Chin Up - How to Do Your First

The chin up is a bodyweight exercise that works your back, arms, and core with minimal equipment but it can be very challenging to complete - even for the strongest athletes. Learn exactly how to perform these and a few other variations that can help you get your first one.

Personal trainer Steven Mack performing a chin up at a gym from a barbell

The chin up is a very effective exercise.

According to EMG research, the muscles it works include your:

  • Lats
  • Biceps Brachii
  • Infraspinatus
  • Lower Trapezius
  • Pectoralis Major
  • Erector Spinae
  • External Oblique

In other words your back, arms, and core.

That said, they're pretty hard to do. The progress you make can be slow and hard to notice which makes it hard to stay motivated.

In this article, we'll break down how to perform these, some alternatives, common mistakes and how to incorporate these into a well-rounded routine.

What are Chin Ups Good For?

Also referred to as the underhand pull up, supinated pull-up, and underhand pullups. It's a type of vertical pull, an important movement pattern. Vertical pulls involve either pulling yourself up to something or pulling something down to yourself.

For example:

  • Lat pulldowns
  • Banded Lat pulldowns
  • Pull-ups
  • Chin-Ups

They are good for developing strength and for building the muscles of your arms and back without using much equipment.

All you need is a bar and maybe some chalk, gloves, or straps.

Why are Chin-Ups So Hard?

Chinups are easier than pullups because they use your biceps a bit more. Assistance from your biceps makes them a bit more beginner friendly than pull-ups and a solid addition to your home workouts (or a gym you found a membership at).

Chin ups are hard because they require you to be strong enough to lift your entire bodyweight.

Seriously - When I played football at The University of Missouri, we had a few athletes who could squat +700 lbs. They weren't strong enough to complete very many of these at their weight.

Most other exercises start a bit easier. As you progress, you can work in 2.5, 5, and 10 lb increments to adjust the challenge. The chin-up starts with the entirety of your body so you need a few ways to make it more approachable. (More on that later)

If you want to make these harder, you can add a grip challenge by introducing "fat gripz" or by performing the move hanging from a towel.

Side note: You might buy some chalk to help with grip. Chalk increases friction to keep you from slipping. If your hands sweat profusely that extra grip can make all the difference. Some people also buy gymnastic straps as an alternative to this (just remember to wash them occasionally).

How long does it take to learn chin-ups? It's hard to say.

Meghan Callaway, creator of The Ultimate Pull-Up Program likes to think of complex exercises like these in terms of phases. It might take you 12 weeks to perform this or several months.

You can train yourself to do chin-ups by breaking the movement down into its components:

  • Start by learning to breathe and move your shoulder blades to initiate the pull.
  • Develop lumbopelvic stability that will help keep you from swinging using exercises like ab walkouts and dead bugs.
  • If needed, work to improve your grip strength.
  • Build positional strength by adding isometric pauses at the top, bottom, and middle of your reps.
  • Add variations that allow you to move through a full range of motion to try and improve the strength of the muscles themselves. Ex. Leg assistance/Band assistance/Machine assistance
  • Add in negatives or eccentric reps so you can begin to build strength using your body weight.

You may need to spend time on accessory exercises that help develop the supporting muscles that help you pull.- For example your biceps.

Chin-ups require core strength so you may need to incorporate other exercises that build that.

So you know, core movement patterns include:

  1. Rotation and anti-rotation (half-kneeling anti-rotation and twists)
  2. Flexion and anti-flexion (planks and hanging knee raises)
  3. Extension and anti-extension (hip thrusts and back planks)
  4. Lateral flexion and anti-lateral flexion (side plank and loaded carries)

You might find yourself struggling with different aspects of this move.

Looking back at the exercises that you have to put together helps you feel a sense of what to do next;

  • Swinging? Work on your core strength.
  • Can't hold on? Grip.
  • Can't pull yourself up? Focus a bit on getting stronger.

Occasionally retest your strength to see if you're making any improvements. Trying for one at the beginning of a session or trying every 4-6 weeks might be a good frequency.

