The Ten Fastest Ways To Improve Your Chin Ups

The Ten Fastest Ways To Improve Your Chin Ups

The path from one chin up to many can be made shorter with these tips.

Akash Vaghela Akash Vaghela · 16 Jun 2017

Training Intermediate
18 Mins

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In the last post I detailed how to get your chin ups from zero to one.
 
Once you’ve got the first one, you’ll find you can get stronger at them quickly. In this post I’m going to tell you my favourite strategies to go from one to ten in the shortest time possible.
 
I’m a firm believer that anyone looking to improve their body composition rapidly should focus on mastering the fundamental exercises like chin-ups.
 
If you’ve got less than 5 years training experience, getting really good at chin-ups should always be at the forefront of your goals. It’s one of the best exercises to build a basic foundation in the upper body, and until you’re cranking out 10-12 reps, you have no business trying other fancy, complicated exercises for your back.
 
And for those looking to grow their 12 inch arms, instead of pumping your biceps with ten different variations of pinky up supinating pronating dumbbell curls, start getting better at chin-ups!

1. Don’t Go To Failure

This is the number one rule for improving your chin-ups.
 
The negative effect of training to failure is seen more on chin-ups than any other exercise. Not only does it induce a lot of unnecessary fatigue, but it also compromises your technique as you do everything you can to get your head over the bar. This leads to hunching forward with the shoulders, overextending the neck, losing upper back tightness and placing more stress on the elbows, wrists and shoulder capsule.
 
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of training to technical failure with many exercises, especially when the goal is building muscle. But for chin-ups, people always go way past this, and it does way more harm than good for the reasons mentioned above. 
 
When training for performance or strength specifically, you want to focus on accumulating quality reps that are relatively far from failure (2-3) as this helps keep your speed, technique and fatigue accumulation in check. In fact, this recent meta analysis found that there doesn’t seem to be any meaningful difference in strength development when comparing failure training to non-failure training. This means that with appropriate intensities, we can reap all the benefits from training to failure from a strength perspective without the accumulated fatigue.
 
When training clients, a rule of thumb I use is that as soon as a rep doesn’t look the same as the previous one from a range of motion perspective, the set is done. Some loss in speed on the last rep is fine but it should not be a grind to get it done.
 
If every set of your chin-ups ends up resembling climbing an invisible ladder, don’t be surprised if you get weaker.
 
Keep the reps crisp, explosive and technically pristine at all times. To do this, try doing the majority of your sets with 2-4 left in the tank (or at 60-80% of your max) meaning if you can hit 10 reps of chin ups you want the majority of your sets to be between 6-8.

2. Get Lean & Keep Your Body Fat In Check

This is the easiest way to improve your chin-ups. If you’re struggling for reps, getting leaner is the quickest fix. This does have it’s limitations though, especially if you’re interested in building your entire physique (which includes your legs) and into a heavy Investment Phase.
 
We have spoken about the drawbacks or trying to stay too lean when the goal is to pack on muscle here, but if you were looking at maintaining a lean for life look like long term RNTers such as Akash and Sital, then chin ups are a great indicator lift for you to keep track of and keep your body fat in check.
 
If your chin-ups take a sudden dive, or have stopped progressing and your programme hasn’t changed, it could be because you’ve gotten too fat.
 
What about if you’re purposely trying to gain weight? An interesting way to isolate your chin up performance away from bodyweight would be to consider the absolute load you are lifting. If you are 10kg heavier, you now have 10kg extra to pull with each repetition.
 
Let’s use the following numbers to demonstrate what we mean.
 
Checkpoint Weight- 60kg
Current Investment Weight- 70kg
Best Chin Up Performance- 10 reps @ a bodyweight of 60kg.
 
If you wanted to match the same conditions at a bodyweight of 70kg, you would need to find a way to remove 10kg. This is where an assisted pull up machine can be extremely useful as it allows you to manipulate the assistance. 
 
Now hopefully, you should be able to get more than 10 reps seeing as you have been investing and packing on some quality muscle but if not, then you may be packing on more body fat than is necessary.

3. Multiple Sets, Low Reps

This is the best way to improve your chin-ups.
 
The way I like to use this method is to take your chin-up max, half it, and then perform multiple sets.
 
For example, if you can only do 4 chin-ups, you’ll perform up to 10 sets of 2 reps in your workout. It’s important to keep track of rest times here as it can be very easy to rest longer in the pursuit of trying to complete the 10 sets. We recommend starting off with a 90 second rest period between each working set and using rest times as a potential progression technique later down the line if adding weight isn’t appropriate.
 
