We’re All Doing Chin-Ups!

I hope you have a cup of coffee, because this is a long one….

Many of you know I have been on a personal chin-up quest since late last spring, with a goal to do 5 unassisted chin-ups.  While it seemed to take forever, I finally managed to complete my first set of 5 last month, and a few weeks ago managed 3 sets of 5.  Mission accomplished!  That doesn’t, however, mean I am done with chin-ups…in fact my new goal is 8, and I am now starting to work on pull-ups…but before we get too far into this, let’s step back a bit.

Like a push-up, a chin-up is a basic, bodyweight exercise.  And while a good, strict form push-up can be challenging, a chin-up for many would seem to be near impossible.  In fact, I would venture to say that for most women, an unassisted chin-up isn’t even on their radar.  I am hoping to convince you to change your mind.  While performing even one of these babies is tough, it is possible…and you cannot imagine how incredible you feel when you are able to pull your bodyweight up and above the bar.  Feeling strong is such a rush and a huge confidence boost.  Especially when your chin-up reeks of good form.

Let’s start with a short lesson.  A chin-up is used to describe the exercise performed with an underhand grip, as below (and no, I don’t know what is going on with Neghar’s socks):

A pull-up is the same exercise, with an overhand grip:

You can also do a wider overhand grip, which is harder.  Two other grips are a neutral grip (palms are facing in towards each other ~ you need the right kind of chin-up bar to do these) and a mixed grip, which, as you might imagine, is one hand underhand, one overhand.  But all this is probably more than you really need to know, because all beginners should start with the easiest grip, underhand…hence, a chin-up.

A quick word about kipping pull-ups, which are currently all the rage with Crossfitters.  Without going into a dissertation on my opinion of Crossfit (let’s just say it’s mixed), I am not a fan of a kipping pull-up.  There is a lot of swinging, so you are using momentum to almost throw yourself over the bar ~ take a look:

Also not very nice to your shoulders ~ notice how they just allow their bodies to flop back down to the starting position ~ ouch!  I saw a guy doing these the other day at my gym ~ young (okay, 30ish…young in my book), fit.  He would do about 10, looking like a fish flopping around on the sand.  I then proceeded to do sets of 4 nice, clean, controlled full range-of-motion chin-ups.  At one point he said to me “you look like you have a real rhythm going there.”  Not sure quite what he meant, but I took it as a complement…I think he almost felt foolish doing his somewhat lame kipping pull-ups (okay, I might be imagining that, but he was definitely getting frustrated with himself and his kipping pull-ups).  Anyway, don’t do them…work on the real thing.

I would say that most women who do attempt to do chin-ups or pull-ups only do so using a machine which is able to provide varying amounts of assistance (don’t ask me why that man has his shirt off…show-off).  Many gyms will have a machine like this on which you either kneel, as shown to the left, or you stand.  Either way, the machine helps you up to the top.  Which is fine, we all have to start somewhere.  But too much reliance on a machine like this probably isn’t really going to get you to the goal of performing one of these on your own.  There are many, many ways to start easy to grove the technique and build the muscle, which is what this post is all about.  Things that everyone (this means you) can do.

Instead of re-inventing the wheel, my coach, Tony Gentilcore has done a very thorough job of walking through progressions and explaining everything you would ever want to know (probably more) about getting to your first bodyweight chin-up.  In “Chin-up Progressions for Women (the one rep hump) ~ Part 1,” Tony starts off by spending a fair amount of time debunking the idea that a woman just isn’t strong enough to do a chin-up (that’s why I chose him as a coach, he believes women are as strong as they want to be).  My favorite line from his post is this:

If you have the ability to grow a human being inside your body and push it out, you undoubtedly have the ability to bang out a chin-up.  And might I add:  in MUCH less time than nine months.

NOW what’s your excuse?  The great thing about Tony is he isn’t just going to tell you that you can do a chin-up, point you in the direction of the chin-up bar and tell you to go for it.  He’s going to help you get there, one baby step at a time.  In part 1 he starts with some TRX progressions.  You all know I like the TRX and some of these ideas were new to me (note to my clients, expect to see some of these exercises in the future!).  The TRX is showing up in more and more gyms, but by now you should realize if you don’t have access to one, you can buy your own and either use it at home or bring it to your gym (and make everyone jealous).  Some people also recommend using a Jungle Gym (no, not the kind you played on in elementary school) ~ this is similar to a TRX but quite a bit cheaper.  I have a TRX, have never tried a Jungle Gym, but quite frankly it looks to be the same thing (at about $100 less than the TRX).  Anyway, Tony walks through three exercises that will help progress you towards the chin-up, complete with videos.

