How to improve your Chin... up

A chin-up is one of the very foundational strength training movements. When meeting new clients coming to the gym for the first time, many list a chin-up as a milestone goal. For good reason! It can be tough to achieve but the first time your neck just reaches the bar unassisted is incredibly rewarding. So, to see if I can help a few people along the road to their first chin-up I’ve put together a few tiparoos.

There are many different methods and strategies that you can use to train for improving chin-up ability. What follows here is just some basic ideas and concepts that I like to use, by no means is this exhaustive list.

Grip Strength

OBVIOUSLY, a core part of a chin-up is the hanging off the bar part. If your primary concern when attempting a chin is your ever-slipping grip, you might also feel like you’re not getting the opportunity to work on position and the actual motor pattern of the perfect chin*.

*See below for perfect chin.

Figure 1. The perfect chin.

Figure 1. The perfect chin.

If grip is a struggle, the best place to start is with the passive non-aggressive hang. The passive hang very much does what it says on the can. It is a hang and it is very passive. This will allow you to easily accumulate time hanging off a bar, supporting your bodyweight. A 2-minute hang is a great benchmark to set your sights on when starting out. There is also the added benefit of a seriously good stretch through your pecs/lats and some nice traction on your spine.

Hanging work is a great start, however, another great option throw in thick-grip training. Implements like Axel bars or Fat bars or Fat Gripz (if your gym doesn’t have speciality bars) will help accelerate your grip strength development. The thick grip is harder to hold onto and will make you work harder to get a grip. Loaded carries like a farmers’ walk are also another option for improving grip. Carrying 2x your body weight for 10-20m says to me two things:  

1.    Your grip is epically strong and

2.    You’re getting the groceries done in one trip. MINT.

Try starting sessions with some hangs, not only will it help with your grip but your shoulders and back might like the stretch. Thick-grip work can be done through a variety of movements, but be aware, you will likely be weaker using thick-grip implements for some movements, so just be conscious of this when training and don’t immediately whack all the blue plates on the bar.  Another tip: Leave farmers’ carries to the end of a session and really cook your arms up. No one turned into a walking bicep without feeling like a bit of a pool noodle first.

Vertical Pull Strength

A key aspect to being able to perform a chin is your vertical pulling ability. My good friend, the chin-up Queen Matty White would say that with a wink. However, pulling ability, exercise scientifically, is actually the physical capacity to drag your own body weight from a dead-hang to chin over the bar (or chest to bar for the cross-fitters in the bleachers). I use a varied approach to developing this strength, I find a combination of a couple of methods the fastest way to results.

The 2 specific vertical pulling training methods I like to employ are Negative Chins and Banded Chins.

Negatives are a type of chin where we eliminate the concentric or lifting portion of the chin-up and focus on the eccentric or lowering. Eccentric training is a widely-used method in strength training and is a brilliant tool when you are learning a new movement or looking to bust through a bit of a training plateau. For those interested in the science, an eccentric contraction involves the lengthening of the muscle. During this phase of the movement our muscles can actually produce up to 150% of the force they can while shortening. Chris Beardesly has written a fantastic article on this. This isn’t going to make us specifically stronger in the ‘pulling’ part of our chin-up but it will help in developing some muscle size and general strength. Banded Chin-ups are where we are going to work on building specific strength for our chin-up movement.

A banded or assisted chin will let you work through the full range of motion while maintaining perfect form. Providing assistance in the bottom and progressively less resistance as you move towards the top. I might note here though that banded chins are not the ‘be all end all’ and there are many other variations of assisted chins that you can perform. Something like a Rack Chin variation will give you a slightly different stimulus and will change to nature of assistance that you receive. Bands will yield a curvilinear alteration in the strength curve. Assistance rapidly decreases from the dead-hang position to the top effectively yielding you little to no help as you near the top, which is often a weaker position for most and is where you might actually need more help.  Conversely, a rack variant will just reduce the total weight that you are attempting to move. 

Accessory Movements 

Lastly but not least are accessory movements. While training your chin, getting a mad pump is also important and I would even suggest, a key ingredient in getting that first chin-up. The muscles in your back are many and their fibres go every-which way. Consequently, we also want to train our back as many different ways as possible. Accessory work mixes in with the aforementioned negatives and banded work because you will need a rest from vertical pulling patterns at some point in the week. The accessory work will be lower load/intensity and will allow you to focus a bit more on generally building muscle or improving grip as discussed. I think the Inverted Row should be a go to for all people with the goal of a chin and a slightly more advanced variation is an Inverted Row Sit-back (thanks to Barefoot Loco for that one!) Active hangs are another awesome supplementary movement for you chin training as it lets you work on scapula motion and control which is so important for not just chin-ups but general shoulder health. I would even throw in a few bicep curls here and there. Whilst the bicep is not a major contributor to the chin, it is definitely going to see some action and to neglect them would be a gross injustice.

Given we have all of these tools at our disposal: how might you utilise them to plan some training that is focused on improving your chin-up?

Figure 2. A rough idea of how you might throw some extra chin development into your current training.

Figure 2. A rough idea of how you might throw some extra chin development into your current training.

Your whole gym session is not going to be just the exercises listed above, these are simply additions/inclusions you might make to your normal training routine. The important thing to remember is that each week is a progression on the last. Doesn’t matter how big or small, just aim to do a little more than the previous week.

Disclaimer: If you’re coming back from an injury, be hesitant to throw yourself into anything written on the dank internet and consult a professional you trust first.

Happy chinin’


Jonathon DanaherComment