Chin ups are one of the best exercises out there that help relative upper body strength and have been a staple in training programs forever. The problem is chin up technique is typically butchered by most people. There are many ways you can mess up a chin up but in this article I want to talk about the most common one I see: lack of core control.
If you go read blogs are watch videos from the top strength coaches in the industry you will see a ton of content on how to control the core and prevent rib flare during overhead pressing. In fact, many coaches shy away from strict overhead pressing and prescribe half kneeling landmine presses because it’s easier for the athletes to control their core with the landmine variation.
There’s all this attention on core control during overhead pressing but I’ve never seen any of these coaches talk about core control during any overhead pulling exercises. Which is interesting to me. Even though one exercise is pressing and one is pulling the body is still in pretty much the same position, right? So if core control is important during one it should be important during the other, right?
In the video below I demonstrate what I would consider a correct chin up (with the core under control throughout) and an incorrect chin up, as well as some simple cues I use.
One cue I started using while I was working in Alabama was what I call the belt buckle cue. I’d tell the athlete to pretend like they had a belt buckle on and I wanted them to point the belt buckle to their chin. While verbalizing this I would also demonstrate myself, taking my pelvis from a more anterior tilted position to a more posterior tilted one. Lastly, I would make sure when they performed the belt buckle trick that they felt tension in their glutes and in their core, and I simply told them I want them to maintain that tension throughout the chin up and especially at the bottom when it’s the hardest to control. The key here is to keep the feet from going behind the hips. If the feet stay in front, while the legs stay straight, then it is a good indicator that they are controlling their pelvis. If their feet jet behind their hips while at the bottom of the chin up then they probably lost tension and and stability in their core, causing their lower back to arch.
I’ll admit the belt buckle cue was a lot easier to use in Alabama than it is in California now, for what I feel are obvious reasons, but I still use it with pretty good success out here. But why is core control important during chin ups?
Well we know from both scientific and practical evidence that trunk stiffness is crucial for efficient force production through the kinetic chain in basically everything: sprinting, jumping, cutting, deadlifting, squatting, etc. Without trunk stiffness, more specifically the correct timing of dynamic trunk stiffness, during fast, explosive movements, an athlete is prone to leak force and not get the most out of their strength/power capabilities.
By emphasizing trunk stiffness during chin ups (and hopefully everything you do that doesn’t involve rotation or compliance based movements) you are teaching the athletes how to get the spine/pelvis into good positions and then how to be strong and breath through those positions. From my experience, the athletes who respond the best to fixing their chin ups this way typically have the best success with increasing their big lifts like squats and deadlifts and improve their acceleration and agility capabilities. For me the key has been making sure my cues are consistent throughout all strength, speed, and agility drills I have. The cues I use when I teach core stability during chins ups, planks, rollouts, etc. are the same cues I use when I teach deadlifts, squats, accelerating, and changing direction.
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