Achieving your first chin-up is one of the best feelings you’ll ever get in the weights room, no matter who you are.
It provides a sense of accomplishment that’s tough to beat.
One thing we’ve noticed when working with female clients, is the pre-conceived perception that doing a chin-up is beyond their reach, and only men, or ‘genetically-gifted’ women can perform them. This isn’t their fault.
It’s the magazines and media that sell chin-ups as ‘exercises for men’ and ‘exercises to bulk up’.
Not only are women made to shy away from them, but they’re also told that they can’t do them. They have the wrong ‘biology’, the wrong levers, inadequate strength levels, and so on… This is all hogwash.
Working towards mastery on the chin-up may be the most important training goal to have if getting strong and lean is your aim.
Remember, the leaner you are, the easier a chin-up becomes, so the natural inclination should be to gear your training towards chinning when improving body composition.
The problem is, getting over the first rep hump is often the hardest bit. After that, I’ve seen women go from 1 to 5 in a matter of few weeks!
What Do You Need to Improve?
There are usually three reasons why women struggle to pull their first rep:
- Too weak in the muscles involved. For most, this is usually in the biceps, scapular retractors, ‘core’ muscles and lats.
- Not lean enough. While being lean isn’t a necessity, pulling a lighter frame does make things significantly easier.
- Not training the chin-up. This seems like a no-brainer, but seeing women who can squat and deadlift large amounts of weight yet unable to perform a single chin-up is more common than you think. They probably have the strength and body composition for it, yet lack the coordination required.
When we break down the chin-up, there are usually three problem areas of the pull:
- Start of pull
- Middle of pull
- Finish of pull
Each one essentially comes down to a lack of strength and engagement of the muscles involved. For the most part, it’s usually number 1 or 3 that cause the most problems.
To fix these problems, and take a woman from zero to one, we need to take a holistic approach to chin-ups, and cover all bases.
This article will cover a list of progressions that can be immediately implemented in your weight training programmes. Each one will come with a video too, so you’re getting the form right.
For most clients who walk through the door, the first thing we need to teach them is how to effectively fire their lats, and perform vertical pulling motions with the correct technique. This is where pulldowns come into the mix, and for the first few weeks of a new client’s training, they are important. After this initial phase, they should be considered a supplemental exercise to developing the chin-up, rather than an exercise that will help you get there alone.
As soon as the client is proficient on the basic form of pulldowns, it’s time to progress them onto a real chin-up bar and perform eccentric-only chin-ups.
The body is a lot stronger eccentrically (lowering) than it is concentrically (lifting), making it easier to perform eccentric-only reps.
The purpose of these type of reps is to build specific strength required in the full range of motion for the chin-up. To perform these, jump to the top, so your chest is touching the bar. At the top, keep your shoulder blades back and down.
From there, control the descent in anywhere from 5-10 seconds. How many reps and how long depends on the strength of the individual. A good progression would be:
- 3 sets of 3 reps with 5-second negatives
- 3 sets of 4 reps with 5-second negatives
- 3 sets of 3 reps with 8-second negatives
- 3 sets of 3 reps with 10-second negatives
- 3 sets of 1 rep with 30-second negatives
There are no exact guidelines; the key is performing sets of 3 to 5 reps, of 5 to 10 seconds. When performing these, two mistakes we often spot are:
- A lack of consistent tension through the rep. What you’ll see sometimes is the client will hold it for a few seconds, drop fast through their weak point, and then regain tension. We want a slow, controlled rep which is spread through the entire range of motion.
- This is usually remedied by keeping the box from which the client jumps from closer to the bar. If it’s too far back, or too low, they’ll end up swinging throughout the rep (due to the jump), which will encourage sub-optimal mechanics.
Once in the realm of performing sets of 10+ seconds, there are two ways to progress:
- Add holds. The first thing to do is now add ‘stops’ during the negative portion of the rep, especially where you’re weak. At each of these stops, maintain tension from anywhere between 3 to 8 seconds.
- Add weight. There aren’t many instances in which we need to load an eccentric-only chin-up, although it can be useful to provide a challenge on the eccentrics when still vying for that first rep. Also, it will help you feel lighter when doing bodyweight work!
