11 Jun Going From Zero to One: How To Get Your First Chin Up
It’s no secret that I love chin-ups.
No matter what your goal is, chin-ups can help you get there.
If you’re looking to build muscle, chin-ups can help you pack size on your back like nothing else.
If you’re looking to get leaner, striving to do more chin-ups will help keep you on your diet, and encourage you to keep progressing (remember, the leaner you are, the easier they become).
If you’re looking to get stronger for sports, chin-ups will build the pulling power required for bigger serves, longer throws and faster punches.
What I love most about chin-ups though is its ability to increase confidence and create a sense of accomplishment.
Especially when you get your first one.
And even more so if you’re a woman. Why? One thing I’ve noticed when working with female clients is the pre-conceived notion that chin-ups are only for men, and only ‘genetically superior’ women are capable of them.
Articles like this in the NY times only serve to fuel this. And it’s a load of garbage.
To show why we think this, here’s a selection of RNT’s female clients who’ve gone from zero to one and more with their chin-ups!
So why can’t some people perform any chin-ups?
If you can’t perform a chin-up right now, it’s most likely due to one of following two reasons:
- Not lean enough. You don’t have to be super lean to do a chin-up, but if you’re pulling less non-functional mass, i.e. fat, it’s going to make things a lot harder.
- Too weak. Most people are too weak in the lats, biceps, scapular retractors and the ‘core’ muscles to be able to pull themselves up.
It makes sense therefore that if we want to get our first chin-up, we need to eat for fat loss, and train for strength.
The first thing anyone who wants to be able to do a chin-up need to learn is how to effectively recruit their lats, and how to perform vertical pulling motions with perfect technique.
Pulldowns can be a great teaching tool here but after a base level of strength and technique is accomplished, they should be considered only a supplemental exercise. Rather than an exercise that will help you get to your first chin-up alone.
Once you’ve mastered the pulldown and brought your body fat down a little, it’s time to incorporate some eccentric work on the chin-up bar.
The purpose of these eccentric only chin-ups is to capitalise on the body’s ability to produce more force on the eccentric (lowering) part of a movement, than the concentric portion (lifting up). As a result, we can start building strength across the full range of motion of the chin-up.
To perform these, use a box and jump to the top so that your chest is touching the bar.
At the top, make sure your shoulder blades are held back and down. This is crucial. If you’re hunched over the bar, the majority of the stress will go to the arms and shoulders, instead of the back.
From this position, control the descent in anywhere from 5-10 seconds.
How many reps, and how long each lasts will depend on the individual’s strength, and the overall programme.
As long as it’s somewhere between 3 to 5 reps of 5 to 10 seconds you’re on the right track.
An example progression could be as following:
Weeks 1 & 2: 3 sets of 3 reps with 5-second negatives
Weeks 3 & 4: 3 sets of 4 reps with 5-second negatives
Weeks 5 & 6: 3 sets of 3 reps with 8-second negatives
Weeks 7 & 8: 3 sets of 3 reps with 10-second negatives
Weeks 9 & 10: 3 sets of 1 rep with 30-second negatives
As the rep duration lengthens it’s critical you keep consistent tension throughout the rep. What I commonly see when clients perform eccentrics for the first time is that they’ll jump to the top, hold for a few seconds at the top, then drop fast through their weak point before regaining tension again.
Because we want to build strength throughout the entire range of motion, we want a slow controlled rep that remains consistent throughout.
Once you’re performing consistent reps of 10+ seconds, it’s time to make it harder.
Here’s what you’ll do next:
- Add holds. The first step will be to add pauses in the positions of the rep that you’re most weak in. At each of these pauses, hold your body for anywhere between 3 and 8 seconds. You should be shaking pretty hard!
- Add weight. If you’re still going for your first chin-up, loading an eccentric can be a useful stimulus. By this stage you’ll be pretty close to getting a full rep, so adding weight can provide a psychological boost as you’ll feel lighter when pulling with only bodyweight.
Assisted Spotted Chins
For this progression, you’ll need a partner. Their job will be to provide you with just enough assistance to overcome your sticking points in the rep.
However, what we don’t want here is such minimal help that each rep becomes a grind. We want smooth reps at the same cadence as a normal chin-up.
The progression is as follows:
- Partner to support from ankles
- Partner to support from waist
- Partner only to support certain parts of the movement
For each progression, you should be able to knock off clean sets of 5 to 8 reps before moving to the next one.
There a few ways I like to incorporate isometrics when going for your first chin-up.
