How to Improve Chin Up Performance

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Snapshot of Takeaway Points

  • Remove the extra backpack first
  • Use structural balance indicators to identify where to work
  • 3 x free twelve week programs to improve your progress

Introduction

The chin up is for the back what the squat is for the lower body. It is a big marker by which athletic performance and total musculature can be judged. It is not the same as a pulldown. During a pulldown your legs are pinned in and can very easily cheat the movement by using your abdominals. With a pulldown you pull the bar around you. In a chin up you pull yourself around the bar. The neurological complexity of a chin up is much higher than a pulldown and your body benefits greatly because of this. It’s not that I’m dead against pulldowns, it’s just that chin ups tick more boxes, obviously context is key here.

We need to get the jargon out of the way first. When I refer to a chin up I refer to supinated (palms up/facing you) or semi-supinated (palms facing each other) as the grip. The pull up refers to a pronated grip (palms down/facing away from you). Kipping is not included in the conversation. This is simply the technique for achieving the most movements from A to B with A being the bottom of the hang and B being the top of the bar.

Structural balance indicators

Structural balance indicators can offer an insight into your weaknesses and therefore where to spend more time. They are key if you want to make progress as they not only improve performance but also minimise injury occurrence. Charles Poliquin is the first that introduced me to this concept and he has written widely about the subject and I’m utilising his numbers/data.

Chin Up Indicators

*External rotation included as infraspinatus has higher activation than lower trap in the chin up

Pull Up Indicators

*Bent over trap 3 raise included lower trap has a higher activation than infraspinatus in the pull up

*Pull up ratio is not from Charles but from a separate study

Indicators taking bodyweight into account

In this example let’s take a 60kg female and input her numbers into the ratios:

Knowing these numbers/targets, the 60kg female can go into the gym and test herself to see where she lands. Whichever lift you are furthest away from denotes your biggest weakness. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link so put your focus here.

Regardless of it you can achieve the chin up or not I suggest you use the ratios so you have targets to work towards. You could even work out where your strength levels lie in term of bodyweight. For instance if the female in this example can only perform the standing pronated curl with 20.7kg then she has the strength in this movement for a 45kg chin up performance.

Pro Tip | Identifying where to work

If you break the chin up down into three parts (bottom, middle and top) you can attribute specific muscle groups to each of those positions that have a high activation and therefore contribution.

  • Bottom: Elbow flexors
  • Middle: Lats
  • Top: Scapula retractors

As an example, if a client can perform a chin up when doing the eccentric first, but not from a dead hang, they are weak at the bottom of the movement and this points to weak elbow flexors. On the eccentric first they already have elasticity and tension in the elbow flexors which allows them to complete the repetition. Therefore, it would be prudent to spend time training those guns!

The Programs

Obviously if I was presented with a client I’d perform the structural balance test and the programs would look different. Instead find three programs with select criteria to improve your performance regardless of structural balance scores.

Phase 1 Criteria: You can’t perform 1 x chin up regardless of starting position

Charles was famous for his sense of humour and directness, something that I greatly appreciated when he was around. To quote him:

‘The first thing to consider when wanting to improve chin ups is to perform 10 x sets of not being so fat!’

Consider the excess body fat a backpack. If I gave you a 20kg backpack and asked you to perform a chin up and then perform the same test without, it’s likely you’ll get more without the backpack. Lose the backpack and performance increases immediately!

This phase is for when body fat is high, or you are simply de-trained. If you are already active, then it is likely you need to consider your body composition is what is holding you back. If you are already lean, then you’re just weak…for now!

