Many who have discovered strength training for themselves pursue the goal of learning a proper pull-up. Pull-ups are a great challenge for women in particular, as they are proportionately much weaker in the upper body than men due to their anatomy. But men also have a deficit in this basic exercise more often than they realize: often the range of motion is shortened, so that although some repetitions are performed, these cannot be classified as full pull-ups. In this article, we will discuss a correct execution of the movement, the muscle groups involved and the right methods to learn pull-ups.
What does a proper chin-up look like?
In order not to make the explanation too complex, we’ll talk about a chin-up with a shoulder-width neutral grip. This is also - normally - the strongest grip and therefore the easiest to learn. Other grip variations will be discussed in the next section but one. A correct pull-up begins with the arms fully extended. The pulling movement is performed by the muscles in the upper back between the shoulder blades and the arm flexor muscles. Another section is more specific about the muscles involved in the pull-up. The elbows are pulled back and the aim is to touch the top of the pull-up bar with the shoulder so that the chin goes over the bar in the uppermost position. Only in this way can one speak of performing a full range of motion during the pull-up.
In addition, the hips should remain straight, which is achieved either by keeping the legs fully extended the entire way or by bending the knees backwards. However, the knees should not be pulled forward at all.
After pulling up, lower yourself in a controlled manner until you are fully extended (unhooked) and then start another repetition if necessary:
Which muscles are trained during the chin-up?
Depending on the chin-up variation (grip width, grip variation, execution, etc.), the muscle type involved shifts a little. Basically, however, you can name certain main muscles that are active during the chin-up. Again, we assume a shoulder-width and neutral grip.
The latissimus dorsi muscle (large lateral back muscle) and the arm flexor muscles (brachialis and brachioradialis) are primarily active in this classic chin-up. The “teres major”, a smaller muscle that attaches to the back of the shoulder blade and is connected to the humerus, also has an important role in the chin-up. Among other things, it supports the latissimus dorsi muscle and the arms during the pulling movement in the chin-up.
The pectoralis major (large chest muscle), the abdominal muscles, the shoulders (deltoids) and the rhomboids (inside the shoulder blade) serve as secondary support muscles during the chin-up. So it is clear that pull-ups and chin-ups require a very high total recruitment of large and small muscle groups. This makes the exercise extremely demanding on the one hand, but also one of the most effective exercises for the upper body, which is why it is often referred to as the "king of upper body exercises". Since chin-ups require you to pull up your entire body weight, they already require well-developed basic strength (including a strong back) and a lot of body tension. In addition, the nervous system is strongly challenged, which is why performance usually drops sharply after an "all out" set.
What are the different pull-up variations?
There are many versions of the chin-up. There is fundamentally neither a wrong nor a better variation, because as with the squat, they all have their justification. It is only important to always know why you are currently using which one and to understand its biomechanics, muscle recruitment and energy system.
Pull-ups usually refer to a pronated grip (overhand grip). Pronated chin-ups can be held in different widths. The wider the grip, the more isolated the latissimus dorsi has to work, which makes the exercise even more advanced, as the arm muscles and other stabilizers only provide support to a very limited extent.
The supinated grip (underhand grip) and the neutral grip belong to the chin-ups because here the chin can go the furthest over the bar. The muscles involved in the neutral grip have already been described. In the underhand grip variation, where the palms of the hands face you, the biceps brachii are used more. A higher proportion of the arm flexor muscles are active.
The above-mentioned variations belong to the basics of the chin-up bar, but there is an enormous range of other methods and variations for performing chin-ups.
Learn chin-ups - the challenge
As already mentioned, it is a great challenge, especially for women, to manage a chin-up in the full range of motion. This is because the female sex has a relatively weaker upper body, which is hard to miss visually: narrower shoulders and back and less developed back and arm flexor muscles. However, there are also many men who pursue this goal and have difficulties with it. Limiting factors include too much body fat in relative terms, as this is inactive extra weight. Reducing body fat can therefore also play a part on the way to the first chin-up.
Individual anatomy and physiology also play a role. For example, very long arms can make it more difficult. Since the nervous system is crucial in such a global exercise, this is also a factor to consider. Even with all these challenges, the goal is still achievable - even if the duration of the progression can take up to more than a year.
Three steps to your first chin-up
The chin-up machine in gyms or the chin-up with a band are not recommended in most cases. These two options very rarely lead to the goal. It is much more promising to make the eccentric movement very strong. Specifically, this means negative chin-ups. The following progression can be integrated into the training plan. Each step can be trained for three to four weeks. Some also need to be repeated.
In addition, the right additional exercises must be chosen to support the chin-up training. To do this, the muscle groups involved above must be strengthened with targeted slow controlled eccentric and almost concentric movements. Different variations of biceps curls, especially those with an overhand grip (pronated) as well as specific exercises for the latissimus dorsi and the “teres major” are useful.
1. 5-30s Isometric Chin Up Lower/Hold - Supinated Grip at the top of the bar with an underhand grip (supinated shoulder-width):
2. Eccentric chin-up: 10-30s negative chin-up neutral shoulder wide grip:
3. Eccentric chin-up with additional weight (dip belt) release 30s.
If 10-15% of your bodyweight can be released as additional weight for 30 seconds slowly and in a controlled manner at a steady pace, the first bodyweight chin-up should be able to be pulled up. If this is not yet the case, it makes sense for a person to give some assistance with the pull-up, if this is done for a few training sessions, the nervous system will then also be ready:
By the way: You can also learn chin-ups while doing outdoor sports and improve your chin-up - just find a playground with a climbing frame, a sturdy clothes pole or the nearest outdoor gym - and you're ready to go! Good luck with your first chin-up!
In the following article you will find a more detailed example programme for chin-up progressions!