Can’t Do a Chin-Up? Here’s What Your Body’s Trying to Tell You

If you can't do a chin-up, there are exercises you can to that will help get you there.
Image Credit: Jun/iStock/GettyImages

"Chin-up" may sound like some toxic positivity akin to "It'll all get better," or a procedure akin to the face-lift, but those set on building muscle know it's actually one of the hardest body-weight movements that exist.

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To do one, you hold onto a bar with palms facing you and use ​all​ the muscles in your upper body to pull yourself from a dead hang up until your chin passes over the bar. Doing so, says Amber Kivett, CSCS, certified athletic trainer with Lifepro, requires a combination of upper-body strength, core stability, shoulder mobility and technique. Yeah, it's hard!

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Still, that shouldn't intimate you from trying, or working up to, the movement which "is an excellent way to build strength, body awareness, and mobility," Kivett says.

The below chin-up guide, courtesy of Kivett and exercise physiologist Pete McCall, CSCS, host of the All About Fitness Podcast, makes it as easy as possible. They explain the six main issues that keep exercisers from completing a chin-up and exactly how to fix them.

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If You: Can’t Hold Onto the Bar

You Might: Need to Improve Your Grip Strength

"If you can't hold onto a pull-up bar with dead weight, you're not going to be able to pull that 'dead' weight up the bar," Kivett says. Sounds fairly obvious, but she and McCall say this is ​the​ most common reason people can't complete a chin-up.

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Here, the culprit is weak grip. Grip strength, Kivett says, is a combination of the strength in your forearms, biceps, hands and fingers. So, for a stronger grip, you need to do an exercise that works all those muscle groups like the farmer's carry.

  1. Grab a set of dumbbells or kettlebells, one in each hand, palm facing inward, arms straight by your side. Adjust your feet to hip-width apart.
  2. Think about pulling on a pair of tight jeans to brace your core. Pull your shoulder blades down and back to engage your lats and protect your traps.
  3. Maintaining an upright posture, take a step forward and begin walking.
  4. Continue for 25(ish) feet. Rest 30 to 60 seconds, then repeat for a total of 6 rounds.

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If You: Can’t Initiate the Pull

You Might: Need to Learn How to Activate Your Lats

Great, you can hang from the bar no problem... but when you try to pull yourself up, nothing happens. While this ​could​ be a sign of insufficient strength, more commonly it's a symptom of not being able to tap into that strength.

"If you can't activate your lat muscles, you can't use their strength to pull yourself to the bar," McCall says.

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Luckily, there's an exercise designed to teach you how to activate your lats: the banded lat pulldown. Doing pulldowns, Kivett says, can help build muscle memory in your lats, teaching them how to activate. Then when you attempt a chin-up, the muscle group knows what to do.

  1. Loop a resistance band over a pull-up bar, elevated hook or door frame.
  2. Sit beneath the band, legs straight out in front of you. Reach up, grabbing one side of the band with each of your hands. Brace your core and draw your shoulder blades back and down.
  3. Pull your elbows toward your hip bones, thinking about squeezing grapefruits under your armpits as you do to engage your lats, until your arms make a W shape.
  4. Hold here and squeeze your lats for 2 seconds at the bottom before returning to start with control.
  5. Repeat for 12 reps. Rest as needed and do 3 total sets.

If You: Experience Shoulder Pain

You Might: Need to Improve Your Shoulder Mobility

The chin-up may be a physically demanding exercise, but it shouldn't be painful. If your shoulders hurt when you hang from the bar, arms straight, odds are you have limited shoulder mobility.

To test your shoulder mobility, lie on your back in a hollow-body hold. Stretch your arms overhead, thumbs facing down. Are you able to bring your biceps to touch your ears while maintaining the "banana" position? If yes, Kevitt says, you've got the required mobility to do a chin up.

If not, she recommends forgoing pull-up bar exercises in favor of pulling exercises like the barbell row and slowly improving your shoulder mobility with an exercise like wall slides.

