The Anatomy of Pull Ups and Chin Ups (Complete Guide)

Whenever I see someone doing a good set of pull ups or chin ups (don’t worry, I’ll explain the difference shortly) I mentally tip my hat to them as these two exercises are far from easy. It takes determination to become proficient at these exercises and compared to the vastly inferior lat pull down, the pull up and chin up shows a commitment to exercise and fitness that is often all too uncommon.

The main problem with the pull up and chin up is that you have to be sufficiently strong to lift your entire bodyweight using the muscles of your upper body. While there are ways and means of reducing the amount of weight you have to lift, the fact remains that you need a reasonable level of strength to even perform these exercises. That raises the question, how do you get strong enough to do the exercise in the first place?

As well as explaining how to perform these exercises, in this article I will provide you with a number of strategies that will help you achieve your first pull up/chin up and then subsequently improve you numbers.

Pull up and Chin up Anatomy

Pull ups are performed with an overhand slightly-wider than shoulder-width grip whereas chin ups use a narrower and underhand grip. Both exercises are comparable because although the shoulder movements are different, the muscles responsible for those movements are the same.

In pull ups, the arms are pulled downwards and into the midline of the body – a movement called shoulder adduction. In chin ups, the arms are pulled downward and backwards – a movement called shoulder extension.

Both adduction and extension are the job of your latissimus dorsi muscles, lats for short, which are located on the side of your back and, when well developed, resemble wings.

The main different between pull ups and chin ups is how the position of your hands affects the function of your elbows. In an overhand, also called a pronated grip, your biceps (the muscles on the front of your elbows and your primary elbow flexors) are in a mechanically disadvantageous position. Conversely, when you palms are facing towards you, also called a supinated grip, your biceps are in a stronger position and better able to generate force.

This means that pull ups are harder than chin ups so you may find simply performing the palms under version makes this exercise easier. Those of you already able to do five or more reps of pull ups can test this for yourself: Perform a set of pull ups to failure and then immediately switch to a supinated grip and amazingly you’ll be able to complete a couple more reps as you move from a mechanically disadvantageous position to a more advantageous one.

Pull up and Chin up Equipment

You can perform these exercises on anything that safely allows you to hang at full stretch with your arms extended. There are specialist stations, often called power towers, designed for the sole purpose of doing pull ups and chin ups or you can hang from a power rack, Smith machine or even a sturdy roof beam or tree branch. So long as your feet are clear of the ground, anything will do the job.

As your grip is essential for good pull up/chin up performance, dry hands are a must so you might want to consider using lifting chalk or drying your hands on a towel before each set.

Some exercisers use webbing wrist straps or wrist hooks to enhance a weak grip. I’m not really a fan of gripping aids as they merely address the symptom of weak forearms rather than providing a solution. If you do find your grip is a problem, by all means use wrist straps etc but do your best to wean yourself off them so your grip gets stronger.

Pull up and Chin up Technique

Both these vertical pulling exercises are simple but that doesn’t mean they are easy! Correct technique can help you avoid wasting energy and will make your movements more efficient and economical which should mean more repetitions performed…

Grasp a sturdy overhead bar with the appropriate grip – slightly wider than shoulder-width and palms facing away for pull ups or slightly narrower than shoulder-width and palms facing towards you for chin ups.

Hang from the bar with your arms extended. Bend your knees and cross your ankles – this helps to limit the amount of swinging you do under the bar which can break up your exercise rhythm.

Lift your chest and lean back slightly – the pull up and chin up are surprisingly tough on your core muscles so don’t worry if you feel these muscles engaging as it’s a good thing!

Pull smoothly but strongly with your arms. Continue pulling until your chin is ABOVE the bar and not just touching it. If you lean your head back and thrust your chin skywards you can probably touch the bar despite only performing three-quarters of a repetition so pull up and over and so cheating allowed.

Slowly extend your arms and lower yourself back to full arm extension but DO NOT relax your arms or shoulders between reps. Keep your muscles tense to protect your shoulder and elbow joints.

Chin up and Pull up Mistakes

Despite being a technically straight forward movement, it is still possible to make a hash of this effective but demanding exercise. Here are a few of the more common faults and how to fix them…

  • Failure to pull chin over the bar – likely to be either a technical fault (poor exercise habits) or a biceps weakness. Try performing chin ups instead, strengthening your biceps or using bands for assistance as described below
  • Failure to fully extend the arms at the bottom – again, probably a technique fault so make a point of pausing for a second with arms fully extended between repetitions to ensure this habit is eliminated. May also be a coping mechanism for making the reps easier by reducing range of movement. It’s better to perform fewer reps using a full range of movement than more reps using a partial range of movement so no chopping your reps short as that is CHEATING!
  • Kicking with the legs – sometimes called “kipping”, using the legs can create a kind of “body wave” that helps you perform more repetitions by creating momentum. CrossFit, which often prescribes high repetitions of pull ups, use kipping quite a lot. If you are doing pull ups and chin ups for developmental purposes, I suggest kipping is counterproductive as it merely takes stress off the target muscles of the lats and biceps. If, however, you are training for CrossFit then by all means add a kip but don’t forget that strict pull ups and chin ups are your bread and butter in terms of muscular development.
  • Unable to do pull ups or chin ups – don’t worry as you are not alone! I’ve outlined some strategies below to help you do your first solo repetition and then increase your performance numbers.

