The Ultimate Chin-Up Guide

You spend most of your day pushing. 

Think about it; you lean forward to read this article on your phone while at your desk. You are pushing your arms against a desk to stay upright. 

When you come home, you grab a cozy spot on the couch and lean on your favorite shoulder.  

Since you are constantly pushing, adding more pulling into your workouts isn’t a bad idea.  

The chin-up is one of my favorite pulling exercises; it just so happens that many of my clients want to learn how to perform their first chin-up! 

After you read this article, you will know how to go from zero to hero with your first chin-up. 

Pull-Ups vs. Chin-Ups 

Before you dive in, let’s make sure everyone knows the difference between a chin-up and a pull-up.  

The chin-up: 

GripUnderhand
Pull Vertical
Muscles usedLatisumus dorsi, rhomboids, teres major, bicep, and anterior delt bias
Difficulty Moderately difficult

The Pull-up:

Grip Overhand
PullVertical
Muscles used Latisumus dorsi, rhomboids, teres major
Difficulty Hard

The significant difference between the pull-up and the chin-up is the hand position. To perform a chin-up, you will grip the bar with your palms facing you. This position will recruit more of the bicep, making the vertical pull “easier.” 

The pull-up requires someone to grip the bar with palms facing away, placing more of the workload on your lats, making the pull-up more difficult.   

Also, if someone does not have the proper shoulder strength and flexibility, the pull-up can become a high-risk vs. high-reward situation. 

This is why I tend to have clients first work toward nailing a solid chin-up for multiple repetitions before advancing to a pull-up. 

Now that we covered the nerdy stuff let’s get into the programming. 

How To Train For Your First Chin-Up

Hollow Body

One of the important positions someone should learn before grabbing the chin-up bar is the hollow body.  

If you have seen someone perform a chin-up with legs crossed and ribs flared, you will notice they perform partial repetitions and might grab their shoulders after hopping off the bar. 

It is not the ideal position for the chin-up because it isn’t as efficient and can make the movement pretty clunky.  

Watching a gymnast pull themselves to the top of the rings, you will notice they are consistently in a hollow position.  

As my friend and mentor, Ryan Hurst, says, “tighter is lighter.” 

The hollow body position will train you to maintain total body tension and build a heck of a strong mid-section.  

Key focus points: 

  • Keep your lower back in contact with the ground at all times. 
  • Squeeze your legs together and point your toes. 
  • Tuck your chin, and don’t strain through your neck. 

Programming consideration: 

  • Partner hollow body holds with any row variation. 
  • Start with shorter holds focusing on maintaining the proper position. 
  • 3 x 20 seconds is a good starting point. 

Pulling Prep

The pulling prep is a bang for your buck movement and should be a part of any program focused on building a strong and resilient set of shoulders.  

Due to scapular depression and retraction, you will target the lats, traps, and rhomboids. These are the crucial muscles involved in vertical pulling that don’t get enough love and attention.  

When you attempt to perform the pulling prep, PLEASE don’t forget to start in your hollow body position.  

Grip the bar with straight arms, and pull the shoulder blades toward your “back pockets.” Then with control, you will return to your dead hang position.  

The pulling prep is a slight movement, and if you are arching through your upper/lower back, you aren’t targeting the intended muscles. In other words, it is not going to help your chin-up. 

Key Focus Points: 

  • Start in the dead hang position and get into a hollow body.  
  • Maintain straight arms as you pull down through your shoulder blades. 
  • Do not allow the chest to lift, and keep your chin tucked. 

Programming Considerations: 

  • You can incorporate pulling prep into most training sessions, especially upper body days. 
  • 3-5 sets of 5-10 repetitions are more than enough. You don’t want to tire yourself before working on other pulling movements. 
  • Rest up 1-2 minutes between sets. 

Reverse Rows 

First Variation to try!
This progression will give you incredible pulling strength and control.
This is the final product and possibly one of my favorite row variations.

The reverse row is a staple horizontal pulling pattern that targets most of the same musculature as a vertical pull— the significant difference is in the position of your body. 

If you have never performed the reverse row, you will start standing. As the movement becomes easier, you can try positioning yourself underneath the rings or suspension trainer.   

It is common to see someone perform the reverse row with flared elbows; however, keeping the elbows closer to the ribs makes the movement more efficient because tighter is lighter.  

