While chin-ups are fantastic for building a stronger back, shoulders and arms, they do require you to have the strength to pull your body weight directly against gravity. For this reason, many people exclude chin-ups from their training program or use substitute exercises that work the same muscles but do not require the same amount of upper-body strength to execute.
The best way to get strong enough to do chin-ups is to use the same movement pattern but to reduce the resistance level. One method is to place a chair or bench underneath the chin-up bar so you can use your legs to propel your body upward until your chin is over the bar. Bend your legs at the knee once you are in the top position and lower your full body weight. Once you are at the bottom of the movement with your arms straight, unbend your legs and place your feet on the chair.
Another method is to use an exercise tube to provide assistance and reduce the amount of weight you are pulling upward. Set up the exercise by looping the tubing over the bar so the center of the tubing is resting on the bar and the handles are facing the ground. Place one foot through both handles and start the chin-up. If you are worried about the tube stretching too far, start from an elevated position like a chair or bench.
With either method, complete five sets of as many repetitions as you can do with good form.
Negative chin-ups only work the eccentric, or lowering, portion of the exercise and only require you to control your body weight on one half of the movement. Start by using a chair or bench that allows you to place your chin over the bar. Remove your feet from the chair, pause, then slowly lower your body until your arms are fully extended. Try and lower your body in five seconds and gradually increase the time to 30 seconds over the course of several workouts. Complete two sets of as many repetitions as you can do with good form.
Lat pull-downs allow you to pull a far lighter weight than assisted or negative chin-ups but use a slightly different path of motion for the arms and shoulders. As a result, you are not truly replicating the movement of a chin-up. To use the lat pull-down machine, sit on the machine and anchor your thighs by placing them under the leg pad. Grasp the overhead bar with your palms facing toward you in a slightly narrower than shoulder-width grip. Your arms should be fully extended at the start of the exercise. Exhale as you pull the bar down to your chest in two seconds, pause for one second, then inhale as you return the bar to the starting position in four seconds. Complete three sets of eight to 12 repetitions.
The inverted row is an outstanding exercise for working the upper back and reducing the amount of weight you have to pull. However, since the body is closer to the horizontal plane than the vertical plane than the chin-up, it is not an ideal replacement exercise even though it works many of the same muscles. To complete an inverted row, place a barbell on the squat rack so it is approximately waist high. Place your hands on the bar with a slightly narrower than shoulder-width grip, palms facing toward you. Position your body underneath the bar so your back is straight, your heels are on the ground and your arms fully extended. Use your arms to pull your chest toward the bar and keep your elbows close to your rib cage. Pause once your chest touches the bar and then slowly lower yourself back to the starting position with straight arms. Complete three sets of 10 repetitions.
- "The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding"; Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Dobbins
- Rick Pitts: Beginners Pull Ups You Can Do at Home
Jack Kaltmann is a Las Vegas-based writer with more than 25 years of professional experience in corporate communications. He is a published author of several books and feature articles for national publications such as "American Artist" and "Inside Kung-Fu." Kaltmann holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Miami University and is a retired nationally certified personal trainer.