By Michael Krueger
My favorite vertical pulling exercise is the pull-up. It is one of the few vertical pulls available, the lat pull being the other big one. The pull-up is also known as the chin-up. I use the terms interchangeably. In fact, I generally just refer to them as “chins.” Some people say that they each one refers to a specific variation. If your palms are facing away (pronated), it is generally referred to as a pull-up; if your palms are facing you (supinated), it is called a chin-up. You may also do them with your palms facing (neutral); I call that a chin as well.
Chins are HARD
Everyone agrees that chin-ups are extremely taxing. Most people find that chin-ups are easier than pull-ups; neutral grip fall in between. I think it is pretty much a moot point. Chin-ups involve your biceps more, and pull-ups are focused more on back muscles. The muscles in your back are bigger muscles so, in actuality, pull-ups should be easier, but most people have more problems activating their back muscles than simply relying on their biceps.
Most people can’t do even one good chin of either variety. This is generally thought to be a bodyweight issue when it is really a strength issue. I guess, more accurately, it is a bodyweight-to-strength ratio issue. I’ve seen some rather big men do quite a few chins, while I know many small people who can’t do one.
If you want to be able to do chin-ups, then you must specifically train on them. Lat pull downs are a fine exercise, but they aren’t chins. If you can’t do a chin, then assisted chins of some sort are the way to go. The counterbalanced machine assisted chins don’t seem to work as well as other forms of assistance. I think it may be because you don’t need to balance yourself on the machine so you never quite get the “feel” of doing a full chin-up. Fortunately, there are many other ways to get an assist, and they are a lot cheaper than a machine.
There are assistance bands that loop over the bar and around your knees that give you a springy boost to make them easier. You can recruit someone to hold your feet while your hang with your knees bent, or someone can grab you around the hips and help by pressing you up. You can do negative only chins, which means that you climb up to the top position and then lower yourself as slowly as you can. When you reach the bottom, climb back up and do it again.
The biggest barrier for most people is mental. Nearly everyone I have ever trained has suffered the humiliation of not being able to do a chin-up when they were in elementary school. This kind of thing can really stay with you and negatively color your perception of this fine exercise for life.
Perfect chin-up form generally starts from a dead hang with straight elbows and ends when the collarbones come even with the bar. Now I’ll tell you why I somewhat disagree with that assessment.
First, a dead hang from a bar can wreak havoc on your shoulders. I prefer to either maintain a slight bend in the elbows or be able to touch down with the toes at the bottom. If you unload all your weight to the floor, then you are doing multiple singles, which are also very difficult because you negate the stretch reflex and do away with all of your momentum.
Second, depending on the length of your arms, you may find it very tough to get your collarbones up to the bar. It is a good benchmark to shoot for, but it may not be doable for everyone. Getting your chin above the bar is certainly good enough.
Grab the bar more with your fingers than with the palm of your hand; it is more comfortable that way. Take a breath at the bottom, push your chest out, and begin the pull. Keep your shoulders back, squeezing your shoulder blades together.
Keep your chin pointed up, since it helps keeps your spine in a neutral position. Besides, your body tends to go where you are looking and you want to go up. Also if you aren’t looking up, you are liable to whack you head or nose on the bar, and this would definitely have a negative effect on your enthusiasm. Pull your elbows back and down to involve your back more. Your back is where the real strength comes from in a chin-up.
Leg position is a point of contention among many trainers. Most suggest that you bend your knees and cross your feet. I think that got to be the most popular position because most chinning bars aren’t far enough off the floor to allow for your legs to hang straight. I think the different positions simply come under the heading of variation, not right way vs. wrong way.
There are many ways to make a chin easier, as noted above, but there are ways to make them harder as well.
If you can do more than 15 good solid chins, you may be inclined to change them so that they are more challenging. The simplest way is to add weight. This can be done by using a belt with a chain attached and just hanging plates from it. This method has the chain and plates hanging between your legs. If this doesn’t stop you from swinging your body and using momentum, nothing will.
Another way is to use a weighted vest or a backpack with plates in it. Still another is to hold a dumb bell between your knees, a technique I have never been able to master.
Kipping chins is a technique popular among “CrossFit” devotees. This involves swinging your legs and hips in a fashion similar to the way a trapeze artist gets up on his bar. Using this variation, a person can do a great many chin-ups.
You may also increase the abdominal work by flexing at the hips so your legs are straight out in front of you in a “pike” position, keeping your body bent at a 90-degree angle.
A favorite super set of mine is to alternate one pull-up with two push-ups. This works best with your palms facing away, because it facilitates grabbing and releasing the bar more so than palms facing. It is best to be able to touch the floor in the hanging position as well rather than needing to jump up to the bar each time. A solid goal is 100 chins and 200 push-ups.
One of the hardest exercises is to do a pull-up by going up as fast as possible and then lowering as slowly as possible. Do this 10 times. It is ugly, hard, and beautiful at the same time.
It’s so good
Once you are able to do chin-ups, you will never stop. Every playground is an opportunity for an impromptu workout. Chin-ups are a superb total body exercise that is a great compliment to any exercise program. As for firefighting crossover, they will build back and shoulder strength that will make the handling of ladders and pike poles a breeze.
Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at MKPTLLC@gmail.com.