One of the most common questions I get asked in regards to upper body training is “I can’t do chin-ups, how can I get better at them?” The Chin-up and other variations such as pull-ups can be the arch-nemesis of many a trainee and with good reason. The chin-up or what many like to call the king of upper back exercises requires a certain level of upper body strength. Couple this with the size/weight of the individual, arm length, and training experience and is it any wonder why many trainees forego doing them and opt for the much easier but less effective lat pull-down in their workout routines. If you are someone who can’t do at least 10-12 chin-ups in a single set or can’t do any at all and would like to, then please read on and watch the following short video.
Although there are numerous ways to improve this exercise this is one of the progressions we have had success with over the years. Much of this I have learned from my mentor Charles Poliquin.
Before I move forwards I just want to clarify the difference between a chin-up and a pull-up. For a chin-up, your palms will be facing upwards or towards you. This is a much easier grip to start with as you have a better mechanical advantage. A pull-up, on the other hand, has your palms facing down or away from you. Got it?
In the following video, we have broken down the progressions based on your current ability level and the number of chin-ups you can do right now. We recommend doing the workout 2-3 days per week with a day of rest or 2 between days.
Progression 1: (First 45 seconds of the video) If you cannot do at least one chin-up, start here. Isometric holds. To perform this exercise simply use a box or step to hop up to the top position of a chin-up and try to hold it there for 30 seconds. Rest about 60 seconds in between and shoot for at least 6 reps. Once you can do that move on to progression 2.
Progression 2: (time 1:30 in the video) Eccentric Chin-ups or just the lowering portion. As in progression one use a box or step and hop up so that our chin is over the bar. At that point either count or have a spotter do so a slow 10 seconds and try to lower yourself equally with the count to the bottom. The goal is 12 reps. and work up to 3 sets. Once you can do that move to progression 3:
Progression 3: (time 3:05 in the video) For progression 3 you will use a spotter to hold both of your feet to assist you as you pull yourself up. The goal once again is 12 reps and 3 sets. Once you can do that then move onto progression 4.
Progression 4: (time 3:47 in the video) For progression 4 you will have a spotter hold only one leg to assist you as you pull yourself up. The goal once again is 12 reps and 3 sets. Once you can do that then move onto progression 5.
Progression 5: (time 4:30 in the video) For the 5th and final progression you will have a spotter spot you at the waist. The goal is to have them only help you through the sticking point. The goal once again is 12 reps and 3 sets. Once you can do that then you will be able to do 12 chin-ups on your own. Now its time to try a harder grip. We recommend narrow parallel grip next, then shoulder with pull-ups, then wide parallel grip pull-ups then wide grip pull-ups.
Here is a link to an affordable chin-up bar. I have the same one at home. I like this one because it has many different grip variations. This will offer you much more training variety. I wouldn’t recommend doing CrossFit style pull-ups on this but for basic strict chin-up and pull-up variations, this will do the job nicely.
Lastly, I wish to leave you with a few very important parting words.