Chin-ups are the best exercise

2 unexpected truths that made me want to do more chin-ups

Everybody knows the classic chin-up. Place your palms facing towards you on the bar, pull hard and lift your chest to your hands, and lower yourself back down under control.

It mainly works the lats—the big muscle on your back called the latissimus dorsi. Building up your lats contributes to the coveted v-taper that makes you look broader and more manly. That makes the chin-up a classic exercise.

But what surprised me is that while researching for two different articles, the chin-up appeared where I didn’t expect it to…

Surprise #1: The Chin-Up and The Six-Pack

While researching our super-guide on building a rock-solid core, I stumbled upon some personal EMG experiments by Dr Contreras. EMG means electromyography, and one thing it can do is measure the electrical force produced by muscle contractions. Using EMG can give you an idea of what exercises best activate muscles.

Anyways, he wrote about these personal EMG experiments on T-Nation over nine years ago (an eternity ago in internet time.)

He was trying to find the best exercise for stimulating the abs (the rectus abdominis) to develop a six-pack.

Not only did the chin-up score high as an ab exercise—it was the top scoring exercise—even beating out the ab wheel rollout.

Let me quote Dr Conteras here:

“Probably the most shocking result of this entire experiment was the level of rectus abdominis activity elicited by a bodyweight chin-up! It beat out any other abdominal exercise, weighted exercises and all, in mean and peak rectus abdominis activity.

Chin-ups are ultimate “anti-extension” exercise for the low back. Some lifters let their lower back arch excessively, which is not only unsafe, but sub-optimal. If they brace their lower back and keep a straight line from their shoulders to knees, the core musculature has to work very hard to prevent the low back from extending.

Another surprise was that using extra weight on chin-ups via a dip belt didn’t increase rectus abdominis activity – it lowered it. If you’re aiming to get a great core workout via chin-ups, I recommend performing slow, controlled repetitions while focusing on keeping the hips and spine perfectly neutral throughout the set.”

I had no idea that when I was doing chin-ups to work out my back, I was simultaneously doing the best ab exercise at the same time.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when the revered strength coach Dan John wrote in “Mass Made Simple: LITE“:

“The Pull Up serves double duty as a great lat builder and perhaps the best ab machine I know. I have yet to find someone who can do 20 plus Pull Ups, but can’t dominate any test of abdominal strength.”

While the pull-up is slightly different than the chin-up, with the palms facing away from you, your core will still need to fire just as hard to stay rigid.

Want to work on that six-pack while doing chin-ups? Then do the bodyweight chin-up.

After you reach up and grab the bar, as you hang, do a deep exhale to get these ribs down to connect your ribs to your pelvis. The deep exhale should help you feel your abs fire. Now take a breath in from your diaphragm (not your upper chest), letting the air expand your abs and lower back—like a belt. Hold that position and start pulling on the bar and breath out as you pull. As you lower yourself, take a breath back in. Don’t let your back sag, keep your core rigid as you go through the full chin-up movement.

Surprise #2: The Chin-Up & The Biceps

A guy trying to bulk up asked: if they were doing chin-ups, would they still need to do bicep curls?

We thought it was a great question that deserved a full answer with lots of science backing it up. While digging through the research for the article, we again came across some EMG experiments from Dr Contreras.

While it’s not surprising that the chin-up works the biceps—I was once again surprised that the chin-up, while wearing a weighted belt, was the best bicep exercise.

Yes, chin-ups even beat out the barbell and EZ-bar curls for hitting the biceps.

On a related note, in Dr Contreras experiment, he also found that weighted chin-ups outperformed heavy cable lat pulldowns in hitting the lats and bicep. So not only should you be doing the chin-ups for better back and bicep development than doing pulldowns, but you’d get the extra ab work (as we saw in the first point.)

Me doing a chin-up with 50 pounds loaded onto a dip belt

How to keep getting better with chin-ups

To keep your chin-up strength progressing, you can:

  • make the “weight” heavier, by using a dip belt so that you can attach weight plates
  • do more reps per set
  • do more sets (if you’re feeling stuck in your chin-up strength, start by adding some more sets throughout the week.)

I got my dip belt from a local strength shop and got a USA-made leather dip belt for around $60 USD.

A couple other options that are online:

What if I don’t have a chin-up bar yet?

The door-frame pull-up bar

I had two roommates in college, Shane and Willem. Willem was a naturally athletic guy and already had a p90x chin-up bar that hooked onto the standard doorframe.

