Chin ups to Increase Strength in Your Back and Arms

Chin upsChin ups are a great bodyweight exercise to increase strength as well as build lean muscle in your back and arms. They help you form the impressive V shape in your back.

They are simple to perform…you just need a bar to do the exercise. They are an important exercise in any complete fitness plan, and are important to developing the visual appeal of your back.

It is well-documented when people are surveyed that one of the most important body measurement ratios in determining physical attractiveness, is the ratio of chest size to waist size (chest:waist).  A ratio of 1 is not where you want to be…but it is where I was a few years ago for the better part of 5 years (ie, a 44″ chest and a 44″ waist).

A good ratio to strive for is 1.3 or slightly higher.  It takes a little work, but it can be achieved.  Example: 42″ chest, 32″ waist = 1.3  (42 / 32 = 1.31)  Those are not bodybuilder measurements, but they are a nice, lean physique that will look good in clothes and at the beach.

So, in simple terms, it’s a nice look if you can build your upper back/chest to be 30% larger in circumference than your waist.

Muscle Groups Worked

There are 2 factors that will determine how many reps you can do:

  1. Body weight
  2. Strength

If your 50 pounds overweight, it will be very difficult to perform a single rep – unless you’re strong as a bear.  A good combination approach would be to get very close to your lean body weight, and improve your strength at the same time as outlined below.

The muscle groups worked during this exercise:

Chin upsPrimary

  • Latissimus Dorsi (commonly called “Lats” – which create the V in your back)
  • Biceps Brachii (Biceps)
  • Rhomboids (muscles in your upper back responsible for retraction of the shoulders)


  • Rectus Abdominis (Abs – think 6-pack)
  • Erector Spinae (bundle of muscles extending the spine)

The primary and stabilizing muscles have very different roles when performing a chin up, and it’s an important distinction.  The primary muscles are the main muscles that enable you to pull yourself up (lats, biceps), and the stabilizing muscles (core) provide stability to your body when performing the exercise.

If you mainly perform machine-assisted reps, then you won’t be using your stabilizing (core) muscles during the motion.  So when you try free-hanging without machine assistance, your stabilizing muscles will hinder your prime muscles because they can’t stabilize your body…it’s going to be a very tough to do even one.

The bottom line…if you want to increase your reps, then you have to perform them free during training (no assistance).  This forces the prime and stabilizing muscles to work as a team, and now you will start to see results in the form of increased reps.

When You Can’t Do Even One

If you can’t do even 1, not to worry, a few simple changes to “right the ship.”

First, understand the 3 strength movements you need to know:

  • Concentric Strength – this is the up motion when pulling up
  • Isometric Strength – this is the stable position when you are not going up or down (such as a static hold halfway down)
  • Eccentric Strength – this is the down motion when returning to the bottom of the rep

Isometric is 10% stronger than concentric, and eccentric is 30% stronger than isometric.  It makes sense…even if you can’t do 1, you can probably lower yourself from the up position (eccentric), and even hold your position halfway down (isometric).

So, if you can’t do 1 chin up, the best way to gain strength…

  • Start in the up position (using a chair or bench to get up)
  • Lower your body ¼ down – hold for 8 seconds
  • Lower your body ½ down – hold for 8 seconds
  • Lower your body ¾ down – hold for 8 seconds
  • Perform 5 reps doing these “fraction” chin ups

When you improve your isometric and eccentric strength, your concentric strength will follow close behind.

The video below demonstrates chin-ups with isometric (static) holds.

V – isometric chin-ups

Chin up Workout

To build the strength of your chin up muscles and also build a tapered, V look, it is the same process as building strength with other muscles:

  • Perform chin-up reps to failure
  • Perform 4 to 5 sets per workout
  • 2 to 3 days rest between workouts

If you can perform, for example, 20 reps without assistance, then you should consider a weight belt to perform fewer reps to really build strength.
V – chin-ups

Avoiding Injury

Chin ups are a pretty safe exercise, but as with any resistance training exercise, err on the side of caution.

  • Never workout cold muscles
  • Perform some light cardio for a few minutes prior to your workout (jumping jacks, jog in place)
  • Perform dynamic stretching to loosen your muscles
  • Perform some static stretching after your workout to elongate your muscles and improve your range of motion

I have a very sensitive left bicep from a prior injury, and it gets irritated when I do any pulling exercises.  So I always do some very light curls with dumbbells or a barbell prior to doing chin ups to really warm up my biceps.

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