Acc 1/Weeks 1-3

Order Exercise Reps Sets Tempo Rest
A1 Unilateral Bent Over Row| Elbow Low| Cable| Semi-Sup. 10-12 3 4011 60
A2 80° Incline Press | Dumbbell | Ahrens Press 10-12 3 4011 60
B1 Scott Bench Curl | Dumbbell, Bilateral | Supinated 10-12 3 4010 60
B2 Flat Extension | Dumbbell | Neutral 10-12 3 4010 60
C1 Half Powell Raise | Pronated 12-15 3 2110 45
C2 Unilateral Ext. Rotation| Elbow Low | Cable | Side on 80° 12-15 3 3011 45

 

Int 1/Weeks 4-6

Order Exercise Reps Sets Tempo Rest
A1 Kneeling Row| Elbow High| Dumbbell| Pronated| 1& ¼ 6-8 4 3011 75
A2 60° Incline Press | Dumbbell | Neutral 6-8 4 3210 75
B1 80° Incline Curl | Dumbbell | Zottman 6-8 3 5010 75
B2 Standing Overhead Extension | Cable, Rope 6-8 3 3111 75
C1 Powell Raise | Dumbbell | Pronated 8-10 3 4110 60
C2 Uni. Ext. Rot. | Elbow High | Dumbbell | Arm Abd. Side 8-10 3 4110 60

Acc 2/Weeks 7-9

Order Exercise Reps Sets Tempo Rest
A1 Uni. Bent Over Row| Arc to Hip| Dumbbell| Semi-Sup. 8-10 4 3012 75
A2 70° Incline Press | Dumbbell | Arnold Press 8-10 4 3020 75
B1 60° Incline Curl | Dumbbell | Supinated, Offset 8-10 3 3012 75
B2 Flat Extension | EZ Bar | To Forehead 8-10 3 3210 75
C1 Half Powell Raise | Semi-Supinated 10-12 3 2110 60
C2 Unilateral Ext. Rotation| Elbow Low | Cable | Side on 60° 10-12 3 3012 60

Int 2/Weeks 10-12

Order Exercise Reps Sets Tempo Rest
A1 Kneeling Row| Elbow Low| Dumbbell| Semi-Supinated 4-6 5 50X0 90
A2 60° Incline Press | Barbell | Eccentric 1st 4-6 5 50X0 90
B1 Standing Curl | EZ Bar | Pronated, Mid 4-6 3 50X0 90
B2 Unsupported Overhead Extension| EZ Bar| Pronated Mid 4-6 3 50X0 90
C1 Powell Raise | Dumbbell | Semi-Supinated 6-8 3 4010 75
C2 Uni. Ext. Rot. | Elbow High | Dumbbell | Elbow on Knee 6-8 3 4010 75

Use this as your first day of the training week when you are most fresh or least fatigued. The rest of the week I point you towards the following articles to help attack body composition:

The bottom line is aim to lose body fat to allow you to move to the next phase. If by the end of the program you still can’t perform the phase 2 criteria, it’s likely you need to lose more body fat. Repeat phase 1 again but drop every rep range by 1 and keep persevering with the fat loss.

Phase 2 Criteria: You can perform 1+ reps from the top/eccentric first after a 1 x second pause right at the top

Day 1 | Acc 1/Weeks 1-2

Order Exercise Reps Sets Tempo Rest
A1 Uni. Bent Over Row | Elbow Low | Dumbbell| Supinating 8 4 3111 75
A2 Braced Press | Dumbbell | Neutral 8 4 4110 75
B1 Horizontal Abduction | Dumbbell/Plate | Pronated 12-15 3 1012 45
B2 Uni. Ext. Rotation | Elbow Low | Cable | Side on, 45° 12-15 3 3011 45

 Day 1 | Int 1/Weeks 3-4

Order Exercise Reps Sets Tempo Rest
A1 Chin Up | Semi-Supinated, Narrow | Eccentric 1st 1+1 5-10 50X0 100
A2 Flat Press | Barbell 3 5-10 41X0 100
B1 Half Powell Raise | Dumbbell | Pronated 10-12 3 2110 75
B2 Uni. Ext. Rot. | Elbow High | Dumbbell | Arm Abd., Side 10-12 3 4110 75

*1+1 = Start with eccentric/lowering first – then perform concentric – then perform eccentric – set is finished