Here's How to Perform a Chin Up:

The proper form looks like you're standing straight from head to toe

  • Start by finding a comfortable hand position to hang from. Most use a shoulder-width grip with the palms facing toward them though you may adjust this if that is uncomfortable for your wrist.
  • Cross one leg over another and squeeze your glutes. Alternatively, if your bar is too low to straighten your legs, keep your legs bent and pull your heels towards your butt.
  • Draw a breath down into your stomach through your nose.
  • Begin each rep by pulling your shoulder blades (scapulae) down and back towards your butt.
  • Pull yourself as high as you can, keeping your eyes forward and head neutral (it doesn't matter where your chin is).
  • At the top of your pull, you may breathe out through your mouth.
  • Lower yourself under control until your arms are straight.
  • At the bottom, your head will be between your elbows, similar to a shoulder press.
  • Not too fast, not too slow. Aim to perform your reps under control with maybe a 2 count on the way up and down.

Be sure you understand the difference between this and pull up thumb position:

  • Pronated grip, palms facing away from your body.
  • Supinated grip, palms face toward your body.
  • Neutral grip, palms facing each other or the midline of your body.

Note: If you can't (or can) perform this, you'll find some modifications to adjust the difficulty later in this article.

Bodyweight Chin-Up

Normal underhand grip (supinated)

Underhand hook grip (fingers wrapped over thumb, supinated)

Underhand false grip (thumb out, supinated)

Overhand grip - this is a pull-up (pronated)

Common Mistakes

There are quite a few common mistakes people make when performing this move that include:

  • Using the momentum from swinging the hips and legs to initiate or finish the move.
  • Focusing on getting the chin above the bar instead of fully contracting the muscles of the back - arm length makes a difference in where you'll "finish".
  • Not reaching full elbow extension between each rep.
  • Losing lumbopelvic stability or not keeping the core, glutes, and legs tight to avoid swinging.
  • Starting the pull with the arms. You want your shoulders to move first or at the same time as your arms. (it's called scapulohumeral rhythm)
  • Not allowing the shoulders to move freely throughout. Your shoulder blades are meant to move, they should rotate up and away from your spine as you lower yourself and down towards your spine as you pull.
  • Letting the shoulders creep up towards the ears. Some shrug and find they have a tough time getting their shoulder blades to move downward. This is often a strength thing though it could just be your form and concentration.

Chin Up Training Program

Imagine yourself effortlessly hoisting yourself up to the bar to crank out a few reps. You'll feel your back working but it won't be such a struggle. To get to that point, you'll need a plan.

Below this block of text, you'll find two workouts.

You can do both of them on separate days with some rest between or one routine, repeated twice in the week. If you opt for repeating, drop the difficulty of your second workout by ~10-15% by cutting your reps and or weight.

Can you do chin ups every day? Maybe, if you don't weigh much.

If you follow the principles of a sound exercise program, you'll have a smarter approach, balancing three interrelated training variables:

  1. Frequency - How often you workout
  2. Intensity - How hard your workouts are
  3. Volume - How much exercise you do

A good starting point:

  • Perform vertical pulling movements and accessories that help with them 2x per week.
  • Some of your movements will be in lower rep ranges to build strength while others will be in higher rep ranges to train movement patterns and build muscle.
  • A few variations will be provided to give you multiple paths to progress. Switch up your routine when you're ready to progress the move or after 4-6 weeks if you're getting beat up (or bored).

The amount of strength you need to complete reps depends on how much you weigh:

  • 3 sets x 3 reps x 180 lbs = 1620 lbs
  • 3 sets x 3 reps x 120 bs = 1080 lbs

If you weigh more, it might take a little longer to feel like you're making progress because it takes more time to build more strength.

You're still on your way! It can be helpful and slightly motivating to look at progress in related movement patterns and similar rep ranges. Ex. If you know that your pulling strength on pulldowns is improving in the 6-8 range, that's pretty close to the strength range.

