Exercise of the Month: Pull/Chin-Ups

Want to be a badass in the gym? Get your chin over the bar.

By Stephanie Van Ness, CSCS

This month we're focusing on my favorite exercises: pull-ups and chin-ups. Pull-ups (palms facing away from you) and chin-ups (palms facing toward you) strengthen and sculpt the shoulders, upper back, biceps, triceps and forearms. And added bonus: they even build a strong core. In fact, Google "six-pack abs" and you'll discover that many training programs designed specifically to craft Derek-style washboard abs incorporate a lot of pull/chin-ups.

Pull/chin-ups are typically easier for men - even those with little experience in the gym - than for women. That's primarily due to the required strength-to-bodyweight ratio. Women tend to have less upper body musculature, slightly narrower shoulders and less upper body strength than average-sized men. (Men with a lot of mass to lift also may struggle with these.)

But don't despair. Regardless of your body type or initial strength level, pull/chin-ups are attainable with diligence, commitment and practice. Here's a progression suitable for both men and women looking to get from zero pull/chin-ups to rock star status. (For a demonstration of any of these exercise variatons, speak with your ARX trainer.)


  1. If you are starting from scratch, begin by performing single-arm bent-over rows with a dumbbell. Dumbbell curls also will help boost pulling power, especially for chin-ups.
  2. Next, hang from a pull-up bar or the top bar on the squat power rack. These static holds help build grip and shoulder strength needed to hold onto the bar.
  3. To practice pulling, perform bodyweight rows on the TRX or Equalizer, or inverted rows on an Olympic bar resting on the squat rack. As you gain strength, gradually move your feet further and further away until you are practically horizontal.
  4. Practice negatives - basically execute half of the pull-up/chin-up by climbing to the top of the bar and lowering yourself as slowly as possible.
  5. Work on the other half of the motion by doing assisted pull/chin-ups with the giant band. Use a thinner and thinner band as you gain strength.
  6. Complete your first solo pull/chin-up. Celebrate! Now, do as many sets of 1 as you can. Next time, do sets of 2. Then 3. You see where this is going.
  7. Once you're able to do 3 sets of 8-10 unassisted pull/chin-ups, you can mix things up:
  • Do more reps - think 3 sets of 12, 3 sets of 15 etc.
  • Do other types of pull-ups - like wide grip, narrow grip, side-to-side, or uneven pull-ups
  • Add weight via either a weight vest, a chain around the shoulders or a weight plate hanging from a cord around your waist


Regardless of the type or quantity of pull/chin-ups you're completing, follow these form guidelines:

  • Squeeze your butt and keep your abs tight throughout the exercise