How to Build a Bigger Back Using Chin Ups

Chin ups are an old school and basic bodyweight back exercise. But it's a classic. Learn how you can utilize this foundational exercise to build a bigger back.

Building muscle requires just as much focus on exercise selection, as it does exercise execution.

Chin-ups can help you build both back thickness and width arguably better than any other exercise, providing you select the right type and execute them in a specific way.

If you’re just looking to knock out a few half-rep chin-ups or impress some folks at the beach with your vocabulary of new chin-up variations, then you’re looking in the wrong place.

If, however, you want to learn how to successfully build a back that looks as well as it performs, then keep reading.

Chin-Ups

The goals of most new gym-goers are to be able to perform a few bodyweight chin-ups. Just to be clear, a chin-up means pulling yourself upwards vertically, so your chin reaches over the bar. You can use a variety of grips and bars, but if your chin gets over the bar technically you’ve just performed a chin-up.

The problem is now where do you go with it. If you enjoy them, you might train them more often and achieve even more reps over time. This can be irrespective of the technique or tempo you’re using though. More on this a little further on.

Related: A Complete Road Map to Building a Thick Muscular Back

You might also try to join the calisthenics gang, and maybe one day practice more chin-up and pull-up variations than letters of the alphabet. As impressive as this might be this approach is far from optimal when hypertrophy is your primary goal.

If your goal is to build muscle you should do the basics, do them well, and progress them with purpose.

Building Strong Foundations

Scapula pull-ups, albeit not a full chin-up, help to build the necessary scapula motion to fully activate your lats as well as other muscles of the back. Scapula pull-ups also build a strong pulling foundation and optimize scapula mechanics.

This is important for both muscle development and bullet-proofing your upper body from injury. You’ll not only be better at pulling exercises but overhead and horizontal pressing exercises too.

You can use scapula pull-ups as a warm-up, for technical practice, or even to pre-fatigue some of the back musculature before doing sets of full chin-ups.

During chin-ups the scapula (shoulder blades) should initiate the beginning portion of the movement with some depression and retraction. Scapula depression will begin the movement, activating the latissimus and lower trapezius fibers, whilst scapula retraction at the top of the chin-up will better activate the rhomboids and middle trapezius fibers.

Not only will you develop healthier shoulders by practicing chin-ups like this, but you also achieve a higher level of muscle activation and hence muscle.

Keeping It Simple

Many find the neutral (hammer) grip to be the strongest position to perform chin-ups. A neutral grip is often the best place to start mastering the movement and tempo that will produce the best results.

A neutral grip is more often strongest since all three major elbow flexors are positioned for a better line of pull. The biceps brachii, brachialis, and brachioradialis can provide a bigger chunk of the pull than in any other variation.

This is great for arms and forearms growth, but also to help you groove the scapula movement we were talking about before. As a bonus the neutral grip is the most natural vertical pull position for the shoulders and elbows to be in, therefore making it an extremely ‘joint-friendly’ exercise to load over time.

Perform these using a 2-second lowering phase with a faster lifting portion (2 second eccentric, 1 second concentric), and focusing on full range of motion. That means full hand at the bottom and chin over the bar at the top. If you can get your chest to touch the bar then even better.

Once you master the basic version, you can progress them using a variety of body angles, tempos, and adding load. For example, 4-second eccentrics, or using a weighted vest will provide the necessary overload required to build muscle over time.

Hit the Biceps Harder

An underhand (supinated grip) should be your focus if biceps size is your priority, over that of your back. Whilst a neutral grip hits all three elbow flexors well, an underhand grip places the biceps brachii at the best line of pull, whilst taking away from the other two flexors. Underhand grip chin-ups, therefore, become more biceps dominant.

Because of the angle of pull at the shoulders, there are better options to target your back. To better hit the lats the elbows need to face outwards and ‘flare’ a little at the bottom of the movement. This is better achieved with an overhand grip.

For lower trapezius development, providing you’re achieving full range of motion at the top of the pull, an underhand grip would be a good option, however. The 1.5 repetition method can help reinforce this position.

In summary, progress an underhand grip for more biceps mass and lower trap activation, but choose another variation if back width is a goal.

Using an Overhand Narrow Grip

Before using a wide or ultra-wide grip, you should learn to master a narrow overhand position at shoulder width. Versus using an underhand or neutral grip, an overhand grip places the elbow flexors at a much weaker angle. More reliance is therefore on the back musculature to perform the movement. This is also the reason why an overhand grip is much harder than either underhand or neutral.

Only use an overhand grip if you can maintain the same impeccable technique achieved with an underhand or neutral grip. That means full scapula motion at the bottom and chin over the bar at the top.

Related: Never Stop Making Gains! Use Micro-Progressions For Non-Stop Growth

To develop back width an overhand grip will be your best route of progression since the lats are activated the most. Particularly in the bottom position, allowing the elbows to flare out slightly will further target the latissimus in a stretched position.

You can progress these using a variety of techniques. Some include leaning back a little whilst pulling, creating a more horizontal pull, or for a more advanced technique try pulling the bar towards your sternum to further target the scapula retractors. There’s nothing wrong with sticking to the basics however and adding load over time.

Progressing to a Wider Grip

The most common mistake with a wide overhand grip is either going too wide or sacrificing range of motion for more reps. The research is clear on this in that full range of motion reps build more muscle than partial-range, so why should chin-ups be different?

If you don’t have the strength or foundations to perform these with the technique we’ve been discussing, then you’re not ready for them. If you can’t get enough reps or volume to produce a muscle hypertrophy response, then you shouldn’t be performing them for that purpose either. Use an easier progression (neutral or underhand chin-ups, or an assisted version), and for additional lats stimulation add in some wide-grip work using cable pull-downs and the like.

An overhand wide grip chin-up, when performed correctly, will develop the greatest back width. This is especially true if you can get that elbow ‘flare’ at the bottom dialed in on every rep. Again, if it hasn’t been said enough, an overhand chin-up requires the chin getting over the bar on every rep too!

Roundup

Building muscle requires just as much focus on exercise selection, as it does exercise execution.

By selecting the right chin-up progression to work with your body and your goals, and executing them in the way described, you can achieve a back that looks as well as it performs.