_ People think that when you do chin-ups, it’s all about getting the chin over the bar, but it doesn’t have to be. I find it’s much more practical to think about getting the elbows down, pulling them towards your buttocks. You aren’t pulling down to the front – if your intention is to bring your elbows behind you, it’ll open the chest, arch the back naturally (which is what you want) and really engage all your mid- and upper-back muscles, which are the ones we want chin-ups to develop.
There are two ways (a billion really, but today I’ll talk about two) you can look at the strength exercises you do: either you’re training body parts, or you’re training movements. I used to train with a body-parts mentality, but I don’t think it’s as effective when it comes to developing your athleticism. If you think of working the muscle hard, fatiguing it, you’re focusing on expending energy for its own sake – to burn calories, or stimulate a growth response, or whatever. But if you focus on movements, you start to see your training in terms of efficiency, leverage, and understanding momentum and the application of force to achieve something specific, rather than simply chasing fatigue.
I think everything about strength training ideally comes down to promoting good (harmonious, efficient, etc.) movement patterns within your body. If you are capable of efficient, natural, harmonious movement, then you build up your strength, you’ll ultimately be able to do a lot of really cool stuff, not the least of which includes getting around the world with mobility and freedom. Then when you develop your strength, and you put power behind efficiency, clearly this leads to good results.
_ If however, you just focus on working the muscles, developing tension for the sake of growth, that won’t necessarily help you move any better or freer in your day-to-day life. It can make a lot of things worse – you can start to get in your own way.
So to bring it back to chin-ups, I like to focus primarily on efficient lifting, which includes taking a look at body positioning and biomechanical thingies, and then developing strength. If you arch your back when you pull, you’re squeezing the ‘right’ muscles. What we don’t want a chin-up to do is contribute to hunched-shoulder-internal-rotating-postural-collapse. We want it to open the shoulders, not close them, because our strength training should serve to improve our posture, not worsen it.
_ If you think about getting your chin up over the bar, this usually leads to rounding the shoulders forward and craning the neck, which has nothing to do with efficient or powerful movement patterns – it only has to do with straining your neck. If you focus on pulling the shoulders back and down, broadening the chest, pulling the elbows down towards the buttocks, and lifting the chest towards the bar without craning the neck, you should feel (after a while) a nice strong contraction through the back, and you should feel the chest opening. Ultimately, it should feel strong and satisfying, not awkward or laboured.
The pictures to the left: if you look at how high my hips are, you’ll see that in both examples I’m actually moving my body the same distance through space, even though in picture A it looks like I’m further away from the bar. But in picture B, I’m only making up that distance by craning the neck and hunching the shoulders – I’m tight through the front, but there’s not much muscular activity happening in my upper back. For my money, example A is the better chin-up, even though my chin is further away from the bar. The back may look like it’s arched a little too much, but the mid-back is solid, the lats are engaged, the neck is comfortably aligned, the chest is broad, the shoulders are pulled down away from the ears. You may be very weak in this position, but ultimately your chin-ups will progress further than they would otherwise, if you focus on engaging your upper-back muscles. You can jump, you can train with your feet on the floor, you can try applying this kind of pull to any of the techniques I’ve previously written about. See how it feels – you’re your own best judge of technique.
_Ideally, we can think of chin-ups as chest-ups – if you pull the elbows and shoulders down, you’ll ultimately be lifting the chest towards the bar, and this will help to develop all the upper back muscles.
It can quite literally take years to get to the point where you can touch your chest to the bar without hunching the shoulders. Some people argue you should bring the lower part of your sternum to the bar, which I am currently incapable of doing. Few people are. The reason it’s so hard is because it kinda requires you to re-build your posture, and that’s never going to happen quickly.
So the importance of avoiding overtraining becomes apparent. When you train too much, when you’ve fatigued your ‘prime mover’ muscles, and you’re jerking your way up to the bar however you can, you’re not training efficient movement patterns – you’re training inefficient ones.
It doesn’t matter how high you pull, if you’re pulling at the right angle, you’ll engage the right muscles, and if you’re pulling at a poor angle, it’ll feel really funky in your joints. This is something that can’t really be explained all that well, but can be experienced. Pay attention to how you feel on every repetition. Bring your awareness to the activity, and see how you feel. Do your hands need to be wider? Narrower? Are you needlessly straining your neck? How high can you pull before the shoulders collapse forward? How high feels right? Can you hold the contraction for a heartbeat at the top, or do you fall straight back down?
All lifting exercises should feel comfortable in your joints. You should feel your muscles working, not the joints straining. If your joints feel compromised, either your alignment is off, or the load is too heavy. More likely the former than the latter. This is self-corrective, you can find the right position for you by investigating. Try to identify what a good feeling in the muscles is, and what isn’t. It can take a while to work out. In the meantime, try not to overdo it, and deepen your awareness as you go.
It doesn’t really matter whether you’re using assistance to complete your chin-ups in the form of a band, a machine, or standing on the floor or anything else, or you’re kipping with the legs or whatever, if you focus on pulling the elbows back and down, broadening the chest, lifting the sternum in the direction of the bar, you should start to feel a powerful pull coming from the mid-back, and that’s ultimately going to help your chin-ups even if they feel weak this way to begin with. I am repeating this point a lot, because it’s a good mantra to go through when you’re training: start by pulling the shoulders down, chest up, elbows towards the butt, squeeze the mid-back, check your neck, lower and repeat.
If you’re doing a wide grip, palms-facing-away-from-you pull-up, try initiating the movement by pressing the bar forward - away from you - as outlined in my previous post on chin-ups, where I wrote more about what you can work on in the bottom position when your arms are straight. If you start by pressing the bar forward, you can get a feeling for a circular kind of momentum that can be helpful, and that transfers really well into an elbows-back kind of pull.
When it comes to almost any variation of the chin-up, we have a way of compensating with our arms and chest because the back is weak, but if you always train your chins in an arm-chest dominant kind of way, they’ll never be as strong as they would be if you learn to pull through your back.
It helps to remember that force of will can’t magically un-fatigue a fatigued muscle, and when your form starts to break down – that’s it, you’re fatigued. Pushing through too hard will just encourage inefficient movement patterns, but training well - that will stimulate you to grow stronger. It can be a confusing line. Focus on what you can focus on, think about awareness and movement patterns rather than mindless exertion, and see how you go.
Those of you who have been following my chin-up advice may still be a while away from doing full, unassisted chin-ups, but it’s never too soon to think about developing a strong, efficient pull. Having written about the bottom position previously, and now the top position in this post, there’s still a bit to talk about when it comes to moving between the two - how far you are comfortable going, whether to use partial range of motion or static holds, stuff like that. As long as your joints feel comfortable, you’re in a good place. If you can progress from one technique to the next when you’re ready, that should lead to good chin-upping skills development, especially if you keep working on efficient movement patterns, strengthening your grip, and developing your awareness of your scapular and upper back muscles.