When it comes to upper limb exercises for building both mass and improving strength, nothing beats the chin up!
However, for many gym goers out there, the thought of being able to do multiple chin ups seems like a distant fantasy rather than a realistic medium-term goal.
Before I dive into strategies to improve your chin-ups here are three key factors to consider when it comes to either chin-ups or bodyweight exercises:
- Your basic strength level
- Your body weight
- Your mobility
From experimenting with and improving my own chin-up performance for years, as well as helping others improve theirs with the team at FFS, we have found the following five areas to be crucial.
1 – Effective warm-ups
It is often surprising how many people do not know what muscles are involved when performing chin-ups or pull-ups.
Understanding what muscles are involved is very important, as first of all, the mind-muscle connection (feeling the muscles work) is crucial in developing both mass and strength.
It is also important to activate the working muscles before we perform compound movements such as chins, to both reduce the risk of injury and improve performance.
The main muscles used are the latissimus dorsi (lats) and biceps as well as the scapular muscles (control the shoulder blades).
When warming up, we want to make sure we activate our upper back and scapular muscles, as these are the muscles that stabilise any overhead push or pull movement. Along with scapular activation, it is important that we prep our body for the chin up by performing other vertical pull movements in the warm-up i.e. lat pulldowns.
#2 – Eccentric Training
Without a doubt, eccentric training has been the most effective method that we use at FFS when helping people go from not being able to do any chins to banging out multiple bodyweight reps.
For those that do not know, eccentric training or ‘negative reps’ is where the working muscles are contracting while being lengthened as opposed to shortened.
Why is this so important?
Well, it is said that we are up to 40% stronger eccentrically than we are concentrically so we are therefore able to use greater resistance to overload the working muscles.
Eccentric reps are also very easy to progress as you can just add to the time it takes you to lower each week or once you get to 20-30 second bodyweight eccentrics, weight can be added.
#3 – Build your strength with volume
Another common mistake is that people test their strength far too frequently instead of building it. You should only test your strength every 6-8 weeks after a period of building strength with structured programming and volume.
When it comes to chin-ups, this for many people may involve the use of resistance band assisted chin ups in order to achieve a higher volume in their training.
Often when people are able to achieve 2-3 bodyweight chin-ups in testing, they see using a band or getting a spot in their early program stage training as a regression from where they were.
In reality, building their strength with higher volume will lead to greater results when the time comes to test again.
If you can currently do three sets of five bodyweight chin-ups, practice doing three sets of seven with a light resistance band for three weeks. In the fourth week take the band away and do the first set at BW and the next two with the band. Each week add a set without the band and in six weeks you will have gone from 15 per session to 21 per session. One chin-up per week – not a bad increase!
#4 – Incorporate horizontal rows in accessory work
Accessory work’s role is to help improve the primary lift. As the lats are the primary working muscles involved in chin-ups, they need to be targeted when doing accessory/hypertrophy work.
When it comes to building lat muscle, horizontal rows are essential to incorporate. Examples of horizontal row exercises are Single Arm Rows, Barbell incline rows and TRX Rows.
– Single Arm Dumbell Rows
The following video outlines it perfectly.
– Prone DB Row
Horizontal rows are also important for overall shoulder health.
It is commonly known that we should pull more weight than we push, but it is also important that we horizontally pull more than we vertical pull for sustainable long-term shoulder health and pain-free training.
For more info on this, check out this article.
#5 – Perception and consistency
One of biggest downfalls people have is believing that they can’t achieve bodyweight chin-ups. This is particularly common with females. If you perceive that you can’t do it, then you won’t do it!
Stay consistent with your training and trust your program, focus on incremental improvements, and enjoy the process and you will be banging out chins a lot sooner than you think.
To quote Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson:
“Success is not overnight, it is every day when you get just a little better than the day before, it all adds up.”
Get to work!
Rory McInerney, Pundit Arena.