*5-10 set based on how many you can perform. Once you can’t do 1+1 on the chin up you stop and move onto the B series

*50X0 for week 3 and change to 60X0 for week 4

Day 1 | Acc 2/Weeks 5-6

Order Exercise Reps Sets Tempo Rest
A1 Kneeling Row | Elbow High | Dumbbell| Pronated 4-6 4 2014 90
A2 Unsupported Press | Dumbbell | Neutral 4-6 4 3210 90
B1 Powell Raise | Dumbbell | Pronated 8-10 3 4110 60
B2 Uni. Ext. Rotation | Elbow Low | Cable | Arm Abd., Side 10-12 3 3011 60

Day 1 | Int 2/Weeks 7-8

Order Exercise Reps Sets Tempo Rest
A1 2” Chin Up | Semi-Supinated, Sh. Width | Concentric 1st 1-2* 5 40X0 120
A2 30° Incline Press | Barbell 3-5 5 32X0 120
B1 Horizontal Abduction | Dumbbell/Plate | Semi-Supinated 10-12 4 1012 75
B2 Uni. Ext. Rot. | Elbow High | Dumbbell | Elbow on Knee 5* 4 50X0 75

*2” = thickness of the grip

*1-2 reps on week 7, 2-3 reps on week 8

*B2: perform eccentric only repetitions

Day 1 | Acc 3/Weeks 9-10

Order Exercise Reps Sets Tempo Rest
A1 Kneeling Row | Elbow Low | Dumbbell| Semi-Supinated 4-5 5 31X0 90
A2 70° Incline Press | Dumbbell | Neutral 4-5 5 31X0 90
B1 Half Powell Raise | Dumbbell | Semi-Supinated 8-10 3 2110 60
B2 Uni. Ext. Rotation | Elbow Low | Cable | Arm Abd., Front 8-10* 3 3011 60

*B2: perform 1 & ¼ repetitions for every rep

Day 1 | Int 3/Weeks 11-12

Order Exercise Reps Sets Tempo Rest
A1 Chin Up | Supinated, Sh. Width | Concentric 1st 2-3* 6 30X0 120
A2 40° Incline Press | Barbell 2-4 6 31X0 120
B1 Powell Raise | Dumbbell | Semi-Supinated 6-8 3 4010 75
B2 Uni. Ext. Rot. | Elbow High | Dumbbell | Elbow on Knee 6-8 3 4010 75

*2-3 reps for week 11, 2-4 reps for week 12

Day 2 | Acc 1/Weeks 1-2

Order Exercise Reps Sets Tempo Rest
A1 30° Incline Spider/Prone Curl | Dumbbell | Supinating 8 4 3012 75
A2 Bent Over Pushdown | Cable, EZ | Supinated, Mid 8 4 3012 75
B1 Wrist Pronation | Cable, Rope 15-20 3 21011 45
B2 Grip & Loading Pin | Pinch Grip | Small 6-8 3 1016 45

*B2: or pinch grip a plate if no access

Day 2 | Int 1/Weeks 3-4

Order Exercise Reps Sets Tempo Rest
A1 40° Incline Curl | Dumbbell | Hammer, to Shoulder 7,5,3,3,5,7 6 4010 100
A2 15° Decline Press | Barbell, Biacromial 7,5,3,3,5,7 6 4110 100
B1 Pronated Wrist Curl | EZ Bar | Forearm on Lap 12-15 3 2011 75
B2 Grip & Loading Pin | Hub Grip | Large 6-8 3 1016 75

*B2: or hold the end of a barbell sleeve with fingers only

Day 2 | Acc 2/Weeks 5-6

Order Exercise Reps Sets Tempo Rest
A1 Scott Bench Curl | EZ Bar | Supinated, Narrow 6 4 3210 90
A2 30° Incline Extension | Dumbbell | Neutral 6 4 3210 90
B1 Wrist Pronation | Cable, Rope 12-15 3 2110 60
B2 Grip & Loading Pin | Pinch Grip | Large 6-8 3 1014 60

