Top 12 Ways to Improve Your Chin Ups / Pull Ups

Posted: Saturday, 12 May 2012 by Strength&Nutrition24/7 in Labels: ,

Written by Vincent St. Pierre

The greatest training exercises involve moving the body through space. The exercise that may be the single greatest exercise for measuring upper body strength is the pull up.

Beyond this, it is an incredible exercise for developing your muscles and creating wings that you could fly with. It is such an incredible exercise that it is commonly known as the upper body squat. The US military service academies have traditionally used the pull-up to assess the degree of physical fitness. Further, in terms of rehabilitation and the avoidance of injuries, it is so important to balance in push and pull exercises.

Today, people tend to be mirror trainers and forget completely about the back side of the body and become extremely disproportionate in strength. When ones upper body push and pull strength is disproportionate it has been found to increase the likelihood of shoulder complex trauma such as rotator cuff injury or strain.

When I am training athletes and the general public, I ask them if they know how to do a chin-up, they laugh and always say “yes!” However, on only one occasion have I ever worked with an athlete who knew how to truly perform a proper chin-up.

How this all comes together will be shown in a video at the end of the post 

1) Number of Reps
Back muscles are designed with the purpose of maintaining your posture, which makes them have a higher percent of slow twitch fibers. Due to this, one should attempt to use a high rep range and a higher volume.
Try to aim for a repetition total of 25 to 50
This means, do as many sets as necessary to attain this rep range
Don’t go overboard on the first set and be incapable of continuing on the following sets

2) Lose the Dead weight (Fat)
Fat does not help you out at all. Not only does it not assist you, it hinders your performance. However don’t let excess body fat be an excuse for being unable to perform chin-ups. I have personally seen 300 lb men do chin-ups and 150 lb guys with 90 pounds hanging from their waist. Having extra body fat can help in some exercises such as squats and dead lifts however chin-ups is not one of them.

3) Do not go to failure 
When training, maintaining form and the quality of the movement is so much more important than going to failure. When one loses their form, the benefits of the exercise disappear and the risk of injury sky rocket.

As soon as you find your form begins to disintegrate, your set is over. Common mistakes that occur as one tires out:

Swinging your legs to build momentum (don’t let your chin-up look like your part of crossfit) This video is an absolute no

Curling your body like you’re doing a crunch

Not going up high enough

You would never continue a set of deadlifts if you could no longer lock out the weight. If you could only get up ¾ of the way and couldn’t lock the weight out you wouldn’t go for another couple of reps with your back rounding and leading to a herniated disk.

When training to failure, research has shown almost no benefit is acquired and long term. It puts an incredible amount of stress on your CNS system. I always tell clients that grinding out your reps is way overused and can hinder your performance in the long run. Check out this article for more info on training to failure 

4) My arms only get tired when I do back exercises
This issue is extremely common in people, particularly when they are beginners. With the sedentary lifestyle that most of us live, we generally have stronger arms then upper backs. Basically, this causes the body to skip retracting the back and fully activating the lats and attempt to perform the exercise by mainly using the arms. In fact, this difference in strength is generally so large that when I correct a clients form so that they don’t take the back out of the equation, they can’t even perform a single chin-up.

5) Chest position 
Many people attempt to curl their body when performing a Chin-up. When attempting to perform a chin-up, you want to push your chest up in order to allow for your back to assist in the chin-up properly.


  • Right now where ever you slouch and attempt to squeeze your scapula (shoulder blades) together.
  • Next, push your chest up high and try to bring your shoulder blades together. 
  • You should have experienced a significant  difference.
  • When your chest is pushed up high, it allows for your upper back to play a significantly greater role. 
  • While performing the chin-up or pull-up, remember to push the chest up and drive the elbows into your back pockets.

6) Starting position 

  • Use a sturdy bench or stool to reach bar if needed
  • Place hands approximately shoulder width apart (adjust for comfort or variation); note wider grip puts greater risk to shoulder health 
  • Grip firmly like you are trying to crush the bar 
  • Chest up, shoulders down and back, scapula retracted and down 
  • Head pulled back into neutral position like you’re trying to give yourself a double chin through the entire exercise
  • Start from a dead hang (meaning your arms not the shoulder and scapula). However do not let your elbows hyper extend

7) Activating your upper back 
This tip is really meant only for beginning to understand how to fire your back. This is not supposed to be a step long term in your motion of the chin-up. The activation should become natural

  • Place yourself into a complete dead hang shoulders and everything
  • Now without moving your arms, at the end of this, your body should have risen several inches
  • First, push your chest up 
  • Next, drive your shoulder blades together as if you are trying to crush your partner’s fingers between them 
  • Then force your shoulders down by tensing your lats. Have your partner grab them to make sure they are firm 
  • Your arms should still be straight (this should eventually become the bottom point of each rep)
  • Now from this position perform your chin-up while remembering to push the chest up and drive the elbows into your back pockets
  • Then repeat this for each rep until you feel you have control of activating the starting position. 

8) Drive Elbows
As noted before, people tend to focus on their arms to lift themselves. I always tell my clients not to think of trying to pull themselves up, rather, to think of driving their elbows into their back pockets

Experiment for you:
Place your arms so that your elbows are parallel with the floor and your hands are pointing to the sky. Next, have your partner place their hands under your elbows and tell them to resist you. Now try to drive your elbow into your back pockets while keeping your chest pushed up.
You should have felt your lats activate.

9) Bring your collar bone to the parallel with the bar
In reality, I want you to drive your chest into the bar. However, many beginners are not capable of this. For the beginners I would like them to at least bring their collarbone to the level of the bar.

10) Use the variety of grip variations
There are many grip variations which each have their own benefits.

  • Chin-up grip involves your palms facing you, this is the easiest with, because it allows for your biceps to play a larger role. 
  • Pull- up grip is when the palms of your hands face away from you. This is the most difficult and puts the greatest emphasis on the back.
  • Neutral grip is when your hands face each other. This is probably my favorite because it puts the least amount of stress on your shoulders. 

11) Cadence
There is a fair bit of debate on how fast one should perform chin-ups.

If you want to improve your relative strength on the concentric phase (as you raise your body) go at a fast pace, for the eccentric phase (as you descend) attempt to lower over a period of 2 seconds

If  your goal is to improve hypertrophy you really want to target those slow twitch fibers and go with a 2 second concentric phase and a 4 second eccentric.

12) Intensity 
Once you are capable of exceeding 10 reps per set it is time to start adding weight.

There is no point in doing a massive amount of reps per set, this will not improve your strength it will just increase your endurance.

Try using a weight belt to attach the weight