Probably my favorite exercise to do is the chin-up. When I first started lifting I couldn’t do a single one. In recent years, I’ve done 20 on two separate occasions. These days I rarely try to max, because I’m focused more on the principles of High Intensity Training. That means my chin-ups today tend to be slower, weighted, and with static holds. In this post I will outline what worked and didn’t work for me when it came to doing more chin-ups.
Photo by Rob Brewer
Chin-Ups or Pull-Ups
I prefer doing chin-ups to pull-ups. So does High Intensity Trainer Drew Baye. From the post Q&A: Strict Chin Ups Versus Kipping Pull Ups:
I prefer to have trainees perform chin ups (supinated grip) to pull ups (pronated grip) since this puts the biceps in a stronger position making the upper arm less of a “weak link” in the exercise.
Read the entire post. It is excellent information. Drew has trained many people, whereas I’ve only trained myself.
Assisted Pull Up Machines
I see a lot of people using the assisted pull up machine to build up to their first body weight chin up. Maybe there is a good machine out there, but I haven’t found one. When you get under one of these machines, if you start with a decent pull, the lifter slides upward almost effortlessly. In other words, the tension is reduced just when more muscle should be engaged. The lifter games the equipment with a fast start. They also ride down the negative, so their muscles are fresh to bounce up again.
I’m not a biomechanics guy, but I’ve used several of those machines and they never helped me get better at chin ups. The movement doesn’t seem natural.
By doing your chin ups faster, you might be able to squeeze out an extra rep or three, but don’t confuse speed with strength. Throwing your body upward and then letting it fall quickly for a bounce is sloppy nonsense that could end up hurting your shoulder. I’ve used fast chin-ups to squeeze out an additional rep or two, but I never got stronger doing fast chin-ups. I have found slow chin ups to be more effective for building strength.
Lat Pulldown Machine
I am a fan of using the cable lat pulldown machine to improve your chin ups. The trick is to not use this machine like every other fool in the gym. Find a bar that allows you to place your palms facing yourself with your hands slightly less than shoulder width apart. You will mimic the movement of the chin up. Here are the changes I recommend:
- Perform each rep slowly.
- Keep your back straight so you aren’t using your body weight to make the movement easier.
- Bring the weight down to just below your chin.
- Do not stop at the top or the bottom. Keep moving the weight slowly.
- When the movement gets extremely hard, move into the mid-range and perform a static hold.
Note that if you already do the lat pulldown machine in a more traditional way, you’ll likely need to lower the weight.
Flexed Arm Hang
The United States Marine Corp has a different physical fitness test for women than men. The men do pull ups, whereas the women perform a Flexed Arm Hang. I’m a big fan of this exercise. These days I often end my chin up sessions with a Flexed Arm Hang (static hold) instead of performing additional reps.
Negative Chin Ups
For this one, unless you have a free standing chin up bar you will need to grab a stool or chair and place it under the chin up bar. You will use the chair to get to the top. Grab the chin up handle, step off the chair and slowly descend. Once you get to the bottom, immediately get back on the chair and repeat the movement. I love this exercise, especially with a weighted belt. I’ve strapped up to 90 pounds on a belt and did this for reps at the end of workout.
My Absolute Favorite Chin Up Exercise
My favorite chin up exercise is the Full Range with Static Holds. Perform a slower full range chin up and then at the top lower into a static hold.
I never progressed past 5 reps when I was training for reps 2-3 times a week. Only when I allowed my body more time to recover and explored other chin up variations did my numbers go up. Another thing that really helped my chin ups was losing weight. Going from 210 to 190 made this exercise much easier. Dropping 20 pounds made it seem like I was floating upwards.
When I stopped caring about reps and focused on just getting stronger is when I made the most progress. I probably only try to go for max twice a year now.