The chin up is a benchmark exercise that requires a serious amount of core and upper body strength. A fundamental pulling exercise, this movement hearkens back to the days of our tree-dwelling ancestors. Pulling your body weight vertically is something that every human is capable of doing with proper training and progression. At SPARC, we have helped clients from 12 to 70 years old achieve their first chin up. Here’s how we do it:
Progression 1: Banded Scapula Pulls (refer to video below)
Scapular control is the linchpin of any and all pulling movements. Teaching your body to perform this exercise correctly may take time, but will ensure you are activating and utilizing the correct muscles for every future progression. Before anything else, master this!
Depress your scapula and hold for 10 seconds. Repeat this for 3 sets of 10 reps. If you feel a slight burn in your lats and upper back, you are doing the exercise correctly.
Hold a Scap Pull for one rep of 30 seconds. Remember this movement because it will be the start of every pulling movement to follow.
Progression 2: TRX Chin Up (refer to video below)
This exercise mimics the pulling movement of the chin up, but keeps your feet firmly on the ground to increase safety and control.
Perform 3 sets of 8-10 reps. As you progress through this exercise, you should begin relying less and less on your legs. To progress, keep one foot off the ground during the exercise.
If you can perform 3 sets of 10 reps using only one leg for assistance, you are ready to progress to the next exercise.
Progression 3: Flexed-Arm Hang (refer to video below)
We will now say goodbye to the ground. This progression adds in some crucial core engagement that wasn’t present during the TRX chin ups, and introduces an isometric element to build upper back strength.
On day 1, see how long you can hold yourself in a flexed-arm position. Let’s say you held for 20 seconds before stopping. Cut your max time in half (20/2 = 10 seconds), and perform 3-4 sets at that time. For a 20 second max hold, you will perform 3-4 sets of 10 second holds.
Every 2-4 weeks, retest how long you can hold yourself up. Once you can hold a flexed arm hang for 30 seconds, move on to the next exercise. If you still can’t hold for 30 seconds, divide your new max hold time by 2 and perform 3-4 sets at that new time.
Progression 4: Negatives (refer to video below)
You can now begin eccentric training by performing Chin Up “Negatives.” This exercise combines the pulling strength from the TRX chin up with the core strength and muscular control of the flexed-arm hang.
You can either jump to the top of the pull up bar to begin, or find a bench or box that allows you to start at the top of the pull up without needing to jump. Jumping will be harder.
Perform 2-3 sets of 3-5 reps of Negatives, with each rep lasting 4-6 seconds. Focus on lowering yourself at a constant velocity with your arms fully extended at the last second. Jump or step back to the top and repeat. If you collapse or lose control during any portion of the movement, don’t count the rep.
If you can perform 3 sets of 5 reps lasting 6 seconds per rep, you are ready for the next progression.
Progression 5: Assisted Chin Ups (or go for the real thing!)
By now, you may already have the strength to perform a full chin up. If you are still struggling, assisted chin ups can be a great tool for closing the gap. Relying on banded assistance too early in the training process can stifle progress by reducing core activation and teaching faulty movement patterns. Because of this, I reserve assisted chin ups until the final progression. Spend the time developing proper core and pulling strength with the other progressions, and your body will respond correctly when attempting the assisted chin up.
Pick a band that only takes a small amount of weight off, or only helps during the toughest part of the rep (pulling yourself to 90 degrees of elbow flexion). You may have to play around with the height of the band to find the appropriate amount of assistance.
Pretend the band is not there and brace your abs for the pull. Bracing your abs and Squeezing your glutes will help distribute your body weight more evenly.
Perform 3 sets of 8-10 reps, relying as little as possible on the band. Over time, lower the height of the band so that you rely less on it, or find bands with lighter resistance.
Once you can perform 3 sets of 10 reps with a barely-assisted chin up, it’s time to try for the real thing. If you still can’t perform a chin up, you may be relying too much on the band for help, have poor scapular control, or need to train the core specifically.
Give these progressions a try. Do not worry about how long it takes you to move through these progressions. For some people, it may take 6-8 weeks. For others, it could take a year. Let the quality of movement and hitting the correct number of reps guide you. Good luck!