Women chasing chin ups and pull ups: Training clients for benchmark strength
PT and performance coach Susy Natal outlines the exercises and factors to consider when training your female client to achieve the ultimate upper body strength goal.
Chin ups and pull ups are common strength goals that many female clients will present to their trainers. Because they involve so much of the body and are not something that can be achieved overnight, they are often viewed as benchmarks of upper body strength. Unlike many other movements which are more concerned with how much weight can be added to the movement or how many repetitions can be completed, even being able to perform the first chin up or pull up is a challenge in itself. Therefore, the ability to do chin ups/pull ups at all may be seen as a great feat of strength requiring persistence and dedication, which can add to the appeal as a goal for your clients.
There’s probably a lame joke about the bar being set high for entry level in there somewhere, but I wouldn’t dream of subjecting you to that…
While there are a number of subtle differences between chin ups and pull ups with regards grip, movement and muscles used, both exercises also share many features (which is why they often get mixed up). The following information applies equally to both exercises, but for the sake of keeping things readable, I’ll just use the term chin ups for the remainder of the article.
Factors affecting skill level
Strength and control over the target and assisting muscles is vital for achieving chin ups and for keeping the number of reps going up steadily as strength increases. It is also important to learn how to use strength and control to prevent other muscles from overworking in the movement (because of strength imbalances and compensatory muscle recruitment), so that the vast majority of the work remains on the target muscle groups throughout the exercise.
Body weight is also an important consideration when first trying to achieve a chin up, as the heavier a client is, the heavier the weight they are trying to lift. So, if a client is overweight, it isn’t ideal to set chin ups as the primary goal at that point in time. Rather, it should be set as a second stage goal, with fat loss as the initial target. Interestingly, fat is not all that can affect chin ups, in terms of body weight: if a client also has a goal of getting stronger or bigger legs, hypertrophy of lower body muscle groups will count as ‘dead weight’ as far as a chin up is concerned. Again, this can be managed through goal prioritisation or simply understanding that if both goals are to run concurrently, the chin ups may take longer to achieve.
Muscles, grip and positioning
There are several components to a chin up, so to maximise the success your clients achieve, you must have exercises in place to address all of these. It is common knowledge that the lats are the primary driving muscle in chin ups, and that the biceps assist in the pulling, so exercises that strengthen these muscles should unquestionably feature in the program. Unfortunately, it is much less common to see grip work and scapular positioning mentioned in articles on chin ups and pull ups, which may be why you have not always been successful in helping your clients achieve their chin up goals. So let’s remedy that.
Grip is particularly important for women, given that generally female clients are smaller than males and, in most cases, less likely to be involved in both professional and domestic work that requires greater grip strength. Unless they work in a profession that involves manual labour, or have a sporting background, they will have had limited opportunity to work on grip, and so you may find that some of your female clients are initially unable to hold onto a bar with their full body weight suspended. This is problematic, as a full chin up cannot even begin until a client is able to hang from, and hold their entire bodyweight on, a bar for at least a few seconds.
Scapular positioning is vital for preventing rotator cuff issues that can emerge over time through dysfunctional movement patterns. Correct scapular positioning also helps maximise strength in the movement, as it allows the target muscles to work optimally. Therefore, you need to help your clients learn how to use the lower traps, rhomboids and rear delts to depress and retract their scapulae prior to commencing a chin up, and to hold this scapular position throughout the entire repetition. This helps avoid shrugging, and therefore overusing the upper traps and consequently struggling to adequately activate the lats. Because many people who do not yet have a strong training background struggle to feel what their back is doing, this will involve body positioning and movement awareness drills, as well as strengthening exercises.
Exercises and regressions towards chin ups
Numerous exercises can be used as stepping stones on the path towards achieving chin ups: the most important thing is that the exercises train your client to achieve strength and control through all of the muscle groups mentioned above. This focus, in combination with a preparedness to work on chin up regressions, will help them to reach their goal.
