Even many advanced or fit weightlifters and athletes struggle to do chin-ups correctly or with the full range of motion without using momentum.
This leads many people to ask: “What muscles do chin ups work?” After all, if you know the muscles worked with chin ups, you can strengthen the “chin-ups muscles used” to help you master the chin-up once and for all.
In this guide, we will explain how to perform chin ups and then delve into the muscles worked with chin ups along with variations and ways to modify chin ups based on your fitness level or to target slightly different muscles.
We will cover:
- What Is a Chin-Up?
- How to Do Chin-Ups
- Muscles Worked with Chin Ups
- How to Get Better At Chin Ups
Let’s jump in!
What Is a Chin Up?
Before we cover the “chin ups muscles worked,” let’s briefly cover what the chin-up exercise entails.
A chin-up is a bodyweight exercise that involves hanging from an overhead bar and then using the muscles in your arms, shoulders, core, and back to lift your body up while bending your elbows so that you bring your head (and chin) above the bar.
Some people even bring their chest up to the level of the bar or try to clear the clavicles over the chin-up bar.
Chin-ups are very similar to pull-ups. The only difference lies in the grip pattern or hand position used.With pull-ups, you use a pronated or overhand grip (palms facing away from your face) with your hands generally spaced slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
When performing chin-ups, the hand position is reversed, so you use a supinated or underhand grip with your palms facing your face.
Oftentimes, the distance between your hands with chin ups is less than it is with pull-ups, but it should be noted that with either exercise, modifying your hand spacing is a great way to target slightly different muscle fibers.
Chin-ups and pull-ups both target the same muscle groups for all intents and purposes, but the relative reliance on the muscle groups varies depending on the exercise.
Ultimately, changing the hand grip between the two exercises (underhand vs. overhand with chin-ups vs. pull-ups) position targets the muscles differently.
How to Do Chin-Ups
To perform chin-ups, you will need a stable pull-up bar or squat rack that can support your full body weight.
Here are the steps for how to perform chin-ups properly:
- Place a step, bench, or box underneath a secure overhead pull-up bar if you can’t reach it without simply raising your arms up. While many people do jump up and grab the bar, if you do so and then move right into your first chin-up rep, you are using momentum to help you get up over the bar. Therefore, if you do need to jump up to grab the bar and you don’t have any type of step you can use, allow your arms to fully extend down into a dead hang before you begin your first chin up.
- Grab onto the bar, positioning your hands about shoulder-width apart with your palms pointing towards your face (or the wall behind you; when your palms point away, you are in the pull-up vs chin-up position).
- Remove your feet from the step, box, or bench so you’re hanging onto the bar with your arms fully extended. If the bar is too low so that your feet are touching the ground, bend your knees so that your shins and feet are behind your body.
- Try to keep your upper body relatively relaxed, but engage your core and glutes for stability.
- Hang so that your elbows are fully extended before beginning your first rep.
- Engage your abs, lats, biceps, upper back muscles, shoulders, and chest to bend your elbows to raise your body up to the bar.
Muscles Worked with Chin Ups
In many ways, people have confusion about the “chin ups muscles worked“ simply because there are so many muscles that this exercise activates, it can be hard to remember all of the various muscles used with chin ups.
That said, the primary muscles chin ups work include the:
- Rhomboids and traps in the upper back
- Lats (which span almost the entire back)
- Biceps in the front of the upper arm
- Brachialis on the lateral part of the upper arm under the biceps
- Brachioradialis and all of the forearm/grip muscles
- Muscles of the shoulder, such as the teres major and deltoids
Some of the other supporting muscles chin ups work include the abdominal muscles, the serratus anterior, the rotator cuff muscles, the levator scapulae, and the deep spinal stabilizers and core muscles, including the transverse abdominis, lumbar multifidus, and thoracolumbar fascia.
It shouldn’t be understated that a benefit of chin-ups is that they also strengthen the wrist flexors, wrist extensors, and finger flexors involved in grip strength.
A lack of grip strength, which is primarily a matter of the strength of your forearm muscles, is actually the limiting factor for big lifts like maxing out on your deadlift, doing heavy carries, or kettlebell exercises.
This is definitely a major benefit of adding chin-ups (or pull-ups!) to your upper-body workout routine.
How to Get Better at Chin-Ups
The muscles worked with chin ups are some of the primary upper-body muscles that we tend to strengthen in most well-rounded strength training workout programs, push/pull workouts, arm workouts, and chest workouts.
However, because you have to lift your entire body weight with the muscles worked by chin ups (rather than having the ability to scale down the weight that you use as you may with curls, dumbbell chest press, etc.), chin-ups can be really difficult.
There are different ways to modify chin ups that will strengthen the chin up muscles without requiring you to lift your full body weight if you lack sufficient strength in the muscles chin ups work.
Holding the top position of a chin up is a great isometric exercise to build forearm mass and strength, improve grip strength, and strengthen some of the muscles worked with chin ups such as your biceps, pecs, deltoids, brachioradialis and forearm muscles, and the muscles in your upper back and shoulders.
You can even better strengthen your chin up muscles by using multiple joint angles for your isometric chin up hold position.
This will target different muscles for chin ups because you will be pausing and holding the chin up exercise at different parts of the range of motion.
Plus, incorporating this exercise into your chin up workouts is a great way to improve grip strength because you are working on your muscular endurance by increasing the length of your chin up holds or chin up bar hangs.
The longer you hold the particular chin up position, the more time under tension your muscles will get.
Here are the steps for this chin-up modification:
- Jump up and grab the chin-up bar with the chin-up position so that your palms are facing your body.
- Lift your body up to the end position so that your chin is above the bar.
- Hold this position for at least 15 seconds, or as long as possible.
- Slowly lower your body to about an 80-degree angle in your elbows and then hold the position for another 15 seconds.
- Then, lower your body until your elbows are almost all the way extended, but there is still about a 15° angle, and hold the position for another 15 seconds.
- Relax into a dead hang position before trying another set (if your fitness level allows).
You can also perform negative chin-ups (the lowering portion) and assisted chin-ups with resistance bands or an assisted pull-up machine.
Another way to get better at chin-ups is to strengthen the muscles chin-ups work with different exercises that use these same muscles.
Examples include pull-ups, dead hangs, bent-over rows, Pendlay rows, lat pull-downs, face pulls, straight-arm pulldowns, inverted rows (bodyweight), T-bar or barbell rows, renegade rows, and deadlifts.
Supplementary exercises like bicep curls, hammer curls, wrist curls, wrist rollers, captain’s chair, hollow holds, shrugs, and hanging knee raises can also help strengthen the muscles used in chin-ups.
Keeping your workout routine varied and staying consistent in your training will help you progress your chin-up performance and strengthen the muscles used for chin-ups.
If you are struggling with performing chin-ups, check out our guide to how to get better at mastering pull-ups here.