Completing your first rep

Doing your first rep of pull ups or chin ups is a major fitness achievement and separates the boys from the men! Many exercisers go through life never achieving this goal and that’s a shame as both the pull up and chin up are excellent upper body exercises. While on the subject of the genders, don’t think for a minute that women can’t do pull ups – I assure you they can. The hints and tips below are the same ones I used with my wife to help her get her first solo rep and she is now doing sets of ten with relative ease!

As chin ups are the slightly easier of the two exercises, I suggest you start by concentrating on that variation and then progress to the pull up once you have begun to master the less demanding movement.

Assisted chin ups – if you are unable to lift your bodyweight, it makes sense that reducing your bodyweight will make the exercise easier to perform. This can be done in a couple of ways; you could use an assisted chin up machine where a weight is used to counterbalance your bodyweight. You could loop a strong resistance band over your chin up bar and then stand or kneel in the band so it provides some extra thrust or you could recruit the assistance of a strong spotter to help support some of your weight. Whichever method you choose, try to reduce the amount of assistance so that you get stronger. As you are training for strength, keep your reps below five and focus on quality over quantity.

Negative chin ups – while you might lack the strength to pull yourself up, you are probably strong enough to lower yourself down as your muscles are as much as 30% stronger as they lengthen. To do a negative chin up, climb up so your chin is over the bar and then slowly lower yourself down to full stretch. Immediately climb back up and repeat. When you are no longer able to control your descent, stop your set, rest a couple of minutes and then repeat.

Lock offs – it is quite common to hit a sticking point when performing chin ups at the point your elbows approach 90 degrees. This can be remedied by performing lock offs. Climb up and position your arms so they are bent to 90 degrees. Remove your feet and hold this position for as long as possible. Try to increase the length of your lock off over subsequent training sessions. With time, you should find you have no issue busting through this sticking point.

Strategies for Increasing your Reps

Once you can do more than a couple of reps, it’s time to try and get your numbers up. These approaches can be applied to both pull ups and chin ups…

Little and often – a great way to increase your pull up or chin up numbers is to do lots of sets of low reps throughout your workout. For example, if you can do three reps, perform lots of sets of one rep. Do a set of pull ups or chin ups in between each set of your other exercises so by the end of your workout you will have performed as many as 20 sub-maximal sets. With this method, it is essential you always keep a rep or two in reserve and do not go to failure. To learn to do a lot of pull ups you need to do a lot of pull ups and that means avoiding failure and focusing on quality reps. I still use this approach and can complete anything up to 100 reps in a training session – far more than I could do if I performed regular sets.

Ladders – a ladder is a broken set made up of mini sets called rungs. Perform one repetition, rest a moment, then perform two reps, rest again, three reps, rest, and so on. When you can’t reach the next “rung” of your workout, take an extended rest and then start over at one. This is a great way of increasing exercise volume as if you manage a ladder of one/two/three repetitions, you will have actually completed six repetitions when, quite likely, you’d only manage four reps using a more traditional rep/set scheme.

Weighted – One of the best ways I have found for increasing my pull up numbers is increasing pull up strength. Strap a weight around your waist or put on a weighted vest and perform four to six weeks of low rep strength training – no more than five reps per set. When you next perform a set of regular bodyweight pull ups, you will have a greater amount of strength and this will make the exercise easier so you’ll be able to more reps. Take care though, the added weight can place a lot of stress on your elbows and shoulders so make sure you use perfect technique.

Pull up and chin up Variations

Try these pull up and chin up variations to add some spice to your workouts!

Towel grip pull ups

Loop two hand towels over your pull up bar and grab the ends tightly. Perform your pull ups as normal. This variation is an awesome gripping exercise and ideal for climbers and grapplers.

Climber pull ups

Position your hands as for regular pull ups put instead of pulling your chin up to the center of the bar, pull yourself up and over so your chin touches your left hand. Return to the start position and then pull up to the right. For a harder version, pull up to the left and then keep your chin above the bar and traverse across to your right hand before lowering. Reverse your direction of travel for the next rep.

Mixed grip pull ups

Using a shoulder-width grip, place one hand in a pronated position and the other in a supinated position. Make sure you swap hands set by set.

Sternum pull ups

Using a V grip bar or single towel, hang beneath the bar so your body is turned through 90 degrees. Pull up and simultaneously lean back so your sternum touches the bar and not your chin. This places a large emphasis on your middle trapezius and rhomboid muscles in the center of your back. Be aware that the excessive spinal extension can place a lot of stress on your back so use this variation with caution.

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