This way you can use perfect form, keep reps crisp and practice using the right muscles to pull you up each time. We DON’T want to be seeing noticeable slow down in our reps for at least the first 8-9 sets and you should only look at manipulating a variable once the first set looks exactly the same as the last set.
 
The great thing about this method is that you can do it multiple times per week (2-3 would be fantastic, especially if you’re already quite experienced with chin ups) and scale accordingly. 
 
Every 3-4 weeks, re-test your max reps and reset the number. Each time you do this you should see a noticeable jump.

4. Pay The Toll

This is one of my favourite strategies to improve your chin-up numbers, whether you’re trying to go from 2 to 10, or 10 to 20.
 
Back at university, our flat decided to set a chin-up challenge to see who could improve their chin-ups quickest.
 
What we did is set up a bar in each of our rooms. And the rule was that each time we went into our room, we had to ‘pay the toll’ by knocking out 3-5 chins (depending on our max, but it had to be really easy).
 
After doing this for a few weeks, everyone’s maxes went up by 4-5 reps, and this was also when I hit my all time best of 18 chin-ups.
 
The principle here at work is very simple and is a strategy that legendary strength coach and all round beast Pavel Tsatsouline has utilised for decades. He coined the method “greasing the groove” where you take an exercise (like chin ups) and do multiple sets of minimal reps across the day at an intensity that never leaves you tired or degrades technique (usually between 40-50% of your max).
 
With this method, you take full advantage of the neural adaptations that come with practicing a movement as strength also has a huge skill component without the increase in mass which is ideal when wanting to become a chin up beast!

5. Incorporate Weighted Chin Ups

Research shows that the exercises we do first in our workouts, are the exercises we get the most of from a strength and muscle growth perspective. Ever wonder why calves are so hard to grow? Everyone always tackles them at the end of a hard leg session meaning you simply cannot give as much energy to them.
 
The reason for this is relatively intuitive as you are able to exert more force when you’re fresh compared to when you’re already quite fatigued. If an exercise or body part means a lot to you, placing it at the start of your session is a very simple tip to get more out of the same training program.
 
If you want to take your chin ups to the next level, they also need to take priority within your overall training program meaning we would recommend starting at least one session per week (ideally on upper days) where you can really lift some heavy loads, relative to you of course.
 
During these sessions, we want to be working closer to 85-90% of your max meaning each set should get you to at least 1 rep shy of failure while working within 3-5 reps for 3-5 sets. As always, the goal is to still maintain perfect form but NEVER reach technical failure.
 
This can work really well in combination with all the other methods we have discussed so far as you are now getting the “full spectrum” of intensity across the week.

6. Staggered Sets

If you’re short on time, and you can’t do 10 sets of 2 for straight sets or pay the toll during the day, the best thing to do is stagger sets of chin-ups between other exercises.
 
For this strategy you’ll use a combination of the above guidelines and sprinkle sets of 2-3 reps between every exercise you perform in the gym. The only day we wouldn’t recommend incorporating this strategy would be the day where you perform your heavier chin up work.
 
In fact, if you were really looking to get the best of all worlds we have found submaximal chin ups to interfere the least with the following exercises as they either don’t work the prime movers (lats and biceps) in a meaningful way.
  • Squats
  • Overhead Pressing Movements
  • Lunges
  • Split Squats
  • Lying/Seated Leg Curls
  • Leg Extensions
  • Calf Raises
  • Tricep Pushdowns
If possible, try to avoid pairing them with the following exercises as they may have the potential to fatigue the prime movers meaning you don’t get the most “bang for your buck” from your chin ups.
  • RDL
  • Deadlifts
  • Rack Deadlifts
  • Any Vertical Pulling Exercise 
  • Any Rowing Exercise
  • Direct Bicep/Forearm Work
  • Horizontal Pushing Exercises
If you follow those guidelines, you’ll barely notice any fatigue doing this, but you’ll be able to get a lot of volume in during the hour of training. 

7. Grow More Muscle

With the majority of techniques we have discussed so far, the goal has been to maximise as much neural efficiency as possible which simply means, teaching our muscles to fire as efficiently and as effectively as possible. When it comes to strength though, we can only go so far before we need to start actually putting on more muscle mass to get better results. 
 
Simply put, a bigger muscle has the ability to produce more force, all else being equal.
 