Assisted Spotted Chins
The next port of call after eccentric-only chin-ups is assisted spotted chin-ups. For this progression, you’ll need a partner. Their job is to provide you assistance to overcome your sticking points and help you complete the reps. What we don’t want here, however, is such minimal help that each rep becomes a grindy, max-effort attempt. We want the reps to be smooth, and at a similar pace a normal chin-up would go.
The first progression here will be for the partner to support you by holding on to your ankles. After you’re able to perform sets of 5-8 like this, progress by asking your partner to support you from the waist. As you get stronger, you’ll find your partner should only be needed during certain parts of the movement.
When overcoming your first rep sticking point, isometrics can be very handy. You can exercise isometrics in three ways:
- Flexed Hangs. What you’ll do here is jump to the top and simply hold for a specific time frame. I like to aim for 3-5 sets of 20-30 seconds. Once you can do a couple of sets of 30 seconds, you’re usually good for one chin-up.
- Specific Weak Point Holds. With isometrics, remember you’re going to get a 10-15 degree carry over to either side of the position you’re holding. Meaning, if you struggle right at the start, performing some isometric holds for 6-8 seconds with your elbows slightly bent can really help strengthen that part of your pull.
- Reverse Shrugs. Initial engagement of back muscles at the start of the chin-up is something women struggle with. To counter this, ‘reverse shrugs’ can particularly useful, whereby you’ll simply depress and retract your shoulder blades from a dead hang position, keeping elbows locked throughout, and hold.
Using bands for chin-ups is extremely popular as a way to progress to free chins. The problem is, we rarely see the carryover when it’s relied upon solely as a method to become proficient at normal chin-ups.
This is because they provide assistance at the bottom of the lift, which is also the weakest part of the lift. To make banded chin-ups worth using, it needs to be in conjunction with eccentric-only chin-ups with a special emphasis on the bottom portion. What banded chin-ups can provide though is confidence to eventually perform a chin-up normally. To use these, I would make sure you have a few mini-bands handy in order to calibrate the resistance incrementally. Something as simple as the following progression would work great:
- 3 sets of 6
- 3 sets of 8
- 3 sets of 10
- 3 sets of 6 – less band tension
You can also progress through how you place the band. For example, the easiest method is with both feet hooked into the band. Following that, you can go to one foot only, and then with one knee only.
So How Can We Put All This Together?
When undergoing any type of specialisation programme, the key is prioritising. This means, allocating more weekly volume to pulling, and increasing its level of frequency. When you’re prioritising getting your first chin-up, start every session with a variation of the above progressions.
- Banded Chin-Ups (use progression outlined)
- Paused Pulldown (2-3 seconds at bottom position) 3 sets of 6 reps
- Reverse Shrug 3 sets of 10-15 seconds
- Negative Chin-Ups 5 sets of 5 reps, 8 seconds down
- Dumbbell Rows 3 sets of 8-12 reps
- Flexed Hangs 4 to 5 sets of 20-30 seconds
- Inverted Rows 3 sets of 10-15 reps
- Reverse Shrug 3 sets of 10-15 seconds
- Spotted Assisted Chin-Ups 3 sets of 5 reps
- Deadlift 3 sets of 6-8 reps
- Chin-Up Isometric Holds (just before elbows straighten) 3-5 sets of 10-15 seconds
Daily Work/Grease the Groove
In addition to the above, ‘greasing the groove’ works very effectively for chin-ups. The more time you can spend under a bar, the better. I would highly recommend to anyone looking to get started on chin-ups to buy a bar for home. Sprinkling in negatives, hangs and even ‘all-out’ attempts here and there through the week can accelerate your progress at this stage.
The End Result
This article would mean very little if I didn’t have any evidence to prove it all works, so here is your evidence.
Chin-ups are one of the hardest, yet most rewarding exercises you can do in the gym. It’ll work your back, shoulders, arms and abdominals like no other exercise. If you want to take your training to the next level, start implementing some of the tactics used in this article and show us your best chin-ups!