// The four steps to perfect chin ups
by Tony Boutagy
Here is the exercise paradox: most individuals strength training
their upper body in gyms know that they should perform chin ups, but
most of them cannot execute a full chin up correctly. Note well: if the
body contorts like a worm during the movement or the neck extends like
a giraffe to get the chin near the bar in the top position, this is not
The chin up is the ‘king’ of the upper body strength exercises, considered by many strength coaches to be the upper body equivalent of the squat or deadlift. It is also an excellent motivational incentive for the personal trainer to use with clients. In my experience, nothing empowers a female client in the gym more than performing a full, unassisted chin up.
When compared to its machine counterpart, the lat pulldown, the chin up has distinct advantages. Despite the exercises being visually similar, a chin up is a closed chain exercise (body moves towards resistance) and a lat pulldown is an open chain exercise (resistance moves towards the body). These two types of exercise (open versus closed chain) require completely different muscular recruitment patterns, with the chin up utilising far more upper body muscle tissue than a lat pulldown. Additionally, it requires a number of different muscles to lift and stabilise the body weight in a controlled fashion, thereby providing a real challenge for even the strongest athletic client. It’s no surprise that the impressive back and arm development of the world’s top gymnasts can be largely attributed to a strong reliance on chin up based exercises.
Some confusion exists as to the difference between the chin up and the pull up. To be accurate, the chin up is performed with supinated (palms facing you) grip and the pull up is performed with a pronated (palms facing away) grip. Technically, the pull up is a variation of the chin up, and many people use the name chin up to refer to both actions. The primary biomechanical difference between the two hand positions is that the chin up allows a more efficient line of pull for the biceps and the shoulder moves through extension-flexion. The pull up places the latissimus dorsi on a more efficient line of pull and down plays the involvement of the biceps.
THE FOUR STEPS
STEP 1. CORRECT STRUCTURAL IMBALANCES
Having the correct muscle balance is crucial to getting the most out of every advanced exercise, while minimising the risk of over-use problems and injuries.
The primary weaknesses and structural imbalances in the upper body that prevent a client from performing chin ups are:
• Weak scapular retractors
• Weak shoulder external rotators
• Weak elbow flexors
• Weak grip strength.
Based on these weaknesses, I would suggest performing nine weeks of general preparation (three weeks each of three different programs) to reduce the structural imbalances. Pay attention to the following:
• Perform only unilateral exercises
• Perform a 1:1 ratio of pulling exercises (pulls or rows) to external rotation exercises
• Use a rep range of 8 to 12 and 2 to 4 sets
• Train all elbow flexors by varying hand position (pronated, supinated and semi-supinated) and elbow orientation (forward of torso, in line with torso and behind torso)
• Train the grip with either flexion/extension exercises or dedicated hand-grip work
• Aim to train the weak muscles twice per week in this nine week cycle.
STEP 2. USE ECCENTRIC CHIN UPS
Most clients are unable to do a correct full chin up, and if they can, technique tends to die after one or two reps. So, the next step to performing body weight, unassisted chin ups is the eccentric chin up. Spending enough time on this is absolutely critical to the overall development of chin up performance.
There are three options here, to be used according to the client’s level of fitness:
• The first is to perform just one eccentric repetition. This should then be alternated with an antagonistic movement (see below) and several sets should be performed. Adding external resistance (via a weight belt or holding a dumbbell between the legs), increasing the time under tension (increasing from 4 to 30 seconds) or combining both of these will overload the eccentric repetition. This is the least taxing of the three options.
• The second option is to perform a set of eccentric chin ups with extended time under tension. For example, you might perform between four and six eccentric reps with a lowering speed of eight seconds. Again, you would alternate sets with an antagonistic movement and increase the overload with the same approach outlined above. This is a more taxing option.
• The third option, outlined below, is to superset the eccentric chin up with a lat pulldown, then alternate with an antagonistic exercise. This is the most challenging of the three options.
