Last updated on February 21st, 2023 at 11:32 am
I would hazard a guess that most of us perform chin ups over pull ups due to the increased bicep activation.
But, what should you do if you don’t feel chin ups in your biceps?
Chin ups are primarily a lat exercise, so you should really feel them more in the lats. There is more bicep involvement in chin ups than pull ups, so you should definitely feel the biceps working. You can increase bicep activation by squeezing at the top of the move, bringing your hands closer together, or adding resistance.
Chins Up Are Primarily a Lat Exercise
I think it’s important to state that chin ups are a compound exercise, and therefore they will work a number of muscles.
Additionally, chin ups are still primarily a lat exercise.
Therefore, if you’re going to “feel” chin ups anywhere it should be in the lats.
With that being said, there is definitely more bicep involvement than pull ups.
However, this doesn’t always mean that you will feel the biceps working hard when doing chin ups.
But, if you are regularly doing chin ups your biceps will definitely be getting stronger, and you may even notice further development.
It’s just unlikely that you will feel the same “burn” that is commonly associated with curls.
Although, there are things that you can do to ensure you really feel the movement in your biceps, and I’ll introduce you to them now.
You’re Not Contracting Your Biceps at The Top
I’m a great believer in focusing on the working muscles whenever I perform any exercise.
This typically involves using the mind-muscle connection and also contracting the muscle that I’m working.
This also happens to be a great way to feel the biceps when you’re doing chin ups.
I’ve mentioned that chin ups are primarily a lat exercise, so this would usually be where my focus lies.
However, you can use muscle contraction to your advantage to work the biceps even harder.
The best way to achieve this is by holding for a count of 3 at the top of the movement.
So, you start off in the bottom position of the chin up.
Pull yourself up to the bar,
Then at the top give the biceps a real squeeze, hold for 3 seconds, and then lower yourself in a slow and controlled manner.
Complete your set of chin ups in this manner.
You’ll find that because you are using a hold and bicep contraction at the top of the chin up it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to perform your usual number of reps.
However, this isn’t a bad thing.
It simply means that you are working the biceps harder and therefore they will fatigue quicker.
You’re Not Gripping The Bar Correctly
There is a tendency to just grab a bar with an underhand grip and then start performing chin ups.
We don’t typically put a lot of thought into how we grip the bar.
However, there is one simple tip that will completely transform the way you do chin ups.
Plus, this tip will dramatically increase the amount of bicep activation you have during chin ups.
When you approach the bar for chin ups you should initially place your ring finger and pinky finger of both hands onto the bar.
Then pull down with these two fingers on both hands, and then wrap your other fingers around the bar, but leave the thumbs off.
This simple technique increases wrist supination, which is ideal when you’re working biceps.
Here’s a great video from Jeff Cavaliere which explains the ring finger and pinky finger grip in more detail.
Plus, Jeff provides a couple of further tips in regard to elbow flexion and shoulder flexion if you really want to activate the biceps during chin ups.
Your Hands Are Too Far Apart
Irrespective of where you place your hands on the bar during the chin up you will still work the lats more than any other muscle.
However, I don’t know if this is just a personal thing, but I have noticed that I seem to work my biceps much harder the closer my hands are to each other.
This is actually even true of pull ups with an overhand grip.
That being said, I have read scholarly articles to the contrary when it comes to pull ups.
But, for me, I definitely feel more bicep activation the closer my hands are together.
When it comes to standard pull ups the hands are a little wider than shoulder-width apart.
For chin ups, the hands come closer together and are typically exactly shoulder-width apart.
I have noticed that if I have a much wider grip for chin ups or any pulling exercise for that matter, such as lat pulldowns, I tend to feel something in my elbows, and even my triceps.
Although, I guess this could just be a form issue or muscle issue.
But, if I really want to give my biceps a great workout with chin ups, I will bring my hands closer together.
Often, I will change hand position with each set.
The best way to do this would be to complete your first set of chin ups with your pinky fingers touching.
Rest, and then complete another set with your hands 4-5 inches apart.
Rest, and then complete another set with your hands 8-9 inches apart.
Each subsequent set provides slightly less stimulation for the biceps.
However, you will have hit the biceps the hardest on the first set, so you should feel them working much more than usual during the following sets.
You Haven’t Added Any Weight
I still class weighted pull ups and weighted chin ups as the best upper body exercises you can perform.
I know that bar dips are often referred to as the “upper body squat”, but I just think there’s something totally awesome about weighted chins and dips.
And it just so happens that adding weight to your chin ups can have a dramatic upsurge in bicep stimulation.
There’s a great series of articles written by Bret Contreras, which provides the best exercises for every body part based on EMG (electromyography).
This is basically a way to measure a muscle’s response to nerve stimulation.
The muscle’s activity is measured in microvolts.
In one of the article’s Bret provided the results when he tested 45 different back and bicep exercises.
And it was revealed which one’s were the best based on EMG activity.
The results are based on mean activation and peak activation in microvolts.
Mean activation means the average activation of a muscle throughout the entire repetition.
So, this includes low activation when a muscle (the bicep in this case) is stretched, and high activation when it is contracted.
The peak activation provides a measurement at the highest point of activation during a rep.
The following exercises make for interesting reading.
This shows both mean and peak activation for biceps, and remember all measurements are given in microvolts:
- A bodyweight chin up has a mean activation of 43.2 and a peak activation of 100.0
- 60lb dumbbell curl has a MA of 52.9 and a PA of 118.0
- 135lb Barbell Curl has a MA of 94.7 and a PA of 138.0
- 100lb One-Arm Row 33.1 and 85.1 respectively
- A 90lb chin up has a mean activation of 107.0 and a peak activation of 205.0
These stats quite clearly show that weighted chin ups appear to be the king of bicep exercises.
So, if you don’t feel chin ups in your biceps, it’s probably time to add some weight.
Key Learning Points
- Chin ups will activate the biceps, but it’s important to remember that they are primarily a lat exercise.
- If you contract your biceps at the top of the chin up movement you will activate the biceps to greater effect.
- If you grip the pull up bar too tightly you’re more likely to activate your forearms, thus taking the stress off the biceps.
- The closer your hands are together (with pull ups too) the more you’ll activate the biceps.
- Weighted chin ups and pull ups will stimulate and grow the biceps much better.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.