When it comes to upper limb exercises for building both mass and improving relative strength, nothing beats the chin up. However, for many exercisers out there, the thought of being able to do multiple chin ups seems like a distant fantasy rather than realistic medium term goal.
From my experience of improving my own chin up strength, as well as helping others improve theirs, I have found these 5 keys to be essential.
#1 – Effective Warm ups
It is often surprising to me how many people do not know what muscles are involved when performing chin ups or pull ups. This is very important, as first of all, the mind-muscle connection (feeling the muscles work) is crucial in developing both mass and strength. It is also important to activate the working muscles before we perform compound movements such as chins, to both reduce risk of injury and improve performance.
The main muscles used are the latissimus dorsi (lats) and biceps as well as the scapular muscles (shoulder blades). When warming up, we want to make sure we activate our upper back and scapular muscles, as these are the muscles that stabilize any overhead push or pull movement. Along with scapular activation, it is important that we prep our body for the chin up by performing other vertical pull movements in the warm up i.e. lat pulldowns.
#2 – Eccentric Training
Without a doubt, eccentric training has been the most effective method that I have used when helping people go from not being able to do any chins to banging out multiple bodyweight reps. For those that do not know, eccentric training or ‘negative reps’ is where the working muscles are contracting while being lengthened as opposed to shortened.
Why is this so important?
Well, it is said that we are up to 40% stronger eccentrically than we are concentrically so we are therefore able to use greater resistance to overload the working muscles. Eccentric reps are also very easy to progress as you can just add to the time it takes you to lower each week or once you get to 20-30 second bodyweight eccentrics, weight can be added.
#3 – Build Your Strength with Volume
Another common mistake is that people test their strength far too frequently instead of building it. You should only test your strength every 6-8 weeks after a period of building strength with structured programming and volume.
This for many people may involve the use of resistance band assisted chin ups in order to achieve a higher volume in their training. Often when people are able to achieve 2-3 bodyweight chin ups in testing, they see using a band in their early program stage training as a regression from where they were. In reality, building their strength with higher volume will lead to greater results when the time comes to test again.
#4 – Incorporate Horizontal Rows in accessory work
Accessory work’s role is to help improve the primary lift. As the lats are the primary working muscles involved in chin ups, they need to be targeted when doing accessory/hypertrophy work. When it comes to building lat muscle, horizontal rows are essential to incorporate. Examples of horizontal row exercises are Single Arm Rows, Barbell incline rows and Trx Rows.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tCv7d0msdJE – Single Arm Dumbell Rows
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LL1HXSQcF6g – Incline Barbell Rows
Horizontal Rows are also important for overall shoulder health. It is commonly known that we should pull more weight than we push, but it is also important that we horizontally pull more than we vertical pull for sustainable long term shoulder health and pain free training. For more info on this, check out this article; https://themovementfix.com/horizontal-pulling-for-better-shoulder-health/
#5 – Perception and Consistency
One of biggest downfalls people have is believing that they can achieve bodyweight chin ups. I notice that this is particularly common with females. If you perceive that you can’t do it then you won’t!
Stay consistent with your training and program, focus on incremental improvements, and enjoy the process and you will be banging out chins a lot sooner than you think! To quote Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson (I know, original) ‘success is not overnight, it is every day when you get just a little better than the day before, it all adds up’. Get to work!
Cathal is one of the most recent members to join the team at Fitter Faster Stronger. Cathal graduated with a BSc. in Exercise management from UCD, and has pursued his passion for fitness since joining the FFS team as an intern in May 2016. Since then Cathal has established himself as an integral part of the team.
Lover of exercise and a wide variety of sports, Cathal believes that "everyone should enjoy the challenge and process of getting fitter and healthier" and is passionate about helping people from all walks of life to achieve their individual goals.
From his Qualifications and own personal background in sport and exercise, Cathal has expertise on human physiology and anatomy, exercise science and prescription as well as various training systems.
Cathal holds the following qualifications and skills:
Certified Personal Trainer
Certified Gym Instructor
Strength and Conditioning Coach
Trained in functional movement assessment and analysis
Honours. Degree in BSc. Exercise Management