By Nick Nilsson
Author of Mad Scientist Muscle
With the right training, just about anybody can work themselves up to performing one or more full range chin-ups.
And it's NOT going to require pull-downs OR self-spotting machines like the Gravitron (I'm not going to take ANY resistance away from you).
So first off, we need to distinguish between a chin-up and a pull-up. A pull-up is generally done with a wider grip and an overhand grip on the bar. This is actually a HARDER exercise to perform than the chin-up.
This is a pull-up.
The chin-up is done with a close grip on the bar (hands only a few inches apart) with an underhand grip.
The reasons the wide-grip pull-up is harder is that first, the biceps are not able to contribute as much to the movement because your arms are directly out to the sides. Second, the lats (the muscles of the back) don't have as good of leverage with the arms out in this position.
The chin-up places the lats in a better position to contract and allows the biceps to contribute more to the movement.
And this is what we want, because to do that first chin-up, you're going to need ALL the muscle power you can get.
The first consideration to look at when it comes to chinning is your overall bodyweight. If you're carrying a lot of extra weight, it's going to make it that much harder to perform a chin-up because obviously, you're going to have to lift that extra bodyweight up, too.
Dropping extra weight is definitely going to help you achieve your goal of that first chin-up, though it's not 100% necessary...it just means you'll have to build up that much more strength in order to perform the exercise.
When it comes to building up strength for that first chin-up, I prefer to do it over the long-term rather than trying to get there all at once.
The only thing I ask is that you NOT try and perform a full chin-up until I tell you to. That's it. I don't want you trying and failing and getting discouraged. So take it step-by-step, build the foundations...I'll let you know when you're ready.
PHASE 1 - Hanging
So the first step you're going to take is one that is very simple and straightforward...you're going to grab the bar and just HANG from it for as long as you can. That's it!
The reason? I find that a lot of people simply don't have the necessary GRIP strength to perform a full chin-up and building it up with a very specific drill like this helps tremendously.
So at the beginning of every single workout and at the end of every single workout you do (NOT just back workouts but EVERY workout), you'll stand under the chin-up bar, reach up and grab it with a close, underhand grip, then just hang at arms-length for as long as you can until your grip gives out.
This is going to help you get used to supporting your entire bodyweight on the chin-up bar and it's going to build up that very specific grip strength we're looking for.
Repeat this drill until you're able to hang from the chin-up bar for at least 30 seconds before your grip gives out. Once you can do that, you're ready for Phase 2.
** One tip I find very useful is to cross your feet when doing any chin or pull-up related exercise. For some reason, this locks your body into the position more and gives you more pulling strength.
PHASE 2 - Partial Range Training
The second phase of training is going to be partial reps in the bottom range of motion of the chin-up.
Now that your grip strength is built up enough that you can support yourself on the bar for a good length of time, we're going to start adding in movement.
Assume your hanging position. Now pull yourself up 2 or 3 inches and hold for several seconds. Lower yourself back to the hanging position then immediately pull back up a few inches again and hold for several seconds.
Repeat this until either your grip gives out or you can no longer pull yourself up those few inches. Remember, it's a VERY short range of motion but we want to hold that position for at least a few seconds to get target stress on the muscles.
You'll do one set at the beginning of every workout and one set at the end of every workout you do.
I've found this high-frequency approach to work extremely well because it allows your body to gradually adapt over time. You don't set giant goals that you get spooked about and don't think you'll ever achieve - you set small, achievable, repeatable goals that build on each other to get you to the end result.
Once you can do at least 10 reps of this partial-range and pause training, then it's on to Phase 3...
PHASE 3 - Negative Training
Now we move on to Negative Training. You may have heard of this before...now you're going to put it to use.
We've built up a foundation of grip strength (which is HUGE) and a foundation of pulling power in the strongest range of motion of the exercise (the bottom few inches). It's time to test yourself against gravity.
Set a chair, bench or box in front of the chin-up bar. Ideally, it should be a height where you can stand on it and put yourself into the top position of the chin-up (chin just above the bar) while still standing on it.
Because what you'll be doing next is gripping the bar, getting into position then lowering yourself down slowly. This is called a "negative rep."
Here's the key that a lot of people miss when it comes to Negative Training...
The idea is to not just passively lower yourself down...the idea is to ACTIVELY FIGHT GRAVITY all the way down!
So when you take your grip on the bar and take your feet off the bench, I want you to try your hardest to pull yourself UP, even though gravity is pulling you DOWN.
This generally will result in a slow downward rep, with you fighting it all the way. When you get to the bottom, let go of the bar, climb back onto the bench and repeat.
In your negative set, perform reps in this fashion until one of two things happens...
1. You grab the bar, take your feet off the bench and can't slow your descent at all, dropping right into the position within a second or two.
2. You get to 6 reps of this negative training in your set.
What do those guidelines mean? In the first one, it means your muscles aren't actually doing any more work and there's no reason to continue.
In the second, when we hit 6 reps, that's plenty when it comes to negative training. If, on that sixth rep, you can still control your descent, you're doing well!
So here's the deal...in your workouts (again one set at the beginning and one set at the end of every single workout you do), do this negative training. This will probably amount to 3 to 5 times per week, depending how frequently you're in the gym.
Keep going in this fashion until you are able to do 6 negative reps and on the SIXTH rep, you can still pretty well control your descent and don't just crash down.
Now, for one calendar week, NO chin-up training. You're going to give your muscles a break from the specific training and allow them to recover.
PHASE 4 - Flexed Arm Hang
The last step before hitting chins on your own is the Flexed Arm Hang. Now that your muscles have recovered from the Negative Training, we're going to set that bench back up and get you into the top position of the chin.
Take your feet off the bench and HOLD that top chin position for as long as you can. Hold it until your arms start to straighten and your lats start to give.
Now FIGHT that all the way down until you're hanging at arms-length on the bar. That's it! Just one set and one rep, done ONLY at the beginning of each workout (when you're strongest), not at the end.
Repeat this procedure (one set of hanging at the start of each workout) until you can hang for at least 30 seconds before you start to lower down.
Once you can do that, it's SHOW TIME.
YOUR FIRST CHIN-UP
Give yourself a few days off from the Flexed Arm Hang phase before doing your first chin. You want to be fully recovered and feeling strong!
Grab the bar (at this point, you will be so used to grabbing the chin-up bar that there will be NO fear associated with it, as there may have been before). You'll KNOW you can do this.
Tighten your grip, tighten your muscles, then PULL.
Because of all the background work you've done, I have a feeling you're going FLY right up.
And when you get the first one, if you feel good, try a second one!
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