Struggling to see progress with your biceps? Wish your arms would stop being stubborn and grow?
When it comes to bicep exercises, the first movements that probably come to mind are exercises such as the barbell curl, or the preacher curl, or something along those lines.
However, there's one specific exercise out there that's going to really allow you to hit your biceps and stimulate the growth you might've been missing recently.
Many people think of this exercise as a back or lat exercise.
And while it certainly does hit your back muscles well, it's even better at stimulating the biceps and filling out those sleeves of yours.
If you haven't guessed it by now, we're talking about the chin up.
It's definitely one of the best possible exercises you can do for your arms, and should be a staple in your workout program if you feel that your biceps are lacking in any way, or would just like to place a bit of an emphasis on them.
In this post, we'll go over why chin ups are such a great bicep exercise, how they should be performed to bias the biceps the best, and how you can incorporate them into your training program for the best bicep results.
Let's get into it!
Why Is The Chin Up Such a Great Bicep Exercise?
The thing is, while curls are great for specifically targeting the biceps and growing them, they're not that great for overloading them and aren't too easy to progress in weight on either.
Exposure to Heavier Loads
Most of the time, you'll probably find that you have a very tough time getting stronger with your curls and seeing strength gains specifically in your biceps.
However when it comes to compound exercises, and especially the chin up, you're going to be able to load the biceps much, much more heavily than you otherwise would've been able to with a curl of any kind.
For example, let's say you weighed 80kgs or roughly 175lb, and you were used to curling 15kg or 35lb dumbbells in each arm.
Well, your biceps would only ever be faced with as much resistance as you could sensibly handle on those dumbbell curls right?
When you do heavier compound exercises such as your chin up, you're going to be placing a very large amount of tension on the biceps.
Sure, a large portion of the weight is going to be offloaded onto the lats, rhomboids and other back muscles.
But there's still going to be a very, very large amount of weight that your biceps are responsible for.
Loads that your biceps otherwise wouldn't have been able to handle with curls alone.
Plus, there are things that you can do in terms of modifying the chin up that can further bias the biceps and make sure that they do as much of the work as possible.
We'll get into how you can do that in a second.
More EMG Activation
On top of this, according to the muscle activation and EMG study conducted by Bret Contreras, PhD, the bodyweight chin up has an average bicep activation score of 43.2 and a peak of 100, whereas a 60lb (27.2kg) dumbbell curl only elicits an average score of 52.9 and a peak of 118.
Now it might sound like the curl has more activation, but remember that 60lb dumbbells are A LOT to curl in each arm.
If you're able to curl those, you're probably able to add some weight onto your chin ups as well.
If you were able to work up to a 90lb or 40kg weighted chin up, your bicep activation would shoot up to an average of 107, and a peak of 205!
And unless you're able to curl ridiculously heavy loads that go up to 50kg dumbbells or heavier, you're most probably not going to find a curl that can elicit more bicep activation than the chin ups.
So yes, there is some science behind the idea of chin ups being a great bicep builder well!
And one more thing...
Did you ever notice that gymnasts have some of the biggest biceps around, despite not training for bodybuilding and specifically developing muscle mass?
Now you know why.
It's all in their chin ups.
Now, let's get into some tips for modifying the chin up to make it bias the biceps a little more, and then we'll get into how you can start to incorporate this movement into your workout program if you aren't already performing it.
So How Do You Make The Chin Up Bias Your Biceps?
There are a number of things you can do to make the biceps more involved during your chin ups.
Take a Narrow Grip
Now, we're not saying to take a ridiculously narrow grip to the point where your hands are touching each other.
That's too narrow, and would just limit the amount of weight you can pull and the reps you're able to achieve.
Instead, just make sure that you're not using too wide of a grip.
The best way to do it is to set your hands shoulder width apart, and then bring each one out about 2cm or roughly an inch further out to the side.
This is going to put your biceps in the most mechanically advantageous position, and make it easy for you hit them well.
