The chin-up – not quite as hard as a pull-up but still pretty taxing nonetheless. These remain one of the yardsticks of fitness and health, and the number of chin-ups you should be able to do differs significantly from one person to the next.
However, there is some correlation between the amount you can do and your health. So let’s examine why they’re so important and how many you should be able to crank out.
What Are Chin-Ups?
Chin-ups refer to an exercise that requires you to pull your own body up whilst hanging from a position.
The main difference between pull-ups and chin-ups is the position of your hands. With a pull-up, your hands are in the pronated position, whereas with a chin-up, your hands are in the supinated position.
Pronated grip refers to your palms facing away from your body when hanging, and supinated grip refers to your palms facing toward you whilst hanging. These change the mechanism of the movement significantly, even though they look similar.
Both movements will have you pull your body from the lowest hanging position to the very top. Surely, the degree of forearm rotation cannot influence the muscles being worked? Think again.
Or, in fact, answer me this – which is easier?
Chin-ups – correct!
When a study in 2010 compared the two lifts against one another, they found some interesting results:
- Chin-ups engage the biceps and chest more than pull-ups.
- Pull-ups engage the traps way more than chin-ups.
- Both exercises still trained the lats and other back muscles.
Chin-Ups, Strength, & Bodyweight
Another interesting thing to note about chin-ups is the fact that they represent more than just strength. They represent strength in relation to body weight, too.
Let’s look at a few examples:
Eddie Hall is one of the strongest men on the planet, capable of deadlifting 500kg – a world record. But, he also weighed 180kgs when he did it. His power-to-weight ratio is great but nothing spectacular.
Stefi Cohen is one of the strongest women on the planet for her weight. She can deadlift 205kg at a weight of 59 – 63kgs. That is more than three times her body weight compared to Eddie, who did just more than double his.
Why does this matter? Two reasons:
Number one is a bit superficial, but if you’re looking for a more aesthetic look – a more typical “good-looking” physique – you’re better off having a greater power-to-weight ratio. Let’s be honest here; Eddie Hall looks like… a hall (but I would do anything for a 500kg deadlift if I’m being completely honest).
A better power-to-weight ratio usually means you carry less body fat, meaning you look more conventionally attractive.
The second reason is health. Being big isn’t that healthy, and being really big isn’t healthy at all. Some muscle is great, yes. But too much muscle does put a strain on the heart.
How does this tie into chin-ups?
This is a bit of a stretch, but healthier people who are less likely to develop cardiovascular disease or suffer from heart problems are expected to do more chin-ups. There are no studies to say one leads to the other, but you can make the argument.
The more chin-ups you can do, the more likely you are to have less body fat, a good amount of muscle mass, be healthy, and be “conventionally” attractive… It’s a stretch, I know.
Will increasing chin-ups mean all of those will magically happen? No, that’s kind of where the hypothesis falls through. All I’m saying is – these people (the healthy, attractive, and not too muscly people) are more likely to do a lot of chin-ups.
… So How Many Chin-Ups?
That is such a difficult question to answer. It really all depends on what your biology looks like. It depends on so many things, but as a general answer… it wouldn’t be wrong to guess that most people should at least be able to do 5 – 8 chin-ups.
But let’s discuss all those things that might influence the answer:
- Age: One of the biggest factors would be age. We know that the older we get, the more muscle we lose and the more fat we gain. Of course, both of these are bad if your goal is to do chin-ups. The only way to avoid this is to be that cool old guy in the gym who still kicks ass in the weight section (just wear something in the bathroom, please).
- Sex: We know that at both average and extreme levels, men tend to be stronger than women. This is mostly due to men having higher levels of testosterone, and there’s a direct link between androgens in the body and the amount of muscle they have. Females also tend to carry a bit more fat.
- Leverages: Tall guys, unite! Being taller makes a lot of exercises harder in the gym due to leverage. If you know how torque works, then lucky you – it applies here. Essentially, the longer your leverages, the harder movements like the chin-up will be due to … the fact that there’s more distance between you and the bar.
- Weight: Tall guys suffer. As you may have expected, the heavier you are, the more you will have to pull! This is why many bodyweight-based athletes will actually use a weighted chin-up as a method of progressive overload. If you’re a larger-framed person or you’re carrying a bit of chub, it might be a bit harder to crank out chin-ups.
- Other genetics: I have 33-inch quads. I have 18-inch arms. Genetics suck, right? Some people will naturally have more muscular biceps or a more muscular back. You can, of course, try to get better at chin-ups (more on this later).
These are the main factors that are going to influence your success rate at chin-ups. Some of these are within your control, whilst others are completely genetic.
Taking all of these into consideration here’s a very unscientific table representing what the average person might be able to do when faced with chin-ups:
|Someone who never trains||1 – 2||0|
|Beginner||2 – 5||1 – 2|
|Intermediate||5 – 10||3 – 6|
Obviously, age will play a massive role here as well. It’s a very broad question to answer, and there’s also no real right or wrong!
But why even ask such a question? What makes the chin-up so good that most people should be able to do them?…
Why Are Chin-Ups Important?
Because they’re damn good at what they do.
Okay, that sounds a bit rough, but it’s true! Chin-ups have probably been around for thousands of years. I’m sure the Gladiators did them. But they really became popular (supposedly) in the 1770s in Prussia, when Johann Bernhard Basedow used them often to train calisthenics.
