Archive for December, 2013

Exercise Technique: The Chin-Up

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

The chin-up is an upper body exercise that targets the musculature of the upper back and arms.  This pulling exercise is heavily used by both athletes and regular gym goers; however, I have made one too many observations of an incomplete chin-up and thus felt it necessary to post exactly how and why a chin-up, or variations, should be performed.

The Difference: Chin-Ups vs Pull-Ups
The chin-up differs from the pull-up in that the hands are placed in a supinated position, which allows the shoulder to externally rotate and creates pre-tension on the biceps. Subjectively speaking, the chin-up has offered a more comfortable position for me (compared to a pronated, pull-up position) since my SLAP tear to my left shoulder and a double surgical intervention on my right.

Broscience 101 dictates that chin-ups are for “the guns bro” and wide lat pulldowns are for “back width bro”. Interestingly, there is some merit to this brosecienc as research has demonstrated that a chin-up grip will increase the recruitment of the bicep brachii and brachialis (2); while a pull-up grip will activate more of the latissimus dorsi than other back muscles (1). That said, if strength and/or size is the training goal I would recommend finding your most comfortable grip and following progressive overload in that position due to the fact that loading plays a key role in muscular development.  Simply put, which one of these two brothers weighing 80kg will have bigger lats?

A) The guy doing 3×8 at body weight using the lat optimising pull-up grip.
B)  The guy doing 3×8 chin-ups with 10kg strapped around his waist.

Of course, pull-ups have their place in a training programme and can be trained as much as chin-ups throughout the year. That said, finding a comfortable pulling grip (chin-up for me) and getting strong in that position will carry over to other pulling positions.

The Movement: How & Why
Both the chin-up and pull-up involve elbow flexion, shoulder abduction with rotation and a scapulothrocaic motion. The key section of the movement that I see people routinely miss is at the top where the chin is thrown over the bar via cervical extension coupled with thoracic flexion (Picture 1). This type of movement is less than optimal for muscle activation of the upper back compared to a retracted scapula with a neutral cervical spine (Picture 2). Furthermore, the winged position multiplied by sets/reps and time encourages shoulder dysfunction. The correct top position should display a retracted scapula and neutral cervical spine coupled with thoracic extension (picture 2).

Picture 1: The latissimus dorsi is fully engaged, yet the upper back muscles are not recruited due to a winged scapula/stretched position. There is unnecessary tension on the upper area of the trapizius due to cervical extension.

Picture 2: The  latissimus dorsi is fully engaged, yet the scapula positioning allows the upper back muscles to be recruited. Neutral spine positioning is demonstrated through the cervical spine allowing the upper part of the trapezius to relax while the rhomboids and mid/lower area of the trapezius can be activated.

The video below demonstrates the correct top position for the chin-up (notice at the last second in the top position I retract my scapula and attempt to pop my chest out to hit thoracic extension) under a maximal load.


Moving Forward
There are many regressions and progressions for the chin-up which are beyond the scope of this post but have been previously covered here. Remember, select a comfortable grip and get strong in that position (load up) even if the goal is specifically hypertrophy. Lastly, never forget “chest out” at the top of a chin-up or pull-up to activate all the muscles of the upper back and promote healthy shoulders.




  1. Lusk, SJ., Hale, BD., and Russell, DM. (2010) Grip Width and Forearm Orientation Effects on Muscle Activity During the Lat Pull-Down. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 24(7) 895-900.
  2. Signorile, J.F., Attila, Z.J. and Szwed, S.P. (2002) A Comparative Electromyographical Investigation of Muscle Utilization Patterns Using Various Hand Positions During the Lat Pull – down. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research; 16(4), 539-546.