Chin-ups / Pull-ups
If you’re someone that struggles with chin-ups or controlling your own body weight then you may want to take a read of this.
The vertical pull is one of the key movements we like to focus on at our gym. It’s a great assessment of relative strength and makes up 1 of the 6 basic movement patterns (vertical push, vertical pull, horizontal push, horizontal pull, squat and hinge). The aim of this post is to help improve your chin-ups. Whether that’s getting you from 0 to 3 or from 10 to 20. We’ll outline progressions, regressions and give you some extra advice on alterations you can make to overcome sticking points in your training.
So how do we get better at our chin-ups?
Video 1 & 2: Body weight rows.
Before thinking about chin-ups, we want to start at the bottom - the horizontal row. As seen in the first video, if you’re someone that can’t do one chin-up, it’s important to start here. This allows you to improve your strength in the pulling motion and the muscles that allow you to perform this exercise. With this exercise focus on puffing your chest out at the top while squeezing your shoulder blades together. Focus on maintaining a straight line with your body (hint: squeeze your butt and core) and aim to get 6-8 body weight reps with your feet elevated. This gives you a good launch pad for starting band-assisted chin-ups.
Video 3 & 4: Band-assisted chin-ups.
After we’ve gotten confident hitting these body weight rows it’s time to move onto working on our vertical pull strength. By shifting to the vertical pull, we engage more of our lats and lower trap muscles. The set-up for this can be a little confusing so I like to hang from the bar and tie a band around cage at hip height (or alternatively you can tie the band to the pull-up bar and use your knee or foot for assistance as seen in the second part of the video). This helps give you assistance on the way up reducing the strength levels necessary to get your chin to the bar. In doing so, you build strength in this pattern and over time, your aim is to reduce the thickness (and therefore the assistance) of the band until you’re ready for eccentric chin ups. Think about pulling your elbows towards the ground on the way up. This will help you recruit more muscle from your back/lats – the more muscle fibres activated, the stronger the lift.
Video 5: Eccentric chin-ups.
Again, once we get do 6-8 reps with a skinny band it’s time to move onto body weight eccentric chin-ups. Eccentric contractions are when the muscle is lengthening under load, naturally we’re stronger in the eccentric part of the lift as we’re moving with gravity. Our sole focus here is on the way down. Start with your chin above the bar, either by stepping or jumping up. Then focus on lowering yourself slowly – try to reduce your body rocking backwards and forwards by bracing through the core, if you look like you’re on a swing then you’re doing it wrong. I’d recommend starting with 3x3 with a 5-10 second lowering phase and aim to build that to 3x3 at a 30 second lower. If you can manage to pull yourself up from the bottom part of the lift then do so, if not just step/jump back to above the bar and lower yourself slowly.
Video 6: Full range body weight chin-ups
After hitting 3x3 with a 20-30 second lowering phase, you should be able to pump up 1-3 full range chin ups. With these chin-ups we want to think about controlling the way down but aren’t focused on a specific time. To improve from 1-3 reps to 6-10 I’ve found that doing low reps, more sets is better. What I mean by this is – if you can do maximum 3 reps, I’d rather see you do 5 sets of 1 then doing a max set of 3. Instead do 5x1 followed the next week by 6x1 then 7x1. After that go back to 5x2, 6x2, 7x2. Then aim for 5x3, 6x3, 7x3. You’ll see more improvement doing your chin-ups (and most other exercises) this way, as oppose to trying 3 sets until failure. Keep a few reps in the tank!
Video 7: Weighted chin-ups.
These are for a more advanced lifter – someone that can do 8+ full range strict chin-ups. A common mistake many people make on chin-ups for some reason is that they continually go into the gym and pump out 3-4 sets of max reps. And while that may be useful for a couple weeks, over time you’ll notice that your chin-ups barely improve, and your max reps may stagnate at say 13-15 reps. A better alternative is adding some weight to this lift. Tie on a weight belt and hook up a kettlebell (or resistance of your choosing) as seen in the video and perform more sets for less reps. Instead of 3x10 body weight, we’re looking to shift to something like a 5x3 with an added 16kg. You can progress this by adding more sets (6-10) or adding more weight (16kg+). Something we like to do at the gym is perform something like 5x3 with say 20kg. After the athlete has finished the 5th set with weights, we’ll do a 6th set using your body weight and go for max reps. What we often find is that the athlete will be able to get even more reps on that last set than if they were to do a max set fresh. By adding more weight, we force our body to recruit more motor units, more motor units equals more muscle tissue, more muscle tissue equals more strength, and more strength equals more reps.
its important to start with the basics. If you’re just starting out, get strong in the horizontal pulling motion. This will improve your pulling strength and the muscles that accompany it (biceps, rear delts, rhomboids, lats etc.). Move from here to band-assisted work. This will help you transition from horizontal pulling to vertical pulling. By using bands, we can get stronger in the movement pattern without needing the strength to pull ourselves up just yet. After that we transition to eccentrics, this can be used at any point in your training life – whether you can do 30 strict chin-ups or are trying to nail your first body weight rep. These are commonly used with the more advanced lifters in our gym. Focus on increasing the time in the lowering phase up to 30 seconds. If you can get to 30, you can probably lift yourself for 1 full range rep. After nailing the eccentrics, move onto body weight. Here we focus on quality, less reps, more sets when just starting out. Once you can get 8 or so full range strict reps then add in some weighted chins. Again, the more sets, less reps rule applies.
Don’t be the person that goes into the gym and does 3-4 max rep sets every week. Either add weight or focus on the eccentric phase of the lift. This will allow you to overcome sticking points and progressively overload your body leading to constant, long-term improvement. Losing body fat will also speed this process along nicely. The less useless body weight we need to lift, the better. If you have any questions about anything outlined in this post or any previous, shoot us a message and we’ll be happy to help.