Move 1: Barbell Row

  1. Stand just behind a barbell, feet hip-width apart, and take the bar in an overhand (palms down) grip.
  2. Hinge forward from the hips, softening your knees so that you can keep your back flat as you lean forward. Your torso should be as close to horizontal as you can get it without rounding it or jerking as you lift.
  3. Row the bar up against gravity, pulling it toward your upper waist.
  4. Maintain a stable core as you extend your arms, lowering the bar to around ankle level.

Move 2: Wall Slide

  1. Sit criss-cross applesauce with your butt and back press against a wall.
  2. Pressing your shoulder blades into the wall, bring your arms up into goal-post position so that your upper-arm is parallel with the floor and the backs of your hands are flat against the wall.
  3. Fight against hyper-extending your lower back by tucking your rib-rage down and engaging your core.
  4. Maintaining midline tightness, slide your arms and the backs of your hands up the wall, in an attempt to bring them into a Y position.
  5. Slide them back down to start and repeat 12 to 15 more times.
  6. Rest and repeat and for a total of 4 sets.

If You: Can't Maintain Solid Positioning

You Might: Need to Learn to Engage Your Core and/or Glutes

Could the verbs "flailing," "swaying" or "wiggling" be used to describe how your body moves when you attempt a chin-up? Odds are it's because your core and glutes aren't adequately engaging.

"A chin-up is essentially a high plank, but in the vertical position," Kivett says. "So, just as your core, glutes and quads, need to be engaged in a high plank, they need to be engaged during the chin-up." To help with this, she recommends spending more time in a high plank.

  1. Begin on your hands and knees, with your wrists stacked under shoulders and knees stacked under hips.
  2. Engage your core, then step one straight foot back at a time into the top position of a push-up.
  3. Think about pushing away the floor with your hands to engage your lats and shoulders, squeezing a dollar bill between your butt cheeks to engage your glutes and drawing your bellybutton to your spine to engage your core.
  4. Hold for 30 to 45 seconds.
  5. Rest 1 minutes, then repeat 3 more times.

If You: Can’t Get Your Chin Over the Bar

You Might: Need to Strengthen a Specific Range of Motion

"When someone can get their forehead to the bar, but can't pull themselves up the last two or three inches, it's a sign they need to build strength in that specific range of motion," says Kivett.

Chin-up negatives, which have you work just the eccentric (lowering) phase of the movement, can help do that. As it turns out, working your muscles eccentrically is the fastest way to build strength, according to Kivett.

"The muscles used during a chin-up have to remain in a contracted position for longer," she says. That causes greater muscle breakdown and therefore muscle growth, post-repair.

  1. Start the exercise at the top of the chin-up, chin over bar. Grab a box, bench or step stool that, when positioned under the pull-up rig, will allow you to get into that position.
  2. Grab the bar with an underhand grip, hands positioned shoulder-width apart. Then, release your feet from the platform so that you're hanging.
  3. Think about pulling your shoulder blades away from your ears, pulling them back and down your back.
  4. Lower your body as slowly as possible to a dead hang.
  5. Repeat 5 times, resting as needed between reps.

If You: Still Can’t Do a Chin-Up

You Might: Need a Different Exercise Cue

Your shoulders are healthy as an ox and your upper-body is built like one (meaning, thick with muscle), but you still can't do a chin-up. What gives? The issue is likely that you're conceptualizing the movement incorrectly, according to Kivett.

"Often, when people do a chin-up, they're thinking about pulling their chin over the bar," she says. Unfortunately, this causes people to hyper-extend their lower back, which can change the angle of their body so that there's more gravity pushing down on their body. In addition to increasing lower-back injury risk, this often results in people not being able to complete a rep.

"A better, more accurate, cue is to think about pulling the bar down to touch your chest," she suggests. "This cue typically encourages people to use their lats and keep their core tight."

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