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If someone asked you, “What muscles do chin ups work?”, could you give them the correct answer? Chances are you wouldn’t, and you don’t even realize it. This isn’t a bad thing, as it’s a common mistake most lifters get wrong. Read on below to learn the true answer.
Most trainees make a critical mistake when putting chins into their program. Because it’s similar to a pull up in execution (but with a palms facing you grip), many think the chin up is a back exercise. However, this isn’t true. When done properly, the chin up is actually a biceps exercise – not a movement for the lats.
This is because the forearms should stay as vertical as possible throughout the movement, and the body should rotate around the elbows. While the muscles of the back will definitely be involved, it’s the biceps that are the prime movers.
Now that you’ve answered the question of “what muscles do chin ups work?”, the next question is “where should they be put into your workout?” This will depend on your overall program layout. Chin ups should generally be considered a mass building exercise along the same lines as barbell or dumbbell curls. If you’re working biceps and triceps together, you’d want to do these early in your workout when you’re still fresh and can give the movement maximum effort.
However, if you’re working biceps and back in the same workout, you could use the chin up as a sort of “transition” from one body part to the next. Doing it in the middle of your workout like this can serve as a way to “finish” one body part while warming up the other. This applies regardless of if you’re doing back or biceps first.
When placed at the beginning of your workout, treat the exercise as a strength-based hypertrophy movement, doing sets of 6-8 reps. However, if used as a “transition” movement, do 40-50 total reps in as few sets as possible where the first set is done for at least 15 reps. In either instance, use external tools (e.g. – weight plates hanging from a dip belt or a pull up assistance machine) allow you be able to do your reps in the proper range.
In order to keep emphasis on the biceps while doing a chin up, there are two main things to keep in mind. The first is that you’ll want to ensure your torso stays as vertical as possible. As you pull yourself up, you may have the desire to arch your chest, squeezing your shoulder blades together. Doing this will shift the emphasis to your back, which isn’t want you want. Keeping the torso upright will make sure you’re using mostly biceps.
The next thing you’ll want to ensure will also help you maintain proper body position, and that’s that your elbows never come back past your sides. Since you’ll be at full extension at the bottom of the movement, you’ll have to bend/rotate around both the shoulder joint and elbow as your chin nears the pull up bar.
However, once your elbow gets to your side (roughly half way through a rep), don’t let it go any further back. Think about how you keep your elbows planted at your sides while doing a barbell curl. This is where you’ll want to keep your elbows until your chin reaches the bar, and then you lower yourself back to this point again on the way down. Doing this will minimize back involvement and maximize biceps stimulation.
It might take a little practice to get your chin up form down pat so as to place almost all the emphasis on the biceps. However, when you do, you can be sure that your biceps will be getting worked like they never have before, and will be growing bigger in short order.