*B2: or pinch grip 2 x plates together if no access

Day 2 | Int 2/Weeks 7-8

Order Exercise Reps Sets Tempo Rest
A1 Standing Curl | EZ Bar | Pronated, Mid 5 (1-1-1-1-1) 5 40X0 120
A2 20° Decline Press | Barbell, Biacromial 5 (1-1-1-1-1) 5 41X0 120
B1 Pronated Wrist Curl | EZ Bar | Forearm on Lap 10-12 4 2110 75
B2 Grip & Loading Pin| Hub Grip| Pinky & Ring| Large 6-8 4 1014 75

*A1 & A2: Rest pause 10 seconds

*B2: hold the implement with your thumb-pinky finger-ring finger only

Day 2 | Acc 3/Weeks 9-10

Order Exercise Reps Sets Tempo Rest
A1 80° Incline Curl | Dumbbell| Supinating, Offset| Myotatic 5 5 30X0 90
A2 Standing Overhead Extension | EZ Bar | Pronated, Mid 5 5 31X0 90
B1 Wrist Pronation | Cable, Rope 10-12 3 2010 60
B2 Double Overhand Hold | 2” Barbell/Blue Fat Gripz 1 3 101-40 60

*A1: Myotatic ¼  = lower ¾ on the range then perform myotatic movement for last ¼

*B2: Hold the implement away from touching the body/quads

Day 2 | Int 3/Weeks 11-12

Order Exercise Reps Sets Tempo Rest
A1 Scott Bench Curl | EZ Bar | Pronated, Mid* 5,3,2,5,3,2 6 32X0 120
A2 Dips 5,3,2,5,3,2 6 32X0 120
B1 Pronated Wrist Curl | EZ Bar | Forearm on Lap 8-10 4 2010 75
B2 Grip & Loading Pin| Hub Grip | Large 6-8 4 1012 75

A1: Paused on eccentric, with humerus parallel to floor

Other notes for Phase 2

  • Perform day 2 three days after day 1. For example day 1 can be on a Monday making day 2 to be performed on Thursday.
  • Weigh yourself each day 1 workout at the end of the session

Phase 3 Criteria: You can perform 3 reps from the hang/concentric first after a 2 second pause at the hang position.

Acc 1/Weeks 1-2

Order Exercise Reps Sets Tempo Rest
A1 Chin Up | Supinated Shoulder Width 1,3,1,3,1,3 6 30X0 90
A2 Braced Press | Barbell 4-6 6 5110 90
B1 Scott Bench Curl | EZ Bar | Supinated, Narrow 12,10,8 3 3210 75
B2 15° Decline Extension | Cable, EZ | To Forehead 15,12,10 3 3210 75
C Unilateral Trap 3 Raise | Dumbbell | Prone on 50° 10-12 2 3012 60

 Int 1/Weeks 3-4

Order Exercise Reps Sets Tempo Rest
A1 Pull Up | Pronated, Shoulder Width 1 10 5010 90
A2 Flat Press | Dumbbell | Neutral 4-5 10 5010 90
B1 Standing Curl | Cable, Rope | Hammer to Midline 4-5 3 4040 75
B2 Standing Overhead Extension | Barbell | Dix Press 6-8 2 2210 75
C Half Powell Raise | Supinated 10-12 2 2110 60

 Acc 2/Weeks 5-6

Order Exercise Reps Sets Tempo Rest
A1 2” Chin Up | Supinated Shoulder Width | Iso Pause* 3-4 3 4010 100
A2 Behind the Neck Press | Seated, Clean Grip 4-6 3 4110 100
B1 Standing Curl | Cable, EZ | Supinated Mid 10,8,6,10 4 3011 90
B2 Flat Extension | EZ Bar | To Nose | 1 x Chain 10,8,6,10 2 31X0 90
C Bilateral Trap 3 Raise | Dumbbell | Prone 40° | 1& ¼ 8-10 2 3011 60

