The short answer is YES! But of course there is a catch.
Chin-ups are freakin’ awesome! To me, they are the king daddy of all upper body pulling movements. Check out some of the many benefits of performing chin-ups:
Chin-ups Train a Huge Amount of Musculature
– The chin-up builds and strengthens the musculature of the lats, the upper back/posterior shoulder, the biceps, the forearms, and the abdominals. That’s some serious bang for your buck!
They Keep Body Fat Levels in Check
– It’s VERY difficult to be good a chin-ups if you are carrying around a bunch of excess body fat. Relative strength is a very important characteristic for athleticism and for general health and fitness. There is no better indicator of relative strength than the chin-up. If getting big and strong is your goal, then tracking your chin-ups can be a great way to ensure you’re not gaining that size and strength at the expense of, dare I say, a less functional body. If your building strength and muscle and your chin-ups increase or at least stay the same then you pretty much know that you didn’t gain a lot of excess body fat in the process. If your chin-up numbers drop as you get bigger and stronger, then your body composition probably took a hit in the process. If your primary goal is to get lean and mean, then I would say the chin-up should be your primary indicator of progress. I can almost guarantee that as your fitness and body composition improve, so will your chin-ups.
Chin-ups are Old School
– There is nothing fancy about a chin-up. All you need is something to pull yourself over and you’re good to go. The chin-up is old school to the core.
Chin-ups have a very high “Cool Factor”
– Is there anyone out there that isn’t inspired by the idea of pulling ones whole body weight over something with nothing but your own two hands. I think this exercise tugs at the primal side in all of us. I’m getting kind of amped up just writing about it. The chin-up is awesome. Period.
The Chin-up Promotes Better Posture and a More Balanced Shoulder
– Our society is obsessed with developing the front side of their body or the “beach muscles”. The chin-up works the upper back like crazy and can help offset the negative side effects of overworking the front of the body. It can also help offset the effects of poor posture in general.
So then what’s the catch? The catch is that not that many people execute the Chin-up properly!
From what I can tell, there are A LOT of people doing chin-ups in the name of balancing out their body from all the pressing movements (bench presses, push-ups, military presses, etc) they do on a regular basis. I’m afraid that with the technique most people use, they are actually doing the exact opposite of their intention.
Before I go any further, I have to give credit to Zach Moore for knocking this concept through my thick skull. As a former terrible “chin-uper”, it took quite a few months of Zach preaching proper chin-up form to me for any of this to mean anything in my mind.
Common Chin-up Technique Flaws
There are two main technique issues I commonly see people doing with their chin-ups. There are many other common issues, but these two have huge implications in regards to posture.
The First Main Flaw
The Finish – Anterior Glide of the Humerus
A properly performed chin-up should end in scapular depression and retraction. That means that the shoulder blades should be squeezed “down and back” to finish the movement. To do that, most people will find it necessary to take their chest all the way to or at least very close to the bar. A finish position should look very similar to the picture left. In this position, I’m putting a huge load on my low traps, mid traps, and rhomboids, all of which are hugely important for scapular stability and shoulder health. If this is the way you finish your chin-ups, then you are in fact doing a lot to counteract poor posture and bad shoulder position.
The problem arises when that is not the finish position. Because of the benefits stated above, it’s becoming popular to just prescribe chest-to-bar chin-ups. Without an understanding of why we want the chest to go to the bar though, people will inevitably get their chest up there, however their body deems easiest. What usually happens is people get their chin just above bar and proceed to roll their shoulders forward to get the chest to the bar. In this
position, which is pictured to the right, I’ve simply let my humerus glide anteriorly in order to create a closer distance between me and the bar. While it is easier, it’s definitely not correct.
What is wrong with this position?
1. In this position, I am primarily using my lats. I’ve completely taken the load off the upper back musculature (mid/low traps, rhomboids). You can even see my shoulder blades starting to wing. The problem is that the lats not only extend the arm, but they internally rotate the arm in the socket. Many postural issues are derived in part from stiff internal rotators that constantly pull the shoulder into poor position. If I don’t allow my upper back musculature to check the preferred path of the lats, then I’m only feeding the fire.
2. As I mentioned above, the humerus is glided way forward in the socket. That means it could very easily irritate the front of the shoulder capsule if repeated many times or if combined with other exercise that place stress on that area.
3. Poor position doesn’t translate to anything else we do in the gym. The proper position transfers to almost everything. What position should the upper back be in during a bench press? Exactly the same position they are in the first picture. What position should the upper back be in during a squat? Exactly the same position they are in the first picture. What exercise requires me to be in the 2nd position? None that I can think of. Why would we strengthen a useless position? Like I mentioned in my previous post, good movement is good movement. Period!
The Second Main Flaw
Too Much Extension!
This one is slightly easier to explain. You shouldn’t need to arch your low back at any point to do a chin-up! Yet, nearly everybody does. This problem can occur at both the top and the bottom of the movement.
If you are doing chin-ups in the name of posture, than this is a big deal. Everyone
now a days seems to be stuck in extension. This is a wonderful opportunity to train yourself out of bad posture. You’ll often hear people say that chin-ups require considerable work from the abs or core muscles. I fail to see how that’s possible if you let your lumbar spine arch as hard a possible on every rep. Your abs should be in control of your spine and pelvis throughout the movement.
The lats attach to the pelvis via the thoraco-lumbar fascia. Because of that, they have the ability to extend the lower back. Earlier I talked about how we have to engage the upper back musculature to check the lats and maintain proper position. Well, the situation is very similar at the lower back. Throughout a chin-up the abs should remain rigid as to not allow the lats to extend the lower back. No matter how you do a chin-up, the lats are going to get considerable work. It’s up to the surrounding musculature to hold the body in proper position while the lats work.
What is Perfect Technique?
Now that we’ve gone over common postural faults in the chin-up, let’s put it all together. I don’t want to send anyone away from this article without knowing what the perfect chin-up looks like. Here are the key steps to executing the perfect rep. Check out the video below for a visual reference.
–Reach overhead and grip the bar with whatever you’re preferred grip is. I’ve referred to chin-ups where the wrists are supinated (underhand) throughout the article, but all the above points apply to any grip you use whether it’s neutral, overhand, ring pull-ups, etc.
–Every rep starts from a dead hang with abs braced. Think about tucking your pelvis under (posterior pelvic tilt) with your abs and then actively hold it there throughout the movement. This will make sure your lower back is not allowed to overly arch.
–Initiate the movement by pulling yourself upward. Think about “pulling though the elbows”. This will ensure you’re actually using your back and not just using your biceps.
–As your chin approaches the bar, you’ll feel the urge to allow your shoulders to roll forward to finish the rep. Don’t!! This is where you actively squeeze your shoulder blades down and back to finish the movement. This may or may not get your chest to the bar, but it should be close. On your first few times trying this, this might be a hard one. I like to have people just hold the top for a while to get a feel for what that squeeze is like.
–Lower yourself under control while maintaining tension in your abs and then start again from the top for the desired reps.
–This is not a momentum exercise! Explode up and control the way down. But even when you explode, be in control! I won’t even begin to tackle the idea of “kipping”. That’s an entirely different exercise that you may or may not have a reason to include in your workouts.
Make sure to start employing these techniques right away! At worst, you make an old movement a bit more difficult. At best, you improve your posture, strengthen your abs, improve balance at your shoulder joint, and prevent some future injuries! If you have any questions, please feel free to shoot away in the comment section!