- Flexed Hangs. To do these, jump to the top and hold your body for a specific time. I like to aim for 3-5 sets of 20-30 seconds. As a rule of thumb, if you can do a couple sets of 30 seconds with good form, you should be good for one chin-up.
- Specific Holds for Weak Points. When you perform isometrics, you’ll typically only gain a 10 to 15 degree carry over in strength on either side of the position your holding. What this means that if you struggle with the beginning portion, performing isometric holds for 5-8 seconds with your elbows slightly bent can really help strengthen the initial pull.
- Reverse Shrugs. To make chin-ups an effective back exercise, you need to be able to engage the back muscles at the start of the move. This is something a lot of people struggle with, so adding in ‘reverse shrugs’ can be a useful exercise. All you do here is pull your shoulder blades back and down while in the dead hang position, and hold. Done correctly, you should feel tension in the upper back.
Banded Chin Ups
The problem with using bands for chin-ups is that I never see it carry over when it’s relied upon solely as the method to get your first chin-up.
This is because they provide a lot of assistance at the bottom of the lift, which for many people is also the weakest part of the lift.
So why am I including them?
What banded chin-ups can do is provide the confidence to eventually perform a normal chin-up.
The key with using bands is that it needs to be done in conjunction with eccentric-only work, and isometric work emphasising the bottom position. This way all parts of the strength curve are covered.
Another important point is to make sure you have some mini-bands so that you can progressively reduce the resistance incrementally.
An example progression could be:
Week 1: 3 sets of 6
Week 2: 3 sets of 8
Week 3: 3 sets of 10
Week 4: 3 sets of 6 – less band tension
Week 5: 3 sets of 8
Week 6: 3 sets of 10
Week 7: Test
If you don’t have access to a lot of bands, you can progress through how you place your feet. In order of easiest to hardest:
- Both feet hooked in band
- One foot only
- One knee only
TRX / Ring Pulls
I’m beginning to like this exercise more and more for those who are striving for their first chin-up. Especially in favour of banded variations.
I stole this off US strength coach Tony Gentilcore, and the exercise does a great job in strengthening all the muscles involved in the chin-up in a similar recruitment pattern.
For this exercise, performing 2 to 3 sets of 10 to 15 reps is best.
What you’re going to do here is the following:
- Set the TRX straps / rings so that when you’re kneeling on the floor with your butt to your heels, you have a slight bend in your elbows. You also want to position your body just behind the straps.
- Pull yourself up driving your elbows down to your sides, and using your legs to assist a little in lifting yourself up.
- Think elbows down, then legs.
I’m going to film a video for this later in the week, so I’ll post it up when it’s done.
Putting it all together
If you’re going to prioritise your chin-ups, you need to allocate more volume and frequency to your pulling muscles. Which means you’ll need to reduce volume on other body parts if you want to recover effectively.
As it’s a priority, you need to start every single session with one of the above variations.
Here’s how I like to set it out (I’ve only included lats, arm and core work)
- Banded Chin Ups 3 sets of 6 (use progression as per above)
- 3 sec Paused Pulldown 3 sets of 5
- RKC Plank 3 sets of 30 seconds with Reverse Shrugs 3 sets of 10-15 seconds (superset)
- Negative Chin ups 5 sets of 5-6 reps of 8 seconds (emphasis on bottom)
- One Arm Dumbbell Rows 3 sets of 8 to 12
- Hanging Knee Raises 3 sets of 10 to 20
- Flexed Hangs 4 to 5 sets of 20 to 30 seconds
- TRX / Ring Pulls 3 sets of 10 to 15
- Seated Hammer Curls 3 sets of 10 to 15
- Hollow Body Holds 3 sets of 20 seconds with Reverse Shrugs 3 sets of 10 to 15 seconds (superset)
- Assisted Spotted Chin Ups 8 total reps – add 2 per week
- Any Deadlift variation – 3 to 4 sets of 6 to 10
- Pull Up Holds (just before elbows straighten) 3 to 5 sets of 10 to 15 seconds
Greasing the Groove
The more time you can spend under a bar, the better.
That’s why I recommend sprinkling the following throughout the week here and there, whenever you get the chance:
Jump to Bars – just jump and try go to top. Key is to create some sort of strain / effort and fight for 5 seconds at least
Negatives – 3-5 seconds each time, spread throughout the day
Dead Hang Attempts – pull with everything you have and see what happens – fight for 5 seconds – swing your legs, do whatever, anything goes. Don’t do this too often though.
Monkey Bars – move hands along a railing
Hangs – Practice hanging with shoulder blades packed
If you know of anyone struggling to get their first chin-up, please share this article with them and spread the word.