Over the years, many folks have joined our gym with the goal of being able to perform one or multiple Chin Ups. This is a noble goal and one that demonstrates an impressive amount of strength, coordination and mobility.
As time has passed, we have found numerous ways to accomplish this goal and have developed a ‘system’ that we have found the most efficient and effective in achieving multiple Chin Ups – and this system can be incorporated into group settings or individuals training.
Much of our evidence is anecdotal (observations seen in over 15 years of coaching) and a lot of methods have been borrowed and adapted from coaches and fitness professionals with a greater knowledge base and level of experience than ours.
Before delving deeper into explanations and strategies, one generally unspoken fact of bodyweight movements must be addressed – excess body weight will always make things far more challenging. Being as lean as possible will always make any type of gymnastics movement easier.
When it comes to developing strength and proficiency in gymnastics movements, there is a valuable hierarchy or sequence to follow…
- Static Strength
- Eccentric Strength
- Concentric Strength
Or in plain English, learn to hold positions and build strength there first (static). Then work on controlling the lowering phase of the movement (eccentric or ‘negatives’) and then when all of that is dialled in, work on the concentric phase – lifting portion of the movement.
So in the context of the Chin Up, that would mean working on static positions first. Meaning holding the top of a Chin Up for a designated amount of time or holding the active hang for a certain period of time.
Once the trainee can reach their targets in these positions, we can then work on the eccentric phase of the Chin Up. We may use a box or even jump up to the top position of the Chin Up and then work on lowering to a full active hang for a number of seconds.
We can mix in static work here, for example, and pause at a verbal cue or at a certain point of the lowering phase. This will also help build grip strength and control.
Once the static strength has been developed and the trainee can demonstrate strong control in the eccentric phase of the lift, we can then look at the concentric phase – working our way back up. Depending on the strength of the individual, we may start with partial range reps, where the person will stand on a box or some plates and without a jump, try to pull themselves up to the top of the lift. As strength improves, we can lower the start position, thus increasing the range of movement.
All of this may seem complex at first glance but it really is very simple, and presents a clear pathway to building Chin Up strength. We have many members achieving Chin Ups here at SDSC and our secret formula is just ‘practice frequently’.
This piece of advice also ties in with a classic program developed by the infamous Pavel Tsatsuoline called ‘Greasing the Groove’. Essentially the premise behind this program is to perform multiple repetitions throughout a given day but NEVER to go to failure. A useful benchmark is to perform about 50% of your max repetitions. Doing multiple reps to sub failure strengthens neuro-muscular (neural) pathways thus ‘Greasing the Groove’.
This is a very brief summary of the program – there are numerous interpretations of this approach and a quick Google search of ‘Pavel Greasing the Groove’ will present plenty of reading material. But most certainly working at sub max intensity is key for this – DO NOT GO TO FAILURE.
There is validity behind greasing neural pathways but it is also a case of increasing strength in new ranges – an example is a beginner trying to do a chin up from a dead hang – the strength is just not there initially to get the muscles firing in that position – full ROM should always be achieved before intensity.
Often times our members will see ‘Chin Up Progressions’ on the board. This means that the trainee will work for 3 sets at their appropriate level. We would have various ‘levels’ for each individual and the pathway is as follows…
- Beginners (can perform less than 5 Chin Ups): 2-3 sets of 1.1.1(1.1)
- Intermediates (can perform 5-10 Chin Ups): 3 sets of max (-1 rep)
- Advanced: 3 sets of 2.2.2 (weighted)
The Beginners guide line here means 3 sets of 5 clustered reps. Each full stop denotes a 10 second rest. So it would be 5 repetitions with a 10 second rest between each rep. A rest is not a hang from the bar – come off the bar, let the grip recover, set up and go again.
It is worth noting that full range of movement – an active hang at the bottom of the bar, to the top position, chin over the bar, should be the standards aimed for. Of course as the trainee is learning the movement, full range may not be a manageable task initially but it should always be the aim – and a full eccentric phase (lowering from the bar) to fully extended arms, should always be achieved – don’t just drop off the bar.
Another beginner alternative
If a trainee is unable to the negative phase of the Chin Up for at least 5 seconds and multiple repetitions, I would consider building up strength through active hangs and also another movement like Ring Rows or Inverted Barbell Rows. As strength begins to develop, then phase the individual into negatives. This will not be a black and white process and will need to be implemented at the discretion of the coach – a combination of Active Hangs and then Ring Rows would be a common sequence to use.
Scap Chin Ups
Scap Chin Ups are a great exercise to help improve shoulder stability and control. They are also the crucial initial movement within a properly executed Chin Up. They are great for beginners to learn how to activate their back muscles and they can also be used in a warm up for intermediate and advanced trainees.
Why no bands?
Generally performing Chin Ups with bands just makes you better at, well, performing Chin Ups with bands. We have never seen any valuable carryover to performing this exercise once the bands are taken away.
The resistance curve on bands are inconsistent – it gives you the most assistance in the part of a lift where you need to develop the most strength (from a full hang). Also, at the bottom of the chin up, it is crucial to ‘set’ the shoulder blades before you bend the elbows – the bands tend to catapult trainees past this important step, thus missing a integral part of the movement. Scap Chin Ups would serve the individual far better in prepping scapular retraction and stabilisation, setting the shoulders to ensure a technically sound Chin Up.
Essentially bands allow you to do the movement without fully engaging all of the muscles needed to perform the movement.
If you find yourself in a commercial gym setting, a Gravitron machine is actually a good fit to help build Chin Up strength. Again it is important to try and make sure you are retracting shoulder blades and activating back muscles sufficiently during each rep.
Why no kipping?
Kipping tends to override the order of the strength – speed continuum or at least it allows for a movement to occur without paying the dues and building a foundation for strength in that position. If folks are competing in Crossfit or a timed event where they need to perform an amount of repetitions quickly, I would recommend being able to perform AT LEAST 5 strict Chin Ups before playing around with kipping Chin Ups – otherwise I would disregard this movement completely as the risk / reward is too high and shoulder injuries can be all too common due to excessive shoulder extension at higher velocities.
I hope the above outlines the strategies behind our Chin Up Progressions. When it comes to developing this skill, there are no secrets – just sensible progressions, patience and working on these progressions consistently.
If you have any questions or if you need any help, ask the coaches in the gym or get in touch at [email protected] and we will be more than happy to provide assistance!