5 Strength Conditioning Exercises for Chin-ups

Build the strength and muscle memory you need to perfect your chin-up exercises.

Remember those dreaded days in gym class when you had to hold your chin above the bar for as long as possible in front of all your peers? There is a reason this exercise was likely challenging for you: The chin-up is one of the most challenging exercises which require physical strength and control.

"Chin-ups are the number-one exercise that [people] gravitate towards to gauge upper body strength and then to assess progress of upper body strength," stated Tony Gentilcore, a Boston-based certified strength and conditioning specialist. "So many of my clients assume they will never be able to do one, let alone multiple repetitions, but they can—it just takes work."

Gentilcore told Health that the trick to improve your strength, from the ground up, is to do "floor-based exercises...[and] as you get more comfortable managing your body weight and movement on the ground, you can transition to the bar."

Here are Gentilcore's top five exercises to help you become stronger to do chin-ups.

Hollow Position

First is "[the] hollow position [which] is a very simple looking exercise, but it really builds context on the floor; for the exact position you need to be in on the bar," Gentilcore stated. "Your feet should never be behind you, and you should never be [relaxed] with your limbs. It's all about keeping your body tense and engaged from toes to fingers," Gentilcore advised.

To do the hollow position exercise, try these steps.

  1. Lie on your back, arms extended over your head, one hand on the other.
  2. Straighten your legs out on the floor, ankles crossed.
  3. Lift your arms and legs several inches off the ground, so you create a slight 'V' shape.
  4. Make sure your core is engaged and your lower back stays glued to the floor.
  5. Hold for as long as you can without letting your form waver. Aim to hold this position for one minute per workout session. Based on your skill level, you can do six 10-second holds, three 20-second holds, or two 30-second.

Stability Ball Roll-out

Next, to improve your strength, try out the stability ball roll-out exercise. A stability ball is an air-filled, soft elastic ball that comes in various sizes, with the most common balls being between 55 centimeters and 65 centimeters in diameter.

  1. Kneel in front of a stability ball and place your forearms and hands on top of it.
  2. As you control the ball, roll it forward so that your body and arms extend long in front of you.
  3. Only roll out as far as you can without allowing your back to hyper-extend. If you're new to this move, that may only be a couple of inches.
  4. Using your core, roll back to your starting position.

"If you're squeezing your glutes and bracing your abs, you should feel your whole-body fire up with tension and control, especially when you pull yourself back to your kneeling position," Gentilcore explained. "This move [also] emulates that chin-up movement."

Based on your skill level, you can add two to four sets of five to 10 repetitions to your workouts. "The lower rep ranges help keep the focus on the quality of the movement, rather than just building up fatigue, when form gets sloppy," Gentilcore stated. "I want every repetition to be spot on and perfect. Imperfect form won't do anything to help you at the chin-up bar."


The third exercise that gets you closer to doing chin-ups is push-ups. According to Gentilcore, you need a solid core for executing push-ups correctly. So, push-ups that engage your core can help you prepare to do a chin-up. The key is to learn how to best control "the lumbopelvic area—the lumbar spine, pelvis, and hips—and the core," Gentilcore stated. "Whenever I improve somebody's push-up, I almost always see improvement in chin-ups, squats, deadlifts, everything," Gentilcore added.

Push-ups should not be done on the knees unless you have an injury that makes it uncomfortable to do push-ups with your legs extended. Gentilcore indicated, "[i]t sets a bad precedent, and then you're not as close to a chin-up position either."

"There are so many push-up variations that don't require going to the knees. You just have to find a range of motion where you are successful," Gentilcore told Health. Here are two ways to do push-ups that can help with some discomfort you might have while pushing up.

  • Elevate your hands using two yoga blocks, an aerobic step, or a bench to lessen the intensity of the movement.
  • Attach a band to two pins on a power rack and get into position above the band with the band aligned with your hips.

Do at least 10 push-ups each day. Spread them throughout the day if you can't do 10 with good form in a single go. To make the move more challenging, try lowering yourself to the bottom of the push-up and taking three to five seconds to slowly push back up or vice versa.

Straight-arm Hang

Now that you've mastered the basic moves, "translate that hollow position from the floor and actually hang from the bar—just hang," Gentilcore suggested.

Here is how you can achieve this.

  1. With the palms of your hand facing you, hang from an elevated exercise bar for as long as you can.
  2. While you're hanging, make sure you pull your shoulders down and together.
  3. Keep your legs straight and your feet and ankles slightly angled in front of your body.
  4. Be sure you have an underhand grip, meaning the palms of your hands are facing you. Overhand grip, where the palms are facing away from you, is a different move—a pull-up. These moves can also help you master a pull-up, but it's typically a bit more challenging than the underhand grip.

It may be more challenging than you expect to get a good grip on the bar. "It's fine if you can only hang for a few seconds and then need to break and try again," Gentilcore stated.

However, as you become more comfortable and can hang with proper form for longer, try bending your knees forward at a 90-degree angle, like sitting in a chair. If you're more advanced, you can hang with your legs extended straight in front of you, parallel to the floor. As you become stronger, add two to five straight-arm hangs to your exercise routine as often as possible.

Flexed-arm Hang

The last conditioning exercise to build your strength will "get [you] comfortable with the position of a chin-up," Gentilcore stated. Here is how to do the flexed-arm hang exercise.

  1. You may need to step up on a box or get assistance to lift you above the bar.
  2. Hang with your chin above the bar and bend your arms with a strong underhand grip—your hands facing you.
  3. Hold the position as long as you can with good form, repeating two to five times during your workout.

This exercise "will likely be much more tiring than the straight-arm hang, but it's key to get used to the sensation," Gentilcore stated. As the flexed-arm hang gets easier, practice lowering yourself out of it with control instead of collapsing to the ground.

Based on your comfort and skill level, take three to five seconds to go from the flexed-arm hang to the straight-arm hang position. When you feel ready to try the full chin-up movement, use a band to assist you in the movement, as opposed to an assisted chin-up machine, which can be found in most gyms. "The band requires you to keep yourself more stable and in control, whereas the machine allows you to slack on form," Gentilcore explained.

A Quick Review

Chin-ups can be quite challenging for individuals who need to build physical strength. However, there are strength training or conditioning exercises that can help you strengthen your body, especially your upper body and core, while you work towards being able to do or improve your chin-ups.

To get you closer to perfecting your chin-ups, try these five conditioning exercises: hollow position, stability ball roll-out, push-ups, straight-arm hang, and flexed-arm hang. Based on your strength or skill level, adding repetitions to each of these five exercises will also get you stronger to do your chin-ups.

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