By Thomas King, MSc, CSCS, CSEP-CEP

The chin-up is considered by many to be the true gold standard of fitness. Unlike exercises such as the bench press or deadlift, in which you move an external weight, the chin-up forces you to lift your own bodyweight, giving a true indication of your relative strength.

Despite this, the average gym goer does not frequently use the chin-up as a training tool. Because chin-ups are difficult, lat pull downs are the more favourable option. This is unfortunate since the chin-up is undoubtedly one of the best exercises for strengthening the lats, biceps, forearms, shoulder stabilizers and grip.

In fact, the name chin-up itself is a bit of a misnomer as the goal of a properly executed chin-up is to bring the collarbone to the bar, not just the chin.

The Ideal Chin-Up Technique

  1. -Dead-hang from the chin-up bar with your preferred grip. Pack your shoulders and brace your abs to prevent your low back from going into excessive extension.
  2. -Initiate the pull by focusing on bringing your elbows down to your rib cage. This will help activate your lats.
  3. -Pull yourself upwards until your collarbone makes contact with the bar. Make sure that your chin is tucked at the top of the movement. Don’t hyperextend your neck by looking up.
  4. -Hold the top position for about one second keeping your shoulders away from your ears. Keep your abs engaged and try not to swing.
  5. -Slowly lower to the bottom position and repeat for the desired number of repetitions.

Grip Variations

  • -Double underhand grip = “Chin-up
  • -Double overhand grip = “Pull up
  • -Neutral grip (palms facing together) = “Neutral grip chin-up
  • -Mixed grip (using a different grip for each hand) = “Mixed grip chin-up

If you can’t perform a full range chin-up, try adding in these 3 chin-up variations to your workouts. You will build strength for different phases of the chin-up and finally reach that milestone of one perfect chin-up.

1) Improve the Bottom Range: The Banded Chin-Up

These are great if you struggle with the bottom range on the chin-up. To do this variation, attach one end of a long band to the chin-up bar. Next, pull the band down and place it either around your foot (easier/more help) or around your knee (harder/less band help). Follow the above technique guidelines and preform the desired number of reps.

2) Improve the Top Range: The Rack Chin-Up

Next, we’ll tackle the opposite issue. If you struggle with the top range of the chin-up movement, this is the best variation for you. Place a barbell in an adjustable power rack at a height where your arms are fully outstretched and you butt just touches the floor. Your feet can either sit flat on the floor in front of you (very deep squat) or the legs can be crossed in front of you. Initiate the pull by bringing your elbows to your rib cage. Use your legs sparingly to assist you in achieving the full range of motion for the exercise. Repeat for desired number of repetitions.

3) Train the Descent: The Negative Chin-Up

Due to the physiological processes that occur when a muscle is contracted, we are much stronger lowering (eccentric contraction) a weight (or our body) than we are at lifting (concentric contraction) a weight. In addition, our muscles get stronger not just by lifting, but by lowering weights as well. Because of this, the negative chin-up is an excellent variation to strengthen the muscles involved in a chin-up.

Stand on a tall box underneath a chin-up bar. Grab the bar and jump up to reach the top position. Try not to swing. Hold this position steady for 3-5 seconds, then slowly lower your body over a 8-10 second count. Once your elbows and shoulders open fully, stand back on the box, and jump up for your next repetition. Repeat for desired number of repetitions.

Sample Weekly Routine

While it may seem like an unattainable goal when you first start your fitness journey, doing one perfect chin-up is within reach for anyone with the proper coaching and motivation. Using the above chin-up variations should help you reach your goal sooner than you might think! Here is a sample training-week that incorporates the techniques listed above.

Monday – Band Assisted Chin-Up – 5 sets of 5 reps with the band around your feet

Wednesday – Rack Assisted Chin-Up – 8 sets of 3 reps

Saturday – Negative Chin-Up – 3 sets of 5 reps with a 5-10-second lowering phase

I had virtually no real experience using weights and felt intimidated going gyms. I avoided gym-goers using free weights, especially when hearing that loud crash, as they would drop weights to the floor. I thought this was to show everyone around them that they owned that area and that I shouldn’t go anywhere near! So I guess I just wanted to learn how to lift weights safely in a gym environment.

I spent over 18 years in the British Military, so I got to use some nice gyms. 99% of my time and experiences in those gyms was spent doing cardiovascular workouts, because I could just jump on a treadmill, plug in my head phones and do my own thing! JKC is different, because they have given me the confidence to use free weights and equipment that I had feared for years. Their demonstrations and knowledge is impeccable and I thank them for their continuous belief and support they show me at every session.

I’m 34 and started at JKC in 2015. My wife joined while I was working away in 2015 and started making amazing progress while also completing exercises I’d never perform on my own. I felt I was missing out so I signed up. JKC helps in establishing goals while also having clear direction of what to do, and how, in each session. They also measure your progress which is another means of motivation! At other gyms I wouldn’t have a clear plan and would just use whatever equipment was free, it was hard to see any results. Between setting some personal bests and making good friends its hard to identify a favorite memory.  One that does come to mind was when I hit my target goal/PB in both bench and squats in the same session, big day.

I’ve been weight training on and off for years but never really had a specific goal or target in mind so routinely stalled out, plateaued or stopped training all together. Before I joined JKC I was definitely in a fitness slump and needed something to motivate me and get me back on track. I did a bit of digging online, looking at various personal training options and gyms around town but JKC seemed like the best option by far. I’ve tried big box gyms and other personal trainers in the past but none of them have had the perfect combination of goal specific fitness programming, welcoming and supportive environment, and the knowledge and passion to back it all up that you’ll find at JKC. Jon and Thomas are great to work with, they know how to motivate you if you’re having an off day and are well versed in all the different ways to make your muscles burn! I also have noticed some major improvements in my deadlifts since I started with JKC and was really happy with the result.

I’m 35 and I started at JKC in November of 2019. I was coming off the win of the Royal St. John’s Regatta in 2019, and our crew was chomping at the bit to be stronger and faster for 2020. The reputation of JKC leached into our group and away we went! Unfortunately the regatta was cancelled due to COVID-19, but I just loved JKC so much I stuck around. JKC is different from other gyms because the level of experience the team has is unparalleled. Jon, Thomas and Craig all mesh well together and mentor me in a way that I know they love what they do and are genuinely excited to guide me towards my goals (and beyond). I really enjoy the atmosphere, the sense of community and all the positive vibes that I experience in every session. There’s never a time I don’t want to go because I’m motivated by the team’s coaching style and I get results.

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