If you’re at the point where you’re confident with the strength of your grip, you’re familiar with the scapular pull exercise, you have a reasonable muscular awareness of pulling through your back, and you’re familiar enough with the movement pattern that is the chin-up (even though you’re not yet pulling your whole body’s weight through space, maybe you’re using a band or you’re jumping into the technique or something) now we can talk about simple strategies for just getting stronger.
So, having spent a paragraph writing a short list of qualifiers, if you’re comfortable with the idea of chin-ups and you’re good at holding onto a bar, here’s the generalised strength program I recommend, for improving your chin-ups without having to do chin-ups. Oh, irony.
Of course, this would be good for your strength in a general sense too, regardless. Anyway, train to improve at these:
Dumbbell Pullovers (I don’t know the dude, but it’s a good demonstration of the bent arm version)
Bent Over Rows (observe the scapular movement is free and smooth, there’s lots going on in the back)
That’s about it. For most people I know, these are manageable exercises, as long as you’re working with a load you can handle – one that challenges you, but still, one you can handle.
The targets that, in my experience are appropriate for the progression from zero chin-ups to some chin-ups, are these:
Shoot for Dumbbell Pullovers at about 20% of your own bodyweight;
One Arm Dumbbell Rows at about 40% of your own bodyweight;
Or – Bent Over Barbell Rows at about 70% of your own bodyweight, but this exercise kinda needs a whole post for itself.
But as I mentioned before, the goal is to improve at these exercises, not to just fixate on the numbers and haul away at whatever you can without awareness. Increasing the load should come secondary to the concept of just practicing the exercise.
Training, if nothing else, teaches you patience. There is no rush, instead you should try to build up to these percentages over time. I weigh about 100 kilograms, so for me it’s simple math. If you weigh 75, that would mean maybe a 15 kg pullover and a 30 or so kg row. It’s nothing new or exciting, but if you’re working at sets of eight to twelve reps, and you’re eating enough, over time you can progress your weights.
But again, it’s really not about the numbers. They are useful not because they are rigid or guaranteed targets, but simply because they’re easy to communicate and easy to think about. Actually, what you want is to have solid experiences of training the muscles and practicing the techniques. None of this is rigid; being able to Pullover 20 or 30% of your body’s weight is no guarantee that chin-ups will come, just as it’s not a prerequisite either. Some people will find they can do chin-ups, but cannot practice the Pullover smoothly or easily. This is just because people are people. But if you start to get close to these numbers, you might find you can muscle out an awkward chin-up, and you can be proud of your rad skills. And if you can, but it’s still too laboured to be satisfying, you don’t need to keep hitting your head against that brick wall, instead you can keep progressing these exercises a little further, and then touch base with the chin-up again in a few more months.
Why these exercises? Because ultimately, and I don’t know if I’ve properly emphasised this point before, chin-ups are all about the back. The biceps action – the elbow flexion – in some ways it happens kinda by accident. Because if you can pull through the back, you’ll be able to lever the upper arms down towards the ribs effectively – this is the heart of the action, really – and the elbows will bend simply because the hands are immobilised on the bar; it’s the most efficient thing for the arms to do. You can try that now, an imaginary one-arm chin-up. Lift one arm up overhead, then press the arm forward and then down, until your elbow touches your ribs. That’s the action. It all happens by closing the armpit. Just like the Pullover technique. You don’t even need to think about the elbow.
They say sometimes – a supinated grip for training the biceps and a pronated grip for training the back (pictured above), but in truth – unless your arms are super-strong, you must develop a strong back if you ever want to become good at chin-ups. The arms will compensate if your body awareness isn’t there, or if you don’t have a strong back, but if all you do is train your arms, you’ll hit a plateau pretty quickly. Learn to lever through the back, get familiar with a bunch of different heavy-ish pulling exercises, and it’ll help in the end.
Which in a round-about-way, brings me to the issue of body-weight and perceived strength. So many people I know believe, in their bones, that they’re simply too heavy to ever be able to do a chin-up. Often actually, this is not the case. Many of these people are lighter than I am, though not all. Maybe it’ll sound like I’m splitting hairs, but it’s generally not because the body is too heavy, it’s because the back is too weak. The same issue in the end? No. It is not.
Even well-developed arms are comprised of small muscle groups and will only get you so far. The back muscles however are broad, deep and long. In most people who do not train with weights, they are under-trained, and the body awareness is often unrefined. But the back muscles are massive when well-developed, and even when they’re not well-developed, they’re still pretty damn huge. Most people can grow them quite significantly, before you even really notice, and that’s because they’re already big. Add a bit of mass to a big thing, you don’t really notice.
And even un-trained, the back muscles are the chief rivals for your legs, which support your entire weight all day. If they rival the legs, clearly they contain within themselves the capacity for vast reserves of strength and power, even if you haven’t trained them in years. If you learn how to tap into these puppies, they’re capable of moving a fuck-ton of weight, without you even having to grow them very much. And I don’t need to tell you, a fuck-ton is a lot.
It may take many steps, but the first step is comprised always of care, attention, body-awareness and sensitivity. Hard work will come. But to work smart means to invest in efficient movement patterns, harmonious and intelligent programs and practices, and you can actually get a helluva long way without really having to ‘kill it’ at the gym. This is what working smart is about – understanding the exercise and the nature of appropriate progressions. Smart training is not just about telling people they need to be lighter, or that they need to be somehow different before they can succeed or start working on shit. Training is about practice, and processes, not idle wishes or blame statements. Learn and understand the movements. The essence of training is in movement and practice. No more than this, and no less.
Hard work is only possible when you understand the thing you are doing. In training, this is true. And the better you understand the thing, the more benefit your work will yield. Likewise if you do not understand the thing, your hard work may be scattered, chaotic, inefficient. It will lack focus and purpose. Progress may remain elusive; your training and movements may lack refinement.
You can think of it as if you were training for a black belt in martial arts. First, you learn coordination and technique before you’re familiar enough to be able to practice the movements athletically. And it may take five years, but in the end it is only the accumulation of many small steps.
If you cannot do a chin-up, working hard at something that is beyond you will yield you no results. Trying to pull your entire weight up towards a bar without success – the stimulus is too much, relative to your awareness. You will not be able to focus on the things that require your focus – the whole experience is too loud and you will not be able to hear the nuance. Instead, the things that you do know, that you are practiced at, these you can work hard at, these things you know. The things you don’t yet know – these need to be learned, before it is possible for hard physical work to be applied to them. Yes, there’s an overlap, and you can focus hard upon your learning, but there is a difference, and although I’m not sure quite how to describe it, I hope you will reflect and perceive my meaning. Learning is different from training, and training is about practice, and therefore processes, so it is also different from the simple concept of work or effort, even if they are all related.
So there we go, this was my attempt at finally writing a simple cookie-cutter training program for chin-ups, but I always get stuck. Do this simple thing, unless you can’t, which could be the case for any number of legitimate reasons, if it’s one of x, y or z, try this, if that doesn’t work, try this other thing, and if that does work, try the first point again after another three months of training. Damned details.