One day Shane was doing chin-ups when the chin-up bar slipped, and he crashed down with his knees smashing onto tile flooring. It wasn’t pretty. There are videos of people suffering a similar fate on Youtube.

So, are these door-hanging chin-up bars safe? Well, I can’t recommend them, however cheap and quick they are. They do seem especially handy for someone living in an apartment, but it seems like it’s too risky. Unless of course this new pull-up bar design by Iron Age, with two contact points, has solved the issue. That’ll have to be your call.

The mounted pull-up bar

There are chin-up bars that don’t hook onto door frames, but instead are designed to be permanently mounted on the wall (or even the ceiling.)

The mounted ones will need to be installed with a bit of care, using the right mounting hardware, preferably mounting the bar first onto some plywood, and then the whole unit attached to the studs of the place.

I ended up living in a handful of different condos in high-rise buildings. I got a Dewalt Hammer drill to help hang art, coat racks, and whatnot into the concrete walls.

If you’ve got a concrete wall, you shouldn’t need to worry too much about whether or not it will be able to support you. You can look into getting a hammer drill and using a concrete anchor like the Blue-Tap Concrete screws. Each screw is listed as being able to hold 100 pounds in weight, so if you used six screws to mount a chin-up bar into a concrete wall, it’d theoretically be able to hold 600 pounds—more than enough to do your bodyweight and a dip-belt with some weights as you get stronger.

Doing infinite chin-ups for infinite gains

My experience: short ceiling basement & a mounted chin-up bar

Recently I moved out of the city and into a home. The basement had low 7 foot ceilings, and I wanted to build a home barbell gym (Shane has written a great article about building a barbell gym on Bony to Beastly.)

The ceilings were too low to buy the Rogue S-2 Squat stand which comes with a chin-up bar. So I got the shorter squat stand (S-1) which is only 72″ tall, and bought the separate Rogue P4-Pull-Up bar.

I could have built my home gym in the garage which has plenty of space, but I didn’t want to bear the -15 C (5 Fahrenheit) winters nor the 32 C summer days (90 Fahrenheit.)

The wall in the basement wasn’t solid concrete like an apartment building but had a wall with masonry/concrete blocks. After some time spent drilling with the hammer drill, I installed the chin-up bar with masonry sleeves/anchors, and it’s rock solid.

Wedge Anchor For Mounting the Chin-Up Bar
These 1/2 wedge anchors were overkill but I wanted the beefier hardware to match my Rogue squat stand. Stupid…

Even though the ceiling is only 7 feet tall and I am 6 feet tall, I can bend my knees to do do a full-range motion chin-up (though I can’t do things like muscle-ups and whatnot.)

Unfortunately, Rogue didn’t have a cambered bar (think of the curvy EZ-bars) for their P4-Pull-up bar system, as they do for their racks, which I would have preferred. But the straight bar still allows me to get the work in: heavy chin-ups, bodyweight chin-ups, and hanging leg raises.

What would it cost?

It wasn’t the cheapest build, but it’s one that is a ton of fun to use because it looks hardcore and it’s built like a tank. Here’s the rundown:

You can find a ton of other options online (some that attach to your garage joist, cheaper options, etc.) such as this:

Summary:

  • Chin-ups aren’t just for your back—they’re also the #1 exercise for your abs and biceps!
  • Make sure to mount your chin-up bar safely. Your knee’s will send a thank you note for not risking their lives.
  • Try getting a weighted dip belt to use during chin-ups for even more bicep and back building potential.
  • If you’re having a hard time getting stronger or doing more reps—add more sets. That will help you increase volume to force an adaptation. And as always, be sure to be eating enough protein for muscle growth and getting enough quality sleep.

2 thoughts on “2 unexpected truths that made me want to do more chin-ups”

  1. Never would have guessed that wearing a dip belt reduced ab activation. Not wearing a belt also means doing more reps, which is even more work for the abs. Hm. I wonder if I should keep some heavy chin-ups in my routine, but then pop in some light chin-ups at the end of a workout as an ab exercise, getting some extra biceps and back growth as a bonus.

    1. Yeah me either! I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised, Bret Contreras admitted that it surprised him as well.

      Ultimately, you’ll probably end up in the best position doing both heavy, low-rep weighted chins and light, higher-rep bodyweight chins. Then you can get the best of both worlds (more abs, more biceps) while also getting a good blend of strength/hypertrophy work.

      I like the idea of bodyweight chin-ups as a “bonus” finale to end the day. Maybe I’ll start doing that 🙂

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