If squats are considered the king of lower body exercise, then chin ups deserve that mantle for the upper body.
If there is one movement for the upper body that uses the most muscle, requires great coordination and allows you to move a large weight – it’s the chin up and its variations.
First, let’s clear a few misconceptions up.
What is a chin up? A chin up is the movement of pulling your body from a hang position on to clearing your chin above the bar you are hanging from with a neutral or supinated (underhand) grip. A pull up, is the same variation, but with a pronated (or overhand) grip.
The beauty of the chin up is the ability to pull a big load over a large range of motion. Hypertrophy, or muscle growth, can be expressed as the load you use multiplied by the amount of total reps you perform. In the case of the chin up, the load we use is usually greater than any other upper body movement. In our gym, it’s not uncommon to see males performing strict chin ups with up to 50% of their bodyweight attached by a weight belt.
Now that we know what a good chin up is, what are the best ways to improve chin up performance?
The chin up is an anomaly within upper body exercises in that the drop off in performance between sets can be incredibly large. For example, even with adequate rest, it is not uncommon to see the amount of good form repetitions, from from; 10,7, 4,2,1 even with adequate rest between sets.
So how do we counteract this? If we are looking to increase the number of repetitions you can perform, let’s say from 6 to 10, I am a fan of using a large amount of sets, with low number of repetitions, leaving reps in the tank. For example, if you can do 6 chin ups in a row, you could do a workout of the following;
10 sets of 3 repetitions with minimum 120 seconds rest between sets.
The following workout you would strive to achieve 10 sets of 4 repetitions.
If you cannot, continue onto the next workout and attempt 10 sets of 4 repetitions. If you can, in the next workout strive to achieve 10 sets of 5 and so on and so forth. When you can achieve 10 sets of 6 repetitions, your chin up ability for a single set should have gone up to 12.
Another way you can do things is set a target of 30 total reps and try to get them in the minimum amount of time possible. This is density training; you are getting more done in a lesser amount of time. This was a favorite style of training for Egyptian weightlifters in the early part of the 20th century.
How to build up to your first chin up
Now you may ask, what if you cannot get a single chin up, and your goals is to gain enough strength to achieve a proper, full range chin? Some trainers will use bands to assist the trainee, but the bands provide the biggest help at the bottom of the movement, which is actually where you are strongest in the movement. At the top, where you are weakest, the tension from the band is smallest. This is far from optimal.
Enter negative only reps. By stepping off a box set at the top height for a chin up, and lowering, or shall we say resisting, as slow as possible, we can train the chin up. If you can only lower yourself for 5 seconds, it doesn’t matter, we all start somewhere.
With this method of training, I like to see a minimum 5 sets of lowering yourself, separated by 180-240 seconds rest (you can use this rest interval to perform a set for opposing muscle groups, like the triceps or any sort of press). The aim here is to be able to perform a lowering that takes 30s from chin over the bar to full hang. Once you can achieve this, you can start adding a small increment of weight, either in the form of a dumbbell between the legs, or a plate attached to a belt. Once you can perform a 30 sec lowering with an additional 10% of your body weight, you will be able to get your first chin up!