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Chin-ups work the muscles of the back, shoulders and arms. Fitness professionals count the chin-up as a difficult-to-master but extremely rewarding exercise that helps practitioners make impressive gains in strength and size. Although many people attempt to substitute other exercises for the chin-up -- such as the lat pulldown and the machine-assisted chin-up -- no other move mimics the motions and effects of the chin-up as successfully.
Working the Muscles
The chin-up recruits several muscle groups during the concentric and eccentric movements of the motion. These muscles include the pectoralis major of the chest and the latissimus dorsi, trapezius, rhomboids and teres major of the upper back. The chin-up also works the posterior deltoids of the shoulder, and many fitness professionals observe that the move heavily recruits the abdominal muscles as well. Because the palms face the body during the movement, the chin-up effectively works the biceps of the upper arm, too.
Specificity and the Chin-Up
The chin-up is a closed chain exercise, which means the lifter moves toward the resistance instead of moving the resistance toward the body. This is the primary reason other back, chest and biceps exercises -- such as the lat pulldown -- make poor substitutes for the chin-up. A basic fitness principle called specificity observes that improvement at an activity only occurs when the activity is performed repeatedly; that means, if you want to get better at chin-ups, spend more time performing chin-ups.
Grasp the bar with your palms facing you, roughly shoulder-width apart. Keep your arms fully straightened and your abs and glutes tight. Inhale as you draw the elbows down and to the back, keeping a straight body as you rise. Clear the bar with your chin before you slowly lower yourself to your starting position, exhaling as you go; that's one repetition. Do not begin a second repetition until your upper arms are straight, with fully retracted shoulder blades.
Many people won't be able to perform even one chin-up when they first begin. Don't resign yourself to a life of lat pulldowns; instead, try a jumping chin-up. Hold onto the bar as you spring up, using your muscles and your momentum to propel your chin above the bar. Alternatively, put a chair beneath the bar and place one or two feet on it, using your legs to push you up.
If you're a chin-up expert, try adding weights to your legs for added difficulty. You can also try pull-ups -- the same motion, except your palms face away from you. Pull-ups work similar muscle groups, with the exception of the biceps, which makes the movement even more difficult than the chin-up.