After you perform your first, try to increase the number of total reps you perform over time. You can add weight to this just like every other exercise. For this reason alone, sometimes I have clients track their weight plus additional load added. I notice a huge difference in the difficulty of this move when my weight fluctuates 5-10 lbs. The struggle is real on those heavier days.

Note: If any of this is unclear to you, review some basics of strength training: frequency, intensity, and volume. Think of these three as the foundation of your program.


  • Perform dynamic exercises (like this shoulder mobility routine from E3 Rehab).

Cool Down:

  • Stretch the muscle groups you worked while you're still warm.

Workout A: Strength

  • 1. Hanging Scapular Retraction 3 sets of 8-10 reps
  • 2. Negative Chin Up 3-4 sets of 3-5 reps
  • 3. Concentric Hang 3-5 sets of 5-15 seconds
  • 4. Bent Over Dumbbell Row 3 sets of 8-10 reps
  • 5. Bicep Curl 2-3 sets of 10-12 reps
  • 6. Band Resisted Dead Bug 2-3 sets of 5-10 reps on each side

Rest 2-3 minutes between sets on exercises 2 and 4.

You can rest as long as you need but as short as possible on all remaining exercises.

Workout B: Pull Focused

  • 1. Band Resisted Dead Bugs 2-3 sets of 5-10 reps on each side
  • 2. Hanging Scapular Retraction 3 sets of 8-10 reps
  • 3. Band Assisted Chin-Up 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps
  • 4. Concentric Hang 3-5 sets of 5-15 seconds
  • 5. One arm Dumbbell Row 2-3 sets of 10-12 reps
  • 6. Bicep Curl 2-3 sets of 12-15 reps
  • 7. Eccentric Wrist Curl 3 sets of 10 slow reps

Rest 1.5-3 minutes between sets on exercises 2 and 4.

You can rest as long as you need but as short as possible on all remaining exercises.

Exercises to help you with positioning, grip and scapular stability:

Along with a good diaphragmatic (belly) breath, these exercises will help you learn to own your body positioning. Because you're hanging, you'll have the added benefit of improving your grip strength and scapular control or ability to stabilize your shoulder blades.

You can perform these exercises for increasing amounts of time. First 3-5 sets of 5-15 seconds, then 3-5 sets of 15-30 seconds.

You might prefer to count reps and opt for 3 sets of 8-10 reps on the retraction.

It is possible to add load to these via a dip belt, vest, backpack, or weight held between the legs.

Basic Hang

Concentric Hang

Hanging Scapular Retraction

Exercises to help you build your pulling strength:

These exercises are challenging and are often trained in the 1-6 rep range. You can use these to prepare for your first rep or continue building once you've got it down.

Negative Chin-Up

The negative or eccentric is a focus on lowering yourself under control. Aim for a 3-5 count on the way down.

Eccentric Neutral Grip Chin-up

Exercises for building volume and muscle:

These exercises are closer variations of a normal pull but they're regressed in one way or another. They provide you with some assistance using bands (or your legs) though you can use a machine or partner to give you a boost.

Leg Assisted Chin Up

Use the minimum amount of leg assistance you need to complete each rep.

Band Assisted Chin-Up

Band-Assisted Chin-Up (J-cup)

2 Additional variations on what you came here for:

You can mix your grip up or add a challenge by adding a band or weight to serve as some resistance. Moving the height of the band will change where you experience resistance.

Neutral Grip Chin-Up

Band Resisted Chin-Up

It may take some time to get your first reps but try to have fun with the process. Don't be afraid to switch up your goals when things get a bit monotonous. Exercise is a lifelong game and there are endless opportunities to practice new moves in the future.

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Steven Mack is founder and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist at the private training studio, Simple Solutions Fitness. He consults for Stronger by Science, a leader in fitness research dissemination, and is a former Mizzou football walk-on. Steven dedicates his professional life to helping people through his writing, speaking, and role as a personal trainer.