In “Chin-up Progressions for Women (the one rep hump) ~ Part 2,” Tony discusses “eccentrics.”  Warning:  these are harder than they look.  That is not to say you cannot do them…but expect to be sore the next day or two.  I have used these with some of my clients and they always report back to me that they were quite sore.  They are one of those things that are kind of deceptive ~ harder than they might first appear.  Basically an eccentric chin-up is one where you jump up over the bar (from a bench or step) so your chin is up over the bar, then you s-l-o-w-l-y lower yourself until your arms are fully extended.  Take a look at Tony’s blog, he has a nice video clip.  Tony programmed these for me last month when I was trying to get to my multiple sets of 5 chin-ups.  I was given 4 sets of 5 chin-ups and instructed to do as many as I could unassisted…any remaining reps in the set were to be performed as eccentrics.  I got to the point where I worked even harder to actually do the unassisted chin-up because quite frankly after doing 3 or 4 unassisted chin-ups, doing an eccentric or two is no picnic.  I like eccentrics in that you don’t need any special equipment, just a chin-up bar (and every gym has one or more of those)to.  Tony discusses several different ways of programming these, depending on your ability.  You will hate life, but you will get stronger.

And in “Chin-up Progressions for Women (the one rep hump) ~ Part 3,” (yes, part 3 ~ hang in there) Tony talks about loading the eccentric chin-up, isometric holds and band assisted chin-ups.  I have never loaded an eccentric but I have done the isometric holds.  This is similar to the eccentric version in that you jump up above the bar…but then you hold there.  Tony programmed these for me one month ~ the hold plus slowly lowering (the lowering part still needs to be controlled) was to be a total of 30 seconds.  First one didn’t seem so bad, but by the fourth set it does get hard to hang on up there.  Remember doing the “bent-arm hang” in PE class (this was girls only I believe because we were assumed to be unable to do an actual chin-up)…it’s coming back to haunt you

Finally, Tony shows a video clip of using a band to assist with chin-ups.  I use these all the time ~ if your gym doesn’t have the bands you can easily purchase them and bring them to the gym with you (see here).  The thicker the band, the more help it provides.  It is like a giant rubber-band ~ you stretch it out, and it wants to return to its”non-stretched” out state, so it is going to help you pop up over that chin-up bar.  As Tony points out in his blog, the nice thing about bands is that at the bottom of the chin-up, the most difficult point, the band provides the most assistance (it’s fully stretched out).  As you move up towards the bar, the chin-up gets easier and the band is providing less assistance.  You can adjust the amount of assistance from the band by placing two feet in the band, one foot in the band or one knee in the band.  Between band thickness and method used (foot vs knee) you can vary the amount of assistance to whatever you need.  Tony’s blog has a nice video clip ~ make sure to check it out

My blog is starting to border on “too long” but a few additional quick points.  I see men in the gym doing chin-ups and pull-ups on a somewhat frequent basis but form is generally pretty lame (sorry to pick on the guys, but I almost never see women doing these ~ I would probably critique them too).  A chin-up (or pull-up) doesn’t count if you aren’t getting in a full range of motion ~ that means you start from a dead hang, arms fully extended at the bottom, and you go all the way up to above the bar ~ technically sternum to the bar ~ I see a lot of chin-ups where a chin is pseudo jutting above the bar or where a forehead makes it to the bar.  And most chin-ups I see do not start in a fully extended position.  So work on good form with fewer reps over bad form and more reps.   Do it right.

And my last point, then I promise to shut up ~ if you are serious about your chin-ups I highly recommend purchasing an Iron Gym.  While it sounds like an enormous piece of equipment, it is actually just a chin-up bar that fits in a doorway.  It doesn’t require any permanent attachment and can be put up and taken down in seconds.  Mine is in the doorway between my dining room and foyer.  Some days I do 1-2 chin-ups throughout the day, accumulating 10-12 total.  I was nervous at first that the thing wouldn’t hold my weight, but then my 200 lb son did a few chin-ups and it didn’t budge.  Just remember to keep your feet behind you when doing these ~ don’t let those knees start to come up in front and help pull you up to the bar.

Whew, this is a loooong post…hope you are still with me.  I highly recommend reading Tony’s posts as he is way smarter than me and you will learn a lot about this exercise.  So are you with me?  What is your chin-up goal?


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About Lisa Van Dore

I have lived in Sherborn, Dover and most recently North Walpole, for a total of 15 years (and counting). Having recently been through the process of selling a home and buying (and renovating) a new one, I understand the conflicting emotions of excitement and anxiety inherent in the process, whether you are a seller or buyer, whether this is your first home purchase or your tenth. I have a BA from the University of Michigan and an MBA from Indiana University. My early career found me working as a CPA, and later as the controller of Crate & Barrel. More recently I spent seven years running my own personal training business. I understand the hard work and dedication necessary to build a business and a reputation...most of my personal training clients came to me by referral and my first client was still with me when I decided to leave personal training. This speaks to the level of effort I put forth for my clients, week after week. On a more personal note, I raced triathlon for seven years and more recently completed my first half marathon. In my free time I enjoy cooking, reading, Maine, hiking and, in the fall, following college football...my teams are the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and Texas Christian University (Go Frogs!).
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