chin ups

Hang Tough: Perfecting Your Pull Ups (& Chin Ups) Part 1

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Pull ups & chin ups are 2 great bodyweight exercises that can be performed almost anywhere, with minimal equipment. Hitting a variety of muscles including the traps, lats, biceps and delts, pull ups & chin ups should be incorporated in to any strength & muscleImage building programme. In fact, there is no better exercise for building strength in the upper body. There are significant differences between the two exercises and this guide will illustrate not only the differences between the chin up & pull up, but also how to perform them correctly, even if at the moment you can’t even perform 1!

So what is a pull up? Grab a bar and hang from it. Now, pull yourself up until your chin clears the bar. That’s it! If you use an overhand grip (palms facing away from you), you’re performing a pull up. If you’re using an underhand grip (palms facing you), you’re performing a chin up. It’s as simple as that!  Of course you can make the exercises harder or easier depending on your level of strength, but both the pull up & chin up are still great exercises in this basic form.As we stated earlier, they are exercises that can be performed almost anywhere that you can hang from.

The full pull up technique can be broken down into 7 key points.

1. Start each rep from a ‘dead hang’, with the arms extended fully.

2. Using an overhand grip, take the bar close to the fingers not the palm.

3. Breathe at the bottom of the movement as this is much easier than trying to breathe at the top.

4. Focus on a point above the bar & pull up towards the bar, pushing the chest out and shoulders back. Don’t allow the shoulders to pull forward as this places unnecessary stressImage on them.

5. On the drive, pull your elbows towards the floor. This engages the stronger latissimus dorsi muscles.

6. Bend at your ankles behind you, this is a much stronger position than just having the legs hang below you.

7. Using your legs to aid in the drive is known as ‘kipping’. Only incorporate this when you are tired.


The hardest part of the pull up is the actual pulling up portion. Only around 1% of women can perform unassisted pull ups. If you have a training partner, have them assist you in the lifting portion of the exercise by providing a platform for your ankles to push against or by aiding you at the hips. If you have suitable equipment, tie an elasticated band to the bar and hook it underneath where your ankles are crossed, again to provide some assistance on the lifting portion. Click HERE for an example on how to do this!

If you have one available, utilise the ‘Assisted Pull Up Machine’. This machine works by using a counter-balance, which reduces the amount of your bodyweight that you are forced to lift. The greater the amount of weight selected, the less bodyweight you are pulling up to the bar. This is a good machine for those with very little upper body strength, however as you are unable to control the decent or ‘negative’ portion of the exercise, progress can be slow. Therefore, it is much better to use assistance from a partner instead of this machine.


The lowering portion of the pull up or ‘the negative’ is a controlled decent from the bar to the arms fully extended & because you are working with gravity instead of against it, it is an easier part to perform for the beginner. Performing ‘negative only’ repetitions is a great way to build up the strength on route to performing your first full rep. This can be achieved in a couple of ways.

1. Using a Team Mate – As we stated above, have a partner aid you in the lifting portion & slowly lower yourself back down

Image2. Step Up To Achieve – Place a step or bench beneath the bar & jump up into the top of the movmenet before again slowly lowering yourself back down.

3. Challenge Your Negative – Some people may get to a point of being able to perform multiple negative reps, without being able to do a full pull up. Adding some extra weight using a dipping belt or a small dumbbell.

Chin ups are an easier exercise to perform than pull ups, so utilise the above methods using the chin up technique. However, try to use both methods as they do utilise slightly different areas of the body.

Once you can perform 10-15 full repetitions, adding resistance in the form of a dipping belt with added weight, or a dumbbell held between the knees will keep the exercise challenging.

In Part 2 of the ‘Hang Tough’, we will look at more challenging versions of the movement, including ‘muscle ups, ‘side-to-sides’ and asymmetric chins!

Wide or Narrow Grip Pull-Downs/Pull-Ups: Does It Make a Difference?

Although my bread & butter is personal training, my background involves a combination of athletics, martial arts and strength & conditioning. I have various S&C qualifications and along with competing next in fitness/muscle model competition, S&C coaching will become more prevalent in my TBS life. I have always been a keen advocate of training both the mind & body and “everyday’s a school day” is a term often used. So, following on from the recent Poliquin articles i’ve posted, here is another strength related article written by Brad Longazel from EliteFTS. I make sure to read consistently and an article regarding an exercise all of my PT clients will be familiar with, pull ups/chin ups! Enjoy!

Wide for wide, in for in, in for out, out for in—we’ve heard all the catch phrases for where to hold the bar on a lat pull-down. But do a few inches in or out really make a difference? The latissimus doris (LD) primarily works to create two major actions on the arm. It works in adduction (pulling the arms to the sides of the body) and extension (pulling the arms down from a horizontal position past the torso; 2). Muscles contract in the same fashion, fibers become shorter, and this creates movement. If muscles all contract the same, why does a changing in hand position on pull-downs and pull-ups feel vastly different?

The Department of Kinesiology at Pennsylvania State University took on the challenge of answering this question. They looked at electromyographic (EMG) action of the latissimus dorsi, biceps brachii, and middle trapezius under varying hand positions on the lat pull-down to determine which created the greatest amount of muscular activity in each of the muscle groups.