*A1: Perform 3 x second pauses on the last rep on the eccentric

Int 2/Weeks 7-8

Order Exercise Reps Sets Tempo Rest
A1 2” Pull Up | Pronated Shoulder Width | X-Reps (Mid) 2 5 40X0 100
A2 Flat Press | Barbell | Biacromial | X-Reps (Mid) 4-6 5 40X0 100
B1 40° incline Spider Curl | Dumbbell | Zottman 5 3 8010 90
B2 Standing Overhead Extension | Barbell | California 5-7 3 4010 90
C Powell Raise | Dumbbell | Pronated 6-8 2 6010 60

 Acc 3/Weeks 9-10

Order Exercise Reps Sets Tempo Rest
A1 Chin Up | Semi-Supinated, Wide | Rest Pause: 10 5 (3-1-1) 5 40X0 120
A2 Standing Press | Barbell | Rest Pause: 10 5 (3-1-1) 5 40X0 120
B1 50° Incline Curl | Dumbbell | Supinated | Myotatic ¼ 4-6 3 32X0 90
B2 30° Incline Ext. | Dumbbell, Mech Drop, Pronating 4-6 3 50X0 90
C Unilateral Trap 3 Raise | Dumbbell | Bent Over 6-8 2 4010 60

 Int 3/Weeks 11-12

Order Exercise Reps Sets Tempo Rest
A1 Pull Up | Pronated, Wide | 1 & ¼ 3 3 30X1 120
A2 Flat Press | Barbell 3-5 3 31X0 120
B1 Standing Curl | EZ Bar | Pronated Wide | Pause Conc. 3-5 4 3012 90
B2 Standing Overhead Ext. | Swiss Bar, Mid | Rest Pins 4-6 4 32X0 90
C Powell Raise | Dumbbell | Semi-Supinated 6-8 2 4010 60

 

Program Execution Tips

Unless the exercise specifically calls for using the eccentric first, all chin/pull ups require a 2 second dead stop from the hang. This is to eradicate any elasticity in the muscle, ensure full range of movement is executed and to stop those that use the slight flick of their ankles. Also known as cheating!

Don’t allow one leg to rest on another. This stops fascia from fully stretching on one side of your body which can lead to imbalances and issues later on.

Don’t use bands for assistance on chin/pull ups. It doesn’t help. It confuses the nervous system and conditions you incorrectly for it. It is better to identify the weak muscle group, and/or lose body fat.

The concentric portion should always be completed without stopping. It sounds obvious but I often see beginners hit a sticking point and then start to look like an epileptic accordion to finish the movement. You will only recruit and reinforce poor motor patterns doing this. It’s better to not complete the repetition in this instance.

Once you hit a maximal effort set in the chin/pull it is likely that you’ll need to stop as performance drops off sharply in the chin up when this happens. This is why I employ the 10 set methods twice in the programs. Submaximal efforts are better for performance. Think of the chin/pull up as a skill. Pavel Tsatsouline understood this when he recommended greasing the groove training. Perform 1 chin up every time you go to the toilet, or the fridge in some cases!

If you can’t do a chin up eccentrics don’t have as much return as you’d think. Charles used to say if you can do a 30 second eccentric it transfers to doing a chin up. I’ve found it closer to 30-015 with the 5 second hold being chest tight to the bar at the top. Proper technical execution is key here. I prefer to reserve eccentrics in the chin/pull up only as an overload after a concentric has been completed.

If you can, use thick grip implements for all upper body work. Buy some blue Fat Gripz if you need to. This will improve grip which potentiates chin/pull up performance. If your grip is stronger more neural drive can go to other prime movers in the movement.

Conclusion

So now you have all the tips and three programs to ensure you can work towards improving your chin/pull up performance. Use Charles’ benchmark and aim for 12 chin ups. You’d be considered bottom of the food chain if you can’t achieve this! If you fancy a bigger challenge, then try and get to 12 chin ups within 12 weeks.

Article written by: Tom Hibbert

Published on: 14/12/2019

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