Okay, the title seems absurd, right? Chin ups make us stronger, so how could they be ruining our physique?
Well it’s a bit of a stretch, but the effects of doing chin ups can cause some issues throughout the body. This is something that really has to be thought about at a technical level to understand, but we’ll go through it bit by bit.
The Problem with Chin Ups
First, I should explain what I mean by chin-ups being problematic. The kinetic chain takes segments of the body, which are held together with joints, and chains them together. This means that during many different movements, the kinetic chain will be activated. An interference in the natural movement within the kinetic chain is what could occur with chin ups.
In laymen terms, we can do a lot of damage to our bodies if we don’t do chin ups right. Most of the errors we make when it comes to this movement, and even to pull ups, comes from how we position our neck and head. It’s an easy fix, but we need to know about the problem in order to fix it!
How People Do Chin Ups
A lot of people do the chin up exercise while holding onto the bar and reaching their chin up. After all, it’s what the exercise is…right? I thought the same thing, but every time I used this approach I ended up getting sore in the back of the neck.
The problem is that this neck positioning creates a hyperextension of the neck during each pull. This could potentially cause a muscular imbalance in the cervical spine. It also causes undesired tightness in the neck muscles, which can cause headaches and even forms of neurosis.
We have tiny muscles in the back of our neck and they often get tight due to hyperextending the neck while performing chin ups. This neck tightness can lead to frequent and severe headaches, but it can affect the entire kinetic chain. Even worse, this hyperextension happens in many different pulling movements…the deadlift, barbell row, etc.
Remember, the kinetic chain works as one linked system. The tightness caused by hyperextending the neck can affect the chain in numerous ways due to the muscular imbalance that occurs. This includes, but is not limited to:
– Thoracic kyphosis induced posture
– Forward head posture
– Cracking of the jaw
– Frequent headaches
It can get worse too. Let’s say we really experience a muscular imbalance because of the extended neck and forward head posture. This leads to hyperlordosis, which develops the anterior pelvic tilt, which is then paired with medial rotation in the femur (upper leg) and then your glutes become weak and femur abductors are overdeveloped; now we get flat feet and bunions…all thanks to chin ups!
Can We Still Do Them Safely?
Chin ups are still one of the more effective closed chain movements and they are great for the fact that they can be performed with or without additional resistance. There is no doubt that they can help to improve physical strength, posture, and more, but like anything they can also have negative effects if done wrong.
Ultimately, it comes down to the extension of the neck muscles.
Overdevelopment of the back muscles occurs when there is underdevelopment of the front neck muscles. This is due to the hyperextension, which puts added stress on the back of the neck and takes pressure off the front of the neck. Of course, the front neck muscles are also much weaker – they are mainly coupled with the tongue and are engaged while the tongue is placed on the roof of the mouth.
So with all this we can get a good idea on how to properly position your neck for the chin up.
The scapula falls down, aiming in the direction of your tailbone. The back of the neck will be extended. This will prevent tightening in the muscles around your skull, which eliminates the risk of headaches and neurosis in general. Now you have complete engagement of the neck.
How to Safely Perform Chin Ups
Here’s a video that will help with understanding how to get into the right position to execute safe chin ups. Around the minute and a half part, he begins discussing the preconceived notions of putting the chin up and goes into some examples on how to properly execute the chin up. As he shows how to properly do the movement, simply watch his head placement to understand how it should be done.
Basically, you should be looking straight ahead or slightly upward. Of course, we are stressing on the importance of not putting the head up – but understand that this is mainly referring to the idea of tilting your chin towards the bar.
Facing ahead will ensure natural spinal alignment, while facing slightly upward will create that lower and middle vertebrae curvature that will contribute towards a greater contraction in the back muscles. You can simply do what you are most comfortable with, but always pay attention to how your neck muscles are being engaged.
We can mess up many parts of our body by performing a single exercise with the wrong muscle engagement. So it is all our own responsibility to make sure that our body is being used properly in every exercise we perform. Bad posture creates muscle imbalances, which trigger injuries, and that should be the furthest thing from ideal when it comes to our structural integrity and physique goals.