Spreading your hands out that time bit further is going to help you achieve the most amount of supination possible, which is one of the primary functions of the bicep and helps to increase activation.
By making sure that your grip isn't too wide, you're going to generate the most optimal range of motion and help get the biceps working that much harder.
Don't Focus Too Much on Retracting The Shoulder Blades
When you're doing a chin up or reverse grip lat pulldown for your back, it's common advice to think about retracting your scapula and shoulder blades as much as possible to maximize the squeeze you get on the muscles in your back.
You'll hear people telling you to full retract the shoulder blades and squeeze them together before you ever even initiate the pulling motion.
However when it comes to doing chin ups for the biceps, you don't need to focus too much on that.
Instead, you can keep your scapula slightly protracted, which is going to help you maintain more of a distance between you and the bar, creating more tension in your biceps when compared to before.
Think about it this way:
When you do a barbell curl or a dumbbell curl, if you curl the weight all the way up to the point where you're basically touching your own shoulder, you can hold the weight up there for ages!
The stress on your biceps is quite low, and it's not all that difficult of a position to maintain.
However if you were to open your elbow up even just a tiny bit by 10 or 20 degrees, you would find that the position was much, much tougher to maintain.
The same thing goes for the chin up.
You want to place as much stress on the biceps as possible, and that's going to require you to put them into the right positions from the initial setup.
Head over to this link here to watch a basic comparison between chin ups for biceps, vs. chin ups for lats!
The main difference in this video was the retraction of the scapula, altering the angle of the torso and shifting the emphasis onto various parts of the body as a result of this.
Focus on the Eccentric Phase
As with all other muscle building exercises, the most important part of the exercise when it comes to actually building muscle is going to be the eccentric portion of the exercise.
This is the part of the exercise where the muscle is lengthening or stretching.
On something like the bicep curl or bench press, the eccentric is the portion where the weight is being lowered down.
On a chin up, the eccentric is the portion when you're lowering yourself back down.
Eccentric training has been shown in multiple studies such as this one to be extremely important for muscle growth.
So, as with all exercises, make sure you're utilizing the eccentric phase of your chin ups to maximize your gains!
How Do You Incorporate the Chin Up?
The chin up should be treated as an overall upper body pulling exercise for both back and bicep development.
It should be incorporate on your 'pull workouts' as well as any upper body workouts that might include two chest exercises, two back exercises, one shoulder exercise and one for each of the biceps and triceps.
You can either switch out another exercise to fit the chin ups in, such as removing lat pulldowns from your workouts and doing chin ups instead, or simply adding a couple sets of them in to reap their benefits, on top of everything else!
If you're wanting to do it normally (meaning more of an emphasis on the lats), that's great. You'll still get great activation in the biceps, and an awesome overall upper body pulling exercise.
If you DO want to hone in on the biceps and get them fired up, these modifications we've given you are the way to go.
The chin up is quite a powerful compound movement, meaning you'll be able to load this exercise quite heavily.
Aim to do 3 or 4 sets of 6-10 reps, and don't be afraid to add some weight onto yourself if you're finding this rep range too easy to achieve with just your bodyweight!
And of course, if you're not yet strong enough and you either need a band to assist you or the knee pad from the assisted pull up machine, that is absolutely fine too!
For sample 'pull' workouts, upper body workouts and programs that include the chin up, as well as other well rounded training routines for peak development, head over to our workouts section or our programs section!
The chin up is a killer bicep exercise that you're going to want to make sure you're taking advantage of if you want to develop some truly impressive biceps.
Make use of these modifications, and ensure that you're doing some sort of chin ups in your workout routines so that you can develop both your back, as well as your arms for a well rounded upper body!
The chin up has to be one of my personal favorite exercises, and I'd love for you to give it a try if you haven't done so before.
I hope you've enjoyed reading through this post, and share it with your friends so that we can keep as much of the world knowledgeable about fitness as possible!