How I Improved My Chin-Ups

Probably my favorite exercise to do is the chin-up. When I first started lifting I couldn’t do a single one. In recent years, I’ve done 20 on two separate occasions. These days I rarely try to max, because I’m focused more on the principles of High Intensity Training. That means my chin-ups today tend to be slower, weighted, and with static holds. In this post, I will outline what worked and didn’t work for me when it came to doing more chin-ups.


Photo by Rob Brewer

Chin-Ups or Pull-Ups

I prefer doing chin-ups to pull-ups. So does High Intensity Trainer Drew Baye. From the post Q&A: Strict Chin Ups Versus Kipping Pull Ups:

I prefer to have trainees perform chin ups (supinated grip) to pull ups (pronated grip) since this puts the biceps in a stronger position making the upper arm less of a “weak link” in the exercise.

Read the entire post. It is excellent information. Drew has trained many people, whereas I’ve only trained myself.

Assisted Pull Up Machines

I see a lot of people using the assisted pull-up machine to build up to their first bodyweight chin-up. Maybe there is a good machine out there, but I haven’t found one. When you get under one of these machines, if you start with a decent pull, the lifter slides upward almost effortlessly. In other words, the tension is reduced just when more muscle should be engaged. The lifter games the equipment with a fast start. They also ride down the negative, so their muscles are fresh to bounce up again.

I’m not a biomechanics guy, but I’ve used several of those machines and they never helped me get better at chin-ups. The movement doesn’t seem natural.

Fast Chin-Ups

By doing your chin-ups faster, you might be able to squeeze out an extra rep or three but don’t confuse speed with strength. Throwing your body upward and then letting it fall quickly for a bounce is sloppy nonsense that could end up hurting your shoulder. I’ve used fast chin-ups to squeeze out an additional rep or two, but I never got stronger doing fast chin-ups. I have found slow chin-ups to be more effective for building strength.

Lat Pulldown Machine

I am a fan of using the cable lat pulldown machine to improve your chin-ups. The trick is to not use this machine like every other fool in the gym. Find a bar that allows you to place your palms facing yourself with your hands slightly less than shoulder-width apart. You will mimic the movement of the chin up. Here are the changes I recommend:

  1. Perform each rep slowly.
  2. Keep your back straight so you aren’t using your body weight to make the movement easier.
  3. Bring the weight down to just below your chin.
  4. Do not stop at the top or the bottom. Keep moving the weight slowly.
  5. When the movement gets extremely hard, move into the mid-range and perform a static hold.

Note that if you already do the lat pulldown machine more traditionally, you’ll likely need to lower the weight.

Flexed Arm Hang

The United States Marine Corps has a different physical fitness test for women than men. The men do pull-ups, whereas the women perform a Flexed Arm Hang. I’m a big fan of this exercise. These days I often end my chin-up sessions with a Flexed Arm Hang (static hold) instead of performing additional reps.

Negative Chin Ups

For this one, unless you have a free-standing chin-up bar you will need to grab a stool or chair and place it under the chin-up bar. You will use the chair to get to the top. Grab the chin-up handle, step off the chair, and slowly descend. Once you get to the bottom, immediately get back on the chair and repeat the movement. I love this exercise, especially with a weighted belt. I’ve strapped up to 90 pounds on a belt and did this for reps at the end of the workout.

My Absolute Favorite Chin Up Exercise

My favorite chin-up exercise is the Full Range with Static Holds. Perform a slower full range chin up and then at the top lower into a static hold.

Last Words

I never progressed past 5 reps when I was training for reps  2-3 times a week. Only when I allowed my body more time to recover and explored other chin-up variations did my numbers go up. Another thing that helped my chin-ups was losing weight. Going from 210 to 190 made this exercise much easier. Dropping 20 pounds made it seem like I was floating upwards.

When I stopped caring about reps and focused on just getting stronger is when I made the most progress. I probably only try to go for max twice a year now.


Add yours

  1. Timely post. I have started working on chinup form a few weeks ago. The biggest problem so far is pain in on the palm of my hands. I have bought foam grips and will be trying those soon. Any grip advice?

    Btw, is it fixed or flexed arm hang?

  2. @Txomin – Good catch. I fixed the post.

    Excellent question about grip strength possibly being a limiting factor in additional chin ups. Grip strength is VERY important. Here is a post I put out in 2009 on how I improved my grip strength.

  3. Good article, thanks. I took your suggestion of more rest days to see what would happen. Did 5 nice slow chins last saturday, rested 3 days and did a set today (wednesday). I did 7! Couldn’t beleive it. But I sure as blazes couldn’t have done an eighth rep. Maybe 10 is actually possible in time!

  4. While I agree that putting more rest days between your chin up sessions is an effective way of getting up the numbers, I have found myself t plateauing despite sufficient recovery.

    I have looked into tackling this issue a bit more carefully and have stumbled upon the concept of “synaptic faciliation”.

    There is a great article by Clarence Bass on this topic:

  5. Thank you for the link, my friend.

  6. I love doing chin ups….but I do them as per the advice on this video.
    I prefer the parallel rip version as oppose to the close grip supinated one as it feels a lot easier on the wrists and shoulders. I also do pull ups, slightly wider than shoulder width grip. I do a 2 / 2 tempo not going all the way to locked out elbows and keeping shoulders protracted ( as per the videos advice.I don’t rest at the top or bottom of the rep. I train them both twice a week adding a quarter of a kilo per time to my waist. I know that when I build up to 3 kilos or so around my waist that I can go back down to bodyweight at the next session and add an extra rep. I lean back slightly at the bottom of the rep to put the lats in a stronger biomechanical position, but I am upright with a slight ab crunch as my chin clears the bar. No rep is dropped or jerked.
    In his book “Moment Arm Exercise” Bill offers a slightly different technique for the pulldown than he does for the pull up. This is because of the body’s centre of balance settling under the bar in a pull up, where as for a pulldown the bar can be brought down slightly more in front of the body, thereby keeping the moment arm around the shoulder joint and on the lats as opposed to transferring it to the elbows and biceps. In both versions however the body is leaned back slightly at the bottom of the movement to put the arms closer to perpendicular to the torso, where the lats are in their strongest position.

  7. @Stephan & @StaurtG – Great links. Thanks!

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