For many of us the idea of doing a chin-up (underhand grip) or pull-up (overhand grip) can literally feel out of our reach and too often we put it in the too hard basket, rather than to try and attempt this mighty feat.
It is an exercise that tests both physical strength and mental grit, and while yes, it is no easy feat, it's far from impossible. Plus, by dodging chin-ups, you're missing out on one of the best, most efficient upper-body moves out there. It strengthens and sculpts the muscles in your arms, shoulders, back, and core with every rep, it also builds muscle mass, which aids in boosting your metabolism and reduction of body fat.
This five step program will help you build the strength and confidence needed to tackle the intimidating chin-up/pull-up—and soon after, help you bang out several in a row.
So, are you up for the challenge?
In order to master your first chin-up/pull-up, there are five progressions detailed below. You want to work on these exercises, 2-3 times a week when your body is well rested and at its strongest.
Step 1: Grip Strength
The first step is getting comfortable with grip of the bar and building your grip strength.
With a small step placed underneath the bar for assistance in reaching the bar (if needed), practice hanging from the bar (arms fully extended) for up to 30 seconds.
Once you are comfortable hanging for 30 seconds without slipping or losing grip you are ready to move on to step two.
Step 2: Protraction and Retraction of the Scapula
Getting to know your back muscles. Pull-ups work the muscles in your upper back (the Latissimus dorsi, and the trapezius), in your shoulders (the anterior deltoids), and in your arms (the biceps and brachialis). The closer together the hands are placed on the bar; the more the emphasis is on the biceps. The further they are apart, the more emphasis on the Lats. We want to be engaging these back muscles so we are not relying too much on the biceps to take the load.
So while in the Step 1 hanging position, focus on moving the shoulder blades back and down, then releasing them. While also in this stage we want to avoid arching in the lower back, so when performing the protraction and retraction, focus on pulling your rib cage down (contract your abdominal down and in towards your spine) and in towards your back, keep the legs straight, in line, and point the toes down. Aim to complete 5-10 reps.
Step 3: Eccentric Loading
We are always stronger in the eccentric phase (lengthening of the muscle under load) of an exercise. So in the Pull-up/Chin-up, we are strongest in the lowering part of the exercise. That's why you'll first work on lowering yourself down as slowly as possible. It makes your muscles work in overdrive throughout the entire range of motion, which in turn helps you build, the overall strength you'll need to pull yourself up the other way.
Using a step for assistance if needed, grab the bar with an overhand/underhand grip and then jump up so your chin is just over the bar. Pause, then lower yourself as slowly as possible aiming for about five to 10 seconds.
Once your arms are fully extended, let go of the bar and step back onto the box. Repeat. Aim to complete 3 sets of 5-10 reps.
Step 4: Using a Resistance Band
Unlike an assisted pull-up machine, which gives fixed support throughout the entire move (it essentially makes you lighter), the band "assists" you only at your weakest point (in this case, at the bottom with your arms extended). As you pull your body toward the bar, the band's support lessens so you utilise more of your own strength.
Loop a resistance band (there are varying thicknesses in weight assistance bands to give the support needed) around a chin-up bar; place one knee in the loop and grab the bar with an underhand/overhand grip, arms completely straight. Pull your chest toward the bar. Pause, then slowly return to start. That's one rep.
Aim for 3 sets of 5-10 reps.
Step 5: Completing your first Chin Up/Pull-Up
Start from a dead hang with straight elbows, palms facing you/away from you. Keeping your chest up and your shoulders back, squeeze your glutes and cross your feet. Pull yourself up so that your chin rests over the bar. Lower down and repeat. Work on completing your max reps with each set, working up to 3 sets of 8-10 reps.
Tip: For most people the underhand grip of a chin-up is easier than the overhand grip pull-up, as it engages more of the biceps to assist you up.
Once you can achieve 4-5 chin-ups, start to try the overhand grip (hands about a fist outside shoulder width) in the pull-up.
Believing you can is half the battle. You can become a chin-up/pull up master. Like anything else, you just have to practice. You should be aiming to work on these steps at least 2-3 times per week, and up to a maximum of 5 times per week (allow recovery time) to see progress.
Be willing to try. It will happen with a consistent and persistent effort.
Grab a workout buddy; sometimes we all need that someone to be the one to help us stay accountable in achieving our goals, and give us that little boost, up and over the bar.