1. Don’t Go To Failure
This is the number one rule for improving your chin-ups.
2. Get lean, and stay lean.
This is the easiest way to improve your chin-ups. If you’re struggling for reps, getting leaner is the quickest fix.
In fact, chin-ups are one of the best indicator exercises to use in muscle building phases to help keep 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.
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.
This way you can use perfect form, keep reps crisp and practice using the right muscles to pull you up each time.
Every 3-4 weeks, re-test your max reps and reset the number. Each time you do this 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.
5. Set A Daily Target
Similar to the above, another good tip is to set a total daily number of chin-ups to achieve each day, and then increase it each week (very slowly).
If you can only do less than 5 chin-ups, aim for 10 total reps in the day, and go up by 1 rep a week.
If you can do 5-10 reps, then aim for 20 a day, going up in 2s each week.
Chin-ups respond best to frequent exposures at moderate intensities and high volumes, so the more perfect practice you can accumulate, the better.
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.
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. Extended Negatives
When your chin-up max is only 1 or 2 reps, you’ll need to keep a lot of the strategies above to a minimum. This is because each set will ultimately be a max effort set, and you’ll fall into the trap of going to failure too often.
The best thing to do at this level is to continue using many of the techniques discussed in the previous post.
One in particular would be the negative. If you can only perform 2 reps, you could perform 6 sets of 1, each with an extended negative of 10-15 seconds so you get some real time under tension into the right muscles.
If you can only do 1 rep, you may want to perform multiple sets of assisted spotter chins with negatives.
This might seem complicated, but the key takeaway is that until you can get to 3 clean chin-ups, keep training like you’re working for your first one.
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.
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.
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.
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!