They’re also really good exercise for most people. There’s a myriad of reasons as to why:
- Trains plenty of muscles such as the biceps, back, traps, core, and forearms
- They require no equipment except for a bar – or a tree branch – or a random piece of metal
- They’re easy enough, to begin with. And if you can’t start with a full rep, use a resistance band to help you at the beginning
- Progression is quite easy. Either do more reps or add weight to your body
- They “show” health to a degree – and not fully, either. They show the person doing them that they might be a bit too heavy for their height
When you get an exercise that’s as easy to do as these, you’ll really struggle to find a replacement. Yes, the pull-up is a great alternative. However, it’s a bit harder for most people, and it’s easier for most to progress on chin-ups instead.
It’s also really important for people to try and stay fit. Having more muscle mass will make aging a lot easier, in general. Plus, having a nice back makes you look really good.
Here’s how to get dirty strong on chin-ups…
How To Improve Chin-Ups
In order to get better at something, you have to start, even if you suck. As Jake, the Dog says, “Sucking at something is the first step to being sorta good at something.” So, even if you can barely do a single chin-up, we have to start somewhere.
And that is where we start. Lay down the benchmark as to how many chin-ups you can do! Even if you start at zero, it’s perfectly fine. But knowing the number you start off with will allow you to see your progression when you try again for max reps in 10 weeks.
A common misconception is that chin-ups are only biceps or only back. This is false, as chin-ups require both the biceps and back to do. It requires a hell of a lot more than that, but those are the two biggest muscle groups at play.
The biceps will cause elbow flexion, and the back muscles will cause adduction of the arms (bring the arms towards the body when pulling). Now that we’ve identified the main factors behind a chin-up, we can run down the steps to get better at them:
Step 1: Get In Shape
This is a very broad term, and that’s why it’s step 1.
It’s no secret that chin-ups are easier to do when you have less body weight. Getting in shape will really help in this endeavor because not only will you have less fat mass to move, but you’ll have more active mass (muscle) to do the moving.
Getting in shape might take a long time, depending on where your starting point is, of course. This is something you need to tackle with a good amount of planning. A change won’t happen overnight, and a big change will require some sacrifice.
Try to follow a diet that is a tad healthier, richer in protein, lower in processed food, and maybe with a slight calorie deficit. This is the ideal combination to create an environment in which you can lose fat while gaining muscle mass at the same time.
Besides diet, the biggest change you can make is physical activity, and we’ll get more into this with step 2. Essentially, you need to start doing some activity. Running, cycling, weight training, anything that will increase your heart rate and build some muscle mass. Keep in mind it doesn’t necessarily have to be calisthenics or weights.
Once those two factors are in place, work on smaller ones. Get enough sleep, try to decrease the amount of stress in your life, and be consistent. Consistency will always beat perfection. If you miss one meal, it’s okay. Just get back on track ASAP.
Step 2: Train for the Chin-Up
Doing something is the best way to get better at said thing. We can also look at doing certain exercises that will carry over into a better chin-up.
Here are some of the best exercises for that:
- Underhand pulldowns are literally the free-weight version of a chin-up. It’s the same movement, only with a plate-loaded machine. Get really strong on this, and get used to the motion of pulling your elbows toward the base of your spine.
- Single-arm pulldowns are one of the best exercises you can do for the lats. This allows for ideal progression and isolation of the lat.
- Chest-supported rows will also help with the chin-ups. We know that the traps are engaging, so having a stronger upper back will surely help. Try to imagine squeezing the scapula (shoulder blades) together.
- Barbell curls are a tried and effective method to build nice and meaty biceps.
- Dumbbell curls are a good alternative to barbell curls.
- Preacher curls will not only train the biceps perfectly but will also teach you what proper form will look like, in general.
All these movements are great, but there is one that still rises above all of them: supported chin-ups.
Grab a resistance band, tie it around your knees or feet, and start hitting those chin-ups—hit 3, then 5, then 7, and then 10. Switch to a band that gives less assistance, and get to 10 again.
This will not only train the exact muscles needed to get stronger with chin-ups, but it’ll also help you adapt neurologically to the movement. Again, the more you do a certain movement, the more likely you are to get better at it.
Train this way for a long time – preferably a few months. After spending a long time getting stronger on all of these movements (and getting into shape), try to beat your previous score on chin-ups.
By this time, you should be able to do a few sets of them! Now, you can add them to your workout program. Or just do them daily as part of your morning routine.
What’s the Point Here?
The overall point is that no matter where you start if you put the work in, you’ll be making progress no matter what. Fitness is one of the few things on earth that’s purely a reflection of how hard you work – there isn’t any real luck here.
The chin-up is a very hard movement for some to do, and to them, even doing one is a massive milestone. You’re capable of a lot if you simply put in the necessary work.
Train the entire back, do your bicep workouts, and get a strong core. And maybe don’t eat a big breakfast before testing your max…
The last tip – do some pull-ups, too! They’re equally challenging and will help you build a bulletproof back. Doing both in a training session will hit the “width” part of your back effectively, and now you only need to row to build that “thickness”.
How Many Chin-Ups Should You Be Able to Do?
Long answer short – it really depends. Some people are blessed with better genetics, and they might be able to hit 20, even though they never even train! Others might have a really hard time because they have big legs or a really big chest.
The chin-up isn’t – by any means – the best measurement of health or fitness. In order to test for either of those, you would need to look at blood values, body fat levels, overall strength, and mental health.
Yet, the chin-up does remain a great way to check how strong your upper body is, at least for pulling. Paired with overhead press and dips, you’d have a pretty good idea of how strong you are.
However many you can do now, you can always do better. Work for it day in and day out, and aim for consistency.
And remember, no swinging! Bad form.