If we use the analogy of a high performance car, we have been tuning the CPU (nervous system) to maximise the power we can put out WITHOUT physically changing the engine, injectors or exhaust (your muscles). To seriously increase the horsepower of this vehicle, we need to upgrade the parts as well.
 
To get the most out of your chin ups, we recommend that your overall program includes exercises that train the prime movers with a focus on hypertrophy. This means doing at least between 6-10 additional “hard” sets per week for the lats, biceps and rear delts, staying within 8-15 reps per set while taking these sets to failure or very close to (1-2 reps shy).
 
Based on the demands of chin ups, we recommend using exercises that heavily load the lats and biceps in their stretched position while adding in some isolated rear delt work for overall strength and stability in the shoulders.
 
Lats:
 
 
*These exercises will also hit the long head of the triceps which has been shown to contribute to chin ups quite a lot!
 
Biceps:
 
 
Rear Delts:
 
 
This is not to say that these are the only exercises you should be doing for these body parts. Rows, lat pulldowns, barbell/DB curls, rear delt raises, etc are still good exercises to include in an overall plan but the ones we have listed may just contribute more to your chin up/pull up performance.

8. Change Grips

When you’re in the 5 to 10 rep range, your chin-up volume will be pretty high when you account for the staggered sets, the toll, and the daily targets.
 
To avoid overuse injuries, make sure you change your grips frequently. Not only will this keep the shoulders, elbows and wrists healthy but it will allow you to train all the smaller muscles around the shoulder joint that can get overworked or underworked by only using one variation. 
 
This recent 2020 study demonstrated that when using a narrow, underhand grip, there does appear to be greater activation and force production from the supraspinatus and infraspinatus (both important rotator cuff muscles that contribute to stabilization of the shoulder) while a wide, overhand grip stresses the traps and rhomboids harder (muscles that contribute to scapular coordination and strength).
 
Just to be clear, all chin up/pull up variations will utilise the major muscle groups in  a very similar fashion so there is no need to get hung up on trying to find the perfect variation. 
 
Going back to the university challenge, one thing I did was change the grip each time I did them.
 
You can go overhand, underhand, neutral, wide, narrow, mixed grip, fat grip, and so on. Better yet, if you have them available, gymnastics rings allow the most natural range of motion due to their ability to rotate as you pull yourself up. 
 
The key is variety. This way you’ll get stronger while also staying healthy.

9. Picture Perfect Form

Improving body composition is all about progressive overload with perfect form.
 
We spoke earlier about the need to stop your set when the one rep doesn’t look the same as the previous. So how should every rep look? Here are my top 5 technique pointers to remember:
  • Initiate with the lats, not the biceps. To do this, think about driving your elbows to your side. This will stop you from pulling with your arms.
  • Start by bringing shoulder blades back and down. This will help with lat recruitment as well as keeping the tension on the muscles, not the tendons and ligaments.
  • Drive your chest up. Not many people will be able to actually bring their chest to the bar, but I use this cue so that people don’t round themselves over the bar. Only go as high as you can while maintaining shoulder position. For most people, this will be as high as your chin clearing the bar.
  • Keep your glutes squeezed. This helps with lat recruitment, as well as keeping a check on over-arching of the lower back and swinging of the legs as the set gets tougher.
  • Don’t completely lock out and relax at the bottom. Keep a very slight elbow bend, and don’t shrug your shoulders all the way up to your ears. You want to keep tension on the muscles.

10. Don’t Keep Testing

It’s tempting while you’re performing in multiple sets of low reps throughout the day to test your max on one of the sets.
 
Try to avoid this temptation. Keep working the groove, accumulating quality volume, and save testing for every couple of weeks to ‘reset’ your numbers and check your progress.
 
Daily maxing will quickly lead to stagnation. Keep your reps crisp and confident.

Conclusion

Chin-ups are one of the most bang for your buck exercises you can perform in your training, so becoming proficient in it should always be a priority.
 
Start trying these tips out and let me know how you get on with them.
 
And if you’ve read this but are not quite at your first one yet, re-read over the first post to get started!
Akash VaghelaAkash Vaghela

Akash Vaghela has spent 10+ years transforming bodies and lives around the world, and in May 2017, founded RNT Fitness to serve this purpose. His vision is to see a world transformed, where ambitious high performers experience the power of the physical as the vehicle to unlock their real potential. He’s the author of the Amazon best-selling book Transform Your Body Transform Your Life, which explains his unique and proven five-phase methodology, is host of the RNT Fitness Radio podcast, has been featured in the likes of Men’s Health and BBC, whilst regularly speaking across the world on all things transformation.

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