You can do a chin up. Yes, you! The road to get there may be a little twisty, but buckle up and hang on because you will eventually arrive at this spectacular feat of fitness: performing your first chin up.
The mere mention of chin ups to the women I train often brings back memories of the Presidential Fitness Challenge, along with the recollection that many of us couldn’t do a single rep. I was that kid, and for years i just assumed that chin ups and pull ups were reserved for dudes, women like G.I. Jane, and serious athletes.
But somewhere along my fitness journey, I began to entertain the possibility of performing a chin up. There’s something innately badass about being able to leverage your own bodyweight above that bar. To me, it signals a masterpiece of coordination and command of my body that makes me feel powerful. Rawr. Plus I thought it would be the best party trick ever. So I set out to get my first chin up. The process was bumpier than I anticipated, but I got it. My 60 year-old client got one, and you can too!
Chin Ups Vs. Pull Ups
I’m focusing on the chin up for today, as I have found that it’s a more quickly attainable initial goal than a pull up. Both exercises are excellent, multi-joint, upper-body builders . The pull up is typically done with a slightly wider grip that requires us to more heavily draw upon our lat muscles. When you do chin ups, you place your hands roughly shoulder-width apart with your palms facing you. You’ll be able to use your biceps more in this position and they will help get yourself to the bar.
Like so many other gym goers, we may begin by attempting a chin up only to find that we go absolutely nowhere on the bar. I could barely hang on to the bar when I began training. I saw other ladies over on the assisted chin-up machine and they looked so smooth and successful. So I headed over to that instead and began with heavily assisted chin-ups. Ultimately, I think I mostly wasted my time.
The assisted chin-up machine isn’t terrible. It has its place, and will help us build upper body strength. However, as you get closer to becoming strong enough to attempt your first chin up, it doesn’t closely replicate the position that you’ll need to hold.
What Your Body Does During a Chin Up
When you do chin ups, you learn pretty quickly that positioning is an important player. Here are some tips to make your chin up progress prettier:
- Squeeze your butt and brace your abs. A stiff body is a more stable body that is easier to pull. My clients get so much better after they get tight.
- Your shoulder blades need to be able to rotate downward as you pull yourself up to the bar. I have found that the cue to keep your shoulders down and back locks me down too much. Instead of forcefully pinching your shoulder blades together, think about your shoulders staying away from your ears as you pull up.
- Think beyond pulling with your hands: keep your elbows close to your body and think about driving them down as you pull up to the bar.
- Aim your chest to the bar, not your head. It will help with your positioning too.
- Learn how to turn on your lats. Your latissimus dorsi are big muscles that run down the sides of your back and attach at different points along your spine, shoulder, ribcage, and pelvis. Yeah, they’re sort of a big deal. Learning how to use these bad boys will help you with all kinds of strength feats. For your chin ups, they’ll help pull you up to the bar. Two cues I like for activating my lats are “squeeze oranges with your armpits” and “put your armpits in your back pockets”. These sound silly but they work!
What To Do When You Can’t Do a Chin Up Yet
When I began training to do a chin up I already had a decent foundation of strength. Depending on your current situation, you’ll start in a different place. And that’s totally o.k. – there’s no one right place to begin. Play with these movements and find out what you’re ready to try. Here’s what worked for me:
- Practicing Position
I chose exercises that would help me with components of the pull. At first I just practiced hanging from the bar, focusing on keeping my shoulders away from my ears and keeping my core engaged. I started with a dead hang, maintaining my position:
Around the same time, I implemented negative chin-ups, where you jump up to the bar and slowly lower yourself, attempting to control your movement as much as possible. At first I’d hold it about a half second. However, I quickly saw my times improve, and this was very motivating. Huzzah.
Negatives and hanging from the bar helped me practice positioning and control at each end point of the chin up. I mixed these up into my training, usually doing 3-5 sets a few days a week.
- Body Fat
Compared to my lean body mass, I had a sizable percentage of body fat when I started. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just a factor that plays a role. It’s unfair, but it is what it is. Chin ups became significantly easier as I got leaner. It’s not just a matter of being lean: I have friends who weigh a lot more than I do and do more chin ups than I do, too. But their body fat percentage is similar to mine – they just pack more muscle. It’s not all about the weight on the scale. If you have a significant amount of weight to lose and you’re not packing serious muscle, don’t give up on your chin up dreams. Keep working on the variations that work for your body and just know it may take some extra time and muscle building to get your first rep.
- Continue getting stronger. I kept doing heavy lat pulldowns as I worked on my chin up form. I also continued to do plenty of rowing variations: inverted rows, TRX hinge rows, bent over dumbbell and barbell rows as well as batwing rows.
On their own, I found that contrary to what some say, lat pulldowns didn’t progress me in the chin up, but I figured that some extra overall back strength wouldn’t hurt. Rowing variations are useful too for people starting out in strength training and not yet able to hang from a bar. Plus they are good for us anyway, so I kept doing pulling work of some kind 2-3 days per week.
- Curls, bruh. There are some times when isolation exercises are pretty useful, no matter what anyone else says. As I got really close to my first chin up, where I was able to pull myself half way up, I decided to start adding some sets of biceps curls to the end of my upper body workouts. My guns started looking swole too. #Flex.
- Cheaty, jumpy chinups: yes, a “real” chin up means that you hold your body with control. No swinging legs or jumping up to the bar. Also, don’t do that kipping pullup baloney where it looks like you’re humping the bar and/or having a seizure. I didn’t keep completely strict form but initially, a tiny jump gave me just a smidgen of momentum that helped me practice my pull. It took me a bit longer to be able to do them from a dead hang.
- Greasing the Groove. I heard about this idea from Pavel Tsatsouline, a Russian strength expert who believes that doing something frequently and with intensity strengthens the nerve impulse to the working muscles. Regardless of the responsible mechanism, I can say anecdotally that frequency of chinups seems to really improve my performance.
Frequent practice not only helps us get to a first chin up: it’ll make it easier to continue to get more repetitions. Trainer Annie Brees turned to the trapeze on her kids’ swing set in an attempt to grease the groove. She was hoping that doing frequent chin ups would actually help her pull ups. Every time she went to her car she had to pass by the swing set, so she stopped and banged out a few reps. The result? Better chin ups and pull ups!
When You’re Nearly There
Here’s the fun part! I nabbed friends, my husband, or in a few cases, random strangers at the gym to assist my chin ups. Once I was getting close to being able to chin up, these seemed to put me over the edge to my first rep.
How to do these: I got myself into position and had my helper just barely push on the bottom of my shoe. It seems odd, but just that little bit of assistance makes them easier while still allowing us to keep our positoning.
Alternatives: If you work out at home or without friends/strangers to accost, you can use Superbands. I prefer to loop one around the bar and pull it down, where I stick my knee into the band and go. This is a useful way to work on building up more reps of your chinups when you’re just getting started.
Ready to get started? Pick a movement to try and you’ll be on your way. Practice, practice, and practice some more. You’ll get there. Today I did 5. About a year ago I could barely do 1. A year before that, I couldn’t hold on to the bar. Keep working, and know that better is just around the corner.
- Body Fat