When you want a functional, comprehensive exercise that targets most of the muscles in your upper body, chin-ups are your go-to. This standard move, done by holding a mounted bar with an underhand grip and pulling your chin up and over, works your latissimus dorsi and biceps. The classic exercise also requires assistance from your abs, pectorals and triceps.
Get the most out of the chin-up by strategically including it as part of your workouts. The number of chin-up reps and sets you do depends on your fitness level, your goals and the rest of your workout plan.
Back in the 1970s, fitness meant bodybuilding and the Arnold Schwarzeneggar era of big, muscular bodies. These guys could reportedly pump out 20 chin-ups, often as a warmup.
But, if you're after simple plain-old improvements in strength, working your way up to one set of three to five chin-ups is a respectable start. When you begin training, just three reps might even be a tall order. So, start with just one set of whatever number you're able to do. Build up to the higher reps over many months; don't expect them to come all at once.
CrossFit is a high-intensity fitness program that employs classic training moves, such as Olympic lifts and burpees, into tough workouts called WODs or Workouts of the Day.
Chin-ups are a staple in the CrossFit community, and the recommended reps vary. Some WODs have you do five sets of five reps, with a minute recovery between sets. Others might include a set of 10 chin-ups as part of a circuit along with overhead presses and burpees. You do the circuit as many times through as you can in a certain amount of time, such as 15 minutes.
CrossFit workouts show that there's no specific "must do" number of chin-ups; rather, that you should find a number of reps that pushes your limits to build strength and power.
Bigger Arms and Back
To build prowess in your biceps and back muscles, use chin-ups as part of a workout progression. Once you can pretty readily do 12 to 15 chin-ups, move to multiple sets with 10 reps in each set.
For a few weeks, do two sets of 10 chin-up reps. In the next few weeks add a third, fourth and even a fifth set.
When a big upper body is your goal, chin-ups are part of your training, not the whole of it. You'll also do rows, reverse flyes, lat pull-downs and pullovers for your back as well as cable curls, preacher curls and hammer curls for your biceps.
What If I Can't Even Do One Chin-up
There's hope for those who find a full chin-up too intense and can't even pump out one rep, let alone five or 10.
Progress toward full chin-ups using the assisted pull-up machine you see in many gyms. You choose the amount of weight you want to "assist" you as you do a chin-up; this means you're lifting less than your total body weight and the move is easier. Then, stand on the platform, hold the bar or handles with an underhand grip and perform the chin-ups. Since it's assisted, you might be able to work three sets of eight to 12 reps. When 12 reps is doable, decrease the amount of weight assisting you.
If you don't have access to such equipment, no need to give up on chin-ups. Enlist the help of a spotter to hold your legs and offer some support as you pull up over the bar. Another option is to loop a resistance band over the bar and stand or kneel in the loop. You then pull up over the bar with a little help from the elastic.