Key Focus Points: 

  • Start with hands in a neutral position. 
  • Initiate the row by focusing on pulling the elbows back. 
  • Pause with the elbows by your side before returning to the starting position. 
  • Imagine squeezing an orange in your armpit. Sounds funny, but it will help with lat engagement and arm positioning. 

Programming Considerations

  • You can add reverse rows to your current training program. 
  • 3-5 sets of 6-10 repetitions will be more than enough. 
  • Rest 90 – 120 seconds between sets. 
  •  Listen to your body and remember doing less is okay. 

Reverse Row Sit Back 

The reverse row sit-back was first introduced to me while training and closely working with Ryan Hurst and the team at GMB Fitness

It combines the reverse row with a vertical pull that closely mimics a chin-up. Because your feet are on the ground, it makes it easier to manipulate the intensity – allowing you to increase the volume without sacrificing form. 

Key Focus Points: 

  • Start directly under the rings with arms straight, knees bent, and chest facing the ceiling. 
  • Initiate the row by pulling the elbows back as far as you can, maintaining level hips, and sitting your butt back while continuing to pull down into the rings. 
  • Turn the rings in with palms facing you as you end up in the chin-up position. 
  • Reverse all the steps ending in your reverse row position. 

Programming Considerations: 

  • 2-3 sessions a week is more than enough.
  • 3-5 sets aiming for 5-8 repetitions is a good goal. 
  • Rest 2-3 minutes between sets. 

The Assisted Chin-Up 

The assisted chin-up is a fantastic way to develop the strength and control necessary for performing full chin-ups.  

By performing the assisted chin-up, you can train using the full range of motion easily adjusted by adding or taking weight off the lower body.   

When performing the assisted chin-up, you will use a chair or box to be able to hold onto the bar. 

There are two variations you can try. 

#1. Performing a full assisted chin-up and lowering with feet in contact with the chair/box. 

#2. Performing a full assisted chin-up, lowering with legs extended, and using a slow negative. 

Both are fantastic progressions, and the latter is more difficult due to the slow eccentric portion of the movement. 

Key Focus Points: 

  • Initiate the movement with a pulling prep. 
  • Pull your elbows down and move slow and controlled. 
  • Lower and focus on keeping the elbows tight to the body.  

Programming Considerations: 

  • Perform 2-3 times a week.  
  • 3-5 sets of 3-5 repetitions 
  • Rest for 2 minutes between sets. 

Negative Chin-Ups 

Slow eccentrics are the name of the game, friend-o. 

Performing negative chin-ups is a fantastic way to train with the full range of motion and builds on all the previous exercises.  

You will develop tremendous arm, shoulder, and core strength. I will argue that you develop full body strength because you are lowering in the hollow position, which requires legs to be together and toes pointed.  

Tighter is lighter.” 

Key Focus Points: 

  • Jump up to your starting position and pause.  
  • Slowly lower, keeping your shoulders out of your ears and elbows tight to the body. 
  • Pause in a dead hang and perform a pull-prep.  

Programming considerations: 

  • Perform 2-3 times per week. 
  • 6 sets of 1-3 reps.
  • Rest for 2 minutes between sets.

*Eccentrics are taxing on the body and require more recovery time. Working on single attempts is a great starting point.  

The Chin-Up 

Now’s the moment you have been waiting for, you eager beaver. 

To perform the chin-up, grab the bar with palms facing you, perform a pulling prep and continue pulling the elbows down toward your hips. Squeeze your legs together with toes pointed, and don’t stop pulling until your chin is over the bar. 

Pause at the top and take a moment to breathe in the victory!!! 

Slowly lower while keeping the elbows squeezed in, shoulders pulled down, and legs together with toes pointed.  

Once at the bottom, perform a single pulling prep.  

Repeat with a pulling-prep at the start and finish of every attempt. 

The secret for better chin-ups is to practice your chin-up, and when that feels too hard, pick any of the other progressions laid out above. 

How To Program

Here is how I would consider programming a 4-week block of training focusing on nailing your first chin-up. 

Week 1: 

A/B days 

  • Pulling prep 3 x 6 
  • Reverse Row Sit back: 5×5 
  • Hollow body Hold 3×20 seconds 

C Day

  • Pulling Prep 3×6
  • Assisted chin-up with lowering option #1 5×3  
  • Reverse Rows 3×12

*For rest guidelines, please refer to the descriptions above. 

