I went for a max chin-up attempt the other day and got 11 good reps with the form I was aiming for. Going over 10 reps was a milestone for me as I was stuck on around 7 or 8 for ages! However, once I had broken through that particular plateau, progress was faster and I’m now aiming for 20.
I attribute breaking through that frustrating plateau to two things:
- Improving my max pulling strength through deadlifts and other pulling exercises.
- Practising frequently (several times a week) and doing 3 or more smaller sets, not going to failure.
There’s no one right way to train chin-ups or pull-ups, but I can share what worked for me.
I think general pulling strength is very useful. Most of you reading this will be all too aware that few people in the gym bother to deadlift, whereas you cannot move for people benching or shoulder pressing. In fact, attempting chin-ups or pull-ups might be the heaviest pulling exercise people ever do in the gym, which makes it them difficult to improve. However, if you are already deadlifting upwards of 150% of your own bodyweight, your ability to do bodyweight chins should improve greatly.
I’ve also been training other pulling movements in recent months, such as cleans (explosive full body movement), rack pulls (very heavy loads), inverted rows and indoor rowing (pulling endurance and power). I am sure that all of these have gone into the mix, although it is impossible to judge to what extent an individual exercise has contributed. The bottom line is, I have been doing far more pulling exercises than pushing exercises.
When I actually train chin-ups or pull-ups, I don’t often train to failure. Instead I concentrate on volume of reps. For example, going for 8 reps in the first set, then 6 in the second, then 4, then 2. So I’ve done 20 reps in that session. Another method is to go for an achievable number in the first set, and then try to do the same for the second and third sets. So I may start with 8 in the first set, which is hard but achieveable, and try to do it again. I probably won’t manage it, but I’ll get perhaps a 6 and a 5.
Keeping an eye on your rest periods between sets is also a good idea. If the ultimate aim is for a high rep set, such as 20 chin-ups, you want to keep your rest periods short – although not so short that you can’t recover because you do need to get that volume in.
I also don’t train chin-ups or pull-ups every day. I’ll do them perhaps 3 or 4 times a week, usually at the end of a training session. My max attempt above was done after a heavy squat session. This has pros and cons; yes, you are definitely fatigued from the heavy lifting session. On the other hand, you are well warmed up and primed to lift efficiently. Bodyweight chins feel comparatively light after powerlifting, so you can trick your mind into thinking they are easy!
I have recently started doing weighted chins, although it is too early to know what effect this will have on my chinning ability. If it helps me on my way to 20 in a row, I will let you know!
Form and technique are not big issues with chin-ups and pull-ups, as they are a pretty simple exercise. However, if you are struggling then looking at technique issues might just give you the edge you need. I recommend the following:
- Experiment with hand width to find your strongest pulling position. Shoulder-width apart is the default, but try narrower and wider to see if it makes a difference.
- Try to pull with your back as well as your arms. Make the connection with your mind, try to visualise your lats pulling you up.
- Train both chin-ups and pull-ups (overhand and underhand grips) in order to improve. Also, try doing them on awkward objects like a beam, rings or the branch of a tree.
- Don’t compromise on form. If you are aiming for deadhang chin-ups or pull-ups, make sure you straighten your arms after every rep. If you start cheating on reps, it is more difficult to come back from that and find good form again.
I have covered other methods of training pull-ups in How to do pull-ups. You don’t have to use every method under the sun, in fact this may be counter-productive. Pick a method that seems to fit with the way you train and your own strengths and weaknesses. Progress is rarely linear and we all have those frustrating plateaus, but there’s no substitute for just plugging away and working hard.
Do you have any useful tips for chins and pull-ups?
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