It’s all in the grip

Much of the way lat pull-downs are performed is based on personal belief and experience. Though the lat has a few anatomical variations from person to person, it still ultimately performs the same two major actions for everyone. With the movement, the bar path will go in one of two directions. The bar can be pulled in front of the head or behind it (or you can rock back like your dodging an undercut (not the optimal method) for a few). Any pull-down movement performed behind the head can narrow and impinge the tendons that run through the subacromial space and lead to pain or even tendentious in the glenohumeral joint if it is done repetitively (2). There is an endless number of ways to perform the movement. But which one is the best for muscular development and shoulder health?

Penn State took twenty regularly active men and had them perform wide over-handed, wide under-handed, narrow over-handed, and narrow under-handed gripped pull-downs (3). Due to negative effects of behind the neck pull-downs, all pull-down styles where performed in front of the head. In efforts to see how hard each muscle was working, EMG electrodes were placed parallel to the muscle fibers’ anatomical orientation on the latissimus dorsi, biceps brachii, and middle trapezius. Then the men performed each style of pull at 70 percent of their one rep max.  After all results were analyzed, it was found that wide grip over-handed lat pull-downs had elicited greater muscular activity of the latissimus dorsi than either wide or narrow under-handed pulls. Results also displayed that there wasn’t any significant difference in wide or narrow gripped over-handed pull-downs. Further, EMG results from the middle trapezius and biceps brachii muscular activity failed to show any difference between any styles of the pull-down (3). What does this all boil down to? If you’re targeting specific lat strength, grip the bar over-handed. It doesn’t matter whether it’s wide or narrow. Just make sure that it’s over-handed in terms of muscular activity.

Why over-handed?

Over-handed lat pull-downs and pull-ups reign as champion. This is purely an anatomical reason when the movement is broken down. When the forearm is placed in an over-hand (pronated) position, it places the shoulder in a mechanically disadvantaged state (1). This causes the lats to perform a greater amount of work compared to an under-handed pull. Many may think that this is due to the biceps compensating and taking over in the under-hand pull-down, but this isn’t so. The EMG results from the study cancel out this idea. Biceps brachii showed similar activity in all four styles. The real reason is linked to the fact that when you hold a bar in an over-hand position and look out at your elbows, they are positioned more to the side of your body than in an under-handed position. When the elbows are out, the shoulder joint has to travel in a greater range of motion to complete the pull-down, which explains why the lats were activated to a greater degree when held with an over-hand grip (1). Optimizing this fact in your training can be done with a rotator bar, which forces you to move your elbows even further out to your sides. Over-handed pulls reign supreme, and the debate is finally settled. Wide or narrow is of no matter. Just hold the bar over-hand, right? This is true with one slight limitation. The latissimus dorsi’s anatomical structure is generally the same on everyone, but the joint that it directly influences has a few more considerations to note before you grip the bar and start spreading those lats.

Shoulder joint limitations

The shoulder is a highly mobile joint. It needs to be strengthened to produce force yet mobile enough to move through a full range of motion. Over-handed grip pull-downs and pull-ups are great for developing the lats, but they will also place the shoulder into a externally rotated state, which can be a problem for people suffering from rotator cuff tears, tendentious, or even frozen shoulder in extreme cases (2).

When pain is present in the shoulder, proper movement should be a greater concern over which movement is going to give you the biggest bang for your time spent in the gym. Under-hand gripped pulls are great for keeping the shoulder in a more neutral non-rotated position, but there are better choices. Neutral grip pulls with bars such as the Swiss multi-grip cable bar, the fat grip double D handles, and the fat grip neutral lat pull-down bars are better choices for two reasons. The neutral hand position will place a greater amount of work on to the lats without compromising the position of the shoulder joint. It also disperses the load over the entire hand, which helps maintain forearm and elbow health in the lower arm. A neutral grip will be the most beneficial choice with the presence of shoulder pain. Once the pain or issue is relieved, it’s time to rotate that grip around and get the most out of your pull-ups or pull-downs.


The debate over the best method to perform the lat pull-down has lingered for years in the minds of self-proclaimed gym gurus and professionals alike. We can all now sleep better at night knowing that the debate has finally been settled. Wide or narrow doesn’t matter. Just make sure that you can see the back of your hands when you do your pulls. This will ensure optimal lat development. But we aren’t all created equal. Limitations to training arise with injuries, and modifications need to be made to ensure that movements can be performed safely. If the shoulder joint is limited in movement—be it flexion, abduction, or external rotation—switching to a neutral grip is the best approach. Removing external rotation from the pull-down will allow you to continue working when pain limits optimal movement. Lat pull-downs are a wonderful exercise when working up a client or yourself to a full pull-up. Make sure to select your grip appropriately based on shoulder health and then unleash the potential packed in your back.

Works cited

  1. Antinori F, Felici F, Figura F, Marchetti M, Ricci B (1988) Joint moments and work in pull-ups. J Sports Med Phys Fitness 28: 132–37.
  2. Crate T (1996) Analysis of the lat pull down. J Strength Cond Res19: 26–9.
  3. Lusk S, Hale B, Russell D (2010) Grip Width and Forearm orientation Effects on Muscle Activity During the Lat Pull-Down. J Strength and Conditioning Research 24:1895–1900.