Mastering the Chin-Up: 7 Variations to Beat Gym Boredom
It would be easy to start an article about chin-ups by listing the muscles they work, explaining why they’re good (effective test of strength to bodyweight ratio, minimal equipment needed, they look damn cool, etc.) but that’s telling you things you already know. As chin-up connoisseurs will appreciate, there’s nothing quite like a perfectly executed chin. It really is a thing of beauty - a full range of motion; that dead hang at the bottom; a smooth, fluid ascent with a rock-solid core; slight pause at the top; and a controlled, elegant descent.
My love affair with chin-ups has evolved throughout my training career, and in my mind there are few more perfect upper-body exercises. But as awesome as regular chin-ups are, why just stick to one variation?
You wouldn’t just do one type of bench press - for optimal results you should be doing close-grip benching, paused reps, pin presses, floor presses, and dumbbell pressing variations on top of your regular benching. So why stick to plain old chin-ups?
To really get the most bang for your buck, you should be doing different types of chin-ups. We’re not just talking about your boring close grip or wide grip here. When you put your mind to it, there are probably thirty or forty different types chin-up you could think of just sitting here now.
Personally, I have seven chin-up variations I always look to when I want to amp up my upper-body training:
1. Neutral Grip Chin-Ups
I’ll admit it; I’m not too much of a fan of regular supinated (palms facing chin-ups.) I don’t know why, they just don’t feel that natural to me. The neutral grip is far kinder on your shoulder joints and I find grip is easier too.
This seems to make sense. Those with shoulder issues are often told to switch to neutral grip dumbbell presses or bench with a Swiss bar, rather than hammer out set after set of straight bar bench presses. You’ll also find your grip and forearms are less likely to give out on trap bar deadlifts where your hands are in a neutral position than they are on regular pronated grip barbell deadlifts. I want chin-ups to beast my back, so why compromise this by risking my grip giving out first or stressing my shoulder joints?
2. Weighted Chin-Ups
Sorry, these probably aren’t exactly a “new” exercise for you, but they’re progression numero uno for chin-up newbies. Once you can perform ten good quality body-weight reps, it’s time to start adding weight. Just 10 pounds for a set of five or six should do you at first but keep plugging away. As soon as you can do ten reps with an amount of weight, add another 5 pounds to your belt.
3. Band Resisted Chin-Ups
Powerlifters use bands to boost their squats, bench presses, and deadlifts, so why not use the same technique with chin-ups? There’s not much tension at the bottom of each rep here, but the bands really come into their own towards the top, which forces you to squeeze your shoulder blades together hard, and properly activate your rhomboids and lower and mid-traps. They’re also fantastic for developing chinning speed and power - there’s no way you’ll get your chin over that bar without a good hard pull right from the bottom.
4. Towel Chin-Ups
Holy grip strength Batman, it’s towel chin-ups. While they may look like a walk in the park, towel chin-ups should be a staple in any true gym rat’s routine. You can kiss goodbye to poor grip strength once you introduce these bad boys into your program. I’d advise doing them toward the end of your session - you won’t be able to pick up your workout logbook after a few sets of these, let alone a heavy dumbbell.
5. Contrast Loading Chin-Ups
Stick a dumbbell between your feet and perform 3 to 5 reps. Drop the dumbbell while still keeping hold of the bar and immediately perform another 3 to 5 fast reps.
Contrast training (or post activation potentiation) involves performing a heavy set of an exercise, immediately followed by an explosive set. For example - a set of barbell squats followed by un-weighted jump squats or bench presses paired with medicine ball throws. So strictly speaking, this isn’t contrast loading, but it works and it’s the closest you can get with chin-ups. Unless you can perform super-heavy weighted chin-ups, followed by clap chin-ups, in which case hats off to you.
6. 1.5 Rep Chin-Ups
These are cool as they work two ways. The premise of any 1.5 rep exercise is that you perform a full rep followed by a half rep, or a half rep followed by a full rep. The first way you can do this with chins is to bring yourself all the way up to the bar, halfway down, and all the way back up again. Alternatively you can go just halfway up, all the way back down, and then go into a full rep.
The former option works best if you’re weaker toward the top of your chin-ups, as it gives you more focus on the end range, whereas the latter option is better if you struggle with getting moving from the dead-hang.
7. Super Slow Reps
These were thrown in purely for fun. The whole super-slow training, combined with an HIT routine died a death in the 1980s, but super-slow reps are still an awesome way to shake up your training and give you a real test. The main bonus of these is that they increase your time under tension (TUT) and generally a higher TUT leads to greater increases in muscle size.
Plus, it’s great watching someone’s face as they walk into the gym and you see them wondering why everything has suddenly gone into slow motion. I actually like these with a wide, pronated grip - go figure.
The Wrap Up
And there you have it - seven ways to shake up your back training and make your way toward some shockingly impressive chins.