Holds, hangs and walks for grip strength
Some of my favourite grip work exercises include plate or dumbbell holds for time. These can progressively have more weight added to them over time as your client gets stronger. Eventually, once your client is strong enough to hold and hang from a bar, this can be upgraded to bar hangs for time, progressively increasing the minimum required time as your client gets stronger. If you want to incorporate a conditioning component into grip work, farmers’ walks are also an excellent exercise to include into your client’s programming. A client who needs to improve her grip should also be encouraged to implement as much incidental grip work into her sessions as possible – helping to put the weights away, avoiding dropping weights and not rushing a set just to put the weights down sooner.
Curls, pull downs and rows
The lats and biceps need to be strong, so training them more than once a week using a variety of movements is optimal. Choose different bicep curls, ensuring full range of motion and controlled movement and avoid using momentum. Have your client complete pull downs and rowing movements using different grip positions to ensure a more balanced strengthening of the back, again being careful that she does not allow swinging of the body for momentum or shrugging, which overuses the upper traps. Also employ single arm, as well as bilateral movements, to work on any left to right imbalances that might be present.
My favourite movement to teach and improve the strength in scapular depression is scapular pulls. For this movement, the client hangs from a bar and then squeezes the lower traps to pull down the shoulders, like the reverse of a shrug. As a client increases in strength, they will be able to complete more repetitions in a row. Note that a full scapular pulls also includes scapular retraction and is the initial movement of the scapulae to get into position at the start of a chin up.
Scapular push ups
My favourite movement to teach and improve the strength in scapular retraction is scapular push ups. For this movement, position your client on their hands and knees on the floor, and coach them to work through the full range of motion, pushing the scapulae forward and back with strong arms, without allowing the hands to leave the ground. As a client improves in strength, the shoulder-blades will be able to squeeze together then pull apart harder, repetitions will increase, and, in some cases, the client will be able to go up to their feet to load up the movement further.
Single arm pull down
My favourite movement that allows a client to practice scapular retraction and depression, unilateral work, and scapular positioning throughout the entire range of motion that the arm (and therefore shoulder joint) would move through when completing chin ups, is the single arm pull down. This can be completed using a cable or a band attached to a high anchoring point. The client kneels and completes a repetition by first simultaneously retracting and depressing the scapula, then holding that position while performing a pulldown through the lat, continuing to hold the scapula in position as the lat allows the arm to return to the top position, and finally letting the shoulder pull forward and up. Repetitions of this with increasing weight will not only teach a client where her shoulders are meant to be throughout the entire movement, but also make her strong throughout the entire range.
Assisted and jumping chin ups
Pull down variations are also an early regression of actual chin ups, and once your client is adept at these you should introduce assisted chin ups into her programming. Typically, band-assisted is more beneficial than using the assistive machine, as bands offer little assistance at the top of the movement and so force the client to work more for the repetitions. Once your client is adept at these, she is ready to try jumping chin ups, whereby she jumps – typically from a box – while already holding onto a bar. At the top of the jump she should be hanging in the top position of a chin up, before completing the eccentric component of the exercise, which is why this movement is also sometimes called the eccentric chin up. As she improves in strength she will be able to complete more repetitions, but also develop the control necessary to descend more slowly throughout each repetition.
Once your client is strong in all of these movement patterns and muscle groups, she is ready to attempt her ultimate upper body goal! I have found that once a client can complete high repetitions of pull downs with clean form with about half her body weight, and can complete jumping chin ups for medium-to-high repetitions, she will typically also be able to perform at least one chin up. This does not apply to every client, but generally speaking, once your client is adept at all of the regressions then she is ready for the final step – her first chin up!
Images courtesy James Joel Photography @jamesjoel
Susy Natal is a Sydney-based performance coach, widely published wellness writer, convention presenter and personal trainer. With a background in psychology, her integrated approach to training helps clients achieve strength of body and mind. With a major focus on strength training for females and on mindset coaching, Susy works with clients ranging from beginners through to athletes. Visit susynatal.com and follow her on Instagram HERE.