Use the following guidelines to help design the program:
• Either lift your client up or place a chair next to the bar so they can position themselves at the top
• Advise the client to lower smoothly over 4 seconds
• Superset with a set of 8RM lat pulldowns
• Over time increase the eccentric time up to 10 seconds, then all the way to 30 seconds
• Add external load as a client’s technique allows
• Aim for 5 sets with an eccentric time of 30 seconds supersetted with 8 to 12RM lat pulldowns
• When a client can do this, they can do a full chin up.
STEP 3. PAIR ANTAGONISTIC MOVEMENTS
Pairing antagonistic movements allows for heavier loads to be lifted, muscle tissue activation to be increased, longer recovery periods and more work to be done per unit of time.
After warming up, a chin up workout might look like this:
A1. Eccentric chin up (10 second lowering speed) 5 x 1, rest 10 seconds
A2. Lat pulldowns, underhand grip, 5 x 8, rest 90 seconds
A3. Incline dumbbell press, 5 x 8, rest 90 seconds
B1. Single arm dumbbell rows, 4 x 8-10, rest 75 seconds
B2. Low cable external rotation, 4 x 8-10, rest 75 seconds.
STEP 4. PERFORM CHIN UPS CORRECTLY
• Grip the bar with the hands shoulder width apart (facing you). Use either an open or thumb lock grip
• Allow the body to completely hang, so as to fully open the elbow, the scapulae and the glenohumeral joints
• Now the elbows will be fully extended, the scapulae will be fully elevated and upwardly rotated and the glenohumeral joint will fully flexed. This terminal range of motion is crucial to fully activating the muscles, keeping the soft tissue healthy and lubricating the working joints.
• Flex the knees to 90 degrees and cross the feet
• Look forward (photo 1).
• Initiate the upward action by moving the elbow, glenohumeral joint and scapulae simultaneously
• Make sure the scapulae does it’s share of the work by depressing and downwardly rotating as soon as you commence the movement, otherwise the elbows tend to do most of the work
• Lift until the upper chest makes contact with the bar. Stopping before this point will result in the rep not being counted
• In the top position, the elbows will be fully flexed, the glenohumeral joint fully extended and the scapulae fully depressed, retracted and downwardly rotated (photo 2).
• Lower the body back down by using all the joints evenly together until you are back in the fully hanging position.
• Ensure that the chin up is performed in a controlled manner, especially during the descent
• If there is shoulder discomfort in the lowest position or if the body sways to one side during the ascent, the exercise must stop. This may indicate shoulder instability or strength/flexibility imbalances between limbs which must be addressed and resolved before attempting to perform future chin ups.
• If your client resembles the hunchback of Notre Dame in the top position, it typically indicates that their glenohumeral•scapulae rhythm is faulty and they are not yet ready for chin ups. I recommend training the lat pulldown for several training cycles, through a full range of motion, and training the scapulae retractors with unilateral exercises (which increases the range of motion). Then commence eccentric chin up training.
• Excessive leaning back during the upward pull. This indicates that the latissimus dorsi and teres major are adhesed together. Some deep tissue work by a skilled therapist will fix this issue, as long as the client is willing to undergo a very painful experience
• Cutting the reps short at the top. If your client can’t touch their upper chest on the bar, or if they can’t lower themself with control over a 5-second count for multiple reps, then they need to persevere with eccentric chin up training
• Using the ‘Worm’ or ‘Kung Fu’ Technique. The body must stay rigid during the chin up. If the only way your client can get to the top is by wriggling like a worm or kicking an imaginary person in front of them, then stop them performing the exercise and get them to continue with the lat pulldown.
Using the approach laid out in this article, we find that most females can perform 8 to 12 body weight reps with excellent form after 12 weeks and that most males can do the same with 50 per cent of their body weight hanging from the waist.
Tony Boutagy, BHMS
Tony is a strength coach and director of the Sydney Sports and Athletic Performance Centre, a strength training facility located in Cremorne, NSW. He has lectured in the exercise science department at ACU national, the Australian institute of Fitness NSW, and netfit in New Zealand. Tony was the recipient of Network’s 2004 Author of the Year award. For more information visit www.tonyboutagy.com
NETWORK • WINTER 2008 • PP15-17