Week 2:

A/B days 

  • Pulling prep 3 x 6 
  • Reverse Row Sit back: 5×5 
  • Hollow body Hold 3×20 seconds 

C Day

  • Pulling Prep 3×6
  • Assisted chin-up with lowering option #1 6×3  
  • Reverse Rows 3×12 

*For rest guidelines, please refer to the descriptions above. 

Week 3:

A/B days 

  • Pulling prep 3 x 6 
  • Jump To Negatives 5×1
  • Reverse Row Sit back: 4×6-8 

C Day

  • Pulling Prep 3×6
  • Assisted chin-up with lowering option #2 5×3  
  • Reverse Row 4×8
  • Hollow Body 3×30

*For rest guidelines, please refer to the descriptions above. 

Week 4: 

A/B days 

  • Pulling prep 3 x 6 
  • Jump To Negatives 5×2
  • Reverse Row Sit back: 4×6-8 

C Day

  • Pulling Prep 3×6
  • Assisted chin-up with lowering option #2 6×3  
  • Reverse Row 4×6-8
  • Hollow Body 3×30

*For rest guidelines, please refer to the descriptions above. 

Chin-Up FAQs

Now that you have your four-week program let’s tackle some commonly asked questions about the chin-up.  

How long will it take me to get my first chin-up? 

The short answer is it depends. The long answer depends on how frequently you train and your training history. 

If you are someone who has been training for a while with a good deal of upper body strength, it can take a few weeks.  

If you are new to training, it could take a couple of months or a year. 

Please remember to take what I am saying with a grain of salt because I don’t know you, and everyone is different. 

With that said, if you train and are patient, I promise you will get your first chin-up, and it will be FRICKEN GLORIOUS.   

How can I get my first pull-up? 

I knew someone was going to ask that question, and I’m glad it was you!

If you can nail a solid set of 10 chin-ups, you are more than ready to work toward your first pull-up. 

The secret is to take the assisted chin-up and negative chin-up and turn your hands so they are gripping the bar with palms facing out.  

Follow the same set, repetition, and rest guidelines described earlier. 

How can I train for the chin-up if I don’t have access to a bar? 

If you don’t have access to a bar for chin-ups, you are doomed. 

JUST KIDDING!  

You have quite a few options which I use and frequently program. 

#1. Get yourself a set of gymnastic rings. They are easy to hang in a park, from a tree, from your neighbor’s swing set. I prefer the wood rings made by rogue. This isn’t an ad; I find them to be the best.

#2. If you aren’t a fan of rings, you get yourself a suspension trainer like a TRX. It’s pretty versatile and can be hung outdoors or from a doorway.  

#3. While using a bar is your best bet, you can incorporate other exercises that can help develop the chin-up. Check out the video below for several ideas. 

Floating Table Top

The Floating Table Top is a fantastic way to develop pulling strength without touching the bar.  

Being on all fours and maintaining a hollow position allows the body to mimic what will happen when hanging from the bar. Keeping a hollow position allows the body to move more efficiently through space.  

Tighter is always lighter. 😉 

As you practice, you will find you can shift your weight forward and further challenge your positional strength. The more you can push while maintaining straight arms, the better.  

Leopard Crawl

The leopard crawl allows you to coordinate the upper body with the lower body. By pulling the ribs down and initiating the movement through the shoulder blades, you develop the reflexive strength necessary for the chin-up. 

Also, you are developing mobility and strength through the shoulder girdle.  

Happy shoulder girdle = ease of movement. 

Half Kneeling Resistance Band Row With A Reach

The half kneeling resistance band row with a reach allows you to use a little momentum to move the shoulder blade. This can be a helpful addition to any vertical pulling practice as it helps you learn how to initiate movement via the shoulder blade while keeping the elbow tight to the body throughout the row.

Elbows close to the body lead to a smooth pulling pattern.

What’s Next? 

Okay, now that you know all the secrets, you will perform chin-ups like a seasoned professional. 

Pat yourself on the bat because the chin-up is not a simple exercise that you throw haphazardly into a training session.  

There are progressions, regressions, and recovery periods that you should not ignore.  

Not to mention training should enhance your life and not leave you with aches and pain.  

That’s why I put together this FREE mobility class. It’s 60 minutes long and will leave you feeling flexible and strong for whatever the day throws your way. 

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