Chin ups to Increase Strength in Your Back and Arms

Chin Ups Exercise

Chin ups are a great bodyweight exercise to increase strength as well as build lean muscle in your back and arms. They help you to 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! A 40″ chest with a 40″ waist is not your best look.

A good ratio to strive for is 1.3 or slightly higher. It takes a little work, but it can be achieved. 

Example of this Ratio:
42″ chest, 32″ waist = 1.3  (42 / 32 = 1.31) 

These 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 (or width) than your waist.

Table of Contents

Performing Chin Ups

Chin Up

  1. To perform chin ups, grasp the chin up bar with your palms facing you.
  2. Start in the down position, with your body hanging freely and your arms nearly straight (very slight bend). 
  3. From the hanging position, bend your knees slightly. You can also cross your legs for additional support and control.
  4. In a slow and controlled motion, pull your body up until your chin raises above the bar. Hold this position for 1 second.
  5. During the pulling motion, try to “squeeze” your back and lats to really isolate and work these muscles.
  6. Slowly low your body down to the start position. This is one rep.

Muscles Worked

Primary Muscles Worked 💪

  • Latissimus Dorsi (Lats)
  • Biceps Brachii (Biceps)
  • Rhomboids

Secondary Muscles Worked 💪

  • Rectus Abdominis (Abs)
  • Erector Spinae

Muscle Groups Worked During Chin-ups

Chin upsThere are two factors that will determine how many reps you can do:

  1. Your body fat percentage
  2. Strength

If your 50 pounds overweight, it will be very difficult to perform a single rep – unless you’re strong as a bull. 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:

Primary Muscles

  • 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)

Stabilizing Muscles

  • 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. (1)

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 chin ups 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 Chin Up

If you can’t do even 1 chin up, not to worry, here area 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). (2)

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.

Or if you have a chin up machine that provides for assisted chin ups, that works as well.

Assisted Chin Ups

Chin up Workout

Chin UpsTo 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.

Avoiding Injury When Doing Chin-ups

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

Return to more back exercises.

David Williams

David Williams

A diet and fitness enthusiast, David is an ex-Army Airborne Ranger and Infantry soldier with decades of fitness and wellness experience. A West Point graduate with a degree in engineering, he focuses on technical research related to fitness, nutrition, and wellness. He loves the beach and working out, and spending time with his wife and daughters.

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  1. Leaf Group. (n.d.). What muscles do chin ups work out? | livestrong. LIVESTRONG.COM.
  2. Anthony, K. (2018, April 13). All you need to know about concentric muscle contractions. Healthline.

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