulldown as a substitute even though it is an inferior replacement exercise recruiting fewer muscle motor units, less muscle mass, and burning fewer calories and with a suboptimal carryover to sporting performance. Chin ups and pull ups are more demanding to perform and master, but the results are definitely worth it!

Get a grip!

A chin up is always performed with either a supinated grip (palms facing you) or neutral grip (palms facing each other); whereas a pull up is always performed with a pronated grip (palms facing forward) (Figures 1 and 2). In general, the closer the hands are to each other, or to the midline of the body, the easier it is to perform and the further away the hands, the more challenging it becomes! There are of course many variations for each hand position but the following are most widely used and the order of least to most difficult is generally as follows:

  • Close neutral grip
  • Supinated grip
  • Wide pronated grip

Figure 1. Start position, showing supinated grip and pronated grip

Figure 2. Pull-up technique and points to remember


Make sure your chin clears the top of the bar.

Lower under control in the eccentric phase and always fully stretch at the bottom.


Start with arms fully stretched and head in line.

Initiate the movement by retracting the scapular (shoulder blades).

Keep chest up and start to pull the elbows back and down during the concentric (upwards) phase.

Keep legs straight and in line with the torso, if knees must be bent make sure thighs are in line with the torso.

Learn good habits

Once you have established your goals regarding variations, technique is the next point of concern. Remember, you will only get strong as a result of the range you work through so use full range and avoid bad habits as they will only serve to create faulty movement patterns and possibly lead to injury.

The panel below gives you some guidance on outcomes commonly seen as a result of incorrect technique. If 1 and 2 are familiar to you, aim to strengthen the scapular retractors with bent-over rows, seated row and single-arm dumbbell row variations, along with isolated trapezius work.

And for absolute beginners...

'What if I can't perform one chin up?'

Everyone has to start somewhere! Eccentric training is probably the best way to go about gaining the necessary strength to perform full chin ups and pull ups. This can be done as follows:

  • Place a box on which you can stand to reach the top position.
  • Lower yourself, off the box, for a specified amount of time that you can maintain (4 or 5 seconds is good to start with).
  • Use a rep range where you can hold this tempo and maintain good form (aim for 46 to start with).
  • You can then add reps, lengthen time maintained, or even add extra weight as a progression.
  • Before long, you will find you have the strength to do one complete chin up.


Daryl Richards is a Strength and Conditioning Specialist at KX Gym, South Kensington, London, UK.

Please contact column editor Sarah Tomlins with your comments and queries:
Twitter: @sarah400 (sarah tomlins)


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