5 ways to improve your chin-up

Photograph of a man performing a chin-up

The chin-up is one of those eternal lifts that sits within the consciousness of all gym-goers and exercisers out there. It’s a simple movement that we can trace back to our roots as apes – pulling yourself up onto a higher platform.

All lifters should be able to eventually do at least one chin-up, and be able to comfortably handle their own bodyweight when hanging from a bar.

Improving your chin-up brings obvious benefits to bicep and lat strength, but it can also have great benefits for bodybuilders looking for that V-taper. Hanging there on the chin-up bar exerts constant tension across all the muscle groups involved – absolutely fantastic for muscle hypertrophy.

The stretch in the lats involved in the bottom of the chin-up movement will definitely help to bring that wideness to the lats, great for the rear lat spread pose and the bicep training involved brings obvious benefits to the rear double bicep.

I myself, as a sprinter, love heavy chin-ups as they develop that shoulder extension and upper back strength relevant to the arm pumping action at the beginning of a sprint.

In short – the chin-up is awesome and all athletes and bodybuilders can benefit from it!

If you feel like your chin-up strength has stalled or you simply want to make more gains from this fantastic exercise, here are five things you can do today:

1) Do more chin-ups

This might seem a little patronising, but at the end of the day we get better at the lifts that we do with greater frequency, up to a point. Do chin-ups three times a week in any kind of fashion where you’re pushing yourself hard with slightly more volume than you’re used to. Five sets at least.

Go above and beyond – it’s the Hypertrophy way :)

2) Slow tempo negative chin-ups

The eccentric portions of lifts are generally the most stressful on the body, and slow negatives – accentuating the eccentric portion of a lift with a slow tempo – can be useful for both hypertrophy and strength.

The negative chin-up basically involves either performing a normal chin-up, or just jumping straight up to the bar, and then lowering yourself slowly with a tempo of about five seconds.

Not only does this technique increase the stress and time under tension, working wonders for hypertrophy in the lats and biceps, but it’s also very useful for people who struggle to do chin-ups.

3) Reverse grip bent-over rows

(Personally I prefer a more bent-over version of the lift – but the above video provides a half-decent representation)

This lift is just like the standard bent-over row, except you use an underhand grip. Therefore, it’s easy to see how this lift has carryover to the chin-up.

While the overhand bent-over row works transverse shoulder extension, the reverse grip emphasises shoulder extension just like the chin-up.

The only change I would make to the demonstration in the YouTube video below, is to have your body parallel to the floor, so the lift action is purely perpendicular to the floor. It should almost be like a reverse bench press. This will make the lift more challenging, which makes it more beneficial.

4) Isolate the biceps and lats

Despite the stigma often attached to isolation movements, there’s nothing wrong with strengthening individual joint movements in order to increase performance in a compound movement.

Particularly, for the chin-up, isolating the two prime muscle groups involved in the movement can be very helpful. For example, you can do:

5) Chin-up drop sets

If you want to further unlock the full muscle-building potential of the chin-up, drop sets work wonders. I’ve written in the past about how drop sets can give rise to massive muscle hypertrophy. The logic is that drop sets really increase the time under tension parameter.

The way you can do this is to start off with weighted chin-ups using a dip belt with plates attached for as many reps as you can, and then either remove weight gradually or go straight to unweighted standard chin-ups and burn out with each drop set.

For example:

  1. 3 x chin-ups with 40kg attached to a dip belt
  2. Take 20kg off the belt and do as many as possible
  3. Take the belt off entirely and burn out with standard chin-ups

Girl doing chin-ups

Takeaway tips

  1. Do more freakin’ chin-ups!
  2. Try slow negative chin-ups for some extra hypertrophy
  3. If you’re having trouble doing chin-ups, do reverse grip bent-over rows to build a foundation
  4. Occasionally work the primary muscles involved in the chin-up in isolation
  5. If you can already do more than 10 chin-ups, do drops sets starting with a loaded dip belt

Related posts:

Posted in Workouts and fitness

Grab your free ebook

Instantly get your free copy of our ebook